poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

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)

Sojourns in the Parallel World

Denise Levertov, 1923 - 1997
We live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension--though affected,
certainly, by our actions. A world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
We call it "Nature"; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be "Nature" too.
Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal--then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
No one discovers
just where we've been, when we're caught up again
into our own sphere (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
--but we have changed, a little.

By Denise Levertov, from Sands of the Well. Copyright © 1996 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

By Denise Levertov, from Sands of the Well. Copyright © 1996 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
Dreamed the thong of my sandal broke.
Nothing to hold it to my foot.
How shall I walk?
	        Barefoot?
The sharp stones, the dirt. I would
hobble.
And– 
Where was I going?
Where was I going I can't
go to now, unless hurting?
Where am I standing, if I'm
to stand still now?
poem
Delivered out of raw continual pain,
smell of darkness, groans of those others
to whom he was chained—

unchained, and led
past the sleepers,
door after door silently opening—
out!
    And along a long street's
majestic emptiness under the moon:

one hand on the angel's shoulder, one
feeling the air before him,