This post first appeared at The Poetry Foundation.
Denise Levertov is one of those rare poets I can call a “prophet” without a trace of irony. She is a figure difficult to place in a contemporary lineage, a woman who often seems to live outside of everyday time. In terms of direct influences, she comes as much from the Anglican saint Dame Julian as from Williams and Eliot. Few can rival her for sheer reverence, for naked faith and pregnant silences… and she seems to have been aware of her gifts her whole life long. It’s “Too Easy: To Write of Miracles,” as an early poem claims. Another echoes that “Silence / surrounds the facts.” Yet this tongue-tied mysticism was to break open over the decades; her shifts of intention and approach are nothing less than tectonic in scale. Eavan Boland, in her introduction to the breathtaking 1,000+ page Collected Poems (New Directions, 2013), usefully divides her massive body of work into three phases. In my own words, these are the inward-looking lyricist (1946-67), the outward-looking interventionist (1968-82), and the integrated faithkeeper (1983-99). Her early fugues explode into literal and figurative riots (as in her cri de coeur To Stay Alive ), then stabilize in the person of an elder. Her later poems achieve a breadth of vision where any plant at all can number among the “Flowers of Sophia,” and any one among us can embody the All.