Monday, October 24, 2016

Birthday: "I am tired of 'the fine art of unhappiness'."


Denise Levertov (1923-1997)
Poet, essayist, activist, educator
Recipient: The Shelley Memorial Poetry Prize; the Robert Frost Medal; The Guggenheim Fellowship.

Hers was a life one couldn’t have made up. Her father, a Russian Hasidic Jew who taught at the University of Leipzig, was interned as an enemy alien in World War I. Emigrating to the UK, he converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest; the church, having no bowl for this fish out of water, sent him to a Jewish neighborhood in London, where he had plenty of time for political activism in the 1930s.

Denise Levertov was home schooled and determined early in life she would be a poet. At the age of twelve she sent a batch of her poems to T.S. Eliot and asked for his opinion, even though I had not shown most of them even to my sister, and certainly to no one else. Months later, when I had forgotten all about this impulsive act, a two- or even three-page typewritten letter from him arrived, full of excellent advice. (Alas, the letter, treasured for many years, vanished in some move from one apartment to another in the 1950s; I've never ceased to hope it may one day resurface),” she said, years later.

She published her first poem at 17; after service as a civilian nurse in World War II, her first book at 23. Hailed as a brilliant new voice for British verse, she met and married an American writer, Mitchell Goodman; they moved to the US a year later and she took citizenship in 1955. Over time she was much influenced by the work of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams- with whom she maintained a lively correspondence- and the Black Mountain poets. Her steady stream of books- 24 collections, including one published after her death- built her critical standing; in the 1960s she was poetry editor of The Nation and a leading literary organizer of Vietnam War opposition. Later, she held a series of teaching appointments at Brandeis, Tufts, Stanford and the University of Washington; settling in Seattle, she became a Catholic in 1990. She died there at 74, in 1997.

Every day is a literary birthday at Stop by for some cake!

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