Denise Levertov

Selected Poems

“I like to find what's not found at once...”

Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997) was a prominent Post-War poet. She was born in England but lived most of her life in the United States. Selected Poems spans her life’s work showcasing her interest in politics and war (she served in British civilian arm during WWII), in love and deep human emotion.

Some are too much at home in the role of wanderer,
watcher, listener; who, by lamplit doors
that open only to another’s knock,
commune with shadows and are happier
with ghosts than living guests in a warm house.

Levertov was part German, Jewish, Welsh and English and the lack of specific cultural legacy is strong in her self-oriented poems like “Pleasures” which reveals Levertov’s deep appreciation for things not being as they seem.

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 –

Perhaps that is what allows her to capture a universal sense of being and existence, one that lives through doing, as seen in “Action.”

I can lay down that history
I can lay down my glasses
I can lay down the imaginary lists
of what to forget and what must be
done. I can shake the sun
out of my eyes and lay everything down
on the hot sand, and cross
the whispering threshold and walk
right into the clear sea, and float there,
my long hair floating, and fishes
vanishing all around me. Deep water.
Little by little one comes to know
the limits of depths of power.

I first read Levertov eons ago when I performed a dramatic interpretation of “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” in a high school drama competition. (I wiggled my fingertips for wind, that sort of eager young thing). I began a life-long love of Levertov’s poetry.

I understand her feelings of not quite fitting in anywhere. Of course, when we’re quilted from different places it also means that bits and pieces of us fit in everywhere.

We are a meadow where the bees hum,
mind and body are almost one

as the fire snaps in the stove
and our eyes close,

and mouth to mouth, the covers
pulled over our shoulders,

we drowse as horses drowse afield,
in accord; though the fall cold

surrounds our warm bed, and though
by day we are singular and often lonely.

In addition to her wonderful thoughts on human place, singularity, and loneliness, Levertov reimagines the alphabet (a thing poets are wont to do, read Mark Strand’s here) explores the nature of joy in the face of impending death, like Oliver Sack’s Gratitude, and she rejoiced in the smallest, most wonderful events of beauty, “Will I have learned to rejoice enough, in the sober wonder of green healthy leaves?”