Denise Levertov, Poet And Professor, Dies At 74

At her death, Denise Levertov was lying in a hospital bed, secure in the warm glow of people she had inspired: friends, family, fellow poets.

Yet, she must have taken special comfort knowing that she was lying, too, in the cool shadow of a mountain that had often inspired her throughout the past decade. In all its guises - massive gleaming monolith, dark hulking presence, floating mirage "akin to a frail white moth" - Mount Rainier had become a talisman in Ms. Levertov's life and art.

She never tired of the mountain, which she would see in ever-changing perspectives during her walks in Seward Park, near the small brick home where she had lived since moving to Seattle in 1989. The mountain is visible, too, from the First Hill neighborhood of Swedish Hospital, where Ms. Levertov died Saturday from complications of lymphoma. She was 74.

Ms. Levertov was, in fact, on intimate terms with Rainier: "I feel your breath/ over the distance,/ you are panting, the sun/ gives you no respite," she told it in "The Mountain Assailed," a poem from her 1996 collection, "Sands of the Well."

It was the last of some 23 volumes of poetry Ms. Levertov had published since 1946, fifty years during which she became one of the major American poets and poetry theorists of this century. She also published a number of collections of essays, translated three volumes of poetry and edited other books.

The closest she came to an autobiography - apart from the

intensely personal observations embedded in her free verse - was a volume of "fragments, composed from time to time in between poems" and titled "Tesserae: Memories and Suppositions." It was published in 1995 by New Directions, the small literary house that published nearly all of her work. Here in Washington, the book won a Governor's Writers Award in 1996.

"She's part of a generation that I think is the most significant generation in poetry in the past 1,000 years - really," said Sam Hamill, the poet and founding editor of Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend.

Hamill, who knew and corresponded with Ms. Levertov for nearly 30 years, was referring to the generation that also produced W.S. Merwin, Hayden Carruth, Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Richard Hugo, James Merrill and Gary Snyder - a group which, he said, compares favorably in range and scope with the classic poets of the Tang Dynasty in 8th-century China.

"And I think Denise, in many ways, was the most influential of any of (her generation)," added Hamill. "She became a kind of people's poet."

Much of her influence was felt in the classroom, he said - she held visiting professorships at many colleges and was professor emerita at Stanford University, where she taught from 1981 to 1994 - and she also was a major critical thinker.

"Her essays on the poetic line are probably the most cogent on the subject of open forms ever written," said Hamill. "She was a terrific essayist and a marvelous poet - and one of the least pretentious poets I've ever met."

Seattle poet Emily Warn, who studied under Ms. Levertov at Stanford, said Ms. Levertov had enriched American poetry by her notions of "organic form" developed through her friendship with the influential American poet, William Carlos Williams, in the 1950s.

"It's remarkable," said Warn. "She came from England, with all its inherited form and diction. But she met Williams, and eventually she helped define and shape 20th-century American poetry - partly through transforming her own sensibility."

That sensibility, which found expression in lyrical verse unfettered by traditional patterns of rhyme or meter, began developing at an early age after her birth in 1923 in Ilford, Essex, England. Ms. Levertov was educated largely at home in a family of peculiarly diverse makeup: Her father was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and who met her mother, a mission-school teacher from Wales, in Istanbul.

After World War II, Ms. Levertov married an American GI, Mitchell Goodman, who was to become a politically active writer and teacher. They moved to the United States in 1948 - she became a U.S. citizen in 1955 - and had a son, Nikolai Goodman, an artist and writer who also moved to Seattle in the early 1990s. Though Ms. Levertov and Goodman divorced in 1974, they remained friends; he died earlier this year.

Like the other poets of her generation that Hamill mentioned, Ms. Levertov won many awards in her long career, including the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize and the Lannan Award.

Ms. Levertov was awarded honorary doctorates by 10 American colleges, including Seattle University in 1995.

Though she was an intensely private artist, she also led an active public life and had intense political beliefs - a fact reflected in her poetry, especially in the 1960s and '70s, when she campaigned in support of the civil-rights movement and against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons.

"Denise was an interesting combination of public and private person," said Jan Wallace, a Seattle poet who was her secretary from 1991 through 1994. "She liked to go hear good music and attend readings and the theater, but at the same time, she was very protective of her `private creative time,' as she called it."

In recent years, Ms. Levertov's poetry also reflected her conversion to Roman Catholicism in the 1980s and a growing preoccupation with nature - often the nature she observed up close, on her rambles through Seward Park, but also the nature seen from afar: that mountain, Rainier.

"She stripped the area's chief landmark and tourist attraction - the one reproduced countless times on license plates, calendars, place mats and postcards - to its essence by calling it simply `the mountain,' " wrote Warn in a tribute to appear in the local literary magazine, Wordscape.

A small funeral is being scheduled at St. Joseph Church, said Wallace, and a larger public memorial service is being planned for sometime after the holidays. ------------------------------------------- "The Mountain Assailed"

Animal mountain, some of your snows are melting. dark streaks reveal your clefts, your secret creases. The light quivers, is it blue, is it gold? I feel your breath over the distance, you are panting, the sun gives you no respite.

Denise Levertov From "Sands of the Well" (1996, New Directions)