Despite not attending the institution which gave the movement its name, Denise Levertov is commonly associated with the Black Mountain Poets who members include Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. One poet who is not considered a member of the Black Mountain movement is the one who almost certainly wielded the greatest influence on Levertov’s output: William Carlos Williams. Another non-member who may be said to have had an even greater impact of a certain sort is T.S. Eliot. Levertov was just a precociously presumptuous pre-teen when she mailed off a selection of her poems to the legendary T.S. Eliot and waited patiently for a critique. The critique was rather surprisingly quick in forthcoming and what 12-year-old wouldn’t grow to live out the dream of being a poet upon receiving two full pages of encouragement from a Nobel laureate?
Born in England in 1923, Levertov immigrated to America in 1948 and became a U.S. citizen in 1955. She had taken on the mantle of an American before then, however, as evidenced by a powerful strain of appropriately anti-Tory radicalism. Little wonder that Levertov served as poetry editor of Mother Jones magazine in the 1970s. Highly political though she may be, the themes which Levertov touches upon or engages in profound communicate with includes many of the standard subjects that have obsessed poets with no political agenda at all. Levertov’s poems examine the most common of all subjects of verse: love. Penetrate a little deeper into her body of work and uncover the artistry with which she delves into a poem seemingly concerned with love or politics that expands to embrace elements of mysticism or a meta-textual examination of how poems are crafted or how love and politics and mysticism and the very act of writing all inevitably lead in one way or another to a showdown with the emotional price of isolation and solitude.
The poetry condemned as polemics by her harshest critics pretty much rose and crested like a tidal wave during the period of the Vietnam War. And why not? Songwriters and filmmakers looked at the horrors taking place in Southeast Asia by remote control from the power brokers in white marble buildings on Washington and corner offices in New York and Houston. Was poetry supposed to be immune to the world around it? While the poems collected here reveal Levertov to be particularly aware of the worst excesses of venal malevolence masquerading as haughty patriotism, it would be a mistake to assume that opening to any page and pressing the thumb down upon it is going to inevitably reveal beneath the digit work of verse that is part poetry and part op/ed column. The poems of Denise Levertov actually reveal a mind so attuned to the power of her chosen means of expression by age 12 that everything which came after is merely confirmation and demonstration of the wisdom she already possessed then.