Denise Levertov, Poet and Mentor

by Michael True

                                                                                                                                      Denise Levertoc/Photo by Michael True

                                                                                                                                      Denise Levertoc/Photo by Michael True

A major American poet of the 20th century, Denise Levertov left her mark on the rich literary history of Worcester, Mass., through her readings from the late 1960s to the 1990s, her friendships with local writers, and her 1974 poetry workshop at Assumption College. She, Robert Bly, and Stanley Kunitz helped to launch the Worcester County Poetry Association, Inc., now in its forty-fourth year. In addition to her recently published Collected Poems, she is the subject of two excellent biographies: Donna Hollenberg's Denise Levertov: A Poet's Revolution, and Dana Greene's Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life.

A special legacy is Levertov’s influence on local poets, including the late Chris Gilbert, Mary Fell, and John Hodgen, who have since received national awards. At a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Worcester Review, Hodgen remembered Levertov’s reading at the conclusion of the Assumption College workshop: “Denise filling La Maison Auditorium on a hot summer night, the crowd so enraptured, the room spilling over, so crowded each poem made you hungry for more, so crowded I sat out on the lawn under the window where she was reading, so filled up with poems I was writing even then.”

Sometimes regarded as a political poet because of her powerful renderings of the effects of the Vietnam war, that is a misleading classification. Poems such as “Live at War” do convey a sense of that tragic conflict and the suffering of the Vietnamese people:  “We are the humans, men who can make/ ....who do these acts,/ who convince ourselves/ it is necessary/...burned human flesh/ is burning in Vietnam as I write.” The same is true of ”The Altars in the Streets,” a response to that war based on Levertov's time there with Muriel Rukeyser: “all the shed blood the monsoons cannot wash away/ has become a temple,/ fragile, insolent, absolute.”  As with poems by veterans such as Bruce Weigl, it speaks for the Vietnamese people struggling to sustain themselves in the crossfire. As with her love poems and religious poems, the war poems succeed through an artistry of image, sound, and argument.

During the years of her involvement in the anti-war movement, including the arrest and trial for civil disobedience of her husband, Mitchell Goodman, Levertov was occasionally overwhelmed by the effects of the war on people back home. The natural world offered her some solace, as in “Concurrence”:

each day's terror, almost
a form of boredom—madmen
at the wheel and
stepping on the gas and
the brakes no good--
and each day one,
sometimes two, morning glories,
faultless, blue, blue sometimes
flected with magenta, each
lit from within with
the first sunlight.

Her friend and mentor, Robert Duncan, worried about how all this might threaten her poetic gift. But her admiration for the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who faced a similar dilemma, encouraged her to face the challenge as a person and as an artist. As did other major poets such as Rukeyser and Robert Bly, Levertov provided a vivid and reflective rendering of what it felt like to live in the U.S. at that time.

Although born in England, where her first book was published, Levertov successfully appropriated a style in the American tradition of Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and the early Modernists.

Her lyrical gifts were astonishing, enabling her to convey a sense of awe, not only in the early love poems, such as “Bedtime,” but also in the religious poems, such as “Annunciation” and those set in the Pacific Northwest, such as “the mountain's daily speech in silence.”  Her selection in The Stream and The Sapphire traces the growth of a deep religious sensibility in poems comparable to the great religious poems by John Donne, George Herbert, and 17th century metaphysical poets.

The daughter of a Hasidic Jew who became an Anglican priest and of a descendant of the Welsh mystic Angel Jones, as a young woman she considered herself a skeptic. She returned to Christianity, the religion of her youth, and was baptized a Catholic while living among the Catholic community in Seattle, where she died in 1997. It was a gradual unfolding, one might say, described attentively and movingly by biographer Dana Greene. It originated, she said, in the process of writing “Mass for the Feast of St. Thomas Didymus” and an oratorio on the disappearance and deaths of innocent clergy and laity in El Salvador in the 1980s.

The reader can trace Levertov's assent to religious faith in “Flickering Mind” and “A Traveler,” which concludes, “I'll chance/the pilgrim sandals.”  “Annunciation,”which first appeared in the Catholic Worker, is a powerful rendering of the Virgin Mary's assuming a responsibility imposed upon her: “We are told of meek obedience./ The engendering Spirit/ did not enter her without consent./ God waited./ ...Consent,courage unparalleled/ opened her utterly.”

Now, two decades since her death, the eloquence and power of Levertov's work are more obvious than ever, as her work is appreciated by larger audiences of readers, critics, and scholars. And the younger poets among her Worcester audience were fortunate to have the benefit of her presence and her influence.

Michael True, Emeritus Professor, Assumption College, Worcester, Mass. He is the Co-founder of the Worcester County Poetry Association, Founding Editor, Worcester Review; and Co-founder of the Center for Nonviolent Solutions. He has taught at colleges in the U.S., India, and China. His books include An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature, 1995; A Daniel Berrigan Reader, 1986; People Power: Peacemakers and Their Communities, 2007; and Prairie Song and Other Poems, 2013. True is a Featured Writer and is happy to be contacted by Journal writers seeking advice. He can be reached at mtrue@assumption.edu.