The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
New Directions, 2013
960 pp., $49.95
"That Long Short-Cut"
IMAGE journal's selection of Scott Cairns for the eleventh annual Denise Levertov Award is not only a fitting bestowing for its own sake but also one more sign of the persistence of Levertov's reputation in the area of religion and literature. Her poetry continues to be relevant—not least because it remains for some so ripe for critical debate—and her legacy as a poet of faith and, what's more, as a significant figure in 20th-century American poetry generally, shows no signs of abating. Indeed, that is an over-mild way of putting it: in recent years, Levertov is enjoying a biographical and editorial attention rare for any poet, of whatever stature and despite (we might feel) her identification as a Christian poet. She has been the subject of a pair of biographies in the past two years, Dana Greene's Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life and Donna Hollenberg's A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, and my own unscientific survey among fellow poetry teachers suggests that her writing receives university curricular attention as well. Most centrally, though, the publication last year of The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov now allows us to consider Levertov's development and achievement in fuller fashion. It will also give longtime readers a fresh occasion to consider the different phases in this prolific poet's career, and to revisit questions about the nature and quality of those different phases.
Nineteen individual volumes of poetry, whose publication dates range from 1946 to 1999, are included in this edition, and the editors' first service is a strictly functional one—these many stray books are now conveniently bound, and notes at the back provide helpful textual and critical information. I realize this risks stating the obvious—praising a collected edition for collecting an author's writing is a bit like praising water for being wet—but for even serious poetry readers, Levertov is one of those poets whose body of writing has always been difficult to grasp in its entirety. Those many skinny New Directions volumes seem to blend together and proliferate like so many lyrical, excitable rabbits. (John Ashbery is today's example of such a poet, whose many books may similarly overwhelm readers wishing to get a sense of his long, productive career.)
As useful and welcomed as this new Levertov edition is, then, it should also be said that any collected volume of this length and heft (a tidy 1,063 pages, resembling a college student's desk thesaurus) may not be the best book for readers wishing to gain a first impression or compressed recollection of Levertov's poetry. (That said, be sure not to overlook the page after page 1063, which invites readers to a New Directions website featuring 25 audio recordings of Levertov reading her poems—a veritable internet treasure for fans of this poet.) For starters, various selected editions may be preferable, including Selected Poems (2003), with an important introduction by Robert Creeley, or prior collections of early or last poems. Books & Culture readers may find especially interesting The Stream and the Sapphire (1997), a lovely little volume, just about the perfect size for a coat pocket, and subtitled "Selected Poems on Religious Themes." The 38 poems gathered here "trace my own slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith," Levertov writes in a foreword; the collection, she adds, is meant "as a convenience for those readers who are themselves concerned with doubt and faith."
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, then, may find its most suited audience amid the poet's most committed readers. Nevertheless, Eavan Boland's is a model introduction to Levertov, her poetry, her poetic journey, and the evolution of her literary reputation, all of which is covered concisely in seven pages.
Boland is an Irish poet who first met Levertov in Dublin, she tells us, thirty years ago, and she is also a professor at Stanford, where Levertov once taught as well. Boland begins her comments on what Levertov herself called the "borderlands" of her background, as the daughter of a Welsh mother and a Russian Hasidic father who moved to England and became an Anglican priest in Essex. In her autobiographical prose collection Tesserae, Levertov herself evokes this heritage memorably in the short piece "Inheritance," where she tells how her mother, when five years old in 1890, visited an "ancient great-uncle" in North Wales. Every bit the Welsh bard—"He had a long white beard, and wore knee-britches"—this uncle spoke of seeing Napoleon, "Boney himself," on horseback at the Battle of Waterloo. The story makes the narrator, now "living in the age of jets and nukes," marvel at the relative closeness of history. Levertov grew up, Boland explains, in an English poetic era of "rhetoric and incantation," the moment of Dylan Thomas and George Barker, a context that would lend itself to the music beneath the "conversational ease" of Levertov's poems.