Any attempt to review or explain a life’s work in 1,000 words is bound to traffic in sweeping generalities, which is something Denise Levertov never did. Her magisterial Collected Poems brings together her 19 published collections, from The Double Image (1946) to This Great Unknowing (1999) and includes 20 “Early and Uncollected” poems dating from the ’40s to the ’60s.
She wrote her massive body of work (including a number of prose books) over the span of the Cold War, and those external tensions certainly present themselves here, but she appears to have been more concerned with more immediate and local atmospheric disturbances: our relationships with our natural and unnatural surroundings and the ways the changing weather, literally and figuratively, can mediate those interactions.
All of the traditional themes are present in her Collected Poems, but Levertov’s greatest contribution is a forthright, take-it-or-leave-it audacity. Her genius was a feisty one. My favorite poems of hers are not about locations themselves as much as the demands that every departure and arrival – and every new atmosphere in which we find ourselves – make upon us.
Here’s the first section of “Notes of a Scale,” from With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1960):
A noon with twilight overtones
from open windows looking down.
Hell! it goes by. The trees
practice green in faithful measure.
It could be what I’m waiting for is
not here at all. Yet
the trees have it, don’t they?
Absorbed in their own magic,
abundant, hermetic, wide open.
That last line could well describe Levertov’s aesthetic.
Eavan Boland’s introduction provides some useful biographical insight. Before she was Denise Levertov she was Priscilla Denise Levertoff, born in England in October 1923.
“Her inheritance,” Boland writes, was a rich re-working of Russian and Jewish and Welsh. Her father, Paul Levertoff, was descended from Shneour Zalman, a Russian founding father of the Habad branch of Hasidism. He converted to the Church of England and became an Anglican priest. Her Welsh mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, encouraged her in both literature and spirituality.
She would eventually move to the United States, marry an American, and become one of the defining voices of American poetry.
Choosing an exemplary Levertov poem is like choosing a favorite snowflake in an avalanche, but the individual volumes I keep going back to are O Taste and See (1964) and The Sorrow Dance (1967); these are the two in which Levertov shows off a real confidence in her own abilities and takes a few more risks. Think of them as her versions of Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966). They’re eminently enjoyable and full of unforgettable hooks (“What is green in me/darkens, muscadine” and “Making it, making it,/in their chosen field/the roses fall/victim to a weakness of the heart”), but they only hint at the tremendous experimentation yet to come.
In 1971, Levertov would publish the collection To Stay Alive, a book that joins The Things We Carried and Tree of Smoke in the pantheon of great American writing about the Vietnam War. Her bald-faced political engagement is something still in short supply among our poets and fiction writers today – and something still absolutely necessary. These lines come from a poem titled “Staying Alive”:
And yet, yes, there’s the death
that’s not the obscene sellout, the coprophiliac spasm
that smears the White House walls with its desensitized thumbs.
For all of the joys these poems provide, for all the burning questions they raise, for all the hours of quiet contemplation they insist on, taken altogether they offer an unsentimental glimpse of a particular environmental and historical epoch. Of course, the relationship we maintain with our natural environment has been a primary topic of poetry for, well, as long as there’s been poetry. Every generation imagines that relationship to be more strained than ever before – and every generation is correct.
While I don’t think of Levertov as a traditionally naturalistic or pastoral poet, no one else has provided a more nuanced or clear-eyed body of Anthropocene poetics.