(1923 - 1997)




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About marriage

Advent 1966



For Chile, 1977

Laying the Dust

"Le Motif"

Life at War

Note to Olga

O Taste and See


The ache of marriage

The Day the Audiences Walked Out on Me, and Why

The Mutes

In Mind

What Were They Like?



Life at War


The disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough


weighing down a child's stomach on baking day.
Or Rilke said it, 'My heart. . .
Could I say of it, it overflows
with bitterness . . . but no, as though


its contents were simply balled into
formless lumps, thus
do I carry it about.'
The same war


We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it:


the knowledge that humankind,


delicate Man, whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,


whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understanding manifests designs
fairer than the spider's most intricate web,


still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.


We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness; we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—


who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Viet Nam as I write.


Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love;


our nerve filaments twitch with its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has the not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.


The Sorrow Dance, 1967                       

Denise Levertov






























What Were They Like?

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.




O Taste and See


The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see


the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,


grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform


into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being


hungry, and plucking
the fruit.





The ache of marriage



thigh and tongue, beloved,

are heavy with it,

it throbs in the teeth


We look for communion

and are turned away, beloved,

each and each


It is leviathan and we

in its belly

looking for joy, some joy

not to be known outside it


two by two in the ark of

the ache of it.



About Marriage



Don't lock me in wedlock, I want

marriage, an



I told you about the

green light of



        (a veil of quiet befallen

        the downtown park,



        Saturday after

        noon, long

        shadows and cool


        air, scent of

        new grass,

        fresh leaves,


        blossom on the threshold of



        and the birds I met there,

        birds of passage breaking their journey,

        three birds each of a different species:


        the azalea-breasted with round poll, dark,

        the brindled, merry, mousegliding one,

        and the smallest, golden as gorse and wearing

        a black Venetian mask


        and with them the three douce hen-birds

        feathered in tender, lively brown---


        I stood

        a half-hour under the enchantment,

        no-one passed near,

        the birds saw me and


        let me be

        near them.)


It's not


I would be



and meet you


in a green


airy space, not

locked in.






One garland

of flowers, leaves, thorns

was twined round our two necks.

Drawn tight, it could choke us,

yet we loved its scratchy grace,

our fragrant yoke.


We were Siamese twins.

Our blood’s not sure

if it can circulate,

now we are cut apart.

Something in each of us is waiting

to see if we can survive,





My wedding-ring lies in a basket
as if at the bottom of a well.
Nothing will come to fish it back up
and onto my finger again.
                    It lies
among keys to abandoned houses,
nails waiting to be needed and hammered
into some wall,
telephone numbers with no names attached,
idle paperclips.
          It can't be given away
for fear of bringing ill-luck.
          It can't be sold
for the marriage was good in its own
time, though that time is gone.
          Could some artificer
beat into it bright stones, transform it
into a dazzling circlet no one could take
for solemn betrothal or to make promises
living will not let them keep? Change it
into a simple gift I could give in friendship?





In Mind
There's in my mind a woman
of innocence, unadorned but
fair-featured, and smelling of
apples or grass.  She wears
a utopian smock or shift, her hair
is light brown and smooth, and she
is kind and very clean without
              but she has
no imagination.
               And there's a
turbulent moon-ridden girl
or old woman, or both,
dressed in opals and rags, feathers
and torn taffeta,
who knows strange songs---
but she is not kind.



   Advent 1966


Because in Vietnam the vision of a Burning Babe
is multiplied, multiplied,
                         the flesh on fire
not Christ’s, as Soulthwell saw it, prefiguring
the Passion upon the Eve of Christmas,

but wholly human and repeated, repeated,
infant after infant, their names forgotten,
Their sex unknown in the ashes,
set alight, flaming but not vanishing,
not vanishing, as his vision but lingering.

cinders upon the earth or living on
moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed;

because of this my strong sight,
my clear caressive sight, my poets sight I was given
that it might stir me to song,
Is blurred.
           There is a cataract filming over
my inner eyes.  Or else a monstrous insect
has entered my head, and looks out
from my sockets with multiple vision ,

seeing not the unique Holy Infant
burning sublimely, an imagination of redemption,
furnace in which souls are wrought into new life,
but, as off a beltline, more, senseless figures aflame.

And this insect (who is not there-
it is my own eyes do my seeing, the insect
is not there, what I see is there)
will not permit me to look elsewhere,

or if I look, to see except dulled and unfocused
the delicate, firm whole flesh of the still unburned.





The Mutes

Those groans men use
passing a woman on the street
or on the steps of the subway

to tell her she is a female
and their flesh knows it,

are they a sort of tune,
an ugly enough song, sung
by a bird with a slit tongue

but meant for music?

Or are they the muffled roaring
of deafmutes trapped in a building that is
slowly filling with smoke?

Perhaps both.

Such men most often
look as if groan were all they could do,
yet a woman, in spite of herself,

knows it's a tribute:
if she were lacking all grace
they'd pass her in silence:

so it's not only to say she's
a warm hole. It's a word

in grief-language, nothing to do with
primitive, not an ur-language;
language stricken, sickened, cast down

in decrepitude. She wants to
throw the tribute away, dis-
gusted, and can't,

it goes on buzzing in her ear,
it changes the pace of her walk,
the torn posters in echoing corridors

spell it out, it
quakes and gnashes as the train comes in.
Her pulse sullenly

had picked up speed,
but the cars slow down and
jar to a stop while her understanding

keeps on translating:
'Life after life after life goes by

without poetry,
without seemliness,
without love.'




Note to Olga



Of lead and emerald
the reliquary
that knocks my breastbone,


slung round my neck
on a rough invisible rope
that rubs the knob of my spine.


Though I forget you

a red coal from your fire

burns in that box.




On the Times Square sidewalk

we shuffle along, cardboard signs

- Stop the War –

slung round our necks.


The cops

hurry about,

shoulder to shoulder,



Your high soprano

sings out from just

in back of me—


We shall--I turn,

you’re, I very well know,

not there,


and your voice, they say

grew hoarse

from shouting at crowds. . .


yet overcome

sounds then hoarsely

from somewhere in front,


the paddywagon

gapes.--It seems

you that is lifted


limp and ardent

off the dark snow

and shoved in, and driven away.







The Day the  Audiences Walked Out on Me, and Why

                    (May 8th, 1970. Goucher College, Maryland)


Like this it happened:

after the antiphonal reading from the psalms

and the dance of lamentation before the altar,

and the two poems, Life at War and What Were They Like,

I began to rap, and said:


Yes, it is well that we have gathered

in this chapel to remember

the students shot at Kent State,


but let us be sure we know

our gathering is a mockery unless

we remember also

the black students shot at Orangeburg two years ago,

and Fred Hampton murdered in his bed

by the police only months ago.


And while I spoke the people

- girls, older women, a few men –

began to rise and turn

their backs to the altar and leave.


And I went on and said,

Yes, it is well that we remember

all of these, but let us be sure

we know it is hypocrisy

to think of them unless

we make our actions their memorial,

actions of militant resistance.


By then the pews were almost empty

and I returned to my seat and a man stood up

in the back of the quiet chapel

(near the wide-open doors through which

the green of May showed, and the long shadows

                                     of late afternoon)

and said my words

desecrated a holy place.


And a few days later

when some more students (black) were shot

at Jackson, Mississippi,

no one desecrated the white folk’s chapel,

because no memorial service was held.






Author reads the poem, here    

Heavy, heavy, heavy, hand and heart.
We are at war,
bitterly, bitterly at war.

And the buying and selling
buzzes at our heads, a swarm
of busy flies, a kind of innocence.

Gowns of gold sequins are fitted,
sharp-glinting. What harsh rustlings
of silver moiré there are,
to remind me of shrapnel splinters.

And weddings are held in full solemnity
not of desire but of etiquette,
the nuptial pomp of starched lace;
a grim innocence.

And picnic parties return from the beaches
burning with stored sun in the dusk;
children promised a TV show when they get home
fall asleep in the backs of a million station wagons,
sand in their hair, the sound of waves
quietly persistent at their ears.
They are not listening.

Their parents at night
dream and forget their dreams.
They wake in the dark
and make plans. Their sequin plans
glitter into tomorrow.
They buy, they sell.

They fill freezers with food.
Neon signs flash their intentions
into the years ahead.

And at their ears the sound
of the war. They are
not listening, not listening.

                  FALL OF 1967






You who go out on schedule

to kill, do you know

there are eyes that watch you,

eyes whose lids you burned off,

that see you eat your steak

and buy your girlflesh

and sell your PX goods

and sleep?

She is not old,

she whose eyes

know you.

She will outlast you.

She saw

her five young children

writhe and die;

in that hour

she began to watch you,

she whose eyes are open forever.







It was a land where the winged mind

could alight.

Andean silver dazzling the Southern Cross;

the long shore of gold beaten by the Pacific

into translucency vanishing

into Antarctica –


                          yes, these:

              but not for these

our minds flew there,

but because they knew

the poor were singing there

and the homeless

were building there

and the down trodden

were dancing.

How brief it was, that time

when Chile showed us how to rejoice!

How soon the executioners

arrived, making victims

of those who were not born to be victims.

The throats of singers

were punched into silence,

hands of builders


dancers herded

into the pens.

                    How few

all over the earth,

from pole to pole, are the lands

where our minds can perch and be glad,

clapping their wings, a phoenix flock!

From Chile now

they fly affrighted, evil smoke

rises from forest and city,

hopes are scorched.

When will the cheerful hammers sound again?

When will the wretched begin to dance again?

When will guitars again

give forth at the resurrected touch

or broken fingers

a song of revolution reborn?






Era uma terra onde a mente alada

Podia pousar.

Prata andina ofuscando o Cruzeiro do Sul;

as longas costas de ouro batidas pelo Pacífico,

translúcidas, dissolvendo-se

na Antárctida –

     sim, isto:

     mas não foi por isto

que as nossas mentes para ali voaram,

mas porque sabiam

que os pobres lá cantavam

e os que lá não tinham casa


e dançavam

os oprimidos.


Como foi curto esse tempo

em que o Chile nos ensinou o júbilo!

Como chegaram depressa os algozes,

fazendo vítimas

dos que não nasceram para o ser.


Esmurradas, calaram-se

as gargantas dos cantores,


as mãos dos construtores,

arrebanhados os dançarmos

nos currais.


Como são poucas,

por todo o mundo,

de pólo a pólo, as terras

onde as nossas mentes podem, alegres, repousar,

um bando de fénixes adejando!

Hoje, do Chile

fogem aterradas, fumos maus

erguem-se da floresta e da cidade,

esperanças são queimadas.


Quando soarão de novo os martelos da alegria?

Quando começarão de novo os pobres a dançar?

Quando entoarão de novo

as violas, ao toque ressuscitado

dos dedos destruídos

um canto de renascida revolução?








Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993. ISBN 972-708-204-1




Lay down that history

Proof of Denise Levertov's intense life can be found in her New Collected Poems and in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, says David Herd

Saturday October 30, 2004
The Guardian

New Selected Poems
by Denise Levertov
244pp, Bloodaxe, £9.95

The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov
edited by Robert J Bertholf and Albert Gelpi
617pp, Stanford University Press, $39.95

How intensely should you live your life? No, really, how intensely? For Thoreau it was clear. Thinking his Concord neighbours hopelessly caught up in the business of living, Thoreau set out to make an example of himself. He built a house, lived on his own by Walden Pond and, from the splendour of his isolation, threw down a challenge: "You must love the crust of the earth on which you dwell. You must be able to extract nutriment out of a sandheap. You must have so good an appetite as this, else you will live in vain."

Denise Levertov, who among other things had a great ear for epigraphs, cites this at the beginning of her poem "Joy". She might have cited Thoreau at the beginning of many other poems, "Action", for instance, with its deliberate gesture of setting unimportant things aside:

   I can lay down that history
   I can lay down my glasses
   I can lay down the imaginary lists
   of what to forget and what must be
   done. I can shake the sun
   out of my eyes and lay everything down
   on the hot sand, and cross
   the whispering threshold and walk
   right into the clear sea ...

This is what Levertov did; she laid the unimportant things down in order to live an intense life.

Levertov was born in Ilford in 1923. She was lucky enough to miss out on a formal education, being taught at home by her Welsh mother and her Russian immigrant father. She was briefly an apprentice dancer at Sadler's Wells, giving this up to work as a nurse in London during the war, at the end of which, while staying in Switzerland, she met the American writer Mitchell Goodman. She went with him to New York and never came back. Ilford, and the British publication of her first book, The Double Image, notwithstanding, Levertov soon became a thoroughly American poet. Goodman was friends with Robert Creeley, who encouraged Levertov to correspond with William Carlos Williams. At the same time she became associated with Charles Olson's Black Mountain school. This now looks odd. Levertov's poetry of this period shows neither Olson's huge cultural ambition nor his profound formal restlessness. What they had in common, however, was the simpler part of Olson, the desire to make a fresh acquaintance with the world. Often, in her early poems, like "Laying the Dust", Levertov writes as if she is minting the language, as if she had just discovered words, and in discovering words had discovered the things they were capable of revealing:

   What a sweet smell rises
   when you lay the dust -
   bucket after bucket of water thrown
   on the yellow grass.
   The water
   each time you
   make it leap -
   arching its glittering
   The sound of
   more water
   pouring into the pail
   almost quenches my thirst.
   Surely when flowers
   grow here, they'll not
   smell sweeter than this
   wet ground, suddenly black.

And then, if not suddenly, more suddenly than her some of admirers were able to stomach, Levertov stopped writing poems like this, choosing instead to write poems like "Advent 1966":

   Because in Vietnam the vision of a burning Babe
   Is multiplied, multiplied,
   the flesh on fire
   not Christ's, as Southwell saw it, prefiguring
   the Passion upon the Eve of Christmas,
   but wholly human and repeated, repeated,
   infant after infant, their names forgotten,
   their sex unknown in the ashes,
   set alight, flaming but not vanishing,
   not vanishing as his vision after lingering

With the onset of the Vietnam war Levertov asked hard questions of herself. What form, she wanted to know, should the poem take when the thing pressing itself on the consciousness is not thrown water but burning flesh? How can one carry on, in good faith, revealing the beautiful in the full knowledge of the world's horror? How, in other words, do you sit down to write a poem when there are pictures of men being tortured on the front page of your morning paper? Levertov's response to these questions was, as she saw it, to set the unimportant things aside.

One of the most active of poet-protesters against the war, she demonstrated, edited anthologies, organised benefits and, when she had time, wrote chiefly politicised poetry; poetry filled with declarations and pronouncements, filled with knowledge of war. Except that Levertov didn't know the war, didn't know it, anyway, in the way that previously she had thought poetry could and should know things. Whereas before, knowing - in the sense of revelation - had been axiomatic to her work, now her forms were, roughly, the conventional forms of protest, while the content was not that which poetry comes to know, but the stuff of leftist, oppositional opinion. Or so Robert Duncan thought.

Until this point one of her very fiercest admirers, Duncan, also a Black Mountain poet, was horrified at the turn Levertov's poetry took during the war, their correspondence (running to some 700 pages in the Stanford edition) documenting one of the most intense poetic arguments and then one of the most catastrophic splits of the 20th century. "The poet's role", as Duncan puts it, "is not to oppose evil but to imagine it". This is aesthetically persuasive - Duncan cites Shakespeare's Iago - but what it entails is less so: "I draw back from commanding conscience, as I would avoid whatever tyranny of the will ... being so convinced seems deeply involved with conviction for me. And where there is conviction I would be neither convicted nor convicting, but undo the very conviction itself."

Levertov emerges well from the correspondence. This is partly because of the dignity she maintains when Duncan, for all his talk against conviction, becomes increasingly coercive, savaging her book To Stay Alive in page after page of relentless, single-minded, illiberal criticism. And partly she emerges well because what she was aiming for was a poetry which, without losing intensity, might speak to public issues in a public language, which would not reserve itself only for sandheaps and dust. But Duncan was right, I think - and having read the ferociousness of the assault it almost pains one to say it - about her poems. Which is not to say that he was right about the impossibility of a poetry of conviction, or even of a meaningful political poetry. This would be a cause for despair. Where he would seem to have been right is in his sense that, in his terms, by turning her poems over to politics Levertov was turning away from her particular "gift".

Some time after the war Levertov converted to Catholicism, proceeding to write, in the 1980s, a series of religious poems that tend to fail in the way her political poems tended to fail, because again she inhabits pre-established rhetorics and form. It was perhaps this, above all, that she wasn't suited to, as maybe she realised at the end of her life. What this New Selected Poems contains, which the old one didn't, are the very late poems; poems, such as "Le Motif", "Suspended" and "Settling", which move with a rediscovered freedom, and which are untroubled by any expectation or convention. Or with anything at all, save, at this stage in life, the desire to be acquainted with the world.

   Southwest the moon
   full and clear,
   eastward, the sky
   reddening, cloudless
   over fir trees, the dark hill.
   I remember, decades ago,
   "day coming and the moon not gone,"
   the low ridge of the Luberon
   beyond the well
   and Ste Victoire
   shifting its plains and angles
   yet again.

David Herd is the author of John Ashbery and American Poetry: Fit to Cope with Our Occasions. His first collection of poems, Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir, is published next year.