Biography of Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was born in 1923 in Essex, England. Her mother was Welsh and her father a Russian Hasidic Jew who converted to Christianity. She grew up in a cultured and creative household in which she was encouraged to read and write from an early age. When she was 12, she sent some of her poems to T.S. Eliot. He wrote her a letter encouraging her to continue writing. She published her first book, The Double Image, in 1946. The book focused partly on Levertov's experiences during World War II, when she worked as a civilian nurse while London was being bombed by the Germans. In 1947 she married an American soldier and writer named Mitchell Goodman. She moved with him to the United States and spent most of the rest of her life there, eventually becoming an American citizen.

Levertov is associated with a movement called the New American Poetry. Though she was born in England, she wrote all of her major works in the United States. She was part of a generation of modernist or experimental writers appearing in the 1950s that encompassed Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara. She is sometimes also associated with the Black Mountain School of poetry. This was a loose movement of experimental writers who were inspired by the modernism of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and who spent time at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Levertov rejected this association, though she had personal friendships with Black Mountain poets like Robert Creeley. Starting in 1959 with her book With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, she began publishing with New Directions. This was an important publishing house for new, experimental literature in the mid-twentieth century.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Levertov’s works were mostly focused on the natural world, the imagination, and philosophical questions. Starting in the mid-1960s, she became involved in anti-war activism. Political themes are most apparent in her works The Sorrow Dance (1967), Relearning the Alphabet (1970), and To Stay Alive (1971). She also took part in marches, rallies, and protests during this time. While politics continued to be an important part of her poetry, after 1975 she began turning to other topics as well. Her poems took on a more ecological and religious dimension. Throughout her life, she was celebrated as one of the most important American poets. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in 1962, a Robert Frost Medal in 1990, and a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry in 1993. She died in 1997 in Seattle, Washington.

Study Guides on Works by Denise Levertov

“What Were They Like?” was published in British-American poet Denise Levertov’s 1967 collection The Sorrow Dance. It is an anti-war poem. Levertov had been active in the movement against the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The war gave rise to massive...