Denise Levertov

Selected Poems

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

Someone (maybe Virginia Woolf?) once said that truth reveals itself in the most mundane of tasks, hinting that true work is done within.

This winnowing thought is reiterated in poetry by Denise Levertov (24 October 1923 – 20 December 1997): “In our gathering, in our containing, in our working, active within ourselves, slowly the pale dew-beads of light lapped up from flowers can thicken, darken to gold.”

denise levertov - selected poems
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Levertov was born in England but lived most of her life in the United States. The lines I referenced above have a remarkable American-ness about them. Elsewhere in the poem, “Second Didactic Poem” she writes; “The taste, the odor of honey; each has no analogue but itself.” It is a poem about being and doing 1

Levertov’s poems are movement, rhythm, power, and actualisation. I think of Levertov as energy itself. Or if not energy, a deep contemplation of energy.2

And I walked naked
from the beginning

breathing in my life,
breathing out poems,
arrogant in innocent…

From “A Cloak”

How do we spend our time and fill out our space? she seems to be asking.

Selected Poems spans her life’s work showcasing her interest in politics and war (she served in the British civilian arm during WWII) and in love and constant pondering of human emotion.

The disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. the feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough

weighing down a child’s stomach on a baking day.
or Rilke said it, ‘My heart…
Could I saw of it, it overflows
with bitterness…but no, as though

its contents were simply balled into formless lumps, thus
do I carry it about.’

From “Life at War”

Levertov was part German, Jewish, Welsh, and English, and the lack of specific cultural legacy is strong in her more self-oriented writing,3 revealing 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…

From “Pleasures”

I love Levertov’s imagery. Moving aside grass, digging under logs, finding those treasures that wait to be claimed by eager hands or will happily rest for an eternity. Mary Oliver once wrote about stones deep under the earth waiting to be touched by rain. I have a particular knack for uncovering abandoned snail shells.4

Levertov’s quilted heritage allows her to capture a universal sense of being and existence, one that seems to flow above contained concepts of self and culture. Like Durga Chew-Bose’s essays poised between being and becoming as the daughter of Indian immigrants to Canada. Levertov finds herself removed and, thus, unconstrained.

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.

From “Action”

“Red tulips living into their death flushed with a wild blue.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Eons ago, I performed a dramatic interpretation of Denise Levertov’s “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” in a competition. (I wiggled my fingertips for wind, that sort of eager silliness). I gave the “acting” a miss but began a life-long love of Levertov’s poetry.

"The Dance." by Ellen Vrana.
“Seek transformation. O be eager for that flame in which something escapes you, proud of change” from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I took the reverse path to Levertov, leaving America to settle in England. Like T.S. Eliot, I suppose.5 I know what it means to be adopted and to adopt a country.

Of course, when we’re constructed from different places, it also means that bits and pieces of us fit in everywhere. Casual allegiances mean we search for a deeper connection. Some universal context to which we can vouchsafe our vulnerabilities.

Close-up of "Pierced Form" by Barbara Hepworth, 1962. Featured in Joan Didion's "Blue Nights" in The Examined Life Library.
“Pierced Form” by Barbara Hepworth, 1962. “It is the mystery that makes such loveliness and I want to project my feeling about it into sculpture.” wrote Hepworth. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Which returns us to nature. Levertov anchors most of her complexity in nature.

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.

From “A meadow where the bees hum…”

In addition to her wonderful thoughts on place, solidarity, and loneliness, Levertov reimagines the alphabet, a thing poets are wont to do.6

Joy, the, “well…joyfulness of
joy”—”many years
I had not known it,” the woman of eighty
said, “only remembered, till now.”

From “Joy”

The bright lift of Denise Levertov’s poetry is one of the many definitions of joy. Excitement, uplift and physical involvement in emotion.

Energy.