After her death in 1997, the poet Denise Levertov was buried just up the hill from Bruce Lee in Lake View Cemetery. The pairing has always made absolute sense to me. Levertov was a feminist poet, an environmentalist poet, an antiwar poet, but she was also a fiery pilgrim who never wanted to be known as any of those things. She also liked to shop at Elliott Bay Book Company, attend church at St. Joseph, and go for tea at the Sorrento with her friend Jan. Apropos of tea, Bruce Lee said, "When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or drip, or creep, or crash. Be water, my friend."
With the help of volunteers and St. Joseph Parish, the writer and treasure Rebecca Brown has organized Breathing the Water, a three-week-long celebration of Levertov's work that will culminate on May 16, which the City of Seattle has declared Denise Levertov Day. To get the lowdown on Levertov, I caught up with Brown by phone.
Levertov wrote nearly 30 books, mostly poetry, but also a few prose collections. Where did you start with her?
For me, the early stuff is just well-behaved, imitative work. It's about the muse and the body, and there's all sorts of conclusions in them—whatever. The work got really interesting with some of the political poetry later. And the last four or five books—Sands of the Well, Evening Train, A Door in the Hive, The Great Unknowing—they're about the big, big issues: the whole "What is a mountain? Who's God? What's knowledge?" thing. In those later books, she's more in the presence of her materials. Art. The quest for God. Her impending death and illness. And I found something in her posthumous collection, The Great Unknowing, that was more than just poetry for me. A kind of open-ended seeking, not the frantic seeking I'm much more familiar with.
You mean personally?
Oh, absolutely. The last poem of hers that was published in her last book is called "Primary Wonder," and it's a knockout. It feels as if she's getting it for the first time that there's something rather than nothing.
I think I'm safe in saying that Stranger readers aren't widely known for being awed by the Christian mysteries. Does Levertov offer some pleasures to skeptics and raging atheists?
Yep. Her political stuff is fucking fierce. In one of her later poems, "News Report, September 1991," she uses testimony from an article written in the Seattle Times about how our American soldiers bulldozed over 4,000 Iraqi people. It's brutal. If you added up all Levertov's poems, the majority aren't about the Christian thing. We can't fuck the environment and we can't fuck other countries anymore, because that's wrong: That's the bigger chunk of her work. Also: her attitude. She misbehaved appropriately.
Why this celebration of her life now?
During much of her lifetime, she was up at the top of the heap in terms of literary accomplishment. She got the Guggenheim and taught at Stanford. She was published by New Directions. But now nobody teaches her. She's not part of the contemporary conversations about poetry. And I find that a large part of me wants to belligerently say: "Fuck you. She's interesting."
Why has she fallen off the radar?
There are all kinds of reasons. She didn't want to be put in a box, but she was clearly part of communities. She wanted to be acknowledged by her mentors—William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan—but she didn't want to live in their shadows. She was using and being aware of her femaleness as access, but not wanting to be just a girl, or the only girl with the boys, or the "feminist poet." And yet, when she was the poetry editor for the Nation, she published more women than anyone had before.
In her famous poem "Making Peace," she wrote: "But peace, like a poem, / is not there ahead of itself, can't be imagined before it is made, / can't be known except / in the words of its making, / grammar of justice, / syntax of mutual aid." The clear suggestion is that poetry, or maybe just language, could be a means to achieving peace in a political sense. Do you find Levertov naive on this point?
It goes back to the tension between the Shelley line "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" and the Auden line "Poetry makes nothing happen." The poem won't put a bowl of soup in front of you. But I certainly do believe and have seen people respond to literature in a way that is necessary for the continuation of their lives. It gives them a spark of the sense of their own validity. I taught nontraditional students who were treated as or assumed to be stupid, and in talking about poetry, I saw them discover that they're not stupid. That's extremely powerful.