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‘A Poet’s Revolution’: a new biography of Denise Levertov
Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s new biography, “A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov,” tells the life story of the award-winning poet who spent her last years living and working in Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov’
by Donna Krolik Hollenberg
University of California Press, 532 pp., $44.95
Like a good teacher, a good biographer opens doors or shows us new things in rooms to which we thought we already had access. Denise Levertov, whose poetry won countless awards and who spent her last few years in Seattle, never stopped exploring her craft and her subjects, but not always in ways that make it easy for her readers to follow. “A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov,” goes a long ways toward letting us in.
Donna Krolik Hollenberg characterizes Levertov’s life and work as a series of “revolutions.” From her birth in England in 1923 — her mother was a Welsh schoolteacher, her father a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest (a “revolution” in which the child played no part but that certainly influenced her) — to her death in Seattle in 1997, Levertov turned and turned again. As Hollenberg puts it, “The splitting apart, the uprooting, although occasionally painful in the living, was nevertheless necessary for the ‘poet of the world’ that Levertov became.”
Even an abbreviated list of those splittings and uprootings makes most people’s lives look like models of constancy: separation from her family to work as a nurse during World War II, further separation to work and travel in Europe in the war’s aftermath, a hasty marriage that took her to the United States, friendships and quarrels with other writers, divorce after 27 years of marriage, long estrangement from and finally reconciliation with her son, conversion to Catholicism in her later years.
And let’s not leave out a long, skeptical evolution toward feminism, a passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam that took her as far as Hanoi and a growing commitment to environmentalism. Each left its mark on her poetry.
Seward Park, a favorite haunt, figures prominently in a number of poems. She “preferred the rabbit trails to the main thoroughfare,” one student remembered, and absorbed the scenery, which Levertov describes in one poem as including a “luminous mountain” and a “real, unreal sky.” Given her fascination with the visual world, it is no surprise that she formed a deep friendship with the Seattle photographer Mary Randlett. Among her poet friends she included Colleen McElroy, now retired from the faculty at the University of Washington, with whom she talked about how “the discrepantly aging body and mind affect one’s sense of time,” Hollenberg writes.
This exhaustively researched biography never gets far from that poetry. Under Hollenberg’s scrutiny a poem is illuminated by its context but not reduced to it. Writing about an unidentified woman, Levertov says she is “stretched proudly / ready to twang or sing at pluck or stroke. / Northward: now her green eyes / are looking, looking for a door.” Like so much 20th-century poetry, these lines can seem cryptic, but Hollenberg shows us that Levertov means to praise both the woman artist in general and a specific woman, as well as all women who, like Levertov herself, find that they cannot, in Hollenberg’s words, “find fulfillment solely in their roles as wives and mothers.”
Hollenberg examines Levertov’s many friendships and rivalries with other poets, and at times the book is almost a who’s who of 20th-century writers. “A Poet’s Revolution” turns the many faces of Denise Levertov’s poetry to the light. It’s a weighty volume, worth every ounce.
Federal Way poet Richard Wakefield is the author of the poetry collection “A Vertical Mile” (Able Muse Press).