A fearless voice: Denise Levertov

As a poet, Denise Levertov, who died earlier this year at the age of seventy-four, actively sought knowledge and wisdom while trying to awaken a heightened consciousness of the rich, rewarding knowability of the world. A little poem, "Whisper," from her book Evening Train (New Directions, 1992) exemplifies her style.
Today the white mist that is weather
is mixed with the sallow tint
of the mist that is smog.
And from it, through it, breathes
a vast whisper:
the mountain.

Writing with a brevity and precision that suggest the haiku, Levertov demonstrated a wonderful command of the complexities of poetic form. Her metaphoric speech became shimmering with a musical incandescence. At its most sensual and most immediately physical, Levertov’s poetry never failed to remind us that finally the reality most sought for is always mysterious, even when most palpable.

I met Denise Levertov about thirty years ago. She was giving an evening reading in San Francisco after spending the day at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Berkeley. She was a poet who boldly addressed the most difficult issues of spirituality and mystical experience, yet was also deeply involved in trying to stop the rankest and most unjust of wars. As a consequence, she became not only a major figure of post-sixties American literature, but a genuine hero of the civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements....

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About the Author

Harold Isbell has been an academic, a banker, and a translator. He lives in San Francisco.