The Sudden Angel Affrighted Me: God Wrestling in Denise Levertov’s Life and Art

Twin commitments to simultaneously praise the beauty of the world and witness its horrors lie at the heart of poet Denise Levertov’s writing, activism, and spiritual path.

US Postal Stamp of Levertrov

Credit: U.S. Postal Service.

One moment she would be deep in serious conversation on the nature of evil or the future of our planet; then she would suddenly see an iris bloom sticking through a broken fence and break into an improvised ballet step in response. Her essay on “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival” captures the interplay between her commitments to witness and praise: “If we lose the sense of contrast of the opposites to all the grime and gore, the torture, the banality of the computerized apocalypse, we lose the reason for trying to work for redemptive change.”

These twin commitments brought Levertov, an English-born American poet, into intimate connection, as well as passionate conflict, with the Divine. In a very real sense, her faith life, her artistic life, and her political life were all of a piece, and all were informed with the kind of passion that kept Jacob up all night wrestling with an angel, demanding a new name for himself.

This winter marks the fifteenth anniversary of Levertov’s death. She passed away on December 20, 1997, after a long struggle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The United States Post Office recently issued a stamp commemorating her as one of the ten most important poets of the twentieth century, and the first of two critical biographies about her was released this past year, with the other due out this spring.

Although her first, more traditional book was published in England, Levertov came to prominence when she immigrated to America and adapted her English sensibility to the open forms and speech idioms that had been championed by William Carlos Williams. Her passionate denunciation of the Vietnam War, her active participation in antiwar organizing and protests, and her subsequent work on behalf of the environment earned her the devotion of a generation of activists. Her conversion to Catholicism in the last two decades of her life, along with her deeply moving religious poetry, earned her yet another group of devoted fans.

I was fortunate to have Levertov as a teacher, mentor, and great friend, so I am able to offer some insight into her life work by sharing my own reflections on our many personal discussions on politics, poetry, and God wrestling.

A Dynamic Relationship with the Divine

In modern theology, the term God wrestling (which Levertov herself was fond of) has come to mean a creative, dynamic, and above all personal relationship with God, the Bible, and religious tradition. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement, writes in his book God Wrestling II, “What went before we turn and turn like a kaleidoscope; with every turn there appears new beauty, new complexity, new simplicity.”

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