Poems Close To Prayer : Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was born and brought up in Ilford, England and was educated mostly at home by her  father, a Russian Jewish immigrant, who became an Anglican priest, her Welsh mother, BBC programmes and private tutors during a bucolic childhood in Ilford, Essex.  

She decided to become a poet, but she didn't want to go to graduate school.
Instead, she got her nurse's training and spent three years as a civilian nurse during the Blitz in London. She liked the work itself, but she didn't like the structure — she was just 19 years old, and she had been homeschooled her whole life. 

She said: "I didn't like the strain of taking even the one and only examination that I ever took in my life, and I didn't like the way in which one's personal life was regulated. I was always crawling in and out of windows to avoid curfews!" 

She wrote poems each night after her shift at the hospital, and published her first book, The Double Image (1946). 
She met and married an American poet, Mitchell Goodman, and in 1948, they moved to the United States, where she became a nauralised citizen in 1955. She had one son and was later divorced. She taught at a number of universities, including Tufts and Stanford, served as poetry editor of the liberal journal The Nation, and published more than 20 books of poetry, including With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959), The Freeing of the Dust (1975), Breathing in the Water (1984), and The Life Around Us (1997), as well as collections of essays and reviews.

Levertov became one of the most American of poets, notable for her political and environmental activism. She was against the Vietnam War and later against nuclear proliferation and American intervention in El Salvador. 

Cover of Poems, 1960-1967

Although she did not define herself as a nature poet or a feminist, Denise Levertov frequently wrote poetry celebrating the values of nature and nurture from a distinctly feminine perspective.

 "Come into Animal Presence" (collected in Poems, 1960-1967) takes up a recurring theme in Levertov's work: the world is infused with a holy radiance, if only we have eyes to see it."

Come Into Animal Presence

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white rabbit
on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn't
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm bush.
What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.

An old joy returns in holy presence.

One of the poets she admired most was William Carlos Williams. In 1951, Levertov send Williams a fan letter; she was in her late 20s, and he was 68, recovering from his first stroke. After exchanging letters for a while, she took a bus up to his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, to see him. 
Williams was a warm and receptive host, and after that, she would go to visit him a couple of times a year. She would arrive in time for lunch with Williams and his wife, Flossie, then spend a few hours reading him her poetry, sometimes reading his poetry aloud, and chatting about people they both knew. Williams became Levertov's mentor, and they exchanged letters until his death in 1962. 

The Letters of Denise Levertov and Williams

This site Part One : has photographs and the letters of Levertov and Williams. 

Part Two is here.

Levertov was acclaimed by Kenneth Rexroth in The New York Times as " the most subtly skilful poet of her generation, the most profound, the most modest, the most moving."

She said: "Strength of feeling, reverence for mystery, and clarity of intellect must be kept in balance with one another. Neither the passive nor the active must dominate, they must work in conjunction, as in a marriage."

She said "I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer.

So to celebrate and give thanks for her life and the gifts she gave us in her poetry here are a few more of her wonderful poems

The video  is an extract from an hour-long reading she gave for the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles on 7 December 1993. The poems are: 'Settling', 'Open Secret', 'Tragic Error', 'The Danger Moment', 'A Gift' and 'For Those Whom the Gods Love Less', three of which were also included in her Selected Poems (New Directions, 2002), which was published in Britain as New Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2003): http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/titlepage.asp?isbn=1852246537

 These are all gems to delight..


We live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension--though affected,
 certainly, by our actions. 
A world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
We call it "Nature"; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be "Nature" too.
Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
 animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal--
then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
No one discovers
just where we've been, when we're caught up again
into our own sphere
 (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
–but we have changed, a little.

“Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov from Sands of the Well. © New Directions Books, 1994.

 Pablo Picasso Two Girls Reading. Source

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of

I who don't know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even

what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can't find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.

 Image source

You can live for years next door
to a big pine tree, honored to have

so venerable a neighbor, even

when it sheds needles all over your flowers

or wakes you, dropping big cones

onto your deck at still of night.

Only when, before dawn one year
at the vernal equinox, the wind
rises and rises, raising images
of cockleshell boats tossed among huge
advancing walls of waves,
do you become aware that always,
under respect, under your faith
in the pine tree’s beauty, there lies
the fear it will crash someday
down on your house, on you in your bed,
on the fragility of the safe
dailiness you have almost
grown used to.


The pastor

of grief and dreams

guides his flock towards
the next field

with all his care.
He has heard

the bell tolling
but the sheep

are hungry and need
the grass, today and

every day. Beautiful
his patience, his long

shadow, the rippling
sound of the flock moving

along the valley.
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