Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

18. Denise Levertov, 1923–1997

From her home near the edge of Seattle's Lake Washington, Denise Levertov could study Mount Rainier through her window. In the mountain's signals and silences, she found a steady omen to inform her poetry and theology. Her 1992 book, Evening Train, begins with this poem, called, "Settling."

I was welcomed here—clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,
the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing herself unclouded, her snow
tinted apricot as she looked west,
tolerant, in her steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
Now I am given
a taste of the grey foretold by all and sundry,
a grey both heavy and chill. I've boasted I would not care,
I'm London-born. And I won't. I'll dig in,
into my days, having come here to live, not to visit.
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain's vast presence, seen or unseen.

Levertov framed herself in such poetry. Beyond the poem's autobiography, "Settling" shows parts of the long tradition of artistic form and divine forces that Levertov combined in her poetry. "Settling" shows much about her artistry and intelligence. For example, Denise Levertov used the single poetic line to write poems inside the poem; the line, "Now I am given," is open to mean "given" as a gift received, "given" as inclined, "given" as established fact. And in Levertov's careful imagery, the "clear gold" season of late summer and autumn in the Seattle sun moves on to the inevitable winter of grey, when not the mountain nor anything else can be seen again. But that, she says, is the price of having lived a whole life and the price of getting to know the "seen or unseen." She says she is going to be dug in; she is determined to be placed.

Before moving to Seattle, Levertov lived in many places: in England, in Mexico, Australia, Boston, New York, and Palo Alto. To tie her to a place geographically would downplay how her most influential places were wherever she found good words and sights and music—in the library, in the gallery, in movie theaters and concert halls as well as in the natural places she loved so much. She wrote poems local and political, poems of love and protest. Readers of Evening Train will see how specifically she focused on Mount Rainier. Her use of the mountain shows how quickly a newcomer can call a new place her home, and how a life spent writing can help to express impressions of place that will instruct even its natives. Other poems from Evening Train, linked here, include "Elusive" and "Open Secret."

Before Levertov died of lymphoma on December 20, 1997, in Seattle, she had spent most of her mature life in the United States—her son was born in America—and her most established ties can be said to be with American poets and politics. She was influenced by and influential in American poetry; the Black Mountain School poets and William Carlos Williams were involved in her younger poetic correspondence. She became a skilled teacher of poetry and taught at Stanford University and the University of Washington over the last two decades of her life.

Denise Levertov's childhood took shape around her remarkable parents. Her father was a Russian Hasidic Jew who, while in school in Germany, turned to Christianity and, after moving to England, joined the Anglican clergy, though he kept an active dialogue between Christians and Jews, especially during Britain's politically and theologically tense pre-World War Two era. Her Welsh mother came from a family active in the arts and social justice, and she and her husband created an atmosphere of aesthetic and political activity which educated Denise and her sister as thoroughly as any school might have. Levertov, who was taught her school lessons by her mother at home, became a nurse and poet, publishing her first book, The Double Image, in England in 1946. In 1948 she moved with her husband, the American writer Mitchell Goodman, to the United States where their one child, Nickolai, was born in New York in 1949. For some time Levertov wrote and taught in the Northeast. She also read deeply in American literary traditions, from Thoreau and Emerson to Ezra Pound and Robert Duncan and William Carlos Williams. In America, her work shifted from the traditionally formal to what she called a natural formalism, "organic form," where the body's breath, the heart's beating, and the mind's ability to read in multiple ways affected her technique and the technique of others who read her. Levertov also became directly involved in the politics and poetics of protest, and she spoke out against America's war in Vietnam and against violence to the natural world.

To read Levertov is to see to the reader's own interior. Levertov determined that the spiritual life had its bases, and she turned to the mysteries of Christianity, to nature, and to her own brilliant imagination to create a disciplined poetry that allows the reader to read with all the reader's soul, and to trust the guided and guiding spirit behind what the reader discovers.

Of particular interest to some readers in the Pacific Northwest is an essay Levertov wrote called "Some Affinities of Content." This essay, from her 1992 book, New and Selected Essays, argues that poets who live near wilderness or, at least, near landscape with no obvious hand-of-man on it, may have a closer connection to things spiritual than have poets whose images come from paved, logged, or long-farmed regions. For example, she compares the poetry of Port Townsend, Washington's Sam Hamill and Alaska's John Haines with the poetry of New England's Robert Frost. She does this in part because New Englanders and others may not know the poets from the Pacific Northwest, but she also argues that the nearby presence of the human-less world, of something close to pre-historic wilderness, gives a common spirituality-of-content to some writers who have lived in wilderness. For some, this essay became an endorsement of the Northwest's natural proximity to the spiritual life. The essay does make a claim common to almost all loyal citizens of all places, that there is a relationship between the human and the landscape.

For discussion, here are some assertions Levertov made about poetry (Andrews 1991):

Any poem worth its salt has form; it is not form-less. Traditional form is another matter. Form fits to content, as villanelles and sestinas convey obsession, madrigals are full of joy, and blank verse is meditative and ambulatory.

Poetry's basic root is in magic, in incantation and primal song. Poetry should be heard out loud; it should be read in a way to bring out its music. One should also read it silently for nuance. Take the necessary time with the poem.

Poetry should be precise in word and sound; it should be the fullest interplay of past experiences brought to a current experience. Concurrently, poetry is a stance of fidelity to outer truth, but with a stage director's ability to shift images for effect.

Every poem is an uncharted sea. It's almost all experimental; it's 95% intuition. Imagination is a faculty which perceives in the real more of the real than can be seen without it.

Poetic line breaks should no more be ignored than should time signatures in music.

Denise Levertov left a remarkable record of poetry and prose. She published over twenty books of poems, four books of essays, and two books of translation. Tributes to her are full of gratitude for what she left on the page and for what she gave, day-by-day, to the people she knew.


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