I admit I didn’t like Denise Levertov’s work when I was a kid. I preferred the hilarity of Ted Berrigan, the obvious authority and beauty of Stevens, the light but dazzling cool of Frank O’Hara, and Ginsberg’s Kaddish as well as Reality Sandwiches. I was even more a fan of Spanish and Latin American poets–Hernandez and Vallejo in particular. I came to admire Levertov only after I was approaching forty and she had recently died. I was old enough then to appreciate her seriousness of purpose. I came to admire her the way I had Muriel Rukeyser.
According to my friend Joel Lewis, Levertov fell out of favor when she embraced the catholic faith and started writing poems about her religion. Recently, her letters with Robert Duncan have put her on the radar again. She was also heavily involved in the protest movements of the 60’s–the anti-war movement in particular.That made her popular then when the baby boomers pretended to be Che. When they “converted” to conspicuous consumption sans conscience, she lost that following.
Her poems have the rigor of Objectivism, though she is no Objectivist. They are not flashy. Their technique might be likened to the aesthetics of one naturally adverse to the cult of personality. Her poetry is incremental rather than linear, and I read much of her work as sprung from her brilliant adaptation of Williams’ variable foot (she wrote one of the most sane defenses of it). I’ve chosen a little poem because my computer has crashed and I am borrowing Emily’s until she wakes up. But this poem shows what I mean in terms of how she breaks, and shapes her poetic line:
I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies
within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull feathers of glass, hidden
in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board–
tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design. Or a fruit, mamey,
cased in rough brown peel, the flesh
rose-amber, and the seed:
the seed a stone of wood, carved and
polished, walnut-colored, formed
like a brazilnut, but large,
large enough to fill
the hungry palm of a hand.
I like the juicy stem of grass that grows
within the coarser leaf folded round,
and the butteryellow glow
in the narrow flute from which the morning-glory
opens blue and cool on a hot morning.