Denise Levertov (1923-1997). Photo by Elsa Dorfman. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Denise Levertov
Born October 24, 1923
Ilford, United Kingdom
Died December 20, 1997(1997-Template:MONTHNUMBER-20) (aged 74)
Occupation Poet
Nationality American
Period 1946 to 1997
Notable award(s) Shelley Memorial Award

Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923 - December 20, 1997) was a British-born American poet.[2]

Life Edit

Youth and educationEdit

Levertov was born and grew up in Ilford, Essex.[3] Her mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, came from a small mining village in North Wales.[3]

Her father, Paul Levertoff, had been a teacher at Leipzig University and as a Russian Hassidic Jew was held under house arrest during the First World War as an 'enemy alien' by virtue of his ethnicity. He emigrated to the UK and became an Anglican priest. In the mistaken belief that he would want to preach in a Jewish neighborhood, he was housed in Ilford, within reach of a parish in Shoreditch, in East London.[3] She wrote "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".[4]

Levertov, who was educated at home, showed an enthusiasm for writing from an early age and studied ballet, art, Piano and French as well as standard subjects. She wrote about the strangeness she felt growing up part Jewish, German, Welsh and English, but not fully belonging to any of these identities. She notes that it lent her a sense of being special rather than excluded: "[I knew] before I was ten that I was an artist-person and I had a destiny".[3] She noted: "Humanitarian politics came early into my life: seeing my father on a soapbox protesting Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia; my father and sister both on soap-boxes protesting Britain's lack of support for Spain; my mother canvasing long before those events for the League of Nations Union; and all three of them working on behalf of the German and Austrian refugees from 1933 onwards… I used to sell the Daily Worker house-to-house in the working class streets of Ilford Lane".[5]

When she was 5 years old she declared she would be a writer. At the age of 12, she sent some of her poems to T.S. Eliot, who replied with a 2-page letter of encouragement. Levertov published 1st in 1940, when she was 17. During the Second World War, Levertov served in London as a civilian nurse.


Her debut collection, The Double Image, was published in 1946. In 1947, she married American writer Mitchell Goodman and moved with him to the United States the following year.[3] Although Levertov and Goodman would eventually divorce, they had a son, Nikolai, and lived mainly in New York City, summering in Maine. In 1955, Levertov became a naturalized American citizen.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Levertov became much more politically active in her life and work. As poetry editor for The Nation, she was able to support and publish the work of feminist and other leftist activist poets. The Vietnam War was an especially important focus of her poetry, which often tried to weave together the personal and political, as in her poem "The Sorrow Dance," which speaks of her sister's death. Also in response to the Vietnam War, Levertov joined the War Resisters League, and in 1968 signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the war.[6]

Later lifeEdit

Much of the latter part of Levertov’s life was spent in education. After moving to Massachusetts, Levertov taught at Brandeis University, MIT and Tufts University. On the West Coast, she had a part-time teaching stint at the University of Washington and for 11 years (1982–1993) held a full professorship at Stanford University. In 1984 she received a Litt. D. from Bates College. After retiring from teaching, she travelled for a year doing poetry readings in the U.S. and Britain.

In 1997, Denise Levertov died at the age of 74 from complications due to lymphoma. She was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington. Her papers are held at the Washington University in St. Louis.[7]


Levertov's first 2 books had concentrated on traditional forms and language. But as she accepted the U.S. as her new home, she became more and more fascinated with the American idiom. She began to come under the influence of the Black Mountain poets and most importantly William Carlos Williams. Her debut American book of poetry, Here and Now, shows the beginnings of this transition and transformation. Her poem “With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads” established her reputation.

Levertov was published in the Black Mountain Review during the 1950s, but denied any formal connection with the group.

Political poetryEdit

Both politics and war are major themes in Levertov's poetry. She began to develop her own lyrical style of poetry through those influences. She felt it was part of a poet's calling to point out the injustice of the Vietnam War, and she also actively participated in rallies, reading poetry at some. Some of her war poetry was published in her 1971 book To Stay Alive, a collection of anti-Vietnam War letters, newscasts, diary entries, and conversations. Complementary themes in the book involve the tension of the individual vs. the group (or government) and the development of personal voice in mass culture. In her poetry, she promotes community and group change through the imagination of the individual and emphasizes the power of individuals as advocates of change. She also links personal experience to justice and social reform.

Suffering is another major theme in Levertov’s war poetry. The poems “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival”, “Paradox and Equilibrium”, and “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” revolve around war, injustice, and prejudice. In her volume “Life at War”, Denise Levertov attempts to use imagery to express the disturbing violence of the Vietnam War. Throughout these poems, she addresses violence and savagery, yet tries to bring grace into the equation. She attempts to mix the beauty of language and the ugliness of the horrors of war. The themes of her poems, especially “Staying Alive”, focus on both the cost of war and the suffering of the Vietnamese. In her prose work, The Poet in the World, she writes that violence is an outlet. Levertov’s 1st successful Vietnam poetry was her book Freeing of the Dust. Some of the themes of this book of poems are the experience of the North Vietnamese, and distrust of people. She attacks the United States pilots in her poems for dropping bombs. Overall, her war poems incorporate suffering to show that violence has become an everyday occurrence. After years of writing such poetry, Levertov eventually came to the conclusion that beauty and poetry and politics can’t go together (Dewey). This opened the door wide for her religious-themed poetry in the later part of her life.

Religious influencesEdit

From a very young age Levertov was influenced by her religion, and when she began writing it was a major theme in her poetry.[5] Through her father she was exposed to both Judaism and Christianity. Levertov always believed that her culture and her family roots had inherent value to herself and her writing. Furthermore, she believed that she and her sister had a destiny pertaining to this.[5]

When Levertov moved to the United States, she fell under the influence of the Black Mountain Poets, especially the mysticism of Charles Olson. She drew on the experimentation of Ezra Pound and the style of William Carlos Williams, but was also exposed to the Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson. Although all these factors shaped her poetry, her conversion to Christianity in 1984 was the main influence on her religious writing.

Sometime shortly after her move to Seattle in 1989, she became a Roman Catholic. In 1997, she brought together 38 poems from 7 of her earlier volumes in The Stream & the Sapphire, a collection intended, as Levertov remarks in her brief Forward, to "trace my slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith, a movement incorporating much doubt and questioning as well as affirmation."

Religious themesEdit

Levertov wrote many poems with religious themes throughout her career. These poems range from religious imagery to implied metaphors of religion. One particular theme was developed progressively throughout her poetry. This was the pilgrimage/spiritual journey of Levertov towards the deep spiritual understanding and truth in her last poems.

One of her earlier poems is “A Tree Telling of Orpheus”, from her book Relearning the Alphabet. This poem uses the metaphor of a tree, which changes and grows when it hears the music of Orpheus. This is a metaphor of spiritual growth. The growth of the tree is like the growth of faith, and as the tree goes through life we also go through life on a spiritual journey. Much of Levertov’s religious poetry was concerned with respect for nature and life. Among her themes were also about nothingness and absence.

In her earlier poems something is always lacking, searching, and empty. In “Work that Enfaiths” Levertov begins to confront this “ample doubt” and her lack of “burning surety” in her faith.[8] The religious aspect of this is the doubt vs. light debate. Levertov cannot find a balance between faith and darkness. She goes back and forth between the glory of God and nature, but doubt constantly plagues her.

In her earlier religious poems Levertov searches for meaning in life. She explores God as he relates to nothing(ness) and everything. In her later poetry, a shift can be seen. "A Door in the Hive" and "Evening Train" are full of poems using images of cliffs, edges, and borders to push for change in life. Once again, Levertov packs her poetry with metaphors. She explores the idea that there can be peace in death. She also begins to suggest that nothing is a part of God. "Nothingness" and darkness are no longer just reasons to doubt and agonize over. “St. Thomas Didymus” and “Mass” show this growth, as they are poems that lack her former nagging wonder and worry.

In Evening Train, Levertov’s poetry is highly religious. She writes about experiencing God. These poems are breakthrough poems for her.[8] She writes about a mountain, which becomes a metaphor for life and God. When clouds cover a mountain, it is still huge and massive and in existence. God is the same, she says. Even when He is clouded, we know He is there. Her poems tend to shift away from constantly questioning religion to simply accepting it. In “The Tide”, the final section of Evening Train, Levertov writes about accepting faith and that not knowing answers is okay. This acceptance of the paradoxes of faith marks the end of her "spiritual journey".[8]

Levertov’s heavy religious writing began at her conversion to Christianity in 1984. She wrote a great deal of metaphysical poetry to express her religious views, and began to use Christianity to link culture and community together. In her poem “Mass” she writes about how the Creator is defined by His creation. She writes a lot about nature and individuals. In the works of her last phase, Levertov sees Christianity as a bridge between individuals and society, and explores how a hostile social environment can be changed by Christian values.[9]


Among her many awards and honors, she received the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a Catherine Luck Memorial Grant, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In 1969, she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.[2]

Her collection The Freeing of the Dust (1975) won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.[2]



  • The Double Image. Philadephia, PA: Cresset, 1946; Waldron Island, WA: Brooding Heron Press, 1991.
  • Here and Now. San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 1957.
  • 5 Poems. San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1958.
  • Overland to the Islands. Highlands, NC: J. Williams, 1958.
  • With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads. New York: New Directions, 1959.
  • The Jacob's Ladder. New York: New Directions, 1961.
  • O Taste and SEE: New Poems New York: New Directions, 1964.
  • City Psalm. Kensington, CA: Oyez, 1964.
  • Psalm concerning the Castle. Mount Horeb, WI: Perishable Press, 1966.
  • The Sorrow Dance. New York: New Directions, 1967.
  • Penguin Modern Poets 9 (With Kenneth Rexroth & William Carlos Williams). London: Penguin, 1967.
  • A Tree Telling of Orpheus. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1968.
  • A Marigold from North Vietnam. Everett, WA: Albondocani Press / Ampersand, 1968.
  • Three Poems. Mount Horeb, WI: Perishable Press, 1968.
  • The Cold Spring, and other poems. New York: New Directions, 1969.
  • Embroideries. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1969.
  • Relearning the Alphabet. New York: New Directions, 1970.
  • Summer Poems 1969. Kensington, CA: Oyez, 1970.
  • A New Year's Garland for My Students, MIT 1969-1970. Mount Horeb, WI: Perishable Press, 1970.
  • To Stay Alive. New York: New Directions, 1971.
  • Footprints. New York: New Directions, 1972.
  • The Freeing of the Dust. New York: New Directions, 1975.
  • Chekhov on the West Heath Revere, PA: Woolmer/Brotherston, 1977.
  • Modulations for Solo Voice. San Francisco, CA: Five Trees Press, 1977.
  • Life in the Forest. New York: New Directions, 1978.
  • Collected Earlier Poems, 1940-1960. New York: New Directions, 1979.
  • Pig Dreams: Scenes from the life of Sylvia. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 1981.
  • Wanderer's Daysong, Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1981.
  • Candles in Babylon. New York: New Directions, 1982.
  • Poems, 1960-1967. New York: New Directions, 1983.
  • Two Poems. Concord, NH: William B. Ewert, 1983.
  • Oblique Prayers: New Poems, with fourteen translations from Jean Joubert. New York, NY: New Directions, 1984.
  • El Salvador: Requiem and invocation. Concord, NH: William B. Ewert, 1984.
  • The Menaced World. Concord, NH: William B. Ewert, 1984.
  • Selected Poems. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1986.
  • Breathing the Water. New York: New Directions, 1987.
  • Poems, 1968-1972. New York: New Directions, 1987.
  • Seasons of Light (with Peter Brown). Houston, TX: Rice University Press, 1988.
  • A Door in the Hive. New York: New Directions, 1989.
  • Evening Train. New York: New Directions, 1992.
  • Sands of the Well. New York: New Directions, 1996.
  • Batterers. West Burke, VT: Janus Press, 1996.
  • The Life around Us: Selected poems on nature. New York, NY: New Directions, 1997.
  • The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected poems on religious themes. New York: New Directions, 1997.
  • This Great Unknowing: Last poems. New York: New Directions, 1999.
  • Poems, 1972-1982. New York: New Directions, 2001.


  • In the Night: A story (novella). New York: Albondocani Press, 1968.


  • The Poet in the World (essays). New York: New Directions, 1973.
  • Light up the Cave (essays). New York: New Directions, 1981.
  • Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. Concord, NH: William B. Ewert, 1981.
  • New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992.
  • Tesserae: Memories and suppositions (autobiographical essays). New York: New Directions, 1995.
  • Conversations with Denise Levertov (edited by Jewel Spears Brooker). Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.


  • In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (translated & edited with Edward C. Dimock, Jr.). New York: Doubleday, 1967.
  • Jules Supervielle, Selected Writings (contributor of translations). New York: New Directions Press, 1968.
  • Eugene Guillevic, Selected poems. New York: New Directions, 1969.
  • Poets of Bulgaria (translated, with others; edited by William Meredith). Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1985.
  • Jean Joubert, Black Iris. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1988.
  • Alain Bosquet, No Matter No Fact translated with others). New York: New Directions, 1988.
  • Jean Joubert, White Owl and Blue Mouse. Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1990.


  • Out of the War Shadow: An anthology of current poetry. War Resisters League, 1967.


  • The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams (edited by Christopher MacGowan). New York: New Directions, 1998.
  • The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (edited by Robert J. Bertholf & Albert Gelpi). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[10]

See alsoEdit

Denise Levertov six poems

Denise Levertov six poems


  • Keillor, Garrison. "Poems by Denise Levertov", Writer's Almanac
  • Wilson, Robert A. A Bibliography of Denise Levertov. (New York: Phoenix Book Shop, 1972. Printing of American Authors, Vol. 3. (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1977–1979)


  1. Levertov, Denise; Selected Poems; p. 210. ISBN 9780811215541
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Denise Levertov", Academy of American Poets. Web, Aug. 18, 2020.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Couzyn, Jeni (1985) Contemporary Women Poets. Bloodaxe, p74
  4. Couzyn, Jeni (1985) Contemporary Women Poets. Bloodaxe, p75
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Couzyn, Jeni (1985) Contemporary Women Poets. Bloodaxe, p78
  6. “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” January 30, 1968 New York Post
  7. "Denise Levertov, 1923-1997. American author", Manuscript Collection of Washington University Libraries
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Gallant, James. "Entering No-Man's Land: The Recent Religious Poetry of Denise Levertov." Renascence 50 (1998): 122-134.
  9. Dewey, Anne. "The Art of the Octopus: The Maturation of Denise Levertov's Political Vision." Renascence 50 (1998): 65-81.
  10. Denise Levertov 1923-1997, Poetry Foundation, Web, Apr. 6, 2012.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. (view article). (view authors).
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.