Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life by Dana Greene

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All biography is mystery. Each subject is so complex, each era in which a subject lives so influential in many ways, that it is impossible to fully and neatly explore the life of one person in a book. Each era also affects readers and biographers with new information available. This helps explain why there are multiple volumes about influential people in literature and history and why biographies can compliment each other.

Denise Levertov, a Poet’s Life, is Dana Greene’s excellent attempt to shed light on the mystery of a hugely gifted, complicated poet who was almost always actively engaged with political, social, religious and literary issues of the day, and with the past that shaped the lives of her Welsh and Jewish forebears. As far as I know, it is the first full-length biography of a writer whose books and way of living in her own interior, in the world at large and in the world of letters continues to shape those worlds. An essential part of the mystery is how Levertov never stopped struggling to honor her art, to do right by herself and the people she knew, and to be a citizen making positive change.

Denise Levertov had a hard life, as Greene delineates. Her father, a descendant of prominent Hasidic Jews, eventually became an Episcopal priest while not abandoning his Jewish roots. A Hasid in that line trumpeted the conviction that God was found in all things. Centuries before him, this principle was central to the thinking of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Levertov was keenly aware of the connection when, late in life, she was received into the Catholic Church and became part of a Jesuit parish.

Levertov’s mother was also deeply religious and neither parent was happy with English schooling. So their gifted daughters were educated at home in an atmosphere that was both suffocating and exhilarating, and sometimes produced a kind of spiritual and creative vertigo. The vertigo was especially damaging to Levertov’s older sister Olga, who had vivid emotional difficulties and pushed young Denise to study dance. Olga had a domineering will which Levertov fought to escape and wrote about with searing exactitude. Though “the joy of leaping” as she said in a poem, never left her, she knew by her late teens that she was a poet.

England was at war with Germany by then, and she, in the days before nurses needed certificates and degrees, became an army nurse. The suffering she encountered never left her, and the anger at what she lived through fueled her poetry. Some of the anger Greene suggests convincingly, was also unleashed on people she loved and was expected to nurture.

This was a pattern that never left her, and it is part of her tragedy. She met and married Mitchell Goodman, a Harvard graduate, as her reputation as a poet was on the rise. She made him feel “alive,” he said, but there were financial and interpersonal pressures that gave them little room for happiness, even after the birth of their only child, Nikolai. She chafed against the confining roles of wife and mother without financial security, and Nikolai was a constant whirlpool of vexation, frustration and affection until she died. Greene treats the Nikolai-Denise conflicts with a fair-mindedness that infuses every page.

Her marriage was long and unhappy, and she and Goodman continued to be involved in each other’s lives until his death, after their divorce. She gave him money, and was generous and kind to his second wife and the child the much younger woman has with Goodman.

Levertov never stopped writing and stretching and examining what it means to create, to live, to contribute to civic concerns. We see this in her poems and in the graceful way Greene connects their making to Levertov’s demons, obligations and joys. Writing about her pious mother, and judiciously quoted by Greene, Levertov in the voice of a daughter says :

What she wants
she knows she can’t have : one minute
of communism, here in limbo.
All the years of it,
talk, laughter, letters. Yet something
went unsaid. And there’s no place
to put whatever it was, now,
no more chance.

Part of what makes this biography so satisfying is the assured way Green integrates not just the poems, but the way of the poems into the story, noting, for example that as a teacher at major universities, Levertov expected her students to be able to justify each punctuation mark and line break. Her students often learned much more than they expected, and her teaching rightly intensifies appreciation for every poem in the book and for everything she published. She was as meticulous and demanding of herself, which naturally made her not always easy to spend time with.

She could be unfair and inconsistent, and while teaching at Stanford, Greene notes, “in 1985 she unsuccessfully opposed the hiring on Marjorie Perloff based on disagreements over poetic principle. Perloff supported the so-called Language poets, and Levertov did not.” It was at this time that she was becoming more engaged with Christian thought, thought her behavior in this with Perloff and others was hardly Christian.

Levertov and Robert Duncan had a long, mutually satisfying correspondence. Until they didn’t. Greene handles this with expansive empathy for both writers, even when the seriousness of their disagreements took place publicly, with mutually hurtful pettiness. Levertov got to know Adrienne Rich and then drifted away, in part out of discomfort with Rich’s open lesbianism. This can partly be explained by the discomfort many leading feminists had with homosexuality in the sixties and seventies . It can also partly be explained by Levertov’s insecurities that showed themselves in and out of bed with the lovers she had before, during and after her marriage. Greene explores these overlapping relationships, and scrupulously mentions that years later, when Levertov got back in touch with Rich, she was welcomed warmly. She also shows examples of less difficult, mutually rewarding friendships Levertov maintained with Hayden Carruth, Lucille Clifton, and lesser known members of academia and the Christian community. Yet true to prickly form, Levertov’s impatience and insecurities boiled over into anger when a priest she knew well did not promptly answer a letter about her faith life. Greene’s reporting here is unflinching and persuasive.

Levertov is rightly known for peace activism when the United States was conducting the war in Vietnam. Before and during that time she was also involved in anti-nuclear activities . And she never stopped trying to find a spiritual home. These commitments and yearnings fueled her poetry and her prose manifestos, and affected her music, directly and indirectly, as in another excerpt chosen by Greene, from a piece called YOU :

to offer up
our specks of life as fragile tesserae
toward the vast mosaic

to be ourselves, imbedded in its fabric,
as if, once, it was from that we were broken off.

Here we are given a fragment that beautifully holds together politically and religiously, written after, though not specifically to commemorate, the tenth anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran social justice advocate. Levertov read at the event, held at a nuclear test site in the Nevada desert. She was accompanied by her friend Murray Bodo, a priest who spoke about “St Francis’ understanding of the violence inherent in each person and the need to both acknowledge and embrace that potential and allow it to be redeemed by God.” These are Greene’s words, and they illuminate the brokenness so essential to understanding Christian activism.

The success of a biography of a poet must ultimately rest in the way the subject’s work is stitched into the story. There are many examples in this book, and the last lines once again show fine judgment, in quoting from “Relearning the Alphabet.” Levertov here summed up the journey with typically passionate precision :

Not farewell, not farewell but faring
forth into the grace of transformed

Greene establishes with thorough, compassionate authority the most important facts of the life of Denise Levertov : She was a woman of her time, and a poet for all time.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →