For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked
– William Butler Yeats, “A Coat”
from A Cloak
by Denise Levertov
And I walked naked
from the beginning
arrogant in innocence . . . . .
Denise Levertov (1923–1997) was born in Ilford, nine miles northeast of London’s Charing Cross. Her mother was Welsh, with a mystic in her ancestry, but her father was a Russian Hassidic Jew who converted to Christianity. He emigrated to the UK, where he became an Anglican pastor, but he was also a scholar — a prolific writer in Hebrew, Russian, German, and English.
“My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervour and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells.”
Her parents home-schooled her. She showed an enthusiasm for writing from an early age.
At 12, she sent some of her poems to T.S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. She was 17 when her first poem was published.
Her first book of poetry, The Double Image, was published when she was 23 years old.
Casselden Road, N.W. 10
The wind would fan the life-green fires that smouldered
under the lamps, and from the glistening road
draw out deep shades of rain, and we would hear
the beat of rain on darkened panes, the sound
of night and no one stirring but ourselves,
leaning still from the window. No one else
will remember this. No one else will remember.
Shadows of leaves like riders hurried by
upon the wall within. The street would fill
with phantasy, the night become
a river or an ocean where the tree
and silent lamp were sailing; the wind would fail
and way towards the light. And no one else
will remember this. No one else will remember.
When The Double Image appeared in 1946, she was hailed by Kenneth Rexroth as “the baby of the new Romanticism. Her poetry had about it a wistful Schwarmerei [zeal] unlike anything in English except perhaps Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. It could be compared to the earliest poems of Rilke or some of the more melancholy songs of Brahms.”
But only three years later, she had met and married an American, moved to New York, and given birth to a son. In 1955, she became a naturalized American citizen.
She became acquainted with the “Black Mountain” poets, named for Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where an experimental interdisciplinary arts curriculum would inspire many artists. William Carlos Williams, a frequent Black Mountain guest lecturer, became a friend and early guide to the rhythms and vocabulary of the language of this brave new world. But Levertov never stayed tidily inside any group’s boundaries for long. She found her own American voice, and the melancholy zeal of the baby Romantic was left behind.
In 1960, she wrote this about memories from her birthplace, and learning the American vernacular:
A Map of the Western Part of
The County of Essex in England
Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.
Levertov was passionately involved in the turbulent anti-war and civil rights protests of the 1960s and 1970s, and much of her work concerned injustice, suffering and war.
At the Justice Department November 15, 1969
Brown gas-fog, white
beneath the street lamps.
Cut off on three sides, all space filled
with our bodies.
Bodies that stumble
in brown airlessness, whitened
in light, a mildew glare,
hand in hand, blinded, retching.
Wanting it, wanting
to be here, the body believing it’s
dying in its nausea, my head
clear in its despair, a kind of joy,
knowing this is by no means death,
is trivial, an incident, a
fragile instant. Wanting it, wanting
with all my hunger this anguish,
this knowing in the body
the grim odds we’re
up against, wanting it real.
Up that bank where gas
curled in the ivy, dragging each other
up, strangers, brothers
and sisters. Nothing
will do but
to taste the bitter
taste. No life
other, apart from.
Though she had always written some poems expressing her deeply spiritual side, in the 1980s, she began to write more and more poetry which reflected her explorations of the mystical and the religious, which would culminate in her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1990.
This poem is part of a cycle she wrote around 1987 called The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich.
All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I’d wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I’d see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me—light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
Caedmon (657 or 658–680 AD) is the earliest English poet whose name is known. Legend has it that he was an illiterate herdsman who one night retired from company in shame because he couldn’t sing like the rest. Then in a dream, a stranger appeared commanding him to sing of “the beginning of things,” and the herdsman found himself uttering “verses which he had never heard.” The hymn — extant in 17 manuscripts, some in the poet’s Northumbrian dialect, some in other Old English dialects—set the pattern for almost the whole art of Anglo-Saxon verse.
In 1994, Denise Levertov was diagnosed with lymphoma, and suffered pneumonia and acute laryngitis. Despite this she continued to lecture and participate at national conferences, many on spirituality and poetry.
In December 1997, Denise Levertov died at age 74. She left behind a looseleaf notebook with 40 poems, clues to her final beginning. This was the last page:
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.
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
- Wikipedia — en.wikipedia.org/…
- Academy of American Poets — www.poets.org/…
- Biography.com — www.biography.com/…
- The Poetry Foundation — www.poetryfoundation.org/…
- “A Cloak” from Relearning the Alphabet, © 1970 by Denise Levertov – New Directions Publishing
- “Casselden Road, N.W. 10” from The Double Image © 1946 by Denise Levertov –Cresset Press
- “A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” from Poems 1960-1967, © 1960 by Denise Levertov – New Directions Publishing
- “At the Justice Department November 15, 1969” from Poems 1968-1972, © 1969 by Denise Levertov – New Directions Publishing
- “Caedmon” from Breathing the Water, © 1987 by Denise Levertov – New Directions Publishing
- Caedmon story — http://www.britannica.com/biography/Caedmon
- “Aware”from The Great Unknowing: Last Poems ©1999 by the Denise Levertov Property Trust – New Directions Publishing
- O Taste and See: New Poems, (New Directions Press) 1964
- The Sorrow Dance, (New Directions Press), 1967
- Oblique Prayers: New Poems, (New Directions Press), 1984
- A Door in the Hive, (New Directions Press), 1989
- Poems: 1972-1982, (New Directions Press), 2001
- The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, (New Directions Press), 2013
- Denise Levertov as a young woman
- Candlelit window on a rainy night
- Old map of Ilford
- Teargas at the U.S. Justice Department, November 1969
- Portrait of Denise Levertov © 1983 David Geier, The National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian Institution)
- Grange Barn – Nationaltrust UK
- Caedmon with a harp
- Blue door in a walled garden
- Denise Levertov as an older woman
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud