Denise Levertov (1923-1997) is the author of 24 books
of poetry, two books of essays and poetics, and a brief
memoir. Her first book The Double Image was published
in England in 1946, and linked her with the neo-romantic
poets. When she moved to the U.S. in 1948 she became
connected with poets William Carlos Williams, Robert
Duncan, Robert Creeley of the Projectivist Black
Mountain Poets. An activist against the Vietnam and all
other wars, Levertov developed a poetry of directness
and stunning image. She taught in many universities. In
her last years in California and then Seattle she was
able to realign her writing with a deep spirituality. These
all seem to me to be keys opening poetry to the writer
A recurring theme of her writing is the subject of
poetry as a sustaining art for the individual and the
culture. Collected here from the poems themselves
are some of her most wise and heart-earned
A black page of night
flutters: dream on or waken,
words will spring from darkness now;
gold-bright, to fill the hollow mind
laid still to hear them, as an iron cup
laid on the window-ledge, would fill with rain.
From “Too Easy to Write of Miracles”
Too easy to write of miracles . . .
Hard, under the honest sun, to weigh
a word until it balances with love—
burden of happiness on fearful shoulders;
in the ease of daylight to discover
what measure has its music, and achieve
the unhaunted country of the final poem.
From “The Shadow”
I need a green and undulating line
the hill’s long contours in my words, to tell
how by unwarranted grace I found this place.
I need the green astonishment of spring,
stillness of music in the mind, to give
the lie to darkness and release the lark.
From “The Air of Life”
The air of life is music; oh, be still
one moment while I listen! But the dark
consumes the sounding minutes constantly;
I cannot rest at any single word,
each is borne down by excess of desire,
is whirled away on rivers like a rose…
From “Relearn the Alphabet”
Relearn the alphabet,
relearn the world, the world
understood anew only in doing, under-
stood only as
looked-up-into out of earth,
the heart an eye looking
the heart a root
planted in earth.
Transmutation is not
under the will’s rule.
Poem: The Jacob’s Ladder
The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angels' feet that only glance in their tread, and
need not touch the stone.
It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a doubtful,
a doubting night gray.
A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:
and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.
The best work is made
from hard, strong materials,
the line of the poem, onyx, steel.
It’s not a question of
to move well and get somewhere
wear shoes that fit . . .
Our lives flower and pass. Only robust
works of the imagination live in eternity,…
The gods dies every day
but sovereign poems go on breathing
in a counter-rhythm that mocks
the frenzy of weapons, their impudent power.
Incise, invent, file no poignance;
make your elusive dream
in the resistant mass of crude substance.
From “The Cloak”
And I walked naked
from the beginning
arrogant in innocence.
From “Staying Alive”
—what I hold fast to, grip
In my fist for amulet, is my love
of those who dare, who do dare
to struggle, dare to reject
unlived life, disdain
to die of that. . . .
O holy innocents! I have
no virtue but to praise
you who belief
life is possible…
From “To Antonio Machado”
I wish you were here alive
to drink of the cold, earthtasting, faithful
to receive the many voices
of this one brook,
to see its dances
of fury and gentleness,
to write the austere poem
you would have known in it.
From"Growth of a Poet"
To make poems is to find
an old chair n the gutter
and bring it home
into the upstairs cave;
a stray horse from the pound,
a stray boat on the weedy shore,
Then in the broken rocking chair
take off--to reality!...
Only the feet begin to dance
when the chair
creaks and gallops
do the gates open
the kingless kingdom.
*This is but a sampling. Her Collected Poems of
Denise Levertov will be released in November.