The Common Good
March-April 1998

Of Love's Risen Body

by Rose Marie Berger | March-April 1998

The poetry of Denise Levertov, 1923-1997

When I was 23, Denise Levertov taught me the alphabet. She gently razed everything I thought I knew about poetry and rebuilt it, letter by letter. In a cozy retreat center in the Pocono Mountains, her British-tinged voice burned like a slow oak log. "A is for atom," she said. This woman, whose Hasidic father grew up in the same Russian town as Marc Chagall, whose mother once on a boat from Constantinople to Venice saved the life of the Gypsy King, proceeded in her shy way to uncover the mysteries of God’s universe. "The role of the poet is to witness," she said. "Not only to reveal the divine beauty as Rilke did, but to release the divine beauty."

Denise Levertov was born in 1923 in Ilford, Essex, daughter of Paul Levertoff and Beatrice Spooner-Jones. She never went to school; instead her parents educated their daughters at home with literature, travel, nature study, and the museums of London. She knew "perhaps by age 7," Levertov wrote, "certainly before I was 10—that I was an artist-person and had a destiny."

In Levertov’s early poetry, she traced in her heritage the thread of her own creative and spiritual impulses (see "Illustrious Ancestors" in The Jacob’s Ladder, 1961). "My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built in to my cells....Similarly, my mother’s Welsh intensity and lyric feeling for Nature were not just the air I breathed but, surely, were in the body I breathed with."

During World War II, rather than be conscripted into work in a munitions factory, Levertov served as a civilian nurse in London. In her memoirs she writes, "I had scruples of conscience as well as extreme distaste [for munitions work], though I had not yet arrived at a consistent commitment to nonviolence."

Neither did she claim any religious convictions at that point, but clung strongly to the common ethics of socialism. It is during this time that she wrote many of the poems that would make up her first published collection, The Double Image (Cresset Press, 1946). In 1947, she married American writer Mitchell Goodman and moved with him to New York City in 1948. Their only child, Nikolai, was born in 1949.

IN THE "transitional years" of the 1950s, Levertov listened intently to the American voice—the tight, rapid, side-to-side rock in the voices of New Yorkers; the muddy, braided storytelling of Mississippi Delta dwellers; the blood, dust, and passion of the West and Mexico. She read William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Martin Buber, then Rainer Maria Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins, training her eye to the hidden details and secret stories in everyday life.

In the 10-year gap between publishing The Double Image in England and Here and Now (City Lights Books, 1957) in the United States, Levertov honed, refined, and strengthened her craft and stretched her imagination to match the diversity and ruggedness of her new land. From 1957 until her recent death, she published a book almost every year, successfully marrying the rigorous intellect and passion for poetic form from her British upbringing to the earthy, unromantic wildness of ordinary America.

With her poem "During the Eichmann Trial" (The Jacob’s Ladder), Levertov’s writing bridged the chasm between a personal language for mapping what Hopkins calls the "inscape" to engagement with the world (see the essay collection The Poet in the World, 1973). She brought her artistic passion for truth, rather than mere facts or answers, to bear on contemporary political issues. In her next two books, she wrestled to learn a language sufficient to convey her experiences as a woman (O Taste and See, 1964), and also take on "Life at War" (The Sorrow Dance, 1967)—the social and spiritual upheaval that was the war in Vietnam.

Levertov’s husband, Mitchell Goodman, was arrested for conspiracy in 1967 with Dr. Benjamin Spock for counseling draft resisters. In Relearning the Alphabet (1970) she commit to our memory the many names and acts of resistance to that war saying, "We need them./ Brands that flare to show us/the dark we are in,/to keep us moving in it."

In December of that year, Wendell and Tanya Berry brought Denise Levertov to visit Thomas Merton at his hermitage at the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani. Merton was a fan of Levertov and had written in 1961 to Mark Van Doren about her: "Jay Laughlin (of New Directions) has published a poet called Denise Levertov I think you would like. Have you seen her book [With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, 1959]? It starts with a wonderful version of a Toltec poem ["The Artist"] about what an artist ought to do....It is very fine, very spiritual in a broad, Jungian sort of way."

After the meeting with the Berrys and Levertov, Merton wrote in his journal, "I like Denise very much. A warm good person. She left a good poem ["Tenebrae"] and we talked a little about Sister Norbert in San Francisco who is in trouble about protesting against the war."

There was some talk about possibly starting a contemplative women’s community near Merton’s hermitage. Unfortunately, a year later, Merton’s body was being shipped home from Bangkok where he had died after delivering a speech on international monasticism. Levertov’s kinship with Merton helped lead her deepening spirituality into the foretaste of an incarnational faith.

It is not until "A Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus," in Candles of Babylon (1982), however, that Levertov makes clear her Christian profession. She writes, "The word chose to become/flesh. In the blur of flesh/we bow, baffled." In an article for Religion and Intellectual Life (Summer 1984), she said, "I alluded earlier to the artist’s impulse to set up altars to the unknown god from what was then an agnostic standpoint. Later, that unknown began to be defined for me as God....In the matter of religion I have moved in the last few years...to a position of Christian belief....The movement has been gradual and continuous." The rest of her life was spent exploring a radical, Christian unorthodoxy and the tenuous ligament between belief, doubt, and grace.

After years of splitting her time between teaching in Massachusetts at Brandeis and California at Stanford, she moved to Seattle in 1992 to be near her son (Levertov and Goodman were divorced in 1975). It is there that she died on December 20, 1997, from complications of lymphoma.

On the closing day of our retreat in the Poconos, Denise asked us, as if our lives depended on it, "What is there between the tomb and resurrection?" Then she answered with a line from an R.S. Thomas poem, "and I have looked/in and seen the old questions lie/folded and in a place/by themselves...the piled/gravesclothes of love’s risen body."


An Unorthodox Poet

The following is excerpted from "Invocations of Humanity," (Sojourners, February 1986). Levertov was interviewed by English professor and activist Joan F. Hallisey.

Joan F. Hallisey: How do you think your early background contributed to your sense of vocation as a poet?

Denise Levertov: I didn’t go to school, nor had my sister done so except briefly. As I have written in the introduction to my section of the Bloodaxe Anthology of Women Poets [Bloodaxe Press, 1985]: "The reading I did myself, and the reading-aloud which was a staple of our family life, combined to give me a passion for England—for the nuances of country things, hedges and old churches and the names of wildflowers—even though part of me knew I was an outsider. Among Jews a Goy, among Gentiles a Jew,... among school children a strange exception whom they did not know whether to envy or mistrust—all of these anomalies predicated my later experience: I so often feel English in the United States, while in England, I’m American. But these feelings of not belonging were positive, for me, not negative."

I experienced the sense of difference as an honor, and it gave me—or almost seduced me into—an appreciation of solitude which, since writing poetry is so essentially a solitary occupation, has always stood me in good stead.

Hallisey: You speak about the important role in the struggle for peace and justice currently being played by certain branches of the church. Would you comment on where and how you see this being accomplished?

Levertov: The question has to be asked, how do these [changes in the church] relate to my work as a poet? Finding the churches no longer to be places of embarrassment and uncongeniality, finding that many people already in the peace and justice movement also are involved with some kind of religious observance—all of this frees me up to make allusions and use a vocabulary which earlier would have felt awkward to me. If I speak—as I do in some recent poems—in religious terminology and of theological concepts, that is going to put off some of my readers. Maybe my Christianity is unorthodox, but it is still a Christian unorthodoxy.

Hallisey: Despite the darkness that is etched in some of your poetry, one senses a movement toward hope. If you are, indeed, hopeful, why?

Levertov: Well, my religious faith is at best fragile, but if in fact what I hope is true is true, then I think God’s mercy may prevent the annihilation of our planetary life, despite human stupidity and violence. We keep trying to apply technological solutions to moral problems—and moral problems are susceptible only to moral solutions.

But I have some temperamental optimism. And, although I can’t lay claim to an unshaking faith, there is deep hope implied in the words, "With God all things are possible."


A Levertov Reader

With the exception of her first few books, Denise Levertov's work was published by the wonderful independent publishing house, New Directions (80 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10011). Founder James Laughlin (who died this past year) put into print Thomas Merton, Octavio Paz, Shusaku Endo, and Gary Snyder. The legacy of Laughlin's bookshelf is enormous. We extend our thanks to the folks at New Directions.

Here are a few of Levertov's other works:

Oblique Prayers (New Directions, 1984). This work is notable for her wonderful bi-lingual translations of contemporary French poet Jean Joubert.

Breathing the Water (New Directions, 1987). If you are only going to purchase one Levertov collection, it should be this one. It contains her phenomenal "variations" on Rainer Maria Rilke's The Book of Hours, as well as the "showings" of mystic Julian of Norwich.

Tesserae (New Directions, 1995). If poetry is not your "thing," then try this collection of memoirs. The essays are short, funny, insightful, and poignant. Tesserae includes the tale of Levertov's mother saving the life of the Gypsy King.

Sands of the Well (New Directions, 1996). Levertov's last collection of new works is her strongest. She is at the height of her literary prowess but, more important, caught up in joy with her Lord.

The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (New Directions, 1997). This is a great collection for use in worship. It contains poems from seven different volumes and shows Levertov's slow, graceful transition from agnosticism to Christian belief. The only loss here is that it does not include "A Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus."

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