A Complicated Life

Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life

By Dana Greene

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012, 360 pp., $35.00, hardcover

A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov

By Donna Krolik Hollenberg

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, 510 pp., $44.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Kate Daniels

When Denise Levertov died in Seattle in 1997 at the age of 74, she left behind a body of work that was as astonishing for its size as for its lyric erudition and formal originality.  In more than 25 volumes of poetry, prose, translations, and a bit of personal memoir, Levertov documented not only her own development as a major poet of the twentieth century but also provided illuminating interpretative commentary on the practice of poetry and some of the innovative developments in poetics undertaken by her very ambitious generation of English-language poets: those who immediately followed the intimidating examples of the modernists.  Levertov herself, however, did not seem particularly susceptible to what later came to be called the anxiety of influence.  She announced herself a poet at age five, mailed her early poems for critique to T. S. Eliot at age twelve (he responded), published her first poem at seventeen, and brought out her charter collection of poetry when she was barely 23.  Her publishing career lasted almost as long as she lived, continuing up into the final days of her life. 

These two scrupulously researched biographies—Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, by Dana Greene, and A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, by Donna Krolik Hollenberg—the first to appear since the poet’s death, both certify Levertov’s brilliant originality as a poet.  They share, as well, a similar understanding of her vocational approach to her art, her sense of having been called to the work of poetry.  Each records real conflict between the life lived and the art created, but reveals Levertov’s insistence (often at the expense of personal happiness) that art should always prevail.  Where the biographers depart from each other is in what each chooses to emphasize: Greene, a historian with an interest in Catholicism, focuses on Levertov’s spiritual identity and how her early, aesthetically infused sense of wonder in the natural world developed, over a long and sometimes complex lifetime, into a spiritually inflected left-wing politics and finally into baptism in the Catholic Church and an identity as a poet of specifically Christian faith. Greene has written a slimmer, faster-moving narrative that makes a convincing argument for the inevitability of this conclusion. 

Hollenberg, a literary critic who has worked on twentieth-century women’s poetry (particularly that of HD), has written a longer and more meandering book.  While she shares Greene’s understanding of Levertov’s vocational calling and her invocation of the sacred in her poetry, she foregrounds the politics and adopts a more secular approach to the life.  Her clear interest is in Levertov’s creative development over time, and she is very good on the accretive process of that development. Her book is rich with wide-ranging literary and artistic references that help make sense of Levertov’s culturally rarified, political aesthetic. 

Neither biographer takes a very analytical look at the role of gender in the poet’s life; neither is particularly psychologically minded; and both acquiesce too often to Levertov’s unreliable self-interpretations (taken from her journals) of some of the most troublesome aspects of her life as a woman of achievement in the twentieth century.  Both inadequately address the poet’s myopia about her male-inscribed consciousness, her difficulties with other women, and her homophobia.  Nevertheless, these are absorbing biographies that are worth reading. They offer new ways of thinking about an important poet of the twentieth century and her marvelous work. 

For writers and readers of my (baby-boomer) generation, Denise Levertov was a fixture of contemporary poetry, there when we first discovered it in our teens and twenties.  She was with us during the the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and she stayed as we partnered up, gave birth, made careers, and raised families.  She was still there in the 1990s, as we began to enter old age.  Many of my generation cherished some of Levertov’s most unforgettable lines (here, incorporating John Keats): 

We are faithful

only to the imagination. What the

imagination

seizes

. What holds you

to what you see of me is

that grasp alone. 

(“Everything That Acts Is Actual”)

Or this, my favorite:

And if at Mill Valley perched in the trees

the sweet rain drifting through western air

a white sweating bull of a poet told us

our cunts are ugly—why didn’t we

admit we have thought so too? (And

what shame? They are not for the eye!)

No, they are dark and wrinkled and hairy,

caves of the Moon ...

(“Hypocrite Women”)

But she could be difficult for women of my generation to embrace as a role model because of her antifeminism and her insistence that gender had nothing to do with her own accomplishment—and shouldn’t have anything to do with anyone else’s either. “I don’t believe I have ever made an aesthetic decision based on my gender,” she said, according to Greene, on a panel on gender and genre at the Modern Language Association conference in 1982, when she was 59 years old. This deeply held belief about herself probably explains why she fashioned a literary career that mostly steered clear of the most compelling social movement for women writers of her time, feminism.  Believing that the antiwar movement of the 1960s had greater claim, she focused almost exclusively on the politics of war (and later on nuclear disarmament and environmental issues).  Her insistence that feminism had nothing to do with poetry sidelined her during the 1960s and 1970s, when identity politics were first articulated.  Absent from these conversations by choice, she became less visible than poets more or less contemporaneous with her—including Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Audre Lorde, and Alicia Ostriker—whose feminist politics encompassed a larger field of vision, and in which war, civil rights, race, gender, and sexual orientation were all considered not only interrelated, but also instrumental to the overall struggle.

Even more than most poets, Levertov was a lone wolf, Rilkean type, who eschewed the herd—especially when the herd was predominantly female.  Her lifelong predilection was for male mentors, and for the most part, she disdained her era’s sisterhood, deeming “women’s poetry” an “invalid” literary category. “While she accepted ‘the new Black poets’ as a legitimate classification because ‘most of them are, by avowed intention … concerned with Black culture and struggle as subject,’” writes Hollenberg, “she rejected feminist or women’s poetry because of its concern ‘with the nature or the oppression of women as subject.’”  

As both Green and Hollenberg repeatedly document, Levertov’s insistence on what she believed to be a nongendered, universal principle underlying the creation of all art probably prevented her from accessing a source of personal support for problems she faced, as a woman of her time, in her marriage, motherhood, and sexual life.  Adrienne Rich’s struggles with the oppressiveness of postwar expectations for young wives and mothers ultimately led her to develop a political poetics that radically changed the course for women writers who followed her. In contrast, Levertov, struggling with similar social expectations, and also chafing within the stultifying environment of the 1950s, took a decidedly self-flagellating attitude. In psychotherapy for her sexual difficulties, marital unhappiness, and uncontrollable anger, she sought a solution for her malaise in Jungian theory.  Despite her strong sense that her muse was an inner goddess, indisputably female, she ended up kowtowing to theory and chastising herself for resisting Jung’s insistence that her muse was an animus (a male figure).  “How is it,” she wrote in her journal, “that I always tend…to forget that I have not an anima, but an animus, and that such female figures [as the Goddess Muse in her poem “The Well”] must be something else.” 

One of the saddest things both of these biographies reveal is Levertov’s lesbian-specific homophobia.  Although she had no apparent bias toward gay men, she harbored negative feelings about gay women and, according to Greene, during the 1960s nurtured a paranoid concern that “radical lesbians” were “taking over” the women’s movement during the 1960s.  As late as the 1970s, when she was in her fifties, Levertov believed that “homosexual experience was a phase of adolescence from which some people were never extricated,” writes Greene, and when she discovered that a woman she had asked to be her literary executor was gay, she rescinded the invitation.

All this confirms my own experience. When I interviewed Levertov in the late 1980s for a biographical work on Muriel Rukeyser (with whom she was friends for two decades), she became visibly distressed when I made a passing reference to Rukeyser’s longtime, live-in relationship with Monica McCall (whom Levertov also knew).  Levertov left the room for a while, and when she returned, said, “I never realized that Muriel was a homosexual.” As a participant in Rukeyser’s life (to say nothing of the evidence in Rukeyser’s poetry), how Levertov missed this is as intriguing as it is astounding.  I don’t know how to explain such a psychological block—yet in relation to a woman writer of Levertov’s brilliance, I believe it’s important to seek its source, since what I can only regard as a wound must have impinged upon other aspects of her life, both personal and professional.  Unfortunately, neither biographer succeeds in unraveling this.

If Levertov was not a feminist poet, neither was she was a completely American poet. Born and raised in London, she was the daughter of charismatic parents. Her father was a Russian Hasidic Jew who converted to Christianity and became a central figure, as an Anglican priest and scholar, in the Hebrew-Christian messianic movement of the early twentieth century; her mother, a spirited Welsh woman of great imaginative gifts:  a painter, singer, pianist, and naturalist.  Both shared a sense of the distinctiveness of their familial lineage, descended on one side from the founder of the Habad branch of Hasidism, and on the other from a visionary preacher and tailor who stitched his meditations into the garments he created.  These “illustrious ancestors” (the title of one of Levertov’s more well-known poems) added to the sense of the “peculiar destiny” that she and her family of origin shared, writes Greene. Together, Levertov’s parents created a unique home environment, designed to immerse their offspring into the humanities, languages, and the arts.  Their progressive ideas about education produced two extraordinary daughters who could only be described as prodigies—young women with an irrepressible confidence in their abilities that was highly atypical of their post-Edwardian generation.

While her peers were sent to school, tea parties, and comportment lessons, Levertov was homeschooled until age thirteen, then turned loose on the city of London to range at will, raiding the cultural endowments of the city as the spirit moved her.  Her political consciousness and her spiritual response to the natural world developed early and simultaneously, fed by her father’s learning, his powerful and proselytizing personality, and his prodigious library, as well as by her mother’s own intense relationship to the natural world and her devotion to nurturing her younger daughter’s interest in the arts. 

In a family that was three-quarters female, the powerful, priestly figure of the father dominated the household and the poet’s developing consciousness.  Psychotherapy in the 1960s unearthed a new understanding of her father—“very vain and often insensitive to the needs of people close to him, and … quite tyrannical” (a description that some who knew her would apply to the poet as well)—but Levertov, writes Hollenberg, was unwilling to follow her therapist’s advice to “shake off the influence of her father in her work in order to achieve something truly original.’”  She seemed unaware of her privilege as the rare female among the males and disinclined to ruminate upon the access she received by consorting with a phalanx of male poets—which might not have been forthcoming had she been one of her generation’s woman-identified writers and practiced their brand of literary feminism.

From an early age, she understood herself as a woman who craved (Levertov’s word) the adoration of men. Seeking it, she almost always eschewed female mentorship in favor of male mentors, some of whom (I was disconcerted to learn) she addressed as “Master.” She never recognized what others saw: in a nearly all-male poetry world, Denise Levertov was a minority who adamantly refused to acknowledge herself as such.  Greene quotes her, from 1990:

Since I started writing when I was five, this constant consciousness of “I am a woman, I am a woman speaking as me” has never been part of my consciousness: it just isn’t part of it.  I am a human being.  And I am me… I’m not a woman poet; I’m not a man poet.  I’m a poet, and that has always been my consciousness.

Ironically, the escape from gender that she insisted upon, did not, in fact, provide an escape.  As Greene points out, “as a woman poet she continued to be haunted by traditional female concerns—her failures as mother, as daughter, as lover.” Both books suggest that she remained haunted by those concerns in her personal life, as well.

As women, surely we read the biographies of other women not merely as entertainment, but as object lessons.  Green and Hollenberg have performed a great service in gathering the information and details of Levertov’s life and work. But although their respective understandings of Levertov’s literary contributions are illuminating, their interpretations of her life are less so.  More often than not, they step right to the edge of insight into the peculiarities not only of the poet’s consciousness but of women’s lives in general, only to draw back.  Thus, while each book has tremendous archival value, each also lacks an overall interpretative context that would provide a starting point for comprehending the poet’s insistent, lifelong antifeminist attitudes and beliefs about herself. 

Levertov clung to an outdated mindset that caused her to remain impervious to the twentieth century’s evolving ideas about the self and the extent to which personal identity is constructed by cultural events and beliefs.  Instead, she seems to have believed that personhood was created solely within the individual, unaffected by the larger social world within which we all live. Ironically, though, it was just this social world that was most important to her.  I recall an interview with her that I came across shortly after I had begun reading about the lives of contemporary women poets, scouring them for hints about how to fashion my own life as a female writer.  Asked in an interview in the New York Quarterly (Summer 1971) about the “poems of protest against injustice” that she had written during the 1960s, she replied:

I think the poetry of protest, indignation, anger and so forth, that has been written by many, many poets has helped to reawaken many people to the situation [of the antiwar movement and its connection with]… racism, imperialism, capitalism, male supremacy.  There are increasing numbers of people who understand, or are beginning to understand, the connections between all these things.  And the poets have played some part in this consciousness-raising. 

Even after reading two biographies of Denise Levertov, I cannot fathom how a poet of such brilliance could have failed to close the gap between her politics and her personal identity, to “understand the connections” between the gender she was assigned at birth and the (often unhappy) way that things worked out for her as a woman.  I eagerly await the next biographer, who will need to take on the task of explaining with greater psychological acuity the mind and the art of one of our most brilliantly original woman poets.

Kate Daniels is the director of creative writing at Vanderbilt University.  She is a 2013 – 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, and her most recent book of poetry is A Walk in Victoria’s Secret (2010).