Denise Levertov: Essential American Poets
This is The Poetry Foundation’s Essential American Poets Podcast. Essential American Poets is an online audio-poetry collection. The poets included in the collection were selected in 2006 by Donald Hall when he was Poet Laureate. Donald Hall has said that the entryway to a poem is the beauty of it’s sound, and there’s nothing like hearing the poet’s voice. Recordings of the poets he selected reading their work are available online at poetryfoundation.org and poetryarchive.org. In this edition of the podcast, we’ll hear poems by Denise Levertov.
Denise Levertov was born in England in 1923 into a modest, religious family. Her father was an Anglican parson, who’d been raised in Russia as a Hasidic Jew. Her mother was Welsh and homeschooled her and her sister. Levertov’s mother often read aloud to them from great 19th century literature. The words of Conrad, Dickens and Tolstoy had a powerful influence on Levertov, who says at just five years old, she knew she wanted to be a writer. At age 12, Levertov bundled her poems and sent them to T.S. Eliot. He sent back a typed letter, full of what Levertov called “excellent advice”. When World War 2 came to Europe, Levertov became a civilian nurse and served in London throughout the bombings. After the war, she married an American writer and moved to the United States. She became a naturalized citizen in 1956, and settled on the east coast to raise a family. Soon after that, Levertov immersed herself in the American political scene. She marched in demonstrations, got arrested, and joined with other poets, including Muriel Rukeyser, to form the writers and artists protest against the war in Vietnam.
Politics also found a way into her poetry; she wrote poetry of protest, and during the 60s and 70s served as poetry editor for the leftists magazines, The Nation and Mother Jones. In addition to her writing on war, Levertov also wrote about the natural world, on the daily facts of living, and about ecological and spiritual matters. She also wrote an influential essay on organic form, in which she states that form is never more than a revelation of content. Over the course of her career, Levertov wrote more than 20 books of poetry, taught in many universities across the United States, and spent almost a decade at Stanford University in California. Levertov lived her later years in Seattle, Washington. Denise Levertov died in 1977 at the age of 74. The poems you’re about to hear were recorded at the Library of Congress, 1971.
Denise Levertov: Here’s one of my Washington poems.
At the Justice Department, November 15th 1961 — Maybe some of you were there too.
Brown gas-fog, white
beneath the street lamps.
Cut off on three sides, all space filled
with our bodies.
Bodies that stumble
in brown airlessness, whitened
in light, a mildew glare,
hand in hand, blinded, retching.
Wanting it, wanting
to be here, the body believing it’s
dying in its nausea, my head
clear in its despair, a kind of joy,
knowing this is by no means death,
is trivial, an incident, a
fragile instant. Wanting it, wanting
with all my hunger this anguish,
this knowing in the body
the grim odds we’re
up against, wanting it real.
Up that bank where gas
curled in the ivy, dragging each other
up, strangers, brothers
and sisters. Nothing
will do but
to taste the bitter
taste. No life
other, apart from.
This is a poem I wrote this last winter after playing Botticelli with some people. I enjoyed writing it, and I sort of get a certain amount of fun out of reading it too. The game of Botticelli is where you zero in on an unnamed person by a process of deciding what kind of tree that person would be if they were a tree, what kind of color they would be if they were a color, and so on. This sort of reverses the process, somewhat. It’s called “What My House Would Be Like If It Were A Person”.
This person would be an animal.
This animal would be large, at least as large
as a workhorse. It would chew cud, like cows,
having several stomachs.
No one could follow it
into the dense brush to witness
its mating habits. Hidden by fur,
its sex would be hard to determine.
Definitely it would discourage
investigation. But it would be, if not teased,
a kind, amiable animal,
confiding as a chickadee. Its intelligence
would be of a high order,
neither human nor animal, elvish.
And it would purr, though of course,
it being a house, you would sit in its lap,
not it in yours.
The Wealth Of The Destitute
How gray and hard the brown feet of the wretched of the earth.
How confidently the crippled from birth
push themselves through the streets, deep in their lives.
How seamed with lines of fate the hands
of women who sit at streetcorners
offering seeds and flowers.
How lively their conversation together.
How much of death they know.
I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness.’
It’s always a little difficult to read love poems to people you’re not in love with anymore, but I kind of like the poem, although I’m no longer in love with the addressee. (LAUGHING). I think I’ll read this one, it’s called “Psyche in Somerville”. Somerville is where I live, it’s part of the Boston area.
I am angry with X, with Y, with Z,
for not being you.
Enthusiasms jump at me,
wagging and barking. Go away.
I am angry with my eyes for not seeing you,
they smart and ache and see the snow,
an insistent brilliance.
If I were Psyche how could I not
bring the lamp to our bedside?
I would have known in advance
all the travails my gazing
would bring, more than Psyche
and even so, how could I not have raised
the amber flame to see
the human person I knew
was to be revealed.
She did not even know! She dreaded
a beast and discovered
a god. But I
know, and hunger
to witness again the form
of mortal love itself.
I am angry with everything that is filling
the space of your absence,
breathing your air.
how blessed you were
in the dark, knowing him in your flesh:
I was wrong! If I were Psyche
I would live on in darkness, and endure
the foolish voices, barking of aeolian dogs,
the desert glitter
of days full of boring treasures,
walking on precious stones till my feet hurt,
to hold you each night and be held
close in your warmth in a pitchblack cave of a room
and not have to wait
for Mercury, dressed in the sad gray coat of a mailman
and no wings on his feet,
to bring me your words.
Somebody Trying — this is a poem written after reading that very long and detailed biography of Tolstoy by Henri Troyat that came out a few years ago.
‘That creep Tolstoy,’ she sobbed.
‘He. . . He. . . couldn’t even. . .’
Something about his brother dying.
The serfs’ punishments
have not ceased to suppurate on their backs.
Woodlots. People. Someone crying
under the yellow
autumn birchgrove drove him
wild: A new set of resolves:
When gambling, that almost obsolete fever,
or three days with the gypsies
sparked him into pure ego, he could,
just the same, write home, ‘Sell them.’
It’s true. ‘Still,’ (someone who loved her said,
cold and firm while she dissolved,
hypocrite, in self disgust, lectrice)
‘Still, he kept on. He wrote
all that he wrote; and seems to have understood
better than most of us:
to be human isn’t easy. It’s not
easy to be a serf or a master and learn
that art. It takes nerve. Bastard. Fink.
Yet the grief
trudging behind his funeral, he earned.’
That was Denise Levertov recorded at the Library of Congress in 1971, and used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. You’ve been listening to the Essential American Poets Podcast, produced by The Poetry Foundation in collaboration with poetryarchive.org. To learn more about Denise Levertov and other essential American poets, and to hear more poetry, go to poetryfoundation.org.