A Poet’s Revolution provides an enlightening, thorough, and moving account of the life and work of British/American poet Denise Levertov (1923–1997). Levertov wrote and published twenty books. The primary frameworks of her poetry are love, family, nature, and religion; within those frames, politics and war provide central themes of much of her best work, as does a strong ethical impulse.
Levertov was born and grew up in England. Her mother, Beatrice Adelaide Spooner-Jones, was from a small mining village in Wales. She later became a teacher and artist who home-schooled her three children. Her father, Paul Levertoff*, came originally from Leipzig, where he was a teacher and religious scholar who pioneered ecumenical work on the historical/theological relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
Hollenberg does a good job of reviewing Denise Levertov’s complex and multifaceted family background, tracing closely early influences that shaped not only her poetry but also her lifelong political radicalism. As an Hasidic Jew, Paul Levertoff had been held under house arrest as an “enemy alien” in Leipzig during World War I. Instructed since his childhood in the Torah and the Talmud, he enrolled at the University of Konigsburg to pursue rabbinical studies but converted to Christianity through the influence of a friend whose father was a Lutheran minister.
Denise Levertov’s family life was infused by both religious ideas and political radicalism. The cultural/political atmosphere in the Levertoff home, as described by Hollensberg, was permeated by what would today be called liberation theology, a set of ideas that had great impact on Levertov’s life, reflected later in her activism against the war in Vietnam and around the revolutions in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile in the 1960s and 1970s. Influenced by her older sister Olga she joined the Communist Party in the 1930s.
As an adult, Levertov described having sold The Daily Worker door to door when she was only eleven years old in the working-class streets of Ilford, Sussex, her family neighborhood; she recalled having wanted to join the party and being told she was too young. Before and during World War II, the Levertoff family worked actively against fascism and in rescue efforts to shelter refugees from the Nazis. Many years later, Levertov summed up family influences on her political life in this way:
Humanitarian politics came early into my life, seeing my father on a soapbox protesting Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia [Ethiopa]; my father and sister both on soapboxes protesting Britain’s lack of support for Spain; my mother canvassing long before those events for the League of Nations Union; and all three of them working on behalf of German and Austrian refugees from 1933 onward.
Levertov’s practice as a writer also began very early. According to Hollenberg, “Denise began to speak poems as a toddler.” She was an early reader and, with her mother and sister, made regular use of their neighborhood public library. Throughout early reading and writing instruction by her mother, she also had music and ballet lessons, and frequent exposure to the graphic arts through visits to museums and galleries. In 1940, when she was seventeen, she published her first poem, “Listening to Distant Guns.” During World War II, she worked as a civilian nurse; in 1946 published her first book of poetry, The Double Image; and in 1947 married American writer Mitchell Goodman, with whom she moved to America in 1948. In 1955 Levertov became a naturalized American citizen.
From this point on, in addition to raising their son Nicolai, writing, publishing, and teaching poetry became the central focus of Levertov’s life. Her political activism during the 1960s and 1970s was reflected profoundly in the poetry she wrote through this period—much of the best of it focused on the US war in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the massive movement protesting it. She worked actively in support of resistance to the draft, as did her husband. He was indicted in 1968 by a federal grand jury and charged with conspiracy to aid draft resistance, and before and after his indictment, Levertov was denounced in headlines around the country for supporting draft resistance.
For Levertov, beliefs and actions were closely related, and writing poetry was itself an intensely political act. She wrote in the late 1960s, for example, “If I speak of revolution it is because I believe that only revolution can now save that earthly life, that miracle of being, which poetry conserves and celebrates.” Accordingly, her poetry in the coming decades reflects her political action against war, imperialism, racism, and environmental destruction. In prefacing To Stay Alive in 1971, she wrote of having learned in the antiwar movement that opposing the war, “whose foul air we have breathed so long that by now we are almost choked forever by it, cannot be separated from opposition to the whole system of insane greed, of racism and imperialism, of which war is only the inevitable expression.” She wrote further with the same understanding, “A poetry articulating the dreams and terrors of our time . . . should be accompanied by a willingness on the part of those who write it to take additional action toward stopping the great miseries which they record.”
The 1970 poem, “Prologue: The Interim,” attempts to bridge the chasm between language and the terrible violence of war:
O language, virtue
of man, touchstone
worn down by what
gross friction . . .
“It became necessary
to destroy the town to save it,”
a United States senator said today
. . . . about the decision
by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town
regardless of civilian casualties
to rout the Vietcong.
The poem “What Were They Like?” despairs at answering this question about the people of Vietnam after “bombs smashed those mirrors/there was time only to scream.” But, the poem continues,
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
The light of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.
Another poem addresses the1973 Pinochet coup in Chile that overthrew the Allende government and uprooted a revolutionary movement of the working class and the poor. In it, indirect reference is made to Victor Jara, the singer-songwriter whose hands were broken before being murdered, along with many others, in the Santiago stadium by Pinochet’s soldiers:
When will the cheerful hammers sound again?
When will the wretched begin to dance again?
When will guitars again
give forth at the resurrected touch
of broken fingers
a song of revolution reborn?
Throughout the rest of her life, when religion played an increasing part in her work, Levertov’s poetry still reflects clearly her political radicalism. Of her many books, two easily accessible collections contain much of her best political work: Poems 1968− 1972 and Poems 1972−1982. Her collected works are scheduled for publication in October 2013.
In addition to her own writing and publishing, Levertov taught poetry writing at several universities. Once her work had been recognized by the poetry-reading community and in the antiwar and women’s movements, she gave many public readings of her work around the United States and elsewhere.
Near the end of her life, when she was offered the position of poet laureate by Dr. Prosser Gifford at the Library of Congress, she explained that she was the wrong person for that demanding position. Hollenberg supposes that the refusal was “doubtless considering her health.” In 1997, Levertov died at age seventy-four from complications of lymphoma, in Seattle, Washington, where she had been living for some years and where she wrote some of her best poems about threats to the natural environment.
* Denise changed the spelling of her last name to avoid any confusion with her sister Olga Levertoff, who was also a published poet.