Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was an English-born poet, essayist and political activist who wrote matter-of-fact verse on both personal and political themes. She’s known for such works as The Sorrow Dance and The Freeing of the Dust.


Born in England in 1923, poet Denise Levertov began writing at a young age, sharing some of her poems with T.S. Eliot when she was 12 years old. Levertov published her first poetry collection, The Double Image, in England in 1940. Seventeen years later, she had her American collection, Here and Now, released. In the 1960s, Levertov was active in the anti-war movement in the United States. Additionally, she worked as a poetry editor for The Nation in the '60s and for Mother Jones in the '70s. Levertov died in 1997.

Early Life

Poet and activist Denise Levertov was born on October 24, 1923, in Ilford, England, and had an unusual upbringing. She was homeschooled by her parents and grew up on the works of Alfred Tennyson and other great writers. Around the age of 5, Levertov expressed an interest in becoming a writer. She was only 12 years old when she sent some of her poems to T.S. Eliot, who, in turn, offered her some advice on writing.

During World War II, Levertov worked as a nurse in London. She also kept writing, publishing her first poem, Poetry Quarterly, in 1940. Six years later, Levertov debuted her first collection of poetry, entitled The Double Image (1946), which earned her great acclaim. She married American writer Mitchell Goodman in 1947. The couple moved to the United States the following year, and welcomed a son, Nikola, in 1949.

Prominent Poet and Activist

Levertov drew inspiration from the works of such modern poets as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. She also developed a close friendship with fellow poet Robert Creeley, whom she met through her husband. In the 1950s, she published several works in the Black Mountain Review, edited by Creeley at the time. Levertov, along with Creeley, Edward Dorn and Robert Duncan, was often referred to as one of the Black Mountain poets.

In 1957, Levertov published her first poetry collection in the United States, Here and Now. She became known for her accessible style, using simple language and images to transform the commonplace into something new.

Levertov served as poetry editor for The Nation in the early 1960s. In 1963, she received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.

As the '60s progressed, Levertov began to focus more on social and political issues in her work. She was outspoken in her opposition to the Vietnam War, and helped form the Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam. In 1967, she served as editor for a poetry collection produced by the War Resisters League. Levertov's political and social activism could be seen in such collections as The Sorrow Dance (1967) and To Stay Alive (1971).

Levertov won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1975 for Freeing the Dust. That same year, she and her husband divorced. She worked as a poetry editor for Mother Jones magazine around this time. Over the years, Levertov also worked as a professor at many colleges, including Tufts University and Stanford University.

In Her Final Years

Throughout her career, Levertov wrote prose in addition to poetry. She wrote her most personal essays in her 1995 book, Tesserae: Memories and Suppositions.

Levertov died on December 20, 1997, at the age of 74, in a Seattle, Washington, hospital. According to The New York Times, her death was caused by complications of lymphoma.

In tribute to Levertov, Robert Creeley called her "a remarkable and transforming poet," in an interview with The New York Times, adding, "She always had a vivid emotional response and also a completely dedicated sense of political and social need."

Two years after her death, readers got a chance to enjoy Levertov's final reflections in This Great Unknowing: Last Poems.

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