By Denise Levertov
With the release late last year of this massive volume, New Directions has given us the means to see Denise Levertov’s career whole—and a case for this proud, courageous, often combative woman to belong with Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop in the first rank of American poets. Indeed, seen in outline, Levertov’s career seems to encompass the whole grand, messy century: as a girl, she famously corresponded with T.S. Eliot, and some of her earliest poems were written in the hospitals of wartime Britain; half a century later she titled a poem “Silicon Valley.”
Her precocious early work aside, Levertov’s career truly began with her move to New York in 1948, which precipitated an astonishingly rapid assimilation of and mastery over various poetic forms. The volumes O Taste and See and The Sorrow Dance—my personal favorites of her long career—are the work of a poet operating at a ferocious early peak of ability and energy. Ardent, sensual, and crackling with intelligence, they marked their author as “a woman with that cold fire in her called poet,” moving to “the direct, intense / sound of direction,” drawn into the erotic circle of marriage but not afraid to “be / gaily alone.” With Relearning the Alphabet in 1970, Levertov began an intense lifelong engagement with the poetry of political protest, the usual limitations of which she transcended with brio. What gave even her most didactic statements their impact was her peerless ear for the music of language. She seemed incapable of writing a dull or obvious line, even “while the war drags on, always worse / and the soul dwindles sometimes to an ant / rapid upon a cracked surface” and her vision became both more radical and more despairing.
What followed was almost inevitably a retrenchment of sorts, and the poems in The Freeing of the Dust and beyond reflect an uneasy peace: “I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness,’” the poet concludes at the end of “The Wealth of the Destitute.” All of this came to a seemingly sudden pivot with Levertov’s conversion to Catholicism in 1984, a shocking turn in the life of a formerly avowed Jewish atheist and secular Communist. Levertov’s personal embrace of Christianity was characteristically astringent and complex, and if the religious poems of her last decade don’t always achieve the effortless incandescence of her earlier work, they’re nonetheless often grave and striking. “The holy vice / utters its woe and glory in myriad musics,” she wrote in “Immersion,” one of her last poems. Right to the end, the cold fire burned strong in her.