Denise Levertov

’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper

Joan F. Hallisey

Denise Levertov, one of the twentieth-century’s foremost

American poets, was born in Ilford, Essex, England, in 1923. She was privately educated

and served as a nurse in London during World War II. She emigrated to America in 1948

after she married Mitchell Goodman. They had one son Nikolai Goodman who is an artist and


Levertov lived in Somerville, Massachusetts, for a number of years while teaching at

Brandeis, MIT, and Tufts. She moved to Seattle in 1989 and settled close to Lake

Washington in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. She taught part-time at the University of

Washington and continued as a full professor at Stanford University for the first quarter

of each year as she had been doing since 1982. She brought her own distinctive spirit and

goals to the English Department, especially to her students in the Creative Writing

program. After her retirement from Stanford in 1993, she did several benefits and poetry

readings a year in both the United States and Europe. She endeavored, in spite of

declining health, to keep up her correspondence with other poets and her many friends. She

died of complications due to lymphoma on December 20, 1997.

Levertov strongly believed that inherited tendencies and the cultural ambiance of her

own family were strong factors in her own development as a person and as a poet. She tells

us in The Poet in the World that she believes her early poem "Illustrious

Ancestors" reveals a "definite and peculiar destiny" she and her sister

Olga shared by having among their ancestors two men who were living during the same period

(late 1700s and 1800s) but in very different cultures. They had "preoccupations which

gave them a basic kinship had they known one another and had [they] been able to cross the

barriers of religious prejudice" (70).

The poet’s father, Paul Levertoff, was a descendant of Schneour Zalman, "The

Rav of Northern White Russia" who founded the Habad branch of Hasidism. Another

ancestor in her mother’s line was Angell Jones of Mold, a tailor, teacher, and

preacher to whom Daniel Owens, the "Welsh Dickens," was apprenticed. The shop of

Angell Jones’s son (the poet’s great uncle) served as a kind of literary and

intellectual salon in the 1870s (PW 70).

Paul Levertoff was a Russian Jewish scholar who converted and later became an Anglican

priest. He wrote throughout his life about connections between Judaism and Christianity

and welcomed Jews at liturgies at St. George’s, Bloomsbury, and helped Jewish

refugees in London during World War II.

Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, the poet’s mother, was raised a

Congregationalist and was, like her husband, involved with political and human rights

issues. She canvassed on behalf of the League of Nations Union and supported the rights of

German and Austrian refugees from 1933 onward. An interest in humanitarian politics came

early into Levertov’s consciousness, so the fact that she was a long-time activist

for peace and justice is not surprising. While some critics regarded poetry and politics

as conflicting spheres, she tells us in "‘Invocations of Humanity’: Denise

Levertov’s Poetry of Emotion and Belief" that she regarded them as organically

and necessarily connected (32).


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