The award-winning author of more than 20 collections of poetry, Denise Levertov wrote mystical, meditative poems about nature, spirituality, love, and loss, as well as antiwar poems. She believed in the revolutionary nature of her art and used poetry to promote change. Weaving together public and private, active and contemplative, Levertov perfected an organic form of poetry that explored the political and social world through the intimate experiences and perceptions of the individual.
Levertov was born on October 24, 1923, in Ilford, England. Her parents schooled her at home, where literature and poetry were a constant presence. In 1940, she published her first poem, “Listening to the Distant Guns,” which hints at war in Europe. Her first collection, The Double Image (1946), included poems she wrote while serving as a civilian nurse in London during World War II.
Despite the setting in which she created them, Levertov addressed the issue of war sparingly and indirectly in her early poems. “Who can be happy while the wind recounts / its long sagas of sorrow?” she asks in “Christmas 1944.” “Though we are safe / in a flickering circle of winter festival / we dare not laugh.” More common were poems like “Midnight Quatrain,” about love and separation, self-awareness, and the power of imagination: “Listening to rain around the corner / we sense a dream’s reality, / and know, before the match goes out, / ephemeral eternity.”
For her early work, Levertov employed traditional poetic structures peppered with experiments in rhyme and meter. By the late 1950s, however, she had relocated to the U.S., a move that, she explained, “necessitated the finding of new rhythms in which to write.” Arguing that every poem had a unique identity, she began to let content dictate form. She used line breaks, punctuation, and sound patterns to hasten or slow the pace of a poem and to reveal nuance and meaning that transcend the words on the page. “A long beauty, what is that?” she asks in “Love Song.” The repetition of words and sounds in the lines that follow reveal the answer: “A song / that can be sung over and over, / long notes or long bones. // Love is a landscape the long mountains / define but don’t / shut off from the / unseeable distance.”
Although Levertov’s early poetry often demonstrated her strong social conscience, her poetry and social-political activism truly merged in the 1960s into what she called a “poetry of engagement.” Harrowing pieces like “Life at War” decried the Vietnam War while also offering hope for peace: “We are the humans, men who can make; / whose language imagines mercy, / lovingkindness; . . .” She also wrote of her travels in Vietnam in “In Thai Binh (Peace) Province,” which moves from the violence of “scattered / lemon-yellow cocoons at the bombed silk-factory” to images of a peaceful future. Other poems considered Nazi Germany, the U.S.S.R., and contemporary American life.
Levertov drew her poetry from her own experiences, and she encouraged her readers to open themselves up fully to the world, to find answers to universal questions by looking inward. “I like to find / what’s not found / at once, but lies // within something of another nature, / in repose, distinct,” she explains in “Pleasures.” In her poems, public and private form a single universe in which fairy tales and myths mingle with the objects and events of everyday life.
Late in her career, Levertov delved deeply into her own spirituality. The long, six-part poem “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” makes clear not only the force of her doubt but also the strength of her will to believe: “O deep, remote unknown, / O deep unknown, / Have mercy upon us.”
The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Levertov edited anthologies and published several essay collections and translations as well as a memoir, Tesserae (1995). She taught at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and served as poetry editor for The Nation and Mother Jones.
Levertov died in Seattle on December 20, 1997. She had been a U.S. citizen since 1955.
“Denise Levertov”, 1953
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation