Carl McColman: Denise Levertov and the Poetics of Mysticism


October 24 of this year marks what would have been Denise Levertov's 90th birthday. With a recently published academic biography and a new anthology of her poetry due this fall, it's encouraging to see that interest remains high for this enigmatic literary figure.

Dana Greene's Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life (University of Illinois Press, 2012) presents a straightforward and accessible consideration of Levertov's journey from young British intellectual to anti-war activist to surprising Catholic convert in her maturity. But unlike others who have retreated into the church as a way of cementing an ideological or political reaction against their youth, Levertov's religious awakening marked not a break with her past, but simply the continued evolution of her singular vision -- an integral vision where poetry, politics and spirituality coinhere.

Part of what makes Levertov's life (and Greene's account of it) such a delight is how her friends, mentors and colleagues comprise a who's who of 20th century letters. From early encouragement by T. S. Eliot to significant relationships with William Carlos Williams and Adrienne Rich, as well as her troubled marriage with novelist/activist Mitchell Goodman, Levertov was part of the literary royalty of her age. Eventually she would also befriend younger writers like Wendell Berry and Alice Walker. Certainly, her devotion to language and the craft of poetry was central to her identity, but contrary to the prevailing intellectual skepticism of our age, she engaged with her rich religious heritage (her ancestors included a rabbi and a Methodist preacher; her father was a Russian Jew who entered the Anglican priesthood). Such engagement led to her own slow conversion from earthy agnosticism to unexpected faith, eventually embracing first Christianity in a general sense, and then Catholicism in the late 1980s, when she was in her 60s. But even as a convert, her faith was shaped by friendships with progressive Catholics like Murray Bodo and Mary Luke Tobin; she expressed distaste for the hierarchy, regarding Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) as emblematic of the church's institutional ills. Unlike Anne Rice, whose mid-life return to Catholicism lasted only about twelve years before she renounced all organized religion, Levertov remained in the church, even with her struggles against its patriarchy and regressive politics, until her death in 1997.

What emerges from Dana Greene's biography is a picture of a woman in love with language, passionate about art, confident in her values and politics, and willing to grapple with both the challenge and the splendor of religious mystery. Of course, all of this informs her literary output, including some 20 volumes of poetry and numerous essays. While religion only became significant to her late in life, spirituality is evident in even her earliest works, such as "Too Easy: to Write of Miracles" (1948) where her dismissal of the "mysterious utterance to silent truth" is contrasted with how difficult it is "to write of the real image" -- perhaps her earliest declaration that spirituality divorced from nature is facile, while a grounded, natural, embodied spirituality challenges the poet to find "a word until it balances with love." Twenty years later she explored mythological themes in "A Tree Telling of Orpheus," and by 1978 her most fully-formed religious poetry began to appear, poems that would be collected in The Stream & the Sapphire: Collected Poems on Religious Themes, published the year of her death. A frequent topic of her explicitly religious poetry is Julian of Norwich, the medieval visionary who wrestled with her own questions about sin and grace, but always against a given assent to God as Love. For Levertov, her struggles with doubt and unbelief seem poised against the God of the mystics, which is to say, the Divine Mystery. Certainly this is highlighted by the title of her final collection of poems: This Great Unknowing.

Levertov expressed reservations about attempts to segregate her "religious" writing from her complete body of work, which makes the new anthology from New Directions, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, so essential. It gathers together every published poem of hers, allowing the full complexity of her rich interior life to form a single statement: a statement encompassing love of nature, passion for justice, and willingness to surrender to the mystery as facets of a richly complex and fully lived life.

In our time, a poet like Christian Wiman seems remarkable because of how honestly he grapples with the mysteries of faith and unbelief in his memoir My Bright Abyss. Wiman's work matters because it shows how art creates a kind of social location where both doubt and ecstasy can be embraced. Nevertheless it is inhabiting a space where Levertov was the pioneer: a mystic of lyrical unknowing, whose words shine in two directions -- toward faith, and toward doubt -- only to reveal that there really is only one direction after all.

Taken with permission from