The first time I saw Denise Levertov was in the spring of 1973. She was the Elliston Poet at the University of Cincinnati that semester, and she was standing in the aisle prior to delivering the Elliston lecture. She was bent forward talking to someone seated at the end of a row of chairs. She wore a frumpy-looking flowered dress that reminded me of something Queen Elizabeth II would wear—just matronly enough to make her look informal yet a bit distant, too, as though she represented another generation. And to me she did indeed; she was seventeen years my senior. But when she began her talk, there was an immediate closing of the gap: “Though in William Carlos Williams there is what I have thought of sometimes as a Franciscan sense of wonder that illumines what is counted ordinary…yet my strongest sense of his vision…is of the way it encompasses the dark, the painful, the fierce.”
That evening I listened. I didn’t dare approach her afterwards to say how I loved what she said, how I felt a connection to her words as I had to her poems. She was much more removed from me then than the distance between the podium and the last row in the auditorium where I sat in awe of the poet. Here was the person behind the poems I had read and re-read, the poems that said things I wished I could have said the way she said them. I was listening to the voice behind the mentoring voice of the poems I loved.
It was a different voice than I’d anticipated. There was a kind of hesitancy that derived, I learned later, from a glandular problem that left her deprived of eye and mouth fluids and required that she always have water with her. (Her omnipresent flask of water is one of my most persistent memories.) But that physical problem was peripheral to why she sometimes seemed hesitant in her speech. It was more the manifestation of the thoughtful way in which she used words. She seldom spoke glibly. It was as if she were searching for the right word to emerge as she went along, much as she said a poem proceeds—organically word by word, image by image, line by line.
I left the lecture that evening feeling a bit let down. I thought her talk would have been more eloquently delivered. But I was also taken with the way she read a written lecture, almost as if the words were there only in outline form and she was thinking intensely as she moved from thought to thought.
Six years later, when I met Levertov face to face, after a year of correspondence, my first impression was reinforced: the same hesitant speech which was not hesitant but thoughtful; and now the intense eyes but with a delightful glint that I soon learned betrayed a childlike desire to know, to know why. And yet again, as with the flowered dress, there was a remoteness in her manner. She seemed to hold herself poised in the knowledge that the exchange would not happen with the body but with the mind and heart. Her arms crossed before her, her hands folded into them, looked somehow at odds with her hair that fell in loose curls, almost in disarray. Again that tension between formality and informality, like the intense eyes with their childlike glint, the seemingly solitary figure trying to find solidarity with others, a penetrating presence whose hesitant speech accomplished the closeness it seemed to prevent.
These tensions in Denise Levertov made her both formidable and vulnerable. She was formidable in that her ideas came from carefully thought out convictions. But when it came to relationships, Levertov was vulnerable. She was a driven person, unable to form the intimate communion with people that she felt for the natural world.
Since my first meeting with Levertov in 1979, I have walked the woods near her Seattle home with her, have seen her at the Cincinnati Nature Conservatory stop and look long and in wonder at a caterpillar at rest on a leaf, have heard her hum from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” as she pointed to the cypress trees on the far shore of the lake beneath her home, saying they reminded her of ballerinas; I have crossed the border of the Nuclear Test Site outside Las Vegas with her, and have prayed with her at Mass in our friary and in her parish church in Seattle. Always when I was with Levertov, as in her poem, “Swan in Falling Snow,” “the short day / suspended itself, endless,” because of the way she looked at things, pointed them out to me, made a case for something she felt strongly about. And when I heard of her death as I sat looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean, that day, too, was suddenly suspended, endless in my memory.
The last time I saw Levertov was April 25, 1995, two years before her death. She had been staying with us at our friary for two days, and I saw her off at the Greater Cincinnati airport in Covington, Kentucky. In the Comair waiting room, as she waited to board her flight, I prayed with her for the healing of a slow-growing stomach melanoma and an ulcer. She was wearing black: black suit coat, black riding pants with above ankle boot-like black shoes that laced. Her scuffed weather-beaten red purse matched the way she seemed to be feeling, facing two and a half days at Purdue University reading and attending a creative writing class. From there she would fly from Lafayette, Indiana to Seattle via Chicago. Though I knew she was ill, I was taken off guard when she died unexpectedly at the age of 74, on December 20, 1997, of complications from the melanoma.
A week after her death I wrote in my diary, “I’m reading Breathing the Water as I mourn your death (or was it birth?) into water you could not breathe here? You return to amniotic water, womb of the universe, God’s parallel world.” And that’s where Denise Levertov remains for me, suspended in that parallel world.
She was born on October 24, 1923 in Ilford in the western part of the County of Essex, England. You can reach it today on a half-hour ride on the Underground from London. There is music in the names of the towns that were a part of her childhood: Cranbrook, Wash, Roding, Hainault, Pergo Park, Clavering, Havering-Atte-Bower, Stanford Rivers, Stapleford Abbots, Wantstead, Seven Kings, Woodford Wells, and Thraxted. All these are names of places she spoke of and remembered and celebrated in her poem, “A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England.”
Levertov’s father, Paul Philip Levertoff, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity, became an Anglican priest and scholar dedicated to Jewish-Christian dialogue. He was intellectually precocious, secure in his beliefs. Her Welsh mother, Beatrice Adelaide Spooner-Jones, wrote, sang, and painted. A brave woman, she went off to Constantinople as a young woman to teach at a Scotch mission school.
One wonders how Levertov’s Welsh/Jewish heritage influenced her ear for language. Celtic traditions believe that the original harmony of the world is still to be found in the sounds of nature. The language imitates the sounds of the river, the waves, the seabirds, the wind. Kabalistic mysticism which influenced her father, is a repetitive re-weaving of primordial sounds in an attempt to heal a broken cadence. The Kabalists believed that every letter and sound of the Torah reveals God, and one of their mantric practices consisted of repeating the sound of a sacred word, much like the Buddhist sounding of “Om.” The Jewish mystics also believe that there are sacred tones, sounds and rhythms that are part of fundamental harmony. They seek to attain harmony with these sounds and rhythms as a way of re-establishing the disharmony or broken cadence between the human and the Divine.
Her mother home-educated Levertov and her older sister Olga until their thirteenth year, reading aloud to the girls the great works of nineteenth-century fiction. She read them poetry, as well, especially the lyrics of Tennyson. Levertov herself studied painting and ballet and during World War II began nursing training at several London hospitals. From an early age she believed in her poetic abilities, and at the age of twelve had already sent several of her poems to T.S. Eliot, who wrote her a two-page letter offering her “excellent advice,” a letter she lost somewhere in her moves from England to New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Seattle.
What Levertov herself wanted us to know of her life and did not incarnate in her poems, she put in Tesserae, Memories and Suppositions, which she published two years before her death. She writes of her father, a quiet Talmud scholar in a Russia where the Gospels were forbidden, and how he found a Hebrew scrap of the New Testament, was converted and had to flee his home. Later, in Constantinople, he met a Welsh girl whose great-uncle had lived in a one-room whitewashed cottage with an earthen floor and, at Waterloo, had seen Napoleon on his great horse. When she was twelve, Levertov secretly sold the Daily Worker, a socialist paper, on the streets—a practice she abandoned as foolish and presumptuous after she saw the despair of the unemployed at close range. As a nurse in blacked-out London, she visited the Café Royale and met a series of unlikely characters. She volunteered as a model in return for art instruction, but in Kokoschka’s waiting room she came to the realization that she was a poet not a painter. She made herself into an “enchanting child”—an alluring and enormously talented writer—but even her early work seems neither contrived nor narcissistic.
The “enchanting child” survived into her 70’s, as I witnessed when she gleefully showed me the “sock monkey” she carried with her wherever she traveled. It was her “Teddy Bear” which she delighted in as she delighted in the stories of Brother Juniper in The Little Flowers of St. Francis. I treasure still her childhood copy of The Little Flowers with her drawing on the frontispiece of her as a little girl see-sawing with the early Franciscan “fool” and jongleur, Brother Juniper. The drawing refers to the time Brother Juniper went to Rome where his reputation for holiness was widespread. Many devout Romans went out to meet him, and in order to disappoint their adulation (which he considered wrongly directed from Christ to himself), he ran over to some boys who were see-sawing and took one of the boys’ place to the dismay of the pious onlookers. Levertov’s childhood delight in the story and her own sense of play remained and was a side of her that she seldom showed to others.
Levertov’s first published poem appeared in Poetry Quarterly in 1940, and in 1946 her first book of poetry, The Double Image, was published in England. In 1948, after her marriage to the American writer and novelist, Mitchell Goodman, the couple moved to the United States, and in 1949 their only child, Nikolai, was born. In 1956 she became a naturalized citizen.
Levertov’s arrival in America coincided with a self-consciously American poetry that rejected academic formalism in favor of open, organic form. She began reading a group of poets called the Black Mountain Poets, and soon afterwards began to work in open-verse forms. Through her reading of and association with William Carlos Williams she developed what she once defined as “the sharp eye for the material world and the keen ear for the vernacular” (“The Sense of Pilgrimage”) that is evident in her first book, Here and Now (1957, published in America by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco).
In her 1973 Elliston lecture she said that “Williams’ fierce delight in the contradictions of life is not a passive acceptance, a kind of fatalism. He is anguished, he rails against stupidity and gracelessness and man’s inhumanity to man.”
Levertov, too, though often quiet and contemplative, and at times playful, could be fierce and anything but passive in the face of the injustice and inhumanity of the world, in the face of war and torture and prejudice. Beginning with her poem, “During the Eichmann Trial,” in The Jacob’s Ladder Levertov began to move out of her personal world to engagement with contemporary social and political issues, a movement that culminated in The Sorrow Dance(1967), with its unflinching look at the Vietnam war and its implications.
Her outrage and compassion grew as she contemplated the 1967 Detroit Riots, the napalmed children of Vietnam, the forgotten starving children of Biafra. Levertov felt that language itself was being eroded by the Vietnam War because it was used to justify atrocities. All of us needed to “Relearn the Alphabet,” as she put it in the title of her 1970 book.
I was unaware of her activist, anti-Vietnam War stance when I first read her volume of essays, Poet in the World. It was 1972 and I was teaching English at our Franciscan High School Seminary and trying to write poems. Her words acted like catalysts to my own writing. Five years later, I received in the mail a copy of In Cuba, by the Nicaraguan poet-priest, Ernesto Cardenal. The book was a gift from Denise Levertov with this inscription on the first page: “I thought you might enjoy this book. I have your Song of the Sparrow for which I thank you and from which, even though I’m religiously vague (I mean chronically undecided as to what I do & don’t believe, to put it with a bit more grammatical clarity) I derive pleasure & strength. Denise Levertov.”
At the time, I was teaching Levertov’s poems in an American Literature class at our college seminary in Southfield, Michigan. I assumed the book, In Cuba, with its curious inscription, was a practical joke the student friars were playing on me. It wasn’t, I learned; and my thank-you note to Levertov began a friendship that encompassed our mutual love of nature, our abhorrence of war and violence, and an ongoing discussion of matters of faith and religion.
We corresponded regularly; and a few years before she died, I spent three days at her home in Seattle, during which time she vetted a volume of poems I was working on, and we talked of her recent conversion to Catholicism, of our time together at the nuclear test site in Nevada, and of the life and martyrdom of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.
In 1990 Levertov, my father, and I had traveled to Las Vegas to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero by praying and making a weekend retreat with many others at the Nevada nuclear test site. As part of the retreat Levertov and I gave a public reading of the libretto of her oratorio, “El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation,” a moving moment for all of us who realized that we were in the presence of a woman who radiated what I can only call an aura of peace. She had become a witness to more than the craft and art of poetry.
At other demonstrations Levertov had seen how victims of violence in Central America were honored by everyone responding, “Presente,” when their names were read off. So in Las Vegas she responded with the same, “Presente,” at the liturgy commemorating the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Romero. And we were all moved to respond “Presente,” with her for the martyred Romero.
Even my father, an ex-Marine of the Second Marine Division’s Pacific Campaign during World War II, seemed impressed with her; and as a former labor organizer for the United Mine Workers during the Great Depression, he immediately felt connected to Levertov and what she represented vis-à-vis the rights of workers. Her presence during the retreat was the catalyst for my own willingness to cross onto United States Government property and be arrested along with Levertov and others while my father stood on the other side of the line, saluting our decision by standing at attention.
Levertov once said that the role of the poet is to witness, to not only reveal the divine beauty, as Rilke did, but to release the divine beauty. That is what she did for us at the Nevada test site. Her words and her presence released the beauty and the sacredness of the land we were standing on and which was being violated by underground nuclear testing.
That witness, that longing for peace, is taken up in her poem, “Making Peace,” and worked into an extended simile comparing peace-making with poem-making:
But peace, like a poem
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making….
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentences our lives are making,
peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Levertov herself lives the words of the poem’s making, restructuring word by word the sentence her own life makes. She contemplates the horrors of war, the oppression of people, the inequalities she sees around her, and she is moved to action, not only through making poems of what she sees, but through personal action.
Levertov joined anti-war protest groups; her husband Mitchell Goodman was arrested with Dr. Benjamin Spock for counseling draft resisters. Along with Jesuit Priest Daniel Berrigan and her poet friend Muriel Rukeyser, she traveled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War; she joined anti-nuclear groups, she spoke out against U.S. involvement with oppressive regimes in Central America. And all the while she was writing poems of protest that centered on calamitous public and political realities and which seemed a radical departure from her previous poems of quiet personal epiphany derived from contemplation of her immediate personal world.
Gradually, however, it became clear that this was not a radical departure. Beginning in the mid-1980s Levertov’s life and her poetry began to center on the Christian mystery of the Incarnation, the immanence among us of the transcendent God. Because of the Incarnation, God is made present among us personally in Christ’s gift of His Spirit and collectively in the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ. Betrayals of Christ happen, therefore, both on the individual and collective level, the two poles of Levertov’s poetry.
In an essay entitled, “A Poet’s View,” Levertov writes that the “acknowledgment, and celebration, of mystery probably constitutes the most consistent theme of my poetry from its very beginnings.” And for her the way into mystery, as it was into injustice and the horrors of war, is primarily through the imagination, “the chief of human faculties. It must be therefore by the exercise of that faculty that one moves toward faith, and possibly by its failure that one rejects it as delusion…. Where Wallace Stevens says, ‘God and the imagination are one,’ I would say the imagination, which synergizes intellect, emotion and instinct, is the perceptive organ through which it is possible, though not inevitable, to experience God.”
The way Levertov employs the imagination on her way to God is mapped out already in 1958 in the title poem from her second American book, Overland to the Islands:
Let’s go—much as that dog goes,
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction—‘every step an arrival’.
The dog engaged in its perceptions is, to me, an apt image of Denise Levertov’s life work as a poet. First of all, because Levertov is a poet, her perceptions are mediated through words. For her, a poem is a verbal, musical, structured thing that enables both poet and reader to contemplate the experience embodied in the poem itself. The experience of the poem is not necessarily the experience that triggered the poem, but a new experience which is the poem itself. We all have experiences we wish we could name or explain. The poet does the naming and explaining, and if it is done well, we recognize either our own experience or a new experience we share vicariously in the poem.
For Levertov, the words, if they are chosen well, find their own order in the poem. Furthermore, this order is more an organic ordering than an order superimposed upon the poem by the poet’s prior choice of a specific form like a sonnet or sestina or villanelle. That trust in words finding their own order is what makes her poetry accessible and what gives her lines their natural conversational tone. The order is also the order of close observation: the lines move as the inner eye sees, the inner ear hears. Her line-breaks are often those of the human breath itself as it pauses in reciting the sense of the thought or experience. To read Denise Levertov’s poems, then, is to learn to breathe with the line, to pause, to reverence the white spaces on the page; and, therefore, to slow down and move with the rhythm of the poem and its line-breaks.
Following the order of words, slowing down, breathing with the line, pausing, becoming aware of the white spaces on the page: all these gestures lead the reader or hearer into contemplation of the poem. It is a verbal going overland, much as the dog goes, intently haphazard, the light making ripples on his black gleaming fur, a radiance consorting with dance; and in the end this going becomes for Levertov a journey into God through embracing all of creation, disdaining nothing that comes from God.
The arc of her work is a movement from close attention to the natural world to contemplation. By her own definition, “To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur.’ It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god.” For example, Levertov describes, again using sacral language, the inception of a poem: “[To] meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation’; its synonym is to ‘muse,’ and to muse comes from a word meaning ‘to stand with open mouth’—not so comical if we think of ‘inspiration’—to breathe in.”
So, as the poet stands open-mouthed in the temple of life, contemplating his experience, there come to him the first words of the poem: the words which are to be his way in to the poem, if there is to be a poem.
One could take any of Levertov’s books of poetry and find there the poems of her open-mouthed contemplation. Every book issues from her obedience to the discipline of contemplation. Her poems “instress,” in her own words, “the inscape of a sequence or constellation of experiences.” She uses here two terms coined by the Jesuit poet and priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins: the word, ‘inscape,’ “to denote intrinsic form, the pattern of essential characteristics both in single objects and (what is more interesting) in objects in a state of relation to each other, and the word ‘instress’ to denote the experiencing of the perception of inscape, the apperception of inscape.” Levertov extends Hopkins’ definitions to include not only objects singly or in relation to each other, but “intellectual and emotional experiences as well.” Such then are her poems: instresses of the inscapes of outer and inner constellations of experience.
In her poem, “Hunting the Phoenix,” Levertov’s re-imaging of the myth of the phoenix emerging from its own ashes, clarifies the kind of action that flows from contemplation. The narrator leafs through “discolored manuscripts” to assure herself there are no words still waiting to be rescued. But she finds “only half-articulated” moments that “play ‘statue’” and have not been “released.” They haven’t been released because
You must seek
the ashy nest itself
if you hope to find
charred feathers, smouldering flightbones,
and a twist of singing flame
The search of the ashy nest itself is the beginning of the making of the poem. In other words, the poet searches experience which would seem to be over, consumed; and then she searches with words that are not words about the experience, but the experience itself, thereby releasing what “had no blood to shed” when it was mere half-articulation of what was still smouldering.
Once when I was trying to re-work a poem and kept tinkering with it, Levertov told me to forget the tinkering and go back to the experience itself, the experience that was the genesis of the poem. She was asking me to re-enter the experience with new words that derive from the ashy nest itself and not from repeatedly re-working the words that were already there in the poem. As I did this, not only did I begin to see the original experience again, but the words I was choosing to remember with began to create a new poem which was the real poem of the experience remembered.
For Levertov there are two processes involved in poetry making. One is the conscious act of searching the nest, the other is pure gift: the nest simply yielding up its mystery to the poet. In a chapter from her prose work, The Poet in the World, she outlines these two ways of making:
There is nothing one can say directly concerning the coming into being of “given” or “inspired” poems, because there is no conscious process being described. However, in considering what happens in writing poems which have a known history, I have come to feel convinced that they are not of a radically different order; it is simply that in the “given” poem the same kind of work has gone on below, or I would prefer to say beyond, the threshold of consciousness.
These two processes are in evidence throughout her oeuvre, two ways into the poem that are themselves evidence of the inherent tension and similarity between action and contemplation, of outer work and inner work.
In Breathing the Water, Levertov prefaces several poems with the phrase, “From the Image Flow,” a reference to experience that flows on, depositing from time to time images that are rescued in poems. This concept of images being rescued is an interesting development of her phrase, “inviting the muse,” and is the kind of activity involved in searching “the ashy nest.” What is deposited comes from the river of the blood. What has been suffered as experience is re-entered and re-made in the poem which in turn must bleed if the experience is to be rescued in an image
A dramatic example of how an image is rescued is the poem, “On a Theme from Julian’s Chapter XX.” The poem’s title refers to Showings, the book written by the fourteenth-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. The poem asks of Christ’s crucifixion, “Why single out this agony? What’s / a mere six hours?” The question is: What is the mere six hours of Christ’s suffering compared to the years of suffering of cancer victims or torture victims or victims of drought and hunger and exile? The poet’s answer is the one Julian writes of in her Showings, the book of her revelations.
Julian perceived why
One only is ‘King of Grief.’
The Oneing, she saw, the oneing
with the Godhead opened Him utterly
to the pain of all minds, all bodies
from first beginning
to last day. The great wonder is
that the human cells of His flesh and bone
when utmost Imagination rose
in that flood of knowledge….
Again it is the imagination which knows. A further question ensues. Is Jesus on the cross, as figured in Julian’s Showings, an image of the poet’s imagination? Is Christ’s suffering and His sharing in the suffering of everyone throughout history, the poet’s vicarious participation, as well? And is this participation shared by the reader who in turn participates through the poet’s words? The poet answers through Julian of Norwich herself. The suffering she embraced:
To desire wounds—
three, no less, no more—
is audacity, not, five centuries early, neurosis;
it’s the desire to enact metaphor, for flesh to make known
to intellect (as uttered song
makes known to voice,
as image to eye)
make known in bone and breath
(and not die) God’s agony.
These lines summarize much of Levertov’s work, in their insistence that “supreme reality be witnessed” through the enactment of “metaphor, for flesh to make known / to intellect…God’s agony,” or any other agony. That is what the poet does: sees, contemplates, and then witnesses to the thing seen through the enactment of metaphor.
Levertov spells out concretely what she means by “the enactment of metaphor” in this case, namely, “for flesh to make known / to intellect….” Again it is the mind that grasps, that understands through the enactment of metaphor. The enactment of metaphor in Julian is not about words but about “bone and breath,” so that real wounds are Julian’s desire. Their imprint in her own flesh is therefore a metaphor for God’s agony on the cross—merely a metaphor though, for even these wounds would not be a “oneing with the Godhead,” like Christ’s; and therefore she would be but a sharer in his physical suffering, not in his knowledge of all suffering, as his “utmost Imagination” saw it all. We cannot be God; we can be but living metaphors of God, as St. Francis of Assisi in the stigmata was God’s “lovescape crucified,” in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Parenthetically enclosed in the lines about enacted metaphor are two similes from the poet’s own world: flesh makes known to intellect “as uttered song / makes known to voice, / as image to eye.” Were Julian to experience in her own flesh the wounds of Christ, she would know and be a living metaphor of Christ’s wounds just as the uttered song reveals the voice and the seen image reveals the eye. All of this language is about concrete things that become revelations to the mind. To extend her metaphor, all things become enacted metaphors of who God is.
There is an implied creation spirituality at work here, as I believe there is in much of Levertov’s poetry. By this I mean a vision whereby all of creation is a great temple in which the works of God are made manifest to the prayerful, contemplative mind. In Levertov the contemplative mind is made manifest in her uttered song and in the images her eye sees; and all this is revealed to us in the way she lets words themselves unfold organically on the page, trusting them to be further metaphors of how her eye sees. Instead of imposing an order on the page, she trusts words to be metaphors of the order of her seeing. There is in her poems a sense of discovery and surprise, as if the very next word (in combination with those that preceded it) will burst forth into meaning the way an image, like a blossom, will suddenly begin to open and reveal the intricacies of its center.
If art is the aesthetic organization of the artist’s interior journey, then in Levertov’s work, that movement is a pilgrimage toward faith. She spoke of her work as work that “enfaiths.”
Though she does not say she knows with certitude, she longs for certitude. In an article forReligion and Intellectual Life, written the same year Oblique Prayers was written, Levertov states, “In the matter of religion I have moved in the last few years…to a position of Christian belief…. The movement has been gradual and continuous.”
There is a brief mapping of Levertov’s movement to faith in the final poems of her last volume, Sands of the Well. Completed shortly before her death, it is a slow, prayerful reading of the text of nature and scripture that illustrates in spare images and intense attention to the world around her, how the image of our going along, much as a dog goes, “his imagination, sniffing, / engaged in its perceptions,” brings us ultimately to prayer wherein every step is an arrival. The closing series of poems shade gracefully into prayer. Though the nearness of death is felt, Levertov is seeing the world outside and the world within more intently than ever before. She is seeing all as in a temple; she is in deep contemplation.
Sometimes her contemplation becomes metaphors condensed to the intensity of the experience mystics talk about when they try to express in words prayer that has reached the summit of union with God. At other times her images are more diffuse, her language more psalm-like, more like an uttered prayer than a tightly condensed experience. But always in Denise Levertov’s poetry there is the reverence, the close attention to creation, the awe we associate with the contemplative heart. Her journey is drawn from nature, from the complexity of the human heart with its propensity for good and evil, its conflicts and failures and triumphs, and through the social and political triumphs and calamities of her time. Hers is the poet’s sensibility, the poet’s life, the poet’s metaphorical way; “deepened, deepened,” suspending “itself, endless.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.