I was introduced to the poetry of Denise Levertov a number of years ago when a friend sent me her poem, Annunciation during Advent. I found the poem then, and continue now to find it, a powerful piece (both as inspiration and wake-up call). So when my friend Richard (who may have been the one to first send me Annunciation) suggested I add Dana Greene’s biography of Levertov to my reading list, I did so.
Levertov herself was skeptical of biographies, believing an artist’s work should speak for itself and that what she wanted to endure was her poetry. And she left a lot to us – twenty-four volumes of poetry, along with several books of essays and several translations of other works.
Levertov took the work of the poet seriously. She believed that a writer must “take personal and active responsibility for his words, whatever they are, and to acknowledge their potential influence on the lives of others,” recognizing that “when words penetrate deep into us they change the chemistry of the soul, of the imagination.” The role of a poet, she felt was to “translate experience to readers and to transport them to other worlds,” which requires the poet to “being to his work an ‘ecstatic attention’ and an ‘intensity’ that is able to penetrate to the reality of the thing itself.”
Greene’s book reveals a lot about the life and spirituality of Levertov, who one commentator called “the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound,…and the most moving. Several things stood out for me with respect to her relationship with God.
First is her emphasis on her own experience as a basis for understanding God’s love. Levertov wrote:
I cannot believe in God’s love by looking outside my own experience. That the world – anything – exists at all is matter for wonder but does not prove the love of the Creator. Nature is both beautiful & cruel,…& so no proof of love. The suffering of others, the endless wars & tortures,…(might make us) feel it would be better not to exist…BUT – if I looked at my own life I immediately feel the love of God, who has brought me safely so far. And then all the preceding…is revealed as mere casuistic reasons not to believe. The reality is my own experience, and I suppose it is this that enables theologians & mystics to speak with some confidence; each relies on his or her own experience not on generalities & received knowledge.
Second is Levertov’s recognition that increasing our faith is something that we have to work at. She believed that both prayer and concern for others would strengthen faith, and so she renewed her efforts at prayer and tried to love more lovingly. She also found imagination vital for cultivating faith; for Levertov, imagination was the capacity that allowed the fusing of intellect and feeling.
Third is her understanding of the relationship between hope and solidarity; indeed, the “locus of [her] deepest hope” was those with whom she engaged in social justice efforts. In her poem “For the New Year, 1981”, she wrote
I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams…
I need more.
I break off a fragment
to send you.
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.
Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.
Greene does not sugercoat Levertov’s weaknesses. Her live was tumultous and her insecurity, need for external approval and her desire to be central to the life of someone could make her difficult and adversely affected many of her relationships. But she was a woman who loved life, and that comes through loud and clear in Greene’s work.