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Denise Levertov: Poet

Updated on November 30, 2014

A Poet of Many Dimensions . . .

Levertov is one of my favorite poets and I'm happy to share her life and work with you.

Denise Levertov's poetry explores several dimensions of the human experience: nature, love and motherhood, war and the nuclear arms race, poetry, the role of the poet and mysticism. She has been outspoken on women's rights, peace and justice issues, race, and human rights in general.


by Denise Levertov

When I found the door

I found the vine leaves

speaking among themselves in abundant


My presence made them

hush their green breath,

embarrassed, the way

humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,

acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if

the conversation

had ended

just before you arrived.

I liked

the glimpse I had, though,

of their obscure

gestures. I liked the sound

of such private voices. Next time

I'll move like cautious sunlight, open

the door by fractions, eavesdrop


Levertov's verse "is frequently a tour through the familiar and the mundane until their unfamiliarity and otherworldliness suddenly strike us. . . . The quotidian reality we ignore or try to escape, . . . Levertov revels in, carves and hammers into lyric poems of precise beauty."

Ralph J Mills, Jr

Bio Bits

Early Years

Denise Levertov's mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, was Welsh. Her father, Paul Levertoff, immigrated to England from Germany. He was a Russian Hassidic Safardic Jew who became an Anglican priest. Levertov was educated at home, showing an interest in writing at an early age. Later in her life, Levertov said she was five years old when she announced she would be a writer.

In 1940, at age 17, Levertov published her first poem.

During WWII, Levertov served as a civilian nurse in London. In 1947 she married Mitchell Goodman, an American writer, moving with him to the United States in 1948. Levertov and Goodman had a son, Nikolai. Later the couple divorced. Levertov lived mainly in New York City but spent time during

the summer months in Maine. She became a naturalized

American citizen in 1955.

When she was 12, Levertov sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot. She received a two-page encouraging reply from Mr. Eliot.

Levertov Reads 6 Poems

"attention to physical details [permitted her] to develop a considerable range of poetic subject, for, like Williams, she [was] often inspired by the humble, the commonplace, or the small, and she [composed] remarkably perceptive poems about a single flower, a man walking two dogs in the rain, and even sunlight glittering on rubbish in a street."

Julian Gitzen


by Denise Levertov

The fire in leaf and grass

so green it seems

each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves

shivering in the sun,

each day the last day.

A red salamander

so cold and so

easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet

and long tail. I hold

my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature
The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature

Gathered here in one handy volume are 62 poems about nature and the ecology. But, as the author notes in her preface, these are not all praise-poems"celebration and fear of loss are necessarily conjoined." This compact gift-book will have special appeal to those who love Mother Earth. (amazon)


Bio Bit

Middle Years

Levertov's first two books focused on traditional forms and language. As she acclimated to the U.S. as her new home, she became more and more interested with American idioms. The Black Mountain poets and William Carlos Williams were and influence on her work. Her first U.S. book of poetry called Here and Now, showcases the start of Levertov's transformation.

Her poem "With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads" established her reputation.

In the 1960s and 70s, Levertov became more active politically in both life and work. She support and published the work of feminist and leftist activist poets while poetry editor for The Nation. Another focus of Levertov's poetry was The Vietnam War. Many of her poems reflected this by juxtaposing the personal and political. Levertov joined the War Resister's League.

One focus of her poetry: The Vietnam War

One focus of her poetry: The Vietnam War
One focus of her poetry: The Vietnam War

What Were They Like - by Denise Levertov

It is hard to be an artist in this time because it is hard to be human.

~ Denise Levertov ~

The Well - by Denise Levertov

At sixteen I believed the moonlight

could change me if it would.

I moved my head

on the pillow, even moved my bed

as the moon slowly

crossed the open lattice.

I wanted beauty, a dangerous

gleam of steel, my body thinner,

my pale face paler.

I moonbathed

diligently, as others sunbathe.

But the moon's unsmiling stare

kept me awake. Mornings,

I was flushed and cross.

It was on dark nights of deep sleep

that I dreamed the most, sunk in the well,

and woke rested, and if not beautiful,

filled with some other power.

Bio Bit

Later Years

Levertov's later years revolved around education. She taught at Brandeis University, MIT and Tufts University. She also had a part-time teaching position for 11 years at the University of Washington (1982-1993) and held a full professorship at Stanford. Bates College awarded Levertove a Litt. D. in 1984. After retirement she traveled in the U.S. and England giving poetry readings.

At the age of 74, in 1997, Denise Levertov died from complications related to lymphoma. She was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington.

Sands of the Well
Sands of the Well

In her 21st collection, septuagenarian Levertov (Evening Train; Oblique Prayers) continues to find God in the natural world and in "human passions, cruelties, dreams, concepts, crimes, and the exercise of virtue." Nature, however, is what puts all of the latter in perspective and allows us to realize the divine. (publisher's weekly)


Once Only

by Denise Levertov

All which, because it was

flame and song and granted us

joy, we thought we'd do, be, revisit,

turns out to have been what it was

that once, only; every initiation

did not begin

a series, a build-up the marvelous

did happen in our lives, our stories

are not drab with its absence: but don't

expect now to return for more. Whatever more

there will be will be

unique as those were unique. Try

to acknowledge the next

song in its body-halo of flames as utterly

present, as now or never.

Levertov wrote and published 20 books of poetry, criticism, translations. She also edited several anthologies. Among her many awards and honors, she received the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Poetry Book List

Denise Levertov

The Double Image (1946)

Here and Now (1956)

Overland to the Islands (1958)

With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959)

The Jacob's Ladder (1961)

O Taste and See: New Poems (1964)

The Sorrow Dance (1967)

Relearning the Alphabet (1970)

To Stay Alive (1971)

Footprints (1972)

The Freeing of the Dust (1975)

Life in the Forest (1978)

Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960 (1979)

Candles in Babylon (1982)

Poems 1960-1967 (1983)

Oblique Prayers: New Poems (1984)

Poems 1968-1972 (1987)

Breathing the Water (1987)

A Door in the Hive (1989)

Evening Train (1992)

The Sands of the Well (1996)

The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature (1997)

The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (1997)

Losing Track

by Denise Levertov

Long after you have swung back

away from me

I think you are still with me:

you come in close to the shore

on the tide

and nudge me awake the way

a boat adrift nudges the pier:

am I a pier

half-in half-out of the water?

and in the pleasure of that communion

I lose track,

the moon I watch goes down, the

tide swings you away before

I know I'm

alone again long since,

mud sucking at gray and black

timbers of me,

a light growth of green dreams drying.

This Great Unknowing: Last Poems
This Great Unknowing: Last Poems

Levertov died in 1997. She did not entirely organize her book, but she must certainly have been aware, being so ill that the poems she was writing would be among her "last". The book's title, taken from the poem quoted above, was certainly a felicitous choice. Throughout the book there is a sense of endings, as well as a faith that such endings lead only to other belongings. (washington post)


Do you resonate with Levertov's poetry?

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Ahhhh ahah hahahhaha very good very good