Denise Levertov was born in Ilford, Essex, England, on October 24, 1923. Her
father, raised a Hasidic Jew, had converted to Christianity while attending
university in Germany. By the time Denise was born he had settled in England
and become an Anglican parson. Her mother, who was Welsh, read authors such as
Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy aloud to the
family. Denise was educated entirely at home, and claimed to have decided to
become a writer at the age of five. When she was twelve, she sent some of her
poetry to T. S. Eliot, who responded with two pages of "excellent
advice," and encouragement to continue writing. At age seventeen she had
her first poem published, in Poetry Quarterly.
During World War II, Levertov became a civilian nurse serving in London
throughout the bombings. She wrote her first book, The Double Image,
while she was between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. The book, released
in 1946, brought her recognition as one of a group poets dubbed the "New
In 1947 Levertov married Mitchell Goodman, an American writer, and a year
later they moved to America. They settled in New York City, spending summers in
Maine. Their son Nickolai was born in 1949. She became a naturalized U. S.
citizen in 1956.
After her move to the U.S., Levertov was introduced to the Transcendentalism
of Emerson and Thoreau, the formal experimentation of Ezra Pound, and, in
particular, the work of William Carlos Willams. Through her husband's
friendship with poet Robert Creeley,
she became associated with the Black Mountain group of poets, particularly
Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan, who had formed a short-lived but groundbreaking school in 1933 in North Carolina. Some of her work was published in the 1950s in the Black Mountain Review. Levertov acknowledged these influences, but disclaimed membership in any poetic school. She moved away from the fixed forms of English practice, developing an open, experimental style. With the publication of her first American book, Here and Now (1956), she became an important voice in the American avant-garde. Her poems of the fifties and sixties won her immediate and excited recognition, not just from
peers like Creeley and Duncan, but also from the avant garde poets of an
earlier generation such as Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams.
Her next book, With Eyes at the Back of our Heads (1959), established
her as one of the great American poets, and her British origins were soon
forgotten. She was poetry editor of The Nation magazine in 1961 and from
1963 to 1965. During the 1960's of the Vietnam War, activism and feminism
became prominent in her poetry. During this period she produced one of her most
memorable works of rage and sadness, The Sorrow Dance (1967), which
encompassed her feelings toward the war and the death of her older sister. From
1975 to 1978, she was poetry editor of Mother Jones magazine.
Levertov went on to publish more than twenty volumes of poetry, including
Freeing the Dust (1975), which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She
was also the author of four books of prose, most recently Tesserae
(1995), and translator of three volumes of poetry, among them Jean Joubert's
Black Iris (1989). From 1982 to 1993, she taught at Stanford University.
She spent the last decade of her life in Seattle, Washington, during which time
she published Poems 1968-1972 (1987), Breathing the Water (1987),
A Door in the Hive (1989), Evening Train (1992), and The Sands
of the Well (1996). In December 1997, Denise Levertov died from
complications of lymphoma. She was seventy-four. This Great Unknowing: Last
Poems was published by New Directions in 1999.