In Beat Poets, published by Everyman’s Library, editor Carmela Ciuraru observes that “the Beats…were mostly men, and the work they produced was almost entirely male-focused…Beat writings were often ridiculously misogynistic.” She’s right.
Then there’s Denise Levertov (1923-1997).
I’m almost reluctant to include her in a discussion (and this series) on Beat poets. Her career in poetry transcended the Beat Generation, but then, so did Allen Ginsberg’s. She’s invariably included in collections of Beat poetry (as she is in Beat Poets), but her poetry is more controlled, more designed, in a way—less the spontaneous stream of outbursts we associate with the male Beat poets.
Other differences set her apart. She was British, the daughter of a Russian emigrant who converted from Judaism to Anglicanism, and a Welsh mother. She was educated at home. When she was 12, she sent several of her poems to T.S. Eliot, who encouraged her to continue writing poetry. She was a nurse during World War II, serving in London hospitals, and after the war, she met and married Mitchell Goodman, an American writer. They eventually moved to New York City, where Levertov became bound up in the poetry scene. She later moved to the West Coast and taught for many years at Stanford.
What connects her directly to the Beats is the “American-ness” of her poems, the underlying and later overt theme of protest, and William Carlos Williams. Levertov was powerfully influenced by Williams; so were the Beats (Williams wrote the introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl). Like Ginsberg, Levertov would become an antiwar activist in the 1960s; she also took up the cause of environmentalism (some critics did not like the poetry she wrote that reflected these issues).
I’ve been reading Levertov’s Selected Poems (2003), edited by Paul Lacey (with a warm introduction by poet Robert Creeley). What’s most surprising to me is to discover how much her religious faith is reflected in her poetry; I didn’t expect that from a poet associated with the Beats. Here’s an example:
“…That Passeth All Understanding”
An awe so quiet
I don’t know where it began.
to sing in me.
song from no song?
When does dewfall begin?
When does night
fold its arms over our hearts
to cherish them?
When is daybreak?
Not all of her poetry reflects faith. She writes of nature, marriage to her husband, divorce, war and peace, and poetry and the muse—the full realm of life and experience. Her poems often remind me of the writings and stories of one of her contemporaries, Flannery O’Connor, although what I suspect they have most in common is faith and the ability to pack extraordinary meaning into simple words and scenes.
The Gypsy’s Window (1957)
It seems a stage
backed by imaginations of velvet,
cotton, satin, loops and stripes—
A lovely unconcern
scattered the trivial plates, the rosaries
a narrownecked dark vase,
unopened yellow and pink
paper roses, a luxury of open red
Watching the trucks go by, from stiff chairs
behind the window show, an old
bandanna’d brutal dignified
woman, a young beautiful woman
her mouth a huge contemptuous rose—
of natural rhetoric tosses to dusty
Hudson St. the chance of poetry, a chance
poetry gives passion to the roses,
the roses in the gypsy’s window in a blue
vase, look real, as unreal
as real roses.
This poem seems closer to the Beats; chronologically, it’s the right period. I could almost see this poem acted out in a coffeehouse (the poet in the regulation beret surrounded by cigarette smoke).
Levertov moved beyond the Beats, and eventually moved beyond her protest poems (although her political passions were still reflected as she continued to write). She’s earned an esteemed and deserved place in American poetry.
Not bad for a 12-year-old who wrote to T.S. Eliot.
The Poetry Foundation’s article on Denise Levertov.
Collections of Levertov’s poetry include The Collected Poems (2013); Selected Poems (2003); This Great Unknowing: Last Poems (2013); The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature (1997); Breathing the Water (1997); Oblique Prayers: Poetry (2013); Evening Train (1993); Relearning the Alphabet (1970); The Sorrow Dance (1966); A Door in the Hive (1989); and The Jacob’s Ladder (1961), among others.
The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams was published in 1998. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov was published in 2003.
Non-fiction works by Levertov include The Poet in the World (1973); Conversations with Denise Levertov (1998); Tesserae: Memories & Suppositions (1996); and New and Selected Essays (1992).
Biographies and criticism include A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov by Donna Hollenberg (2013); Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life by Dana Greene (2012); Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement by Audrey Rodgers (1993); and Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers by Nancy Grace and Ronna Johnson (2004).
Photo by Gianni Sarti, Creative Commons viaFlickr. Post by Glynn Young, author of the novels Dancing Priest and A Light Shining, and Poetry at Work.
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Richard Maxson says
Glynn, I am enjoying all your essays on the Beat Poets. Your highlights on Levertov’s life are perfect to generate further interest in her poetry. I do not have a collection of Levertov, but the poems you cited have encouraged me to order the one you mentioned. Thanks for these pieces.
Richard, thanks so much for the comment. I had not read much of Levertov’s poetry before working on this series. She’s been claimed for the Beats, but she’s also been noted as a Catholic poet. She’s both, I think, but even though she’s British, I think we have every right to claim her as an American poet.
Tania Runyan says
I’d never heard of her association with the Beats but with the Black Mountain School of poetry. I’ll have to look into that!
Tania, it surprised me, too. But I found her poems included in at least two collections of a Beat poetry. Thanks for reading the post!
Maureen Doallas says
I, too, was somewhat surprised by the association with the Beats. (A Ginsberg she was not.) But that relationship fascinates. Thanks, Glynn, for uncovering that.
I have the ‘Collected Poems, as well as other collections. I’ve been reading her since college. The ‘Collected Poems’, which is huge, reveals the range of her work and changes in her voice. A number of biographies have been written; several of those above I’ve read.
Thanks for sharing the works of Denise Levertov, I have not heard of her but you did such a good job bringing her to life. I love the first poem, the way she questions so many things, as if she ponders herself why these things come to be. More soft spoken for “The Beats” but why not?
A few years ago I wrote a poem about how I felt about “Wars.” Placed it on my face book page and got some good feedback. Would like to share below.
“No More Wars” a poem by Marcy
Hands that sifted good dirt
Dirt under my nails
In the lines of my hands.
You are earth, souls have died on you,
Lost crops, buried loved ones.
Wars have spilled blood on you,
It runs into the dry cracks of earth and
Spreads out like rain that falls and washes,
It further away, soaks into our souls.
That cry out in pain,
This must end.
Lord, no more souls to die.
Bring this death of blood to an end now.
No More Wars.
Peace, let us live in peace my souls.
Stop the blood from pouring onto the ground.
Why kill each other?
What is there to gain?
Let us live, live to love, be loved,
To love the earth, the Maker.
Lynn D. Morrissey says
Glynn, thanks so much for this enlightening post. Levertov is one of my favorite poets, and I had never associated her with the Beat poets. Very interesting. I think she became a Christian later in life (though I’m not positive), and a beautiful spiritual collection of hers you might explore is The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes. One of my favorite of her poems, and I can’t recall if it is in this book or not, is called Annunciation. I’d copy it here, but it’s fairly long. Here is a website where it is featured: http://www.athirstforgod.com/annunciation-by-denise-levertov/
Thanks for sharing.
Heather Eure says
Glynn, your posts on the beat poets have been a fantastic voyage. A pleasant surprise to see Levertov featured. You expressed her gift well: “…the ability to pack extraordinary meaning into simple words and scenes.” Another enjoyable read, Glynn. Thanks.
Thanks, Glynn…Learning here 🙂
Diana Trautwein says
Had NO clue she was connected to the beats. All I know about her is I’ve loved her poetry for about 30 years!
Will Willingham says
Glynn, that photo essay from the Beat Museum is still coming. There is a section including some of the women associated with the movement, along with an excerpt from a work by Stephen Scobie in which he quotes Gregory Corso’s response while on a panel to the question of where the women were, and why there were so few among the Beat poets. The answer was this: “There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the ’50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up. There were cases, I knew them, someday someone will write about them.”
I have been reading Denise Levertov with Japanese adults who love poetry. After years with T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson and GM Hopkins, she has fascinated us. We are using “The Stream and the Sapphire” and move ever so slowly through the poems. “Annunciation” is one of my favorites too.
Chad Weidner says
This is a very rich discussion.
Levertov wrote very intriguing poetry and prose, and she needs more attention.