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Denise Levertov

A Poet's Life


Publication Year: 2012

Kenneth Rexroth called Denise Levertov (1923-1997) "the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, . . . and the most moving." Author of twenty-four volumes of poetry, four books of essays, and several translations, Levertov became a lauded and honored poet. Born in England, she published her first book of poems at age twenty-three, but it was not until she married and came to the United States in 1948 that she found her poetic voice, helped by the likes of William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley. Shortly before her death in 1997, the woman who claimed no country as home was nominated to be America's poet laureate._x000B__x000B_In this illuminating biography, Dana Greene examines Levertov's interviews, essays, and self-revelatory poetry to discern the conflict and torment she both endured and created in her attempts to deal with her own psyche, her relationships with family, friends, lovers, colleagues, and the times in which she lived. Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life is the first complete biography of Levertov, a woman who claimed she did not want a biography, insisting that it was her work that she hoped would endure. And yet she confessed that her poetry in its various forms--lyric, political, natural, and religious--derived from her life experience. Although a substantial body of criticism has established Levertov as a major poet of the later twentieth century, this volume represents the first attempt to set her poetry within the framework of her often tumultuous life.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title page

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Contents, Credits, Word of Gratitude

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pp. vi-xiv

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pp. 1-4

Furtively, Denny Levertoff 1 dug out the poems she had stashed between sofa cushions and sent them off to T. S. Eliot, editor of Criterion. Her parents knew nothing of this until weeks later when Eliot’s response arrived.2 It was 1936, and she was only twelve, but desire and embryonic talent had already coalesced in a “secret destiny.” ...

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1. “A Definite and Peculiar Destiny”

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pp. 5-25

From a very young age Denise Levertov had a definite sense of her “peculiar destiny,” a personal myth that derived from her ancestors, Schneour (Schneur) Zalman, the Rav of Northern White Russia,2 who was reputed to understand the language of birds, and Angell Jones of Mold, a Welsh tailor, who stitched meditations into coats and britches. ...

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2. In Search of Voice

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pp. 26-49

The girl who sailed for Holland in January 1947 was barely twenty-three. She left England presumably for adventure, but in doing so she also escaped. She had no suspicion that by year’s end her life would change irrevocably. ...

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3. The Making of a Poet

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pp. 50-72

High in the mountains of Greece a perilous road leads to Delphi, the sacred center of the world, the place where heaven and earth meet. There in 1961 Denise Levertov took her “final vows” to poetry at the shrine of Apollo, praying that the flame of the poem be kept alive in her. ...

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4. “A Cataract Filming Over My Inner Eyes”

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pp. 73-93

How to be an artist and person — how to live with joy and sorrow in difficult times — this was the conundrum that dominated Denise Levertov’s life for more than a decade. Her resolution was to be “poet in the world,” but this was costly. She longed for “claritas,” but war on the macrocosmic level and marital discord in the microcosm distorted her vision. ...

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5. “Staying Alive”

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pp. 94-112

As “poet in the world,” Denise Levertov’s writing reflected the great social upheaval in American society in the late 1960s. But that upheaval, focused as it was on the Vietnam War, does not explain her sense of personal anxiety. Overwrought, fretful, and needy, she contemplated an accidental suicide.2 ...

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6. Endings

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pp. 113-12

The years between 1972 and 1975 were a period of critical endings for Levertov, an extraordinary time of emotional turmoil and confusion. Three centrifugal forces — the end of the Vietnam War, her break with Duncan, and her divorce from Mitch — could have overwhelmed her. In the end they did not. ...

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7. Coming to a New Country

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pp. 123-143

There was much broken, much that needed mending, not only in the world, but in Levertov’s life. On January 4, 1976, on her way to visit her mother in Oaxaca, she recorded in her diary a reflection on her previous year. She noted she spent Christmas at the Yaddo artists’ community in Saratoga Springs and New Year’s at home in Somerville reading Simone Weil.2 ...

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8. “The Thread”

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pp. 144-162

“The Thread,” a poem of the 1960s, reflected Levertov’s ongoing awareness of her vocation. In the early 1980s at age sixty, the tug was there again. In this case it was a silent ineluctable shift from the doubt that grounded her lifelong agnosticism toward a tentative religious faith. ...

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9. “Making Peace”

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pp. 163-181

Denise Levertov spent decades opposing war. Now in the late 1980s she proposed an alternative — making peace. In the poem by that name, she analogizes peacemaking to poem-making. She calls peace “a presence,” “an energy field” that is more than the absence of war. Peace might be realized if “we restructured . . . our lives,” ...

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10. The Borderland

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pp. 182-198

Levertov was a peripatetic who changed residence more than twenty times, not including shuttling from Somerville to Stanford for eight years, fifteen years of summering in Maine, and numerous trips to Mexico to tend to her mother. She traveled abroad often, visiting more than sixteen countries,2 sometimes multiple times, ...

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11. Bearing Witness

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pp. 199-215

Levertov’s “intimation” that there might be something else awaiting her was soon affirmed. In early May 1993, after her decision to retire from Stanford, she learned that a biopsy of an ulcer revealed she might have non-Hodgkins lymphoma.2 Paradoxically this news was energizing and prompted her to resolve to use her time well. ...

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12. “Once Only”

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pp. 216-230

The deaths of En Potter and Steve Blevins, Mitch’s life-threatening cancer, and her own increasing weakness and worsening health chastened Levertov. Although she always had a sense of the perishability of life, neither her diaries nor poems of this period show a preoccupation with death. ...

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pp. 231-234

Denise Levertov wanted to be remembered for her poetry, the “autonomous structures” that would be appreciated on their own terms and would last. In comparison to her art, she considered her life fleeting and insignificant. As a consequence she was suspicious of biography and insisted that if a poet’s biography were to be written, ...


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pp. 235-278

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 279-298


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pp. 299-307

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252094217
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252037108

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Levertov, Denise, 1923-1997.
  • Poets, American -- 20th century -- Biography.
  • Jewish Christians -- Biography.
  • Levertov, Denise, 1923-1997 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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