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.
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).
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