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Denise Levertov:
the Aesthetics of Politics in a Transcultural Experience

Yolanda Morato

Denise Levertov's life entails a complex biography from the very moment of her birth. Daughter of a Welsh Christian mother and a Russian Jewish father, who became an Anglican priest after having been educated in the Hasidic tradition, her case is not an ordinary story. Neither is Levertov's private education, "Victorian style", that she received from her mother. Her involvement, in the Second World War as a nurse in England and as a political activist when she married Mitchell Goodman and settled down in the United States in 1948, gives an insight of her engagement in social causes. This paper will analyse how "the seventies" were key to her poetry, that culminated in powerful images in the poems that deal with Vietnam. I will also focus on the connection between the wars she was most concerned about: the Second World War and the reactions in the United States against the Vietnam War.

Levertov's poetry is an exercise of liberation and protest. Her vindications are also intrinsically directed towards artists and particularly women, by encouraging them to participate as activists. In the last years of "the sixties", many volumes about the Vietnam War came out, and Levertov contributed to the most significant ones, including Where is Vietnam?, edited by Walter Lowenfels. It is the sense of loss, a feeling applicable to the individual as well as to the community, that which enormously influences the poetry of this period. In "the seventies", many aspects of Levertov's experience reunite: her political consciousness, her unconditional love for nature, and the readings of influencial writers such as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and the Black Mountain school of poets. Therefore, the notions of empowerment and consciousness-raising affected Levertov's discourse, from evoking the war she had experienced when she was in London to the political environment of "the seventies". Levertov's first poetry volume related to Vietnam, The Sorrow Dance, appeared in 1967. In 1973, she went to Vietnam, where she experienced the anxiety she felt when she wrote "Life at War": "burned human flesh / is smelling in Vietnam as I write." Undoubtedly, "the seventies" are decisive years for the study of her work.

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