Beauty, Mystery and Pain: The Poetry of Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997)

Despite not receiving any formal education, Denise Levertov became one of the greatest poet of the 20th century. Born in 1923 in Essex, England, Levertov grew up surrounded by books and people talking about them. Her earliest literary influences can be traced to her home life. Her mother read aloud to the family the great works of 19th-century fiction, and she read poetry, especially the lyrical poems of Tennyson. Levertov’s father, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently became an Anglican minister, had a profound influence on Levertov, whose poems are suffused with her own Christian faith.

Levertov migrated to the US in 1948, a year after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman, and she began developing the style that was to make her an internationally respected poet. Here and Now (1957) displayed her newly formed American voice, one that showed the unmistakable influence of the Black Mountain poets, in particular William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) and his pithy, earthly free-form expressions. And for the rest of her prolific career, Levertov built on this fascination with the American idiom, creating a highly regarded body of work that embraced a wide range of themes – love poems, protest poems, and poems inspired by her faith in God, a body of poetry that, according to Amy Gerstler in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, possessed “a clear uncluttered voice, a voice committed to acute observations and engagement with the earthly, in all its attendant beauty, mystery and pain.”

Three Poems by Denise Levertov

Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay”, a sentiment that also rings with classical Japanese poetry with its constant theme on the transience of life. Here is a poem by Denise Levertov that evokes this sentiment, of being at once so enraptured in the magnificence of nature and yet fearful that all would soon end.


The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute. 

Beauty, yes but the human condition is also pain, both intermittent and unrelenting. This is revealed in the next poem about the pains of marriage. In her quiet style, Levertov does not mince words as she portrays this pain in bodily terms, the failed attempts at healing and the deep fall into despair. That the poem does not have a resolution arouses an emotional effect that lingers in the reader’s consciousness.

The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it

Looking, Walking, Being

“The World is not something to
Look at, it is something to be in.”
Mark Rudman

I look and look.
Looking’s a way of being: one becomes,
Sometimes, a pair of eyes walking.
Walking wherever looking takes one.

The eyes
Dig and burrow into the world.
They touch
Fanfare, howl, madrigal, clamor.
World and the past of it,
Not only
Visible present, solid and shadow
That looks at one looking.

And language? Rhythms
Of echo and interruption?
A way of breathing.

Breathing to sustain
Walking and looking,
Through the world,
In it.

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