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Poetic and religious revolutions

by
20 October 2023

Rod Garner celebrates the centenary of the birth of the poet Denise Levertov

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Denise Levertov (1923-97)

Denise Levertov (1923-97)

SHORTLY before her death, at the age of 74, on 10 December 1997, and after a long terminal illness that she had kept from even close friends, Denise Levertov declined to be nominated as the next Poet Laureate of the United States.

Concerned that the position might compromise her politics, she was also, in her view, an unsuitable candidate for other reasons. Most obviously, there was her increasing frailty. In addition, she had already been showered with Fellowships, awards, and prizes from various institutions and colleges in recognition of her work as a writer, activist, and poet of unusual distinction, over several decades. It was the latter vocation that mattered most to her, and for which she hoped to be remembered.

From a very early age, Levertov had envisaged her life’s work as “a poet in the world”. Her calling was that of a pilgrim, dedicated to articulating her lived experience so that others might wake from their slumbers: “You know, I’m telling you, what I love best is life. I love life!”

She was born in Ilford on 24 October 1923, to a Welsh mother — a singer and painter with an Evangelical faith — and a Russian Jewish father, who eventually became an Anglican priest and notable scholar. Both parents were political activists, driven by a commitment to public service and a love of dance and literature. They schooled Levertov at home, and books were everywhere. The poetry of Keats, Wordsworth, George Herbert, Rilke, and William Carlos Williams would all prove important in her artistic formation.

 

BY EARLY adolescence, Levertov had put organised religion to one side as too restrictive. It lacked the power of imagination, which, she believed, was central to unlocking the meaning of the natural world and the great mystery that underpinned its turning. For a short time, during the Second World War, she worked as a nurse in London, tending the wounded and dying. The ending of hostilities in 1945 coincided with the publication of her first slim collection of poems.

Increasingly restless, however, and not terribly happy in a succession of fairly menial jobs in a dreary, post-war England, Levertov sought new adventures. Europe beckoned: odd-jobbing here and there in Holland and Paris; escapades sleeping in fields and haylofts; and an unwanted pregnancy that led to an abortion.

In 1948, after meeting and then marrying a young American writer, Mitchell Goodman, Levertov began a new life in New York. The literary scene was not to her liking in its self-importance and “avant-garde” pretensions. In the decade and more that followed, however, she found ample opportunities for poetry readings, teaching, and conferences on college campuses. More importantly, her poetic voice was attracting wider public recognition, even as she adjusted to the obligations of parenthood, after the birth of a son, Nikolai Gregor.

Levertov’s poems came naturally, tumbling from her pen, conveying her joy and sense of urgency as she “walked naked from the beginning, breathing in my life, breathing out poems, arrogant in innocence”. Certain themes preoccupied her: the paradoxes and contradictions of a world containing hopes, promises, and fears amid the ever-present shadow of innocent suffering, cruelty, and death.

Privately, she could be baffling, contrary, irksome, and unbending to friends and detractors alike. She was also generous, supportive, funny, and vivacious; conscious of her beauty, yet also afraid of its fading. By way of reassurance and her felt need for the immersive experiences that her marriage lacked, she sought physical intimacy and delight in wider relationships that promised both.

 

BY THE 1970s, the American war in Vietnam and its aftermath had had an anguished and prolonged effect on Levertov’s life and art. News of the conflict dominated her waking hours and disturbed her rest. Horrified by the increasing numbers of deaths and casualties, and the appalling level of attrition which she had witnessed first-hand on a visit to the war zone, her political engagement intensified. She could be found at pickets and protest marches, or speaking at anti-war rallies, urging on students “the necessity of revolution”.

She was arrested and monitored by the FBI. Critics called her naïve, and dismissed her many protest poems as facile, but Levertov railed against the easy acquiescence of contemporaries in the face of the morally indefensible: “O tolerance, what crimes have been committed in thy name.”

Turning 60, Levertov found herself acknowledging a quiet but insistent move away from her lifelong agnosticism towards a deeper reckoning with Christianity. There was no moment of conversion; instead, a growing acceptance on her part that religion — predicated on trust, and receptive to her questioning — was now integral to her “faithful attention” to living out her chosen path.

Several collections of her poems reflected this transition. Candles in Babylon (1982), Oblique Prayers (1984), and Breathing the Water (1987) preceded her reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1990. “Annunciation”, with its genuflection to Mary — “Bravest of all humans, consent illumined her” — remains a fine example of the lyricism of Levertov’s later work.

Pilgrimages to Taizé and Iona, and the newly found influence of the writings of Julian of Norwich, all contributed to Levertov’s renewed desire to be a better person: a more endearing, forgiving, and empathetic self. Her diary remained as full as ever, but she now felt a compulsion to speak of the inner spiritual life; her desire for, and gratitude towards, God; and a heightened appreciation of those whom she had loved but not always respected.

 

LEVERTOV remained a pilgrim to the end, still in conversation with beliefs and traditions that spoke to her truth-seeking heart. Her funeral was held on 26 December on a cold, grey day in Seattle. About 100 people gathered for the requiem mass, including Jews, Buddhists, artists and poets, and unbelievers. There were readings from Psalm 121, the prophet Isaiah, and St Matthew’s Gospel.

Her laying to rest just a matter of hours after the feast of the Nativity seemed entirely, if only fortuitously, in keeping with her poetic vision. The incarnation had become, for Levertov, the cornerstone of Christian belief. It disclosed the transcendent, abiding mercy of God in the very fabric of an ambiguous world, sustained “hour by hour, by a Lord Creator, Hallowed One”.

 

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer and theologian.

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