poem index

About this poet

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 Levertov 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. Levertov 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 Romantics."

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 1960s, 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, 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). On December 20, 1997, Levertov died from complications of lymphoma. She was seventy-four. New Directions published This Great Unknowing: Last Poems in 1999 and The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov in 2013. 

A Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (2013)
The Great Unknowing: Last Poems (1999)
The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (1997)
The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature (1997)
The Sands of the Well (1996)
Evening Train (1992)
A Door in the Hive (1989)
Breathing the Water (1987)
Poems 1968-1972 (1987)
Oblique Prayers: New Poems (1984)
Poems 1960-1967 (1983)
Candles in Babylon (1982)
Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960 (1979)
Life in the Forest (1978)
The Freeing of the Dust (1975)
Footprints (1972)
To Stay Alive (1971)
Relearning the Alphabet (1970)
The Sorrow Dance (1967)
O Taste and See: New Poems (1964)
The Jacob’s Ladder (1961)
With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959)
Overland to the Islands (1958)
Here and Now (1956)
The Double Image (1946)

Prose

The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams (1998)
Tesserae: Memories & Suppositions (1995)
New & Selected Essays (1992)
Light Up the Cave (1981)
The Poet in the World (1973)

Anthology

Black Iris: Selected Poems by Jean Joubert (1989)
Selected Poems by Eugène Guillevic (1969)
In Praise of Krishna: Songs From the Bengali (1967)

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell

Denise Levertov, 1923 - 1997
Down through the tomb's inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food--fish and a honeycomb.

By Denise Levertov, from A Door in the Hive. Copyright © 1989 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov

Though Denise Levertov was born in England, she became known as one of the great American poets and became an important voice in the American avant-garde.

by this poet

poem
Long after you have swung back
away from me
I think you are still with me:

you come in close to the shore
on the tide
and nudge me awake the way

a boat adrift nudges the pier:
am I a pier
half-in half-out of the water?

and in the pleasure of that communion
I lose track,
the moon I watch goes down, the

tide
poem
Since I stroll in the woods more often
than on this frequented path, it's usually
trees I observe; but among fellow humans
what I like best is to see an old woman
fishing alone at the end of a jetty,
hours on end, plainly content.
The Russians mushroom-hunting after a rain
trail after themselves a world of red
poem
Fully occupied with growing--that's
the amaryllis. Growing especially
at night: it would take
only a bit more patience than I've got
to sit keeping watch with it till daylight;
the naked eye could register every hour's
increase in height. Like a child against a barn door,
proudly topping each year's achievement