Friday, November 28, 2014

Denise Levertov

I've finished reading Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life, by Dana Greene, and will make some comments. The book is well-researched and reasonably (not exceptionally) well-written, but it is not essential to understanding Levertov's poems, which are generally self-explanatory, like most good art. However, given that Levertov was such a talented artist, I wanted to find out more about her history as a matter of personal interest.

Levertov's unusual family background clearly had lasting influence on her development as a poet. Her mother, Beatrice, was a Welsh orphan raised by a Congregational minister and trained as a teacher. She was adventurous and eventually found a position at a Scottish Mission school for girls in Constantinople. Her father, Feivel, was a Russian Jew whose studies convinced him that Jesus Christ was the Jewish messiah and who was subsequently disowned by his family, whose members thought him mad. He changed his name to Paul and met Beatrice in Constantinople when she attended one of his lectures. They married in London in 1911 and he later became an ordained priest in the Church of England, working as Director of the East London Fund for Jews and pastor of Holy Trinity in Shoreditch.

Denise was born in Ilford, Essex in 1923 and grew up there with her parents and her sister, Olga, who was nine years older. Her father led a scholarly life, and he favored Olga over Denise. The girls had no formal schooling, but were generally well-read in the arts from an early age. Denise liked poetry and was inspired by Rilke's Letters about Cézanne. She briefly studied ballet and painting. Olga was a talented pianist and enjoyed the theater. She became passionate about politics and went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to support the anti-Fascists. While there, Olga fell in love with a married Englishman who already had several children. Soon they were living together and Olga produced four children, which they could not afford. Eventually three of them were sent to orphanages. Olga's character seems to have unraveled, and thereafter the family had little contact with her other than when she sought to borrow money. Apparently she spent almost a year in jail for embezzlement.

During World War II, Denise joined the Civil Nursing Reserve and lived in London, writing poetry in her spare time, and was good enough to have a small book of poems published in 1946 when she was only 23. She also had several boyfriends during this period and became pregnant. The father would not marry her, and she apparently had an abortion on the Continent in 1947. She began corresponding with American poet Kenneth Rexroth, who wished to include some of her poems in an anthology to be called The New British Poets, which was eventually published in 1949. Later in 1947, living temporarily in Geneva with her English friend, Bet, she met Mitchell Goodman, an American from Brooklyn who had graduated from Harvard and was planning to become a labor economist. Goodman was smitten with her, and they married in Ilford on December 2 of that year. In late 1948 they moved to Greenwich Village.

In New York, Mitch Goodman dropped his plans to become a labor economist, and, while living a bohemian life, they initially made a living from assorted jobs and his occasional journalism. On June 11, 1949, their only child, Nikolai, was born. Denise's fortunes gradually improved. Rexroth's anthology provided her with name recognition and brought her into contact with James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, who took her on and subsequently published most of her work for the remainder of her career. Furthermore, Mitch introduced her to his Harvard friend, the poet Robert Creeley, who soon became one of her advocates.

It took Denise several years to become accustomed to American poetry and language. At first she followed William Carlos Williams, with whom she corresponded, and they eventually met. Later she developed a strong relationship with Robert Duncan, whom she referred to as "master." By the 1970's she was well established as an American poet, with a busy schedule and temporary or permanent academic positions and readings across the country.

Her personal life was not as sanguine. Mitch turned out to be ineffectual and lazy, and she became the primary breadwinner of the family. For reasons not precisely described by Greene, Denise found her sex life with Mitch unsatisfactory from the beginning, and over the course of her life she sporadically met with a former lover from her London days, even while they were both married to others. Her devotion to her work contributed to neglectfulness as a parent, and as a result her relationship with Nikolai was contentious for the rest of her life.

During the Vietnam War she and Mitch became antiwar activists. Mitch organized an event in which war protesters returned their draft cards to the Justice Department. Subsequently, he, along with Noam Chomsky, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. and Dwight Macdonald became known as the Boston Five during their trial in 1968. Denise wrote antiwar poetry, which drew criticism from other poets, Robert Duncan in particular, damaging her relationship with him. This may have temporarily tarnished her reputation as a poet, but she soon recovered.

By temperament, Denise was tenacious and willing to make sacrifices for the development of her poetic vision, even when others bore the brunt of it. In addition, it is possible that her lack of a formal education induced some stresses. She was bad at arithmetic, never learned to drive and couldn't change a typewriter ribbon or a light bulb, according to Greene. She resisted new technology and wrote all of her poems by hand. Her inflexibility and impatience caused a certain amount of interpersonal conflict throughout her life and career. She resigned from a regular faculty position at Tufts, which was then her primary source of income, because she was uncomfortable with the department's "oligarchic structure." Late in life, Greene notes, "She wrote of her proclivity to selfishness, cowardice, impatience, complacency, sloth, and harsh judgment of others and admitted a sense of pride and feeling of intellectual superiority." She also acknowledged that she was homophobic, which is important when you consider that her closest mentor, Robert Duncan, was gay.

On December 2, 1975, she and Mitch divorced amicably. Mitch later remarried, and Denise continued to provide Mitch and his spouse financial support even when they had their own child. She also continued to support Nikolai financially into his forties, though they were rarely on good terms. In 1990 she moved from Massachusetts to Seattle, where she bought a house that offered a view of Mount Rainier on clear days. Reminiscent of Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted repeatedly by Cézanne, Mount Rainier became a source of inspiration for several poems.  Her stature continued to grow, and she was always in demand for readings and teaching jobs. In 1993, experiencing ill health, she retired from a twelve-year position at Stanford.

During her later years Denise went through an unexpected spiritual odyssey, experimenting with several different churches and religions. Finally she became a practicing member of the Catholic Church. It is not entirely clear to me why she did this, and there is evidence that she herself wasn't clear on it. She had issues with the Church, the most significant being her lack of interest in Jesus Christ. What was of primary importance to her was faith in God. She was still reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and materials from the local Vedanta Society just weeks before her death from lymphoma on December 20, 1997 at the age of 74.

There are two things that attract me to Levertov. I have always been interested in the wonder of existence, and this is typically expressed through religion or mysticism, which I find ridiculous at a personal level. It is more acceptable to me when approached through science, where it has been a driving force behind the work of people like Einstein, or, more accessibly, through the appreciation of nature and poetry. My current interest in astronomy is a reflection of this. However, Levertov is a rarity among poets, and I know of no others like her. I have recently been reading selections from all of the major American poets, and Levertov is the only one who consistently stands out to me. Frankly, when I read Walt Whitman, Robert Creeley, Charles Simic or Billy Collins, I think that their poems are so basic and obvious that they could only be of interest to an imbecile. If I were them I would not publish. In comparison, Levertov seems to be the only poet to pursue anything of interest at a high level of artistry. Although she doesn't always succeed, she has no real competition.

The other aspect of Levertov that interests me is the trajectory of her career. Many of the circumstances of her early life seem unpropitious, and it is quite easy to imagine her never becoming a poet. If she had married one of her English boyfriends, she may not have come to the U.S., where she developed her poetic style. She may instead have become an unknown British housewife who occasionally wrote poems. Perhaps she would have found a way to express her poetic vision in different circumstances, or perhaps she would not.


  1. 'Her devotion to her work contributed to neglectfulness as a parent, and as a result her relationship with Nikolai was contentious for the rest of her life'. A nice way of saying a shitty mother. I do not read poetry so not comment on her body of work but it is interesting to read your review and I envy you finding something so enjoyable. I read the Heart is a Lonely Hunter and for the most part liked it very well despite Singer's awfully weird disciples.

    1. Yes, it sounds as if she was a lousy mother. I don't remember "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" that well and may have to read it again some day.


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