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Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life. By Dana Greene. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-252-03710-8. Pp. xiv + 307. $35.00. A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov. By Donna Krolik Hollenberg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-520-27246-0. Pp. xiv + 515. $44.95. ‘‘[A]ll that is most interesting about an artist’s life must be in the work itself. There the autobiographical is often completely transformed, or, if undisguisedly recounted, is selected, and invested with a significance which transcends the ephemeral and narrowly personal.’’ So wrote Denise Levertov in her essay ‘‘Biography and the Poet’’ (New and Selected Essays, 1992, 174). She was troubled by the exhibitionism and ‘‘narcissism’’ of much contemporary poetry, and believed that the best writing respected the author’s own privacy. Although biography could be wonderfully illuminating , it should show the same respect. She added drily, ‘‘the lives of poets and other artists are not usually more interesting than anyone else’s’’ (175). Dana Greene quotes this essay—not without a sense of irony—in her recent biography of Levertov, the first to be published since the poet’s death in 1997. However, Greene also points out that when Levertov penned these words, she was simultaneously negotiating the sale of her archives, including letters and journals, to Stanford University, where she lectured for a number of years. The woman who denounced those biographers who unnecessarily expose a poet’s private life was at the same time enabling future scholars to explore her own innermost thoughts and emotions. And this apparent paradox has parallels in Levertov’s poetic method: Greene writes, ‘‘Ambivalent about biography as an aide to understanding her poetry, Levertov nonetheless claimed repeatedly that her poems emerged from her life experience. While she rejected confessional or self-referential writing, her poems, ‘testimonies of lived life,’ reflect her dialogical engagement with the world around her.’’ Greene recalls Eavan Boland’s words: ‘‘I can think of few contemporary poets whose life and work were so connected’’ (231). Greene attempts to sketch the major trajectories and patterns across Levertov’s life. Much is made of young ‘‘Denny’s’’ enduring sense of ‘‘destiny’’—and the primacy of her poetic vocation. Another recurring theme is the struggle to make sense of seemingly incompatible opposites: wonder and danger, confidence and neediness, a life-experience patterned by paradox. For Greene, Levertov is ‘‘poet, prophet, and pilgrim’’ (2, 204). She never manages to be altogether at home in the world, and she presents a salutary challenge to those who are; and yet she loves the world, too. Greene’s biography focuses on the poet herself; but for me (perhaps unfairly) that focus is also the book’s most serious flaw: I wanted much more of Levertov’s splendid poetry. Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s officially authorized volume, A Poet’s Revolution, offers exactly that, along with a wealth of additional biographical material. Although she takes care not to assume a precise correspondence between poet and poetry, Hollenberg often turns to specific poems as a way of illuminating Book Reviews 725 Levertov’s own story, and shows how personal developments may, in turn, shed light on the poems. Literary and biographical interpretation are blended here. The ‘‘revolution’’ of Hollenberg’s title has a polyvalent meaning. It embraces major shifts and adjustments in the poet’s personal life, her process of poetic development , and her serious sociopolitical concerns that could and sometimes did take a ‘‘revolutionary’’ form—but, above all, it signifies Levertov’s habitual turning and returning toward what mattered most to her. Denise Levertov’s family of origin was characterized, if not by paradox or revolution , at least by surprising and striking contrasts. Her father was a scholarly Russian Jew who embraced Christianity, took the name Paul, and was eventually ordained in the Church of England—but who continued to claim the faith of his childhood: he translated the Anglican liturgy into Hebrew, and he always called himself a ‘‘Jewish Christian,’’ as Levertov recalled in her semi-autobiographical collection of ‘‘Memories and Suppositions’’ (Tesserae, 1995, 11). The poet’s mother, Beatrice, was a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2056-5666
Print ISSN
0148-3331
Pages
pp. 725-728
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-28
Open Access
No
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