Denise Levertov, who died in 1997, left a large body of poetry and a great deal of valuable prose in her essay collections The Poet in the World and Light Up the Cave. Her published correspondence with Robert Duncan is an argumentative and compelling mutual self-examination by two challenging poets. Her letters to William Carlos Williams, although not as intense, are thoughtful and revealing. Her essays can be brilliant: in particular, no one has written more succinctly and incisively about the nuances of free verse or the concept of organic form.
In her choice of rhetorical modes, tone, and forms of address Levertov is as much a religious poet as Herbert or Hopkins. Her spiritual inclinations are rooted in her immediate ancestry: her father was a Russian Jew who immigrated to England and became an Anglican minister. He spelled his name “Levertoff” and was descended from the founder of Habad Hasadism. Some of the characteristics of this sect seem to survive in her poetry, which she described as embodying both “a very great strain of asceticism” and “a recognition and joy in the physical world.” Levertov’s mother was Welsh and, like her father, descended from a religious figure, the preacher-tailor Angel Jones of Mold.
The best of Levertov’s poems are prayers, invocations, incantations, or hymns. They refuse levity, insist on a decorum unusual in free verse, and regard even wry situations with a profound seriousness. Working in her best vein, especially in her middle years, she produced moving and memorable work. When attempting other rhetorical stances, most notably the jeremiad of the Vietnam era, she failed to generate sufficient linguistic and syntactical energy to overcome the inertia of the subject and collapsed into overstatement and harangue. In her later years, when she returned to religious motifs, she could not recapture the strong sense of the line and the delicate touch with imagery that brought her best work to life.
This is not to say that Levertov was unaware of her own aesthetic imperative. She required her poems to form coherent, cohesive entities, and rejected or reinterpreted the fragmentation and loose association of the poetry of her mentors William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson. As she explained in her critical writings, the search for poetry “of an inner harmony” (a concord of form and content that by 1965 she would call “organic poetry”) chimed with her desire for an aesthetic flexible enough to admit both polemical responses to political concerns and the larger abstractions that modernist imagism prohibited. The formal cohesion of the poem, derived from sensory and emotional perception, should make any subject available to the perceiving mind. “Organic poetry,” she wrote, “is a method of apperception . . . and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man's creative works are allegories, resemblances, natural allegories.” But, she argued, only under the pressure of fully realized (“organic”) form can these varied perceptions cohere.
Levertov’s recognition that form and language tend to allegorize imagery coincided with her commitment to religion and myth. For Levertov, the primary task of poetry was to voice the myth of natural landscape and the quotidian by asserting the strangeness, the otherness, of the familiar: “The cow's breath / not forgotten in the mist, in the / words.” She described this process of language-discovery—one that actively engages the reader in the making of myth—in the brief ars poetica that opens her 1961 collection, The Jacob's Ladder.
To the Reader
As you read, a white bear leisurely
pees, dyeing the snow
and as you read, many gods
lie among lianas; eyes obsidian
are watching the generations of leaves,
and as you read
the sea is turning its dark pages,
its dark pages.
This little poem responds to the unvoiced question “What happens when we read?” Rather than give a direct answer, it offers a group of mysterious images and directs us toward the source of myth and the process of forging it from nature. The white bear that “leisurely / pees” may seem a vaguely satiric figure of the writer, who inscribes the white absence (the blank page) with the effluvia of the mind. But it is also a fairy-tale figure rendered in actual terms, as a mysterious white animal (white animals are usually magical) with physiological verisimilitude. This illustrates what Richard Pevear, reviewing Footprints, calls “a natural piety that tends toward animism,” and suggests that for Levertov the natural world is not entirely objective but caught up with our inner lives.
Levertov’s stance in this poem links her to other nature poets in the Anglo-American tradition like Wordsworth and Gary Snyder. But her religious imperative lends the work a flavor of its own. One of her frequently anthologized poems embodies this collision between naturalism and religion by invoking the Jonah story as a critique of the basic human relationship:
The Ache of Marriage
The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.
The concentration and brevity of this poem and its delicate rhythms exemplify Levertov’s work at its best. Out of the thousand-plus pages in this handsome but unwieldy volume, perhaps a hundred offer poems with this limpid elegance. Much of the rest will fade, either because in the Vietnam era it became too astringent and shrill, or because it became too comfortable with a received rather than fully internalized language. Levertov well understood where the strengths of her poetry lay, but her aesthetic vision was demanding and difficult to fulfill. Eavan Boland’s brief introduction is uncritical, but the afterword by the editors, Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey, points to some critical issues that need further exploration.