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Poet Denise Levertov, former creative writing professor, dies
Denise Levertov, an internationally acclaimed poet, essayist and activist who taught in the creative writing program for more than a decade, died of lymphoma in Seattle on Dec. 20. She was 74.
Levertov's deeply passionate musings touched on the wonders of nature, religion and, most evocatively, political injustice. The author of more than 20 volumes, she was a staunch advocate of peace, particularly during the Vietnam War, and an outspoken critic of environmental destruction.
"In times like these, a person with a strong political consciousness, with an awareness of our times and their unprecedented dangers, can not possibly write poems in which that consciousness does not enter in," Levertov told the Stanford Daily in 1982.
Levertov was born in Ilford, England, in 1923. Her mother was a Welsh poet and her father a Russian Jew who adopted Christianity and became an Anglican minister. She and her sister, Olga, were educated at home, where they developed an early appreciation for the arts and literature. Levertov was 17 years old when her first published poem appeared in the Poetry Quarterly in 1940. After World War II, Levertov and her husband, American writer Mitchell Goodman, came to the United States, where she found a creative milieu much different from the one she had left in her native country.
"Feeling the impact of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound really transformed her," said English Professor Albert Gelpi, who added that the "whole rhythm" of Levertov's experience in America was "so different from what she grew up in. She had to remake herself into a poet that was American rather than British."
According to Gelpi, Levertov's career had three phases. In the first, her poetry reflected a sense of awe at the beauty and power of nature. The second phase represented a bleaker consciousness in which she expressed her sorrow at the loss of her sister, Olga, in the '60s and lamented the horrors of the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation and other issues. In the third phase of her writing, Levertov devoted much of her creative energy to religion and spirituality. Each phase, however, was inextricably linked, colleagues said, by her insistence that all life is precious.
"Her whole life was of a piece," said English Professor John Felstiner. "Poetry and politics and religion and people and nature described a circle which was really an organic whole for her," he added.
Felstiner remembered his first encounter with Levertov in the 1960s when, as a visitor to the campus, Levertov read poems opposing the war in Vietnam. "I will never forget that moment; the image of a woman standing in a bright red and blue dress with a pomegranate design on it [reading] a poem about what it felt like to live during the Vietnam War," said Felstiner, who compared his colleague's ability to give a "personal texture" to the political experience to that of William Butler Yeats. "She would never write a word about Washington, D.C., but she wrote what it felt like to live in a political emergency," Felstiner said.
Levertov served on the faculty from 1982 to 1993, teaching one quarter each year. "She was here only three months of the year," said Gelpi, "but she was very much here when she was here. Whatever she did, she did with the totality of her being. She's one of the really informing presences in poetry since the World War II."
Eavan Boland, head of the creative writing program, said that Levertov's gifts extended beyond the literary and activist realm.
"It wasn't just the distinction of her poetry that people remembered, although it was obviously that as well, nor the widely respected radicalism of her stance as an artist. It was also the bright, definite, humane spirit she brought with her everywhere she went," Boland said of Levertov, who had retired by the time Boland came to Stanford.
One of Boland's fondest memories of Levertov is of their time together four years ago at what she described as one of the most important of the Irish poetry festivals in Galway.
"It was a cold spring night. We were walking over a bridge above the Corrib River on our way to the arts center. I could hear the water rushing. And Denise, at the same time, telling me she was going to start her reading she was, of course, an ardent environmentalist by complaining about the litter problem in Galway. My hesitations and protests, my nervousness about western Irish amour-propre, were all drowned out by the water. And sure enough, she complained about the litter problem. And it says everything about her grace, her courage and her determination that she was wildly applauded, gave a wonderful reading and left bright memories there as she did everywhere else."
In addition to teaching and writing, Levertov was the poetry editor for Mother Jones and The Nation. In 1983, she was among the first recipients of New York University's Elmer Holmes Bobst Awards for Arts and Letters. Levertov received the Lannan Foundation's 1993 Poetry Award and in 1996, was presented with the Governor's Award from the Washington State Commission for the Humanities. Levertov's papers were acquired by the Stanford Libraries in 1990.
Levertov and Mitchell Goodman, who died earlier this year, had been divorced since 1974. Their son, Nikolai Goodman, a poet and painter, lives in Seattle. A funeral Mass will be held on Dec. 26 at 11:30 a.m. in St. Joseph Church in Seattle. Memorial services are being planned in Seattle and Stanford.
By Elaine Ray