My former colleague Dana Greene, author of a new biography on Denise Levertov, recently talked about the poet at the National Portrait Gallery. (You can go here to watch a PBS clip that splices together parts of her talk and a subsequent interview.) Below is a rough summation of Dana’s comments, along with the poems that she references.
Levertov, Dana says, saw herself as a pilgrim in exile or living on the borderland. This was in part because of her parents: her mother was Welsh, her father a Hassidic Jew from Russia who converted to Christianity. Dana says that, although Levertov announced early in life that she was an agnostic, she was influenced by her father’s Hassidic roots and inspired by a copy of Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim that he gave her. As a result, she saw divine sparks of God everywhere and talked about poems as temples and herself as a poet priest. She saw a deep connection between prayer and poetry, noting that they run on parallel tracks and grow out of solitude and quiet.
Note how her poem “Suspended” functions as a kind of prayer:
I had grasped God’s garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
Levertov, according to Dana, believed that, as a poet, she had a responsibility to engage with the world and with issues of social justice. She saw all of life as double, consisting inevitably of both joy and suffering. For Levertov, Dana notes, “joy is real, torture is real, we strive to make a bridge between them, and we fail or we almost fail.” Levertov felt that to be that bridge—to allow oneself to be nurtured by joy while resisting being destroyed by suffering–is what it means to be fully human. The poem “Jacob’s Ladder” makes the link between the two poles:
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.
On the videoclip, Dana points to one other Levertov passage, the opening lines from “Pleasures,” which show the poet engaged in prayer-like searching:
I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies
within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Levertov speaks for the searching pilgrim in all of us.