Levertov, Denise, 1923-1997

Alternative names
Birth 1923-10-24
Death 1997-12-20

Biographical notes:

The interview took place at Wells College, New York.

From the description of Audio interviews with poet Denise Levertov by Clive Scott Chisholm : sound recordings, 1973 Jan. 27. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 754864806

Correspondence to Lewis and Sophia Mumford from Denise Levertov and her husband, Mitchell Goodman.

From the description of Letters, 1965-1976, to Lewis and Sophia Mumford. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 155871475

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) was an American poet. Originally born in England, she emigrate to the United States in 1948 and became an American citizen in 1955. She actively protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and worked as a poetry editor for both the Nation (1961-1965) and Mother Jones (1975-1978). In the 1980s she moved into academia, teaching at a variety of institutions including Stanford University (1982-1993). She died in 1997 of complications due to lymphoma.

From the guide to the Denise Levertov Interview Transcript, 1964, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

American poet.

From the description of Denise Levertov manuscripts, [ca. 1970-1984]. (Cornell University Library). WorldCat record id: 63937113

American poet. Born in England of Welsh and Russian parents, she emigrated to the United States with her husband, Mitchell Goodman, in 1948, becoming an American citizen in 1955. She was influenced strongly by William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley.

From the description of Denise Levertov papers, circa 1918-1996. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122540929

Joanne Trautmann Banks met Denise Levertov in the 1970s when she was a member of Banks' NEH -sponsored group, "The Healing Arts." Some of Levertov's contributions to this dialogue group can be seen in a book of the same name, edited by Joanne Trautmann in 1981 and published by Southern Illinois University Press.

From the description of Correspondence with Joanne Trautmann Banks, 1974-2002. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 754864115

Denise Levertov (originally Levertoff) was born in Ilford, Essex, England of Russian and Welsh ancestry. She began writing poetry at the age of twelve. Early supporters of her poetry included T.S. Eliot, Herbert Read, Charles Wrey Gardiner, and Kenneth Rexroth. Her first volume of poetry "The Double Image" was published in England in 1946. After marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman in 1947 , she moved to New York and began developing the style that has made her an internationally respected American poet. She became a naturalized American citizen in 1955. The Black Mountain poets, such as Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley, were an early influence on her work. Creeley was among the first to publish her poetry in the U.S.A. Later, she became involved with "The Writers and Artists Protest Against the War in Vietnam". Her works include "The Jacob's Ladder" (1961), "Relearning the Alphabet" (1970), and "Footprints" (1972). In addition, she taught at many universities throughout the U.S.A. The University of Victoria Libraries Special Collections has a mandate to acquire literary papers.

From the description of Denise Levertov collection. [1940-1967]. (University of Victoria Libraries). WorldCat record id: 651602325

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) was an American poet and antiwar activist.

From the description of Poems, 1958. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 80232531

From the guide to the Denise Levertov poems, 1958., (Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University)

English-born poet who emigrated to the U.S. in 1948; became U.S. citizen in 1956.

From the description of Papers, ca. 1962-1967. (Washington University in St. Louis). WorldCat record id: 26089869

English-born poet.

From the description of Papers, 1962-1967. (Washington University in St. Louis). WorldCat record id: 28419507

Poet Denise Levertov was born and raised in England, where she was home-schooled, and later trained as a nurse. Although she began writing poetry in England, her style developed after she moved to America with her husband. A prolific and highly-regarded writer, her poems are noted for their calm observation and social consciousness. She has also been an activist in the anti-war movement, and has taught poetry, as well as being an essayist, translator, and editor.

From the description of Denise Levertov letters and poems, 1958-1981. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 61727776


Levertov, Denise (24 Oct. 1923 - 20 Dec. 1997), poet, was born in Ilford, Essex, England, to Paul Levertoff and Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff; as an adult she reverted to the traditional spelling of her surname. Her father was a Russian Jew who had converted to Christianity in the late nineteenth century, ultimately becoming an Anglican priest. He traced his ancestry back to the founder of a mystical Hasidic sect that had flourished in Russia in the eighteenth century. Denise Levertov's mother was descended from a well-known Welsh mystic named Angel Jones. Levertov grew up feeling what she later described as "a sense of wonder" at the marvel of creation from the teachings of both of her parents, and although she was not conventionally religious as an adult, her upbringing was undoubtedly the source of a mystical strain underlying much of her poetry.

Levertov, along with her older sister, Olga, was educated at home and never attended school. For "instruction" her mother read aloud to the family daily from works by Dickens, Tolstoy, Conrad, and other great writers. Denise and her sister were encouraged to read widely themselves in the large family library, which included not only classical standards and scholarly books on a number of subjects but also many volumes of poetry. Their father was also a biblical scholar who was fluent in a number of languages, translated several Hebrew classics into English, and wrote a life of St. Paul. As a child Denise studied painting and ballet, and she began to write poetry. At the age of twelve she sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who responded with an encouraging letter of advice, and by her early teens she had decided to become a poet.

Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Levertov trained as a nurse at St. Luke's Hospital in London and remained there for the duration of the conflict. Her wartime experiences, including the eight months in 1940-1941 when the city was under continual aerial bombardment from the Nazis, undoubtedly contributed to the strong antiwar stance that she was to take two decades later. Throughout the war years she wrote verse, some of which was published in local journals, and her first book of poetry, The Double Image, appeared in 1946. After the war ended in 1945, Levertov worked in an antiques store and a bookstore, then went to Europe, supporting herself by working at a hospital in Paris and teaching English in the Netherlands and in Geneva, Switzerland. There she met a young American writer, Mitchell Goodman, and the two were married in December 1947. They lived in Paris and Florence for several months then moved to New York in 1948; their son was born the following year, and she was naturalized in 1955.

Levertov had continued to write poetry during the postwar years, and her career was given an unexpected boost after some of her earlier verses were read by the American poet Kenneth Rexroth. Although he felt that both their neoromantic sentiments and their carefully rhymed and formally metered structure were old-fashioned, he believed that Levertov was a promising new writer, and he included some of her work in his anthology New British Poets (1949). Even more significant was her introduction to the poet Robert Creeley, a friend of her husband's who went on to teach at the celebrated Black Mountain College, an experimental school in Asheville, North Carolina. Creeley, along with the so-called Black Mountain Poets--including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Edward Dorn--with whom he became allied, called for a new "projective," open verse that would supplant traditional "closed" poetry. They believed that most poetry from the recent past was centered in the poet's ego and expressed personal sentiments in arbitrarily constructed lines of constricted language: in a word, it sounded "affected" to contemporary ears. Projective verse, on the other hand, focused on nature and voiced the normal rhythms of human speech and breath. Among modern poets, the projectivists most admired William Carlos Williams, in whose verse could be heard the voices of ordinary people.

Levertov was impressed by Creeley's notions of poetry, and the verse that she now wrote reflected his influence, as well as that of Williams and another American poet, Wallace Stevens. Earlier she had claimed to be most inspired by the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rainier Maria Rilke, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle); now Williams and Stevens, and their distinctly American idiom, joined her pantheon. When Creeley moved on to become a member of the faculty at Black Mountain, Levertov began contributing poems to his new journal, the Black Mountain Review . Her second collection of verse, Here and Now (1957), represented a major departure from the style of her first.

Although Here and Now was published by the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti as part of his Pocket Poets series, Levertov claimed then and afterward that while admiring some of the work of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and several other Beats, she never considered herself one of their number. She strove, she said, for poems with an "inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which [many of the works of the Beats] exist." Poetry, she later noted, had a social function only to the extent that it should "awaken sleepers" rather than giving them violent shocks. Among the many admirers of her second book was Kenneth Rexroth, who later noted how pleased he was to see her move away from the sentimental "lassitude" of her earlier work.

Levertov published several more volumes in succession during the 1950s: Overland to the Islands (1958); Five Poems (1958); and With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959). In these, as well as in Here and Now, she employed free verse to write about ordinary events in life and nature and the pleasure taken in their observation, leaving behind her early mannered style and announcing the birth of her true voice as a poet. Her next volumes, Jacob's Ladder (1961) and O Taste and See (1964), continued in this vein, conveying a delight in natural images and revealing the mystical strain that would become evident in most of her subsequent verse.

Levertov wrote several essays about her mature art, among them "Statement on Poetics" (1959), in which she made the paradoxical observation that while content determined form, "content is discovered only in form." Poets were seers, she wrote, conscious of the layered meaning of that word, and a poet had a "responsibility to communicate what he sees" so that "they who cannot see may see." Her 1965 essay, "Some Notes on Organic Form," which first appeared in Poetry magazine and has been widely anthologized, hazarded an explanation of how a poem came to be written: the poet, she said, had to have an experience so intense that it had to be "brought to speech."

By the early 1960s other critics besides Rexroth were applauding Levertov's poetry, though there were some dissenters who felt that she was following too consciously in the vein of the Black Mountain poets and lacked originality. Her critical and popular audience became increasingly polarized by the end of the decade as Levertov became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. First drawn into opposition when the war escalated in 1965, she led the formation that year of the "Writers' and Artists' Protest against the War in Vietnam." For nearly a decade, until the last American forces were withdrawn in 1973, she was a leader of the antiwar movement, giving speeches and writing articles, some of which were included in her essay collection The Poet in the World (1973). A volume of her poetry, The Sorrow Dance (1967), decried the conflict while also mourning the death of her sister. In addition she visited Hanoi with an American antiwar delegation in 1972, a year that also saw the breakup of her marriage.

Levertov's collection The Freeing of the Dust (1975) included not only antiwar poems but also confessional verse in which she wrote about her present life and loneliness and narrated a spiritual journey that reflected the strong influence of Jungian psychology on her thinking. Levertov expanded on this theme in poems that she wrote during the final two decades of her life, by which time she had secured her status as an important American poet of the twentieth century. She published nearly a dozen volumes of verse during this period, including Candles in Babylon (1982) and the critically acclaimed Breathing the Water (1987), as well as two collections of prose: Light Up the Cave (1981) and New & Selected Essays (1992). Levertov's last book of poetry was Sands of the Well, published in 1996. In the course of her long career she also published translations of Bengali, Bulgarian, and French prose and verse and served as poetry editor of two prominent leftist periodicals, The Nation (1961-1963) and Mother Jones (1975-1978).

Levertov died in Seattle, Washington, of complications from lymphoma.

Citation: Ann T. Keene. "Levertov, Denise"; http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03376.html; American National Biography Online June 2000 Update. Access Date: Tue May 15 15:34:14 PDT 2012

From the guide to the Denise Levertov papers from the estate of Mitchell Goodman, circa 1952-1985, (Dept. of Special Collections & University Archives)

Biography / Administrative History

Denise Levertov, an Anglo-American poet who took up such social and political issues as the Vietnam war and nuclear proliferation, was born in Ilford, England, in 1923. The daughter of a prominent scholar and a Welsh mother, Levertov was privately educated in England before coming to the United States in 1948 with her husband, the American novelist Mitchell Goodman. In nearly fifty years, in 24 volumes of poems, Levertov became one of the United States's most prominent writers. Her writing is uncompromising, dignified by a spare and clear style and with an immediacy of language in the tradition of William Carlos Williams. For example, in "The ache of marriage," Levertov writes:

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.

Collections of her poetry include The Double Image (1946), Here and Now (1957), Overland to the Islands (1958), The Sorrow Dance (1967), Relearning the Alphabet (1970), Footprints (1972), Oblique Prayers (1984), A Door in the Hive (1989), Evening Train (1993), and Sands of the Well (1996).

Denise Levertov died on December 20, 1997. She was 74.


  • 1923 Oct. 24: Born Denise Levertoff, Ilford, Essex, England, second daughter of Paul Philip Levertoff and Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff. Educated privately.
  • 1940: Publishes first poem "Listening to Distant Guns" in Poetry Quarterly.-Vol. 2, no. 4 (Winter 1940), p. 96.
  • 1946: Publishes first volume of poems, The double image (London: The Cresset Press).
  • 1947: Serves as nurse in an English hospital at Paris. Meets Mitchell Goodman in Geneva and marries him December 2nd.
  • 1948: Levertov and Goodman move to New York City. Kenneth Rexroth publishes six of Levertov's poems [Christmas, 1944-The Anteroom-Folding a Shirt-The Barricades-Autumn Journey-Poem ["Some are too much at home..."] in The new British poets : an anthology (Norfolk, CT: New Directions).
  • 1949: Son Nikolai Gregor Goodman born.
  • 1955: Denise Levertov is naturalized a United States citizen.
  • 1957 - 1958 : Lives in Mexico.
  • 1957: First American collection, Here and now (San Francisco: City Lights Bookshop), is published.
  • 1958: Jonathan Williams' Jargon Society publishes Overland to the islands (Highlands, NC : Jonathan Williams, Publisher), as Jargon 19.
  • 1959: With eyes at the back of our heads (New York: New Directions).
  • 1961: The Jacob's ladder (New York: New Directions). Becomes poetry editor for The Nation.
  • 1962: Guggenheim Fellow.
  • 1964: O taste and see: new poems (New York: New Directions).
  • 1965: Writer in residence at City College of New York.
  • 1966 - 1967 : Teaches at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY.
  • 1967: The sorrow dance: poems (New York: New Directions). In praise of Krishna: songs from the Bengali. Edward C. Dimock, Jr. and Denise Levertov, trans. (Garden City: Doubleday). Out of the war shadow : an anthology of current poetry, compiled and edited by Denise Levertov. (New York: War Resisters League).
  • 1968: A tree telling of Orpheus (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press). The cold spring & other poems (New York: New Directions).
  • 1969: Embroideries (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press). Guillevic, Eug?ne. Selected poems. Denise Levertov, trans. (New York: New Directions). Visiting lecturer, University of California, Berkeley.
  • 1969 - 1970 : Visiting professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 1970: Relearning the alphabet (New York: New Directions). Summer poems, 1969 (Berkeley: Oyez ). A new year's garland for my students /MIT 1969-1970. (Mt. Horeb, Wis., Perishable Press). Receives honorary D.Litt. from Colby College.
  • 1971: To stay alive (New York: New Directions).
  • 1972: Footprints (New York: New Directions). Trip with Muriel Rukeyser to Vietnam.
  • 1972 - 1978 : Teaches at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts.
  • 1973: Conversation in Moscow (Cambridge: Hovey St. Press). The poet in the world (New York: New Directions).
  • 1975: The freeing of the dust (New York : New Directions).
  • 1976 - 1978 : Poetry editor, Mother Jones.
  • 1977: Chekhov on the West Heath (Andes, N.Y. : Woolmer/Brotherson). Modulations for solo voice (San Francisco : Five Trees Press).
  • 1977 June 8: Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff dies in Oaxaca, Mexico.
  • 1978: Life in the forest (New York: New Directions).
  • 1979: Collected earlier poems, 1940-1960 (New York: New Directions).
  • 1980: Elected to American Institute of Arts and Letters.
  • 1981: Light up the cave (New York: New Directions). Mass for the day of St. Thomas Didymus (Concord, N.H: William B. Ewert). Pig dreams : scenes from the life of Sylvia (Woodstock, Vt. : Countryman Press). Wanderer's daysong (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press). Begins teaching at Stanford University.
  • 1982: Candles in Babylon (New York: New Directions).
  • 1983: Poems, 1960-1967 (New York: New Directions).
  • 1984: Oblique prayers : new poems with 14 translations from Jean Joubert (New York: New Directions).
  • 1987: Breathing the water (New York: New Directions). Poems, 1968-1972 (New York: New Directions).
  • 1988: Joubert, Jean. Black iris : poems. Denise Levertov, trans. (Port Townsend, WA : Copper Canyon Press).
  • 1989: A door in the hive (New York : New Directions).
  • 1992: New & selected essays (New York : New Directions).
  • 1993: Evening train (New York : New Directions).
  • 1995: Tesserae: memories & suppositions (New York: New Directions).
  • 1996: Sands of the well (New York : New Directions).
  • 1997: The life around us: selected poems on nature (New York : New Directions). The stream & the sapphire : selected poems on religious themes (New York: New Directions).
  • 1997 Feb. 1: Mitchell Goodman died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Temple, Maine. He was 73.
  • 1997 Dec. 20: Denise Levertov died from complications from lymphoma at the Swedish Hospital in Seattle. She was 74. She is survived by her son Nikolai Gregor Goodman.
  • 1998: New Directions releases The letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, edited by Christopher MacGowan.
  • 1999: A posthumous collection of Levertov's poems is released from New Directions, called This Great Unknowing: last poems.

From the guide to the Denise Levertov papers, ca. 1945-1997, (Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.)


Loading Relationships


Ark ID:


  • American literature--20th century
  • Calligraphy--Specimens
  • Artists' books
  • Women authors
  • Women poets, American--20th century--Interviews
  • Alphabet
  • American poetry--20th century
  • Literature and medicine--Congresses
  • Poets, American
  • Calligraphy
  • Paste papers
  • American poetry
  • Literature--American Poetry
  • Publishers and Publishing
  • Poets, American--20th century--Correspondence
  • Literature--British
  • Women poets, American--Correspondence
  • Women poets
  • Manuscripts, American
  • Calligraphy--Awards
  • Women poets, American--20th century--Correspondence
  • Newberry Library Purchase Prize
  • Authors and publishers
  • Authors, American
  • Black Mountain school (Group of poets)
  • Small presses


  • Poets
  • Women authors
  • Women poets, American
  • Poets, American


  • United States (as recorded)
  • Poetry, Modern (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Wisconsin--Madison (as recorded)