IT IS FITTING that The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions) begins with “Listening to Distant Guns,” written in 1940, when the poet was just 17: “The low pulsation in the east is war.”
The subject of war and its horrors, a constant in Levertov’s poetry and in her life, surfaces for the final time at the very end of this big book with these lines, written in 1997, from the poem “Thinking About Paul Celan”: You / at last could endure / no more. But we / live and live, / blithe in a world / where children kill children.
Denise Levertov (1923-1997), an American poet born in Ilford, England, to a Christian-Jewish father who was a descendant of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Hasidism, and a Welsh-Christian mother, herself the descendant of the Christian mystic Angell Jones of Mold, began to see her spiritual sensibility take a more formal religious shape only in her late 50s, when she opened to the liturgical, mystical, and social justice dimensions of Christianity, especially Catholicism, to which she later converted.
Two recent biographies, Dana Greene’s Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Lifeand Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, explore deeply, albeit with inevitable overlap, the serial passions and enduring poetics of this singular artist.
At age 11, both biographers tell us, Levertov was going door to door peddling The Daily Worker in Ilford. At 12, she sent a batch of her poems to T.S. Eliot, and received back from him an encouraging response.
Poetry was her life’s purest passion. She had many lovers, many headlong, hurtful affairs to compensate for her romantically derailed and failed marriage to writer-activist Mitch Goodman. She also had a troubled relationship with their son, Nikolai, to whom Collected Poems is dedicated.