Exotic Bird from Ilford

Robert Baird

  • Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life by Dana Greene
    Illinois, 328 pp, £22.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 252 03710 8
  • A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov by Donna Krolik Hollenberg
    California, 515 pp, £30.95, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 520 27246 0
  • Collected Poems by Denise Levertov
    New Directions, 1063 pp, £32.99, December 2013, ISBN 978 0 8112 2173 3

The daughter of a schoolteacher from Wales and a Christianised Russian Jew, Denise Levertov was born in Essex and made her reputation in America writing poems in and about Mexico, Provence and North Vietnam. She was, one reviewer said, ‘incomparably the best poet of what is getting to be known as the new avant-garde’, and yet her radicalism was a matter of substance rather than style. In many respects she was anything but modest – for nearly a decade she wrote poems that she hoped would help stop a war – but in contrast with the sprawling projects of her peers, Levertov’s units of accomplishment (the expert line, the individual lyric) were rigorous and concise. It would be easy enough to claim her, along with Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich, as one of the most important women writing poetry in English in the decades after the Second World War, if ‘woman poet’ hadn’t been a category Levertov despised.

‘Among Jews a Goy, among Gentiles … a Jew or at least a half-Jew … among Anglo-Saxons a Celt; in Wales a Londoner … among schoolchildren a strange exception whom they did not know whether to envy or mistrust’: this is the way Levertov recalled her childhood six decades after the fact. She was born in 1923, the youngest daughter of two ‘exotic birds in the plain English coppice of Ilford’. Her mother, Beatrice, was orphaned at 12 and set off in her twenties to teach at a Scottish mission school in Constantinople. Her father, born to a prosperous Jewish family in Belarus as Feivel Levertoff, renamed himself Paul and was ordained in the Church of England.

Levertov was taught at home by her mother and then went to ballet school. ‘Hitler is not going to make me give up my career,’ she told her parents – but still, she gave up dancing in 1940, the same year she published her first poem, in Poetry Quarterly. The magazine steered her into the ambit of the Apocalypse poets, the neo-Romantic Surrealists who had decided, in the words of G.S. Fraser, ‘to become stoics – to depend on ourselves and the universe’ after everything else was destroyed by the war.

Dana Greene isn’t wrong when she says that Levertov’s early poems possess more biographical than poetic interest. But her first collection, The Double Image, which appeared in 1946, earned an appreciative mention from Vita Sackville-West in the Observer, and attracted the attention of Kenneth Rexroth, who chose to include her work in an anthology he was assembling. In the course of their correspondence Rexroth became infatuated with Levertov, even though she was 17 years younger than him and so, as a mutual friend warned him, ‘badly under the waterline’. Rexroth was too honest not to remark on the ‘slow, pulsating rhythms, romantic melancholy and undefined nostalgia’ of her work, but his long-distance leering persuaded him that these qualities, which ordinarily ‘would have been considered blemishes, today … are outstanding virtues’.

In her contributor’s note for the anthology Levertov described herself as a former ‘land girl, charwoman, children’s nurse and companion to an alcoholic’ who had ‘recently married an American GI’ and ‘hopes to come to the States’. The GI was Mitchell Goodman, an ex-artillery officer and aspiring novelist who proposed to Levertov so soon after meeting her in a Geneva hostel that she called him ‘Goodwin’ in a letter home. She told her parents she wasn’t ‘romantically in love’ with him, but added that at least he wasn’t ‘ordinary or floppy-looking. And he’s good – he’s got a real damn-go0d-honest-to-goodness character.’

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