The Soul's Well
Born in Essex, England, Denise Levertov moved to America with her husband Mitchell Goodman, was influenced by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, associated with the Black Mountain poets such as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, and moved away from traditional English forms, developing a more "organic," open style. Levertov remade herself into one of the significant and moving voices of conscience, equally at home with the personal and political, in 20th century American poetry.
From her volume The Sorrow Dance, this is the first stanza of her poem, "What Were They Like," written during the Vietnam War: "1) Did the people of Vietnam / use lanterns of stone? / 2) Did they hold ceremonies / to reverence the opening of buds? / 3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter? / 4) Did they use bone and ivory, / 5) Had they an epic poem? / 6) Did they distinguish between speech and singing?"
A courageous poem that humanizes "the enemy" in a time of war, it perhaps typifies Levertov's growing anti-war activism, which was also evidenced by this poem, "Misnomer," composed during the first Gulf War from her collection Evening Train: "They speak of the art of war, / but the arts / draw their light from the soul's well, / and warfare / dries up the soul and draws its power / from a dark and burning wasteland." She seems to me an indispensable poet of the last murderous century.