Poetry Journal

Issues / Volume 5 Issue 2 , November 2015


Witnessing History: Denise Levertov

Felicity Plunkett

The glued spine of my school copy of Denise Levertov’s The Freeing of the Dust (1972) is collapsing, holding some pages brittly, spilling others. Since the poems seemed to my seventeen-year-old self to be all about schism—things caught between falling apart and holding together—the physical object has come to express the riving currents of the poetry.

‘The Woman’ dramatises a split self: ‘the one in homespun’ faces ‘the one in crazy feathers’ who ‘wearies herself perhaps’ but ‘has to drive on’, returning to address this final question to a lover: ‘Can you endure/ life with two brides, bridegroom?’ Another poem, ‘Don’t You Hear That Whistle Blowin’…’, ends with words to the same bridegroom, who is directly addressed in the poem as Mitch. This evocation of Levertov’s husband Mitchell Goodman suggested non-fictional underpinnings to the poem that disturbed my nascent awareness of poets’ constructions of personae.

That year I studied Sylvia Plath, TS Eliot and Robert Browning. Whoever was setting the texts offered treasures for the novice poetry aficionado, especially in terms of masquerade and performance: the drama and flux of protean, unsettling poetic speakers. Alongside the shifting eyes of J. Alfred Prufrock, the Duke of Ferrara, Porphyria’s murderous lover and Lady Lazarus, Levertov’s singular poetic ‘I’ stared back, never flinching.

The speaker of ‘Don’t You Hear That Whistle Blowin’…’ wakes from a dream of watching dawn trains with her husband to find herself alone; at

  just the beginning of a long train of times I’ll turn
  to share a vision with you and find I’m dreaming.

Poems about separation sit quietly alongside poems about the Vietnam War:

  Smart bombs replace
  dumb bombs. ‘Now we can aim
  straight into someone’s kitchen’
  (‘May Our Right Hands Lose Their Cunning’)

Facing the evidence of destruction, a photographer uses up film and fury on

  …bombed hospitals,
  bombed village schools, the scattered
  lemon-yellow cocoons at the bombed silk-factory
  (‘In Thai Binh (Peace) Province’)

There is no energy left to search for synonyms, no appetite for metaphor, as in Neruda’s image of the Spanish Civil War in ‘I’m Explaining a Few Things’: ‘blood of the children ran through the streets/without fuss, like children’s blood’. Neither poet allows metaphor to take the reader’s attention away from the work of witnessing history.

Yet Levertov’s speaker also sees resilience, imagined in the vision of

  a boy and a small bird both
  perched, relaxed, on a quietly grazing

The Freeing of the Dust found its way onto the NSW Higher School Certificate text list just over a decade after its publication, and its poems have remained, on and off, these days as part of an elective called Navigating the Global. In the context of a striking and dispiriting underrepresentation of contemporary poetry, the poems’ tenacity is remarkable. Part of the explanation is logistical—texts remain for equity reasons because schools can’t always afford to purchase new books. Another part, though, is this poetry’s capacity to speak to students. Today, I will mark exam essays about Levertov, and tomorrow I run a workshop on her work. The publication of a magnificent Collected Poems by New Directions in 2013 sits alongside my battered Levertov paperbacks. They lean against its strong spine that will easily outlive me.

Many Australian poets have read Levertov’s work, and others met her when she visited Australia. She is mentioned by Garth Clarke in Brenda Beaver’s obituary as one of many guests at Bruce and Brenda Beaver’s home who shared poetry, wine and food, alongside James Dickey, David Malouf and Michael Dransfield.

Despite this, since her death in 1997, Levertov’s work has receded from view in the United States, a point made by various commentators such as Mark Jarman, who questions whether the ‘eclipse’ in Levertov’s reputation is typical of a lull after a writer’s death: ‘a necessary period of forgetfulness, a sort of anti-wake, waiting for a new generation to stir up the ashes’. Jarman argues that the eclipse, in Levertov’s case, began before her death, and resulted from such forces as her refusal to engage with feminism, her late-life adoption of Christianity, and that ‘she did not see the way Language poetry would ascend in the academy’ (np).

Dana Greene’s biography, Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, envisages a complex poet who at once resisted biography as ‘“sensational”, “prurient”, “overly subjective” and “gossip”… created in an attempt to “suppress”, “invent” or “judge”’ (3), was outspoken in her view that ‘Both poetry and life fade, wilt, shrink, when they are divorced’, yet insisted that ‘I have always written out of my own experience’ (3).

Greene’s subtitle suggests her focus, described later as ‘the making of Levertov as a poet’ (49). Instead of beginning with birth, it begins in 1936 with a twelve-year-old Priscilla Denise (‘Denny’) Levertoff sending her poems to TS Eliot, editor of Criterion, and eliciting an encouraging response. Greene notes that her subject ‘baffled herself and was baffling to others’, and stresses that ‘what remains… is her work.’ Ars longa, she writes, vita brevis. She returns to Hippocrates’ phrase as a full stop to the main body of this biography.

Greene keeps her eye on Levertov’s baffling and contradictory aspects. A poet who altered her surname to resist identification with a troubling sibling and went on to translate herself continually, Levertov was the English-born child of a Welsh mother and Russian father. She traced her poetic lineage to ancestors Schneour Zalman, said to be able to understand the language of birds, and Welsh tailor Angell Jones, who ‘stitched meditations into coats and britches’ (5). Her Jewish father Fievel adopted the name Paul and came to believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, conceiving of himself as a Jewish-Christian scholar and clergyman. He eventually became an Anglican priest. Levertov as a child reported seeing a small man in a peaked cap coming over the garden wall, and would continue to affirm the possibility of ‘entertaining angels unawares’ (14).

Marriage to Brooklyn-born Mitchell Goodman two months after their meeting in Geneva led Levertov to the United States, where, in 1949, following an earlier miscarriage, her son Nikolai was born. Although by now Levertov was beginning to make the creative connections that would propel her work—Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan—she was exhausted and demoralised by the couple’s poverty and the demands of everyday life, reporting in her diary ‘black venom rising’ (37). It was Williams who reminded her to ‘practice, practice, and practice’ (47). Unique as a foreign-born woman in a poetic era in which most poets and editors were men, Levertov’s status as a member of the Black Mountain Poets was, according to Greene, tenuous, though it is crucial to the Levertov legend.

Troubled by ongoing money problems, the couple sought various compromises, moving from New York City to a farmhouse in Maine in the early 1960s, at about the same time Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes made a similar move from London to Devon.

Although Greene keeps Levertov’s poetic career in focus, considering key relationships with Muriel Rukeyser and Adrienne Rich, and noting an impressive accrual of publications, honours and grants, her gaze takes in the poet’s troubled marriage and complex relationships, including one with Australian writer and academic Ian Reid. Greene offers a blunt coda to Levertov’s description of her ‘many love affairs’: ‘all of which failed’.

While this suggests a quaintly conventional belief in The One (on Greene’s part, not Levertov’s), the poet’s more adventurous experience is tempered by evidence of her own conservatism. In a letter to her lesbian friend Carol Rainey, Levertov opines that ‘homosexual experience was a phase of adolescence’ (138). It is this kind of evidence, along with the idea that Levertov was ‘angry with Nikolai since his childhood’ that contradicts the writer the poems suggest: outspoken against injustice, willing, if necessary, to further her work as an activist—first against the Vietnam War, later against the proliferation of nuclear weapons—at the expense of finessing her craft as a poet.

While some critics have celebrated the politicisation of her work, others have decried it. Greene cites Levertov’s friend Hayden Carruth’s summary of this criticism: the poems are sloganeering, self-righteous, bad prose, stale, boring, depressing, etcetera. A tension between the lyric and didactic tugs at the poems, and remains the focus of ambivalence in her work’s reception.

Levertov’s poetry increasingly imagines the smallness of individual lives. We are ‘dustmotes in the cosmos’ (here, her words echo Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song about a Woodstock the singer didn’t attend: ‘We are stardust/ Billion year old carbon’). The larger thing for Levertov becomes the divine You of Catholicism, and the best we can do with our lives, she suggests, in ‘Variation on a theme by Rilke’, is

  to offer up
  our specks of life as fragile tesserae
  towards the vast mosaic

Levertov was organising Poets for Peace rallies as late as 1991, when the US attacked Iraq at the start of the first Gulf War. She also founded a Pax Christi group at Stanford University.

Her 1992 essay, ‘Biography and the Poet’, underlines her dislike both of confessional poetry and of ‘sensationalised life-writing’. The publication of Diane Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: a Biography (1991), which included notes from Sexton’s psychiatric records, provided part of the impetus. Here, the public poet articulated her protectiveness of the artist’s right to privacy.

To ‘gain a tauter hold on Levertov’, writes Greene, is ‘to discover that she remains elusive, much like the mountain—present and absent, her person never fully grasped, but only pointed to and honoured’ (234). Greene’s image of Levertov’s death—her friends gathering ‘in the chaos of grief’ at her hospital bedside, Nikolai ‘spontaneously [chanting] one of his poems for her’, waiting for her to regain consciousness after a last-ditch operation—is at once an image of the tenacity of the living, and Levertov’s final elusiveness. Levertov was never to regain consciousness. At least in Australia, though, what Eavan Boland calls the ‘wayward music’ of her poems fares ‘forth into the grace of transformed/ continuance’. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Works Cited

Garth Clarke. ‘Brenda Beaver: Poet’s muse helped bring Bruce Beaver’s work to life’, Sydney Morning Herald, February 24, 2014:

Mark Jarman. ‘Lives of a Poet: Denise Levertov’, The Hudson Review, Winter 2014:

→ Dana Greene, Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life ISBN 978-0-252-08048-7. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. RRP $US35