Contemplating war and peace

Levertov’s poetry graceful and compelling in new posthumous collection
March 31, 2006

This new collection of the late Denise Levertov’s poetry focuses on her poems about war and peace. Written at specific times in her life, the poems are relevant to any war anywhere, and to humanity’s sometimes feeble attempts at peace.

The poems are divided into thematic sections: Life at War, Protesters, Writing in the Dark and Making Peace. While some speak of the horrors of war, other poems call for nonviolent witness and action.

In Writing in the Dark, Levertov speaks of the evil in the world and wonders what good one’s work may do. But in the last section, Making Peace, there is hope in the midst of the world’s troubles. Her poems are graceful, truthful and compelling, drawing us in no matter what particular crises we as individuals or our society as a whole may be facing.

Levertov was well-known for her commitment to justice and peace, which led her to take part in political protests against the war in Vietnam. In the 1980s, Levertov joined demonstrations against both the nuclear arms race and U.S. complicity in atrocities in Central America. During the 1991 Gulf War, she began a peace group. Throughout, she had “a deep trust in human goodness,” and it was the source of her hope for the future, writes Peggy Rosenthal, a Levertov scholar, in the introduction.

“My poetry has always sprung from my experiences,” Levertov told an interviewer in 1984, “so if my experience was a political one, it was bound to happen that I would write poems out of that.”

Levertov was born Oct. 24, 1923, in Ilford, Essex, near London, to a Welsh Congregationalist mother and a Russian father who was a Hasidic Jew who became a Christian and an Anglican priest.

Levertov and her sister Olga, 9 years older, were taught at home by their parents. Their mother was not particularly interested in science or mathematics, so their education favored the arts, history, languages, mythology, fairy tales, novels, poetry and imaginative writing of all kinds. She wrote her first poem at age 5 and first published one, Listening to Distant Guns, when she was 17.

During World War II, Levertov served as a practical nurse. After the war, she met Mitchell Goodman, an American travel writer who had been studying in Paris under the G.I. Bill. They married in 1947 and came to the United States in 1948. She became a U.S. citizen in 1955.

Levertov taught at Tufts, Brandeis and Stanford. She wrote poetry wherever she was and gradually began to be published in one collection or another -- and then in whole books. She wanted the poetry in each of her books to follow a theme. She enjoyed “composing” the book and worked to present the poems in sections, with an apt title for each group taken from one of the poems in that group, as in Making Peace.

One of my favorite Levertov books is The Stream & the Sapphire, Selected Poems on Religious Themes. It includes poems on biblical stories as well as referring to authors Caedmon, Lady Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton and others. Levertov, who eventually became a Roman Catholic, wrote that this book “traces my own slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith.”

When Levertov died of lymphoma on Dec. 20, 1997, at age 74, she had been a published poet for more than half a century. Her poetry touches hearts and long has inspired poetry lovers and other poets. Kirkus Reviews earlier said of her: “She is a poet who may just be the finest writing in English today.”

Her long-time, loyal publisher, New Directions, keeps her books in print and has more than 15 of her titles available.

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