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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.

Denise Levertov

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Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghamton and has several collections of poetry out there, A Portable Winter (with an introduction by Harvey Pekar), The Pursuit of Happiness, What Remains, Painting the Christmas Trees, and, most recently, The Plumber's Apprentice, published by New York Quarterly Press. He makes his home in Vestal, New York.

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  • Jorge RM via Facebook November 20, 2013, 10:50 am

    A great teacher/guide/activist.

  • Karl Watson via Facebook November 20, 2013, 11:38 am

    Her “Some Notes on Organic Form” is an amazing essay. If there is anyone here who hasn’t read it, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

  • Patty Youngblood via Facebook November 21, 2013, 9:32 am

    you don’t have to share her (or any) religious beliefs to be in awe of her Julian poems or the crystalline later life poems. apart from all that is just the elegance and beauty of her work. I’ve been reading and re-reading it for 50+ years now and it never gets stale.

  • Jon Corelis November 23, 2013, 10:16 am

    I don’t know about “forgotten.” A quick search of the internet indicates that at least two dozen of her poetry books are still in print, which is fairly astonishing for a poet today. I was never deeply into her poetry myself with one exception, “In Praise of Krishna” (with George Dimock,) which I think is a great lyric classic.

  • joe weil November 25, 2013, 4:30 pm

    Compared to her rep in the 70’s she is not taught at universities all that often, is looked down on for her conversion experience, and she does not have the cache with graduate students that more post-modern poets enjoy– such as George Open, John Berryman, and, recently, Jack Spicer. Same goes for William Stafford ,as well as a couple of other writers like David Ignatow who I wrote about on my face book post. Robert Kelly is a poet I think is far too unread, and Kathleen Frazier. This was lifted from a face book status where I was trying to get my students to know poets other than the trendy flavors of the moment. She has twelve books still in print because many older readers like me continue to read her. She deserves to be taught more often. I’m glad you like “In praise of Krishna.” I also admire it. I admire her essays on Williams, too. To me, she gave the best explanation of the variable foot (even if I didn’t buy it). Personal favorites of mine among neglected poets are Paul Blackburn and Barbara Holland. The fact that you looked up how many books she has in print is good. I’m glad if I was wrong in this respect. Better I be wrong than that she be neglected.I still think she is neglected, especially in comparison to Plath, Rich, and so on. Mina Loy is another.

  • Charlie13 April 7, 2014, 4:54 pm

    The idea that a poet as wonderful as Levertov, whom I have held as one of my exemplars since I first read her poem ‘The Goddess’ — which opens ‘She in whose lipservice/ I passed my time/ whose name I knew/ but not her face/ came upon me where I lay in Lie Castle! // Flung me across the room, and… ‘ –They were, and are, direct words, imitative of nothing and no one, and they still conduct me into the immediacy of her vision.

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