On the 'Minor' Ambition of Denise Levertov
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov is reviewed by Adam Plunkett for The Nation. “'There are so many pressures on me,' Levertov told Duncan. 'I am only half here.' She would publish nearly twenty more books of poems." Plunkett continues to evoke this sympathetic take for such a resolute writer: "Even with her feet on the ground, she seemed to have her heart in the clouds. She saw her life as a spiritual quest and cast herself as a pilgrim, not a visionary—as someone who sees for herself and not for others. This faithfulness to herself can seem like self-absorption, but in reading her voluminous and deeply uneven Collected Poems, one can trace the integrity in the life of her work. It is major work played in a minor key, with her quest sometimes going astray in the maze of her wanderings." More:
Levertov’s sense of having a minor ambition can be traced to a letter of Duncan’s from early in their long correspondence, in which he shared some of the notes he’d written about her poems for an essay on them. His attitude toward her was reverential; the notes were not. “Of Denise Levertov’s work: when I consider her work in regard to my feeling of the course…of poetic energies in history it seems minor: I do not have the sense of great alterations…in the possibility of what a poem might be.” Lacking the grand ideas and ambition of “a Pound or an Olson,” her writing was “limited in its imagination and energies to the immediate”: a practitioner’s work, not a theorist’s. He didn’t mean this as a slight, he added: his own work was also minor (in this sense), and her poems were “major” for him, “both in her use of language toward the poem and in her poetry as it opens fresh routes and particular insights in experience.” In conclusion, “She presents a challenge.”
She did not challenge this appraisal. “Poets like Pound & Olson,” she wrote, in notes to herself that she passed along to Duncan, had a “scope & power of intellect” that she lacked: “a masculine intellect” in which “a sense of total order…exists as a matter of course,” and that projects its idea of order far and wide. With her “feminine intellect,” she lacked “the intellectual energy…to create a system of general ideas,” and she couldn’t project onto others’ experiences because she simply didn’t “know how things are for others or in other areas.” She couldn’t tell them what to do, “unable to grasp large areas of what is.”
“The major poet I see as tall,” she wrote, “eating the treetop leaves like giraffes and the prehistoric tall ones, able to see a long way, to see the path he made coming thru’ the forest, how it turns, the pattern it makes & its direction, seeing & knowing that he sees.” She was in the weeds.
With her books and awards, her divorce from Goodman in 1975, her editorships and professorships, Levertov eventually shed her early self-effacing affect, or pose. But it remained the pose of her ambition: personal, intuitive, haphazard; “feminine” rather than “masculine.” Levertov consistently denied that her gender inhibited her writing: “I didn’t suppose my gender an obstacle to anything I really wanted to do.” “That genre may be determined by gender [is] an idea I find extremely foreign to my own experience,” she said; while her gender may not have determined what she wrote, it played a role in shaping her sense of herself. “In childhood dream-play” she was “always / the knight or squire, not / the lady,” but she was a woman, a wife and a mother in 1950s America. She was quick to spurn poems about women’s issues for mattering more as political statements than as art (“something menstrual or hysterical about them”), but she didn’t flinch from trying to justify the aesthetic value of poems about war, climate change and American race relations—political issues that she cared about more and was more willing to think about, and thereby admit as legitimate experiences of private life.
Read the full, four-page review of Levertov's Collected Poems at The Nation.