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.’

Not long after their wedding, the young couple crossed paths in Paris with Norman Mailer, a classmate of Goodman’s at Harvard. Writing about the encounter two decades later, Mailer remembered Goodman as a ‘tall powerful handsome dark-haired young man with a profound air of defeated gloom’. Levertov was ‘a charming and most attractive dark-haired English girl with a characteristic space between her front teeth … Everyone in Paris liked her. She was pure as a bird, delicate yet firm in conscience.’ Levertov thought Mailer, who had just published The Naked and the Dead, ‘a nice Jewish boy’ and a ‘friendly, modest, humorous person’. His ‘overnight success’, she told her parents, ‘doesn’t seem to have affected him a bit’.

In autumn 1948 Levertov and Goodman left Europe on a troop ship bringing war brides back to the United States. In New York they rented a West Village flat with a toilet in the hall and a shower that drained into the kitchen sink. The hustle and shove of the city wasn’t to Levertov’s liking: ‘The fact of so many people huddled together,’ she said, ‘for no reason but the need to earn, buy, sell, at various economic levels, is ugly, desolating.’ In June 1949, she gave birth to Nikolai, her first and only child. ‘She’ll probably end up a professor’s wife, pushing a pram in a supermarket,’ someone predicted to Rexroth, whose anthology, The New British Poets, appeared that same year.

It wasn’t a bad guess, given the time, but Levertov’s obvious talent, along with an assurance in her vocation that was fortified by regular readings of Rilke’s letters, helped her survive the condescension and neglect that often afflicted female writers. It helped that many of the men who appreciated her poems fell for the woman who wrote them. Rexroth, who called her ‘one of the few people I ever completely loved at first sight’, talked her up to Robert Creeley; Creeley, who spent so much time with Levertov when they were both in Provence that his wife was sure they were having an affair, introduced her to William Carlos Williams; Williams told her that her second collection, Here and Now (1957), ‘reveals a mind with which I am in love’. (The equation also cut the other way: Levertov often found it difficult to disentangle writerly admiration and sexual attraction.)

Levertov did her best work between 1956 and 1961. In those six years she wrote 150 poems, published four books and changed her style completely. Here is how twilight appeared in ‘April’, a poem from her first collection:

Show me with lanterns how the days go down,
the gentle evening falling like a star;
show me the green and growing fire’s decline,
and how we are the clowns of death
tumbling in a breath of wind and hushed
back into silence as the air grows still.

Twelve years later, in ‘Merritt Parkway’, the time of day is the same, but the scene, syntax, mood and metaphorics are entirely different:

Under a wan sky where
as the lights went on a star
      pierced the haze & now
follows steadily
                    a constant
above our six lanes
the dreamlike continuum …

And the people – ourselves!

Taking the place of the humid sentiment of the earlier poem is a new determination, inspired largely by Williams, to pierce the haze, to grasp things, people – ‘ourselves!’ – in the immediacy of perception. (Only the ‘dreamlike continuum’ could have found a place in ‘April’, but it would never have been used to describe a freeway.) After her first book, Levertov’s poems would no longer sigh in sturdy iambics or trust what she called ‘the rumour of other writers’ words’. Her new task, she declared, was to let ‘the scraping mind perceive/what is possible:/there are no miracles but facts.’

Levertov’s friendships with Creeley and Williams, as well as a long informal apprenticeship to Robert Duncan, led some to associate her with the Black Mountain school, an identification sealed by her inclusion under that heading in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry. The lone woman in a lupine contingent, she was glad to make common cause against the so-called ‘closed’ poetics of Eliot and his successors, but her experimental sympathies stopped there. At a time when spontaneous composition was consecrated by the Beat formula ‘first thought, best thought’, Levertov maintained an appreciation for craft, though she wasn’t tied to traditional forms. ‘I see craftsmanship not as an ability to plan campaigns,’ she told A.R. Ammons in 1962, ‘but as being able to jump the right way in all the unguessable emergencies of writing.’

She shared none of the world-building aspirations of her avant-garde peers. While Charles Olson intended his Maximus Poems to rival Pound’s Cantos, and Duncan wanted to write the mythos of the nuclear age, Levertov’s subjects during this first phase of her career remained circumscribed, close to hand. The end of ‘The Ache of Marriage’, a poem from one of her best books, O Taste and See (1964), shows what she could do with a scale and a subject that are too easily denigrated as small-bore and domestic:

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy

not to be known outside of it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

In her statement on poetics for The New American Poetry, Levertov disputed the notion that ‘a violent imitation of the horrors of our times is the concern of poetry’: ‘Horrors are taken for granted. Disorder is ordinary … Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.’ Less than a decade later, though, her opinion on this point had completely reversed:

the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.

Radical politics was an old habit with Levertov’s family. (She tried to sign up for the Young Communist League when she was 11 but was rebuffed and hawked the Daily Worker door to door in a red pinafore.) The decision to bring political concerns explicitly into her poetry was, as she put it, ‘a response to crisis … unparalleled in all history’. She meant the Vietnam War, and the threat of nuclear and ecological disasters not far behind it. ‘It is not whether or not good “political” poems are a possibility that is in question,’ she wrote. ‘What is in question is the role of the poet as observer or as participant in the life of his time.’ Despite an occasionally astonishing naivety – she brought home a bomb as a souvenir from North Vietnam, and was credulous about conditions in the POW camps she was shown there – her sustained involvement in the antiwar movement was impressive. As was her husband’s: Goodman was the ‘old friend and lugubrious conscience’ who roped Mailer into the Pentagon protest at the start of The Armies of the Night; he was later indicted by the federal government for organising a draft-card protest. But all this had consequences for the poetry. Levertov could be sanctimonious, and her antiwar poems show how easily moral urgency could become an excuse to indulge the worst poetic instincts.

As the war went on Levertov’s personal life fell apart. Her marriage ended, as did her friendship with Duncan, after a disagreement over her political poetry. Duncan insisted that ‘poetry’s function is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it,’ and suggested that Levertov’s anger at Vietnam was a sublimated response to the battle of the sexes. Years later, after Duncan died, Levertov gave her interpretation of the split:

You were my mentor. Without knowing it,
I outgrew the need for a mentor.
Without knowing it, you resented that,
and attacked me. I bitterly resented
the attack, and without knowing it
freed myself to move forward
without a mentor.

Her activist energies didn’t abate during the last 25 years of her life, and neither did her commitment to quasi-propagandist poetry. Feminism was one of the few canonical leftist causes to which she didn’t pledge herself. Both Greene and Donna Krolik Hollenberg dance around the point, but from the evidence they supply it’s clear that a large part of the reason she disliked feminism was that she felt superior to it. She had had early success, and couldn’t understand why any female poet would choose to ‘limit the readership’.

Towards the end of her life she converted to Catholicism. Though she had cut ties with organised religion as a teenager, and had reiterated her loathing of religious hypocrisy to her father on his deathbed, her turn to the church wasn’t entirely a surprise. As early as 1968 she had written to Duncan: ‘I want to say Pray for me, but to whom. I don’t know what god has afflicted me.’ Her baptism in 1990 had a salutary effect on her poetry and gave her work a new life among liberal Catholics in America, an audience eager, in an era of theological retrenchment, to welcome a prominent convert who claimed Archbishop Romero as her hero and was contentedly unorthodox on subjects like abortion.

In 1993, four years before she died, Levertov sold her papers to Stanford, where she had been teaching for a decade. She also gave a lecture warning about literary biographies: though she admitted that some biographers might resist focusing on the ‘scandalous or dramatic peculiarities of the poet’, she insisted that ‘all that is most interesting about an artist’s life must be in the work itself.’ It’s a noble thought, and a nervous one, and those who agree will be happy that New Directions, Levertov’s longtime publisher, has recently published her Collected Poems.

As for the two biographies, Greene’s is far better than Hollenberg’s. Her prose is lucid and her narrative skilfully paced; her readings of the work are sound. By contrast, Hollenberg’s readings make Levertov – who prized clarity on the page – into a muddy-headed poet who ‘depicts empowerment within the present moment’. There’s a problem, too, with her endless special pleading: Hollenberg was once a student of Levertov’s, and her attitude towards her former teacher resembles that of the parent who feels compelled to parry the least suspicion that her child is anything other than extraordinary. It’s not enough that Levertov was a bright girl who liked to draw and write and dance; she has to be a ‘child prodigy’ who ‘began to speak poems as a toddler’. Similarly, Levertov’s confession late in life that she didn’t love the poor in the way her Christian faith required – ‘I really am an intellectual snob, I guess, and I like to be with people of refined manners and developed minds’ – isn’t allowed to stand as the half-proud, half-guilty moral scruple it is. Instead it must become, in Hollenberg’s hands, a gesture of ‘characteristic integrity’.

Perhaps all this is a symptom of anxiety about Levertov’s posthumous reputation. Levertov was widely praised in her day, and in some precincts is still held in high esteem. But though she taught in universities for decades, she attracted no imitators and spawned no schools. Her style wasn’t the sort to require a grand critical reckoning. If Hollenberg’s worry is that Levertov is more respected than read, then here, for once, her critical sense is unimpeachable.