Denise Levertov (b. 1923)
Contributing Editor: Joan F. Hallisey
Classroom Issues and Strategies
With an adequate introduction to her life and works, Denise Levertov is not a difficult author. Levertov can best be made accessible to students when they are familiar with the poet's own prose reflections on poetry, the role of the poet, and "notes" on organic form. You might prepare an introduction to her work by making reference to her quite precise discussion of these themes in The Poet in the World (1973); Light Up the Cave (1982); and New and Selected Essays (1992).
Consider using tapes of Levertov reading her own poetry. The most recent cassette, "The Acolyte" (Watershed), contains a fine sampling from her earlier poetry through Oblique Prayers. Encourage students to listen both to her poetry readings and interviews and to incorporate information from them in class or seminar discussions and presentations or as material for research papers. When students are doing a class presentation, strongly urge them to be certain that their classmates have copies of the poems they will be discussing.
Students respond favorably to Levertov's conviction that the poet writes more than "[she] knows." They also respond positively to the fact that an American woman "engaged" poet has spoken out strongly on women's rights, peace and justice issues, race, and other questions on human rights.
Students may ask you if Levertov is discouraged in the face of so much darkness and disaster evident in the late twentieth century. This presents a good opportunity to have the students examine "Writing in the Dark" and "The May Mornings" (Candles in Babylon, 1982) and her essay "Poetry, Prophecy, Survival" (New and Selected Essays, 1992).
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Levertov's work is concerned with several dimensions of the human experience: love, motherhood, nature, war, the nuclear arms race, mysticism, poetry, and the role of the poet. If you are teaching a women's literature course or an upper-level course focusing on a few writers, several of these themes might be examined. In a survey course, you might concentrate on three themes that include both historical and personal issues: poetry, the role of the poet, and her interest in humanitarian politics.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Levertov in "Some Notes on Organic Form" tells the reader that during the writing of a poem the various elements of the poet's being are in communion with one another and heightened. She believes that ear and eye, intellect and passion, interrelate more subtly than at other times, and she regards the poet's "checking for accuracy," for precision of language that must take place throughout the writing not as a "matter of one element supervising the others but of intuitive interaction between all the elements involved" (The Poet in the World, p. 9).
Like Wordsworth and Emerson, Levertov sees content and form as being in a state of dynamic interaction. She sees rhyme, echo, reiteration as serving not only to knit the elements of an experience "but also as being the means, the sole means, by which the density of texture and the returning or circling of perception can be transmuted into language, apperceived" (Ibid., p. 9).
You might point out that as an artist who is "obstinately precise" about her craft, Levertov pays close attention to etymologies as she searches for the right words, the right image, the right arrangement of the lines on the page. It will be helpful for students to be able to recognize other poetic techniques that Levertov uses in her poetry: enjambment, color, contrast, and even the pun to sustain conflict and ambiguity. Levertov will sometimes make use of the juxtaposition of key words and line breaks.
Levertov does not consider herself a member of any particular school.
Levertov has said, on several occasions, that she never has readers in mind when she is writing a poem. She believes that a poem has to be not merely addressed to a person or a problem out there; but must come from in here, the inner being of the poet, and it must also address something in here.
It is important to share Levertov's ideas with the students when you discuss audience. One might stress the universality of some themes: familial and cultural heritage, poetry, and the role of the poet/prophet in a "time of terror." There is a "timeless" kind of relevance for these themes, and they need not be confined to any one age.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
There is enough evidence to suggest that a fruitful comparison might be made between several of Muriel Rukeyser's finest poems ("Akiba," "Kathe Kollwitz" [ Speed of Darkness, 1968], "Searching/Not Searching" [Breaking Open, 1973]) and some of Levertov's poems on comparable themes.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) What kinds of feelings do you have about the Holocaust? About nuclear war?
(b) What do you think the role of the poet should be today? Do you think she/he should speak out about political or social issues? Why? Why not?
2. (a) Several of Levertov's poems can be used for a writing sample and subsequent discussion at the beginning of the course. Brief poems that students respond strongly to are: "The Broken Sandal" (Relearning the Alphabet), "Variation on a Theme from Rilke" (Breathing the Water), and "The Batterers" and "Eye Mask" (Evening Train, 1992).
(b) One might give a short assignment to compare the themes, tone, and imagery of Levertov's "The Broken Sandal" with Adrienne Rich's "Prospective Immigrants-- Please Note."
(c) Examine several of Levertov's poems on poetry and the role of the poet in light of Emerson's call for the "true" poet in several of his essays, most notably in "The Poet," "Poetry and the Imagination," and "The American Scholar."
Denise Levertov's The Poet in the World (1973); Light Up the Cave (1982); and New and Selected Essays (1992) are essential primary source materials for a deeper understanding of the poems included in the text.
"The Sense of Pilgrimage" essay in The Poet in the World and "Beatrice Levertoff" in Light Up the Cave offer valuable background material for teaching "Illustrious Ancestors."
Levertov has acknowledged the significant influence of Rilke on her poetry and poetics throughout her career, and several of her recent "Variation on a Theme from Rilke" poems will be enriched by Edward Zlotkowski's insightful essay "Levertov and Rilke: A Sense of Aesthetics" in Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1992.
Audrey Rodger's Denise Levertov's Poetry of Engagement will be helpful in discussing Levertov's understanding of the role of the poet and her poetry of engagement.