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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Denise Levertov’

- - Friday, October 12, 2012

DENISE LEVERTOV: A POET'S LIFE
By Dana Greene
University of Illinois Press, $35 360 pages, illustrated

When Denise Levertov was a 12-year-old British girl in 1936, she was already so much a poet that she had the chutzpah to send some of her poems to the august T.S. Eliot. Her sensitive and intuitive biographer, Dana Greene, has seen a copy of his response and thinks that Levertov overstated it. But it was encouraging enough for the neophyte, and there can be no overstating its significance for her. As Ms. Greene writes, "desire and embryonic talent had already coalesced in a 'secret destiny.' She was an artist, and for the next decades that ambition would direct her life."

Levertov was precocious enough to have a volume of verse published when she was still in her early 20s, but it was a portent that it was an American critic, Kenneth Rexroth, who singled her out as "an up and coming British poet" in his anthology, "The New British Poets." For by then, as Ms. Greene notes, "she had cast her lot on the other side of the Atlantic and it would be there that she would re-create herself not as an American poet but as sui generis."

True enough, as far as her highly individual talent goes. But in a kind of reverse of the American-born Eliot's translation of himself into the most English of poets, this immigrant really did not find her true voice, her real place as a poet, until she reached these shores and was welcomed by, among others, William Carlos Williams. In Ms. Greene's words, "Shortly before her death in 1997, the woman who claimed no country as home was nominated to be America's poet laureate."

Indeed, the one thing that stands out most of all from reading Levertov's life is that she is a mass of contradictions. She may have claimed no country, but she was fiercely engaged in American politics, an activist protesting the Vietnam War. Of mixed Russian-Jewish and Welsh ancestry, she converted to Catholicism yet embraced her Hasidic heritage and sought solace in Jungian philosophy and therapy. "Always deeply concerned with aesthetics, her passionate political views led her to write a lot of overtly topical verse containing the ugly images of war and other violence, although she often tried, with varying degrees of success, to reconcile her twin poles."

Toward the end of her life, Levertov abandoned the polemical in favor of poetry that expressed her increasing concern with the spiritual. Yet even when her political feelings were at their most ardent, she wrote the kind of apolitical poems that are central to her oeuvre and an important part of her great reputation. Although her biographer is certainly correct that Levertov's "language of poetry, 'this speech of paradise' was a tool for creating 'common ground' and compassion among people," the same can be said for Wordsworth and Coleridge invoking common speech for their poetic discourse. Like them, she eventually turned away from radicalism toward pantheistic spirituality as well as Christianity. But even in the heyday of her 1960s activism, lines like these show how she is outsoaring the quotidian:

That's it.

That's joy, it's always

a recognition, the known

appearing fully itself, and

more itself than one knew.

The authentic! It rolls

Just out of reach, beyond

running feet and

stretching fingers, down

the green slope and into the black waves of the sea.

Aptly titled "A Poet's Life," this biography gives due attention to Levertov's work and the woman who wrote it. There is much about her difficult relationships with her mother and her only son, about her marriage to political superactivist Mitchell Goodman -- and its breakup -- and a host of other fascinating things, including her stint as a nurse in wartime London. As intensely literary and spiritual as she was, one wonders if Levertov would have become as politically active if she had not had such radical parents and spouse.

In any case, Ms. Greene says at her book's beginning, "Ruskin wrote, 'To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.' Denise Levertov would have resonated with this trinity of expressions; her life and work embodied all three."

It is also a fine summing up of this poet's life, splendidly chronicled here.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.