Writing in an effortless vernacular style, displaying deep political engagements and a mystical streak both dreamy and grounded in the physical world, Denise Levertov (1923–1997) was both a key American poet of the late 20th century and a stubborn eccentric. Levertov stood always a little apart, never at ease for long in any school or group, more than once breaking abruptly with even her closest poetic friends and mentors. With deep spiritual traditions from both sides of her family, she pursued religious issues and themes throughout her large body of work, especially after her late and somewhat uneasy conversion to Catholicism. As two new biographies and a massive collection of her poems show, this vivid, restless, and distinctive poet’s work and life remain relevant and rewarding.

Levertov was something of a prodigy, and a bold one. At age 12 she sent T. S. Eliot a letter and some poems and received an encouraging reply. Mainly educated at home in England, she served as a nurse during World War II. After the war she traveled in Europe. In Paris she met American writer and activist Mitchell Goodman; they married quickly and moved to the United States in 1948, when Levertov was pregnant with their only child, Nikolai. Levertov published her first book, The Double Image (1946), while still in her early twenties. (She changed the spelling of her name in the 1950s to distinguish herself from her sister Olga, also a published poet.)

The move to America was important to her writing. She soon left behind the rather sticky neo-Romantic style of her early poems (“you will listen no more, now, to the sounding sea”). Reading and meeting William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and other American poets freshened her language and expanded her sense of what poems might be and do. But throughout her career Levertov maintained an essentially Romantic sensibility, a fascination with the depth, beauty, and anguish of the world, and the conviction that the poet’s vocation was to explore and evoke those mysteries through the medium of language.