Follow Harriet on Twitter
Denise Levertov’s Late Mystical Life
At the Huffington Post, Carl McColman considers the role religion played in later life and work of Denise Levertov. McColman reminds us that a full-fledged Levertov revival is underway (not that she’s ever been out of our thoughts), what with a new biography and a collected poems being published this fall. Taking a look at Dana Greene’s Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, McColman writes that the book “presents a straightforward and accessible consideration of Levertov’s journey from young British intellectual to anti-war activist to surprising Catholic convert in her maturity. But unlike others who have retreated into the church as a way of cementing an ideological or political reaction against their youth, Levertov’s religious awakening marked not a break with her past, but simply the continued evolution of her singular vision — an integral vision where poetry, politics and spirituality coinhere.”
The article considers Levertov’s rich and varied religious life, her early influences and correspondences, and her own work as a mentor:
Part of what makes Levertov’s life (and Greene’s account of it) such a delight is how her friends, mentors and colleagues comprise a who’s who of 20th century letters. From early encouragement by T. S. Eliot to significant relationships with William Carlos Williams and Adrienne Rich, as well as her troubled marriage with novelist/activist Mitchell Goodman, Levertov was part of the literary royalty of her age. Eventually she would also befriend younger writers like Wendell Berry and Alice Walker. Certainly, her devotion to language and the craft of poetry was central to her identity, but contrary to the prevailing intellectual skepticism of our age, she engaged with her rich religious heritage (her ancestors included a rabbi and a Methodist preacher; her father was a Russian Jew who entered the Anglican priesthood). Such engagement led to her own slow conversion from earthy agnosticism to unexpected faith, eventually embracing first Christianity in a general sense, and then Catholicism in the late 1980s, when she was in her 60s. But even as a convert, her faith was shaped by friendships with progressive Catholics like Murray Bodo and Mary Luke Tobin; she expressed distaste for the hierarchy, regarding Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) as emblematic of the church’s institutional ills. Unlike Anne Rice, whose mid-life return to Catholicism lasted only about twelve years before she renounced all organized religion, Levertov remained in the church, even with her struggles against its patriarchy and regressive politics, until her death in 1997.
What emerges from Dana Greene’s biography is a picture of a woman in love with language, passionate about art, confident in her values and politics, and willing to grapple with both the challenge and the splendor of religious mystery.