“All too often, working poets, in their lifetimes, are seen in fractions,” wrote Eavan Boland in her introduction to Denise Levertov’s poems. “But a Collected Poems is different; it offers a panoramic view.” Two retrospectives offer a panoramic view of very different English-language poets, mostly against the backdrop of the second half of the twentieth century. Levertov’s Collected Poems has just been reissued in paperback (the hardcover was published in 2013); it contains all the poetry she wrote over the course of more than six decades, from juvenilia to her nineteenth collection, published after her death at age seventy-four in 1997. Anne Stevenson’s Collected Poems draws on sixteen collections published from 1965 to 2020, the year of her death at eighty-seven.

Levertov was born in 1923 and Stevenson in 1933; they were roughly of the same generation. Their divergence makes a neat chiasmus: Levertov was British and emigrated to the US in 1948; Stevenson was American and went to England after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1954. (She settled overseas for good in 1964.) How emigration affected these women and their bodies of work offers a study in contrasts, and prompts larger questions about the role of expatriation in women’s poetry in midcentury, when we take into account the fact that Stevenson wrote books about Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop—who also happened to be expats.

Priscilla Denise Levertoff was born just outside London to a Welsh mother and a Russian Jewish father who had met in Constantinople, married in England, and spent World War I hunkered down in Leipzig, where her father taught Hebrew and Rabbinics, before settling down for good in Ilford, Essex. Descended from a founder of the Chabad branch of Hasidism, Paul Levertoff converted to Anglicanism and earned his living as a priest in the Church of England. Beatrice Levertoff, née Spooner-Jones, was trained as a teacher and homeschooled her daughters, Olga and Denise. Her curriculum included art, music, and literature, and from an early age Denise also enrolled at a ballet school. As a teen she took private art lessons in London and enrichment from the city’s museums.

This idyllic childhood served as an enchanted foundation for Levertov’s poetry. In a poem written after her emigration, “A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England,” she invoked Valentines Park, a locus amoenus, and encoded her own name into it: “I am Essex-born:/Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,/the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves.” It’s hard not to hear an anagram of “Levertov” in “Valentines…resolves”—as though backdating her new, post-immigration spelling and identity. Yet she also wrote, later in life, that she was “among Jews a Goy, among Gentiles…a Jew or at least a half-Jew…among Anglo-Saxons a Celt; in Wales a Londoner…among school children a strange exception.”

This dogged sense of being an interloper, carrying over into her mixed identity as an Anglo-American poet, was fruitful. Her belief in the magic of names reflected her belief in vocation: “Denise,” she claimed, linked her to the god Dionysus; “Levertov” was a second baptism. Descended from holy men on both sides (her mother was a great-granddaughter of the Welsh mystic Angel Jones of Mold), Levertov’s spirituality culminated in her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Despite the cosmopolitanism, the peregrinations, she staked a claim in the dominion of the angels. Rainer Maria Rilke was her idol.

Levertov’s first book, The Double Image—prescient title!—was published in 1946 with the help of Charles Wrey Gardiner, whom she met during the Blitz while she worked in the Civil Nursing Reserve. Gardiner was an editor and publisher associated with the oracular, neo-Romantic New Apocalypse poets, Dylan Thomas foremost among them. But it wasn’t long before Levertov (then still Levertoff) became engaged to the American journalist Mitchell Goodman and began reading American poetry in anticipation of moving to New York. Meanwhile, she was drawn into a correspondence with the smitten San Franscisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, who included her in New British Poets, his 1949 anthology. While in Italy in 1951, she initiated a correspondence with William Carlos Williams, who more than anyone espoused a poetry “in the American grain.” With an ear firmly trained on English verse, Levertov loosened her sense of line and stanza in Williams’s mode, and gained even more admirers. Weldon Kees, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and James Laughlin all vied to publish her first American book, under the name of Levertov.

The distance she traveled, poetically, to arrive at that volume, called Here and Now (1957), can be measured by a poem from each book on the same theme. “Christmas 1944,” from The Double Image, is in blank pentameter, too influenced by Dylan Thomas’s heavy spondaic stresses to be reliably iambic but still beholden to traditional diction and imagery—fusty and somewhat dreary:


Bright cards above the fire bring no friends near,
fire cannot keep the cold from seeping in.
Spindrift sparkle and candles on the tree
make brave pretence of light; but look out of doors:
Evening already surrounds the curtained house,
draws near, watches;
gardens are blue with frost, and every carol
bears a burden of exile, a song of slaves.

A decade later the imagery, the tone, the diction, the contraction of “Christmas,” and the use of E.E. Cummings–inspired ampersands, but most of all the sheer speed make “Xmas Trees on the Bank’s Façade” a thorough volte-face:

The tellers survey from their cages
the silent swinging of gold-edged doors.
Money come, money go.
Don’t go in. Look: whether the wind,
or lights in daylight, or the
cut trees’ lifelike movement, there’s
something wild and
                                    (beyond clerks & clients.)
joyful here. Answerable to no one; least to us.
                        An idiot joy, to recall
the phoenix joys that mock dead fires
   and whisk
     the ashes with their wings.

The difference in register reflects not only a change of country and climate but the change from wartime to postwar society: “Phoenix joys.” This is the New York that Frank O’Hara immortalized. (Meeting him and his coterie as a young wife and mother, Levertov understandably thought them “rather slick.”)

Levertov’s correspondence with Williams led to a camaraderie with another of his protégés, Robert Creeley, then Robert Duncan through Creeley’s friend Charles Olson, and thus inclusion in Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry, 1945–1960, under the section named for the Black Mountain School. Published in 1960, Allen’s anthology marked a break between a traditionalist poetry establishment beholden to the Anglo past and rowdily diverse cohorts—the New York School, the Beats, and the Objectivists, among others—who championed underdogs Ezra Pound and Williams. There could be no firmer proof of Levertov’s assimilation.

Further transformations followed. The tribulations of the 1960s swept Levertov and her husband into leftist activism. She joined a legion of poets protesting the Vietnam War and agitating for the civil rights movement. This came naturally to her: her father and older sister, Olga, had been advocates for refugees and other causes during the Spanish Civil War and World War II; Olga became a committed Communist. Levertov had volunteered for the Civil Nursing Reserve during the war effort, which is how she ended up a nurse at the age of nineteen. But, caught up in the rhetoric of emergency, she began writing poems that some thought were little better than propaganda. Robert Duncan accused her of atrocity porn in these lines, where the jaded consumer of headlines

still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gullies.

The Vietnam era was harrowing in every way; by 1975 Levertov was divorced from Goodman, never to remarry. She lost her sister, Olga, to cancer after a period of estrangement. But she was now famous and a prize magnet. Her books—appearing from New Directions reliably every three years or so—gathered poems woven from recognizable strands: social justice advocacy; confessional, erotic yearning; celebration, in odes or elegies, of literary friends and heroes; and travel. She sought kindred spirits in the lore of saints and angels, and she occasionally confronted the cost of her own spiritual and geographic restlessness, as in this poem from the mid-1970s called “Dream Inscape”:

Mycelium, the delicate white threads
mushrooms weave in their chosen earth
(or manure or leafmold) to grow from

and milkweed silk orioles knit
into hammock nests their eggs
lilt in

and silver timbers
of old barns near salt water—

all of these
dreamed of, woven, knit, mitered
into a vision named “A Visit Home”
(as if there were a home I had,
beyond the houses I live in, or those
I’ve lived in and hold
dimly in mind)
                           that waking
shook apart, out of
coherence, unwove, unraveled, took
beam by beam away, splintered.

Eavan Boland makes the point that America’s first poet was a woman who crossed the Atlantic from Dublin: Anne Bradstreet, in 1630. Boland’s own transpontine arc brought her to Stanford, but aside from Thom Gunn (born in 1929), who moved to San Francisco in the 1950s, no English or Irish poet transplant—not even Auden, who after all didn’t stay—has remade herself personally and prosodically as Levertov did. When the transplantation goes in the other direction, what happens?

The question is a fraught one: we simply can’t believe that America may be stifling rather than liberating. (H.D. certainly thought it was.) Also, what’s liberatory for a poet may not be so forward-looking as we imagine. T.S. Eliot, a gigantic intellectual presence, signaled his return to a cultural homeland when he settled down in London; Pound went further, to Italy, where his Greek and Latin poetic forebears dwelled. H.D. ended up in Switzerland, nearer her German ancestors and the founders of psychoanalysis. It was a fluke that Anne Stevenson was born in Cambridge, England, while her American father, Charles Stevenson, was studying analytic philosophy with Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore. She had a typical upbringing in Ann Arbor, where he ended up teaching and where she herself matriculated, and under John Ciardi’s influence, she said, “began to write lyrical poems in the manner of Frost and Richard Wilbur…and also of a famous young woman called Adrienne Cecile Rich.”


She went to England, married and had a daughter, and led the peripatetic life of a businessman’s wife until she left him, found another English husband, had more children, and stayed for good (with two more husbands in the course of time). She, too, was assimilated into her adopted homeland and its literary circles, and may now be considered more of an English than an American poet. The Library of America made an intervention in 2008 by publishing her Selected Poems, claiming her for these shores, albeit with an introduction by the former British poet laureate Andrew Motion.

Living in America was the title of her first book, published in 1965. If Levertov’s early neo-Romanticism grafted easily onto the American Romanticism of midcentury countercultural poetics, then conversely Stevenson’s neoclassicism found more nourishment in what we might think of as Philip Larkin’s England. (It wasn’t Donald Allen’s anthology that appealed to her but its foil in the Eliotic vein: Donald Hall’s Contemporary American Poetry.) It’s hard to imagine what Stevenson’s work would have come to had she stayed in America. We don’t like our poets this gimlet-eyed:

“Living in America,”
the intelligent people at Harvard say,
“is the price you pay for living in New England.”

Californians think
living in America is a reward
for managing not to live anywhere else.

The rest of the country?
Could it be sagging between two poles,
tastelessly decorated, dangerously overweight?

No. Look closely.
Under cover of light and noise
both shores are hurrying towards each other.

San Francisco
is already half way to Omaha.
Boston is nervously losing its way in Detroit.

Desperately the inhabitants
hope to be saved in the middle.
Pray to the mountains and deserts to keep them apart.

Nor was Britain exempt: “Without nostalgia who could love England?” Her poems on marriage and motherhood are every bit as biting; in “The Mother,” her command of double entendre gives a knife twist to this hybrid of epigram and nursery rhyme:

Of course I love them, they are my children.
That is my daughter and this is my son.
And this is my life I give them to please them.
It has never been used. Keep it safe, pass it on.

If England was—is, still—more receptive to epigrammatic wit, it did not shield Stevenson from the societal upheaval of the Sixties, particularly where the women’s movement was concerned. In 1970 she returned to America for a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute and found the country “in a profound state of discontent…. I was aware of living through a period of acute crisis.” Correspondences (1974) is an epistolary verse novel, Stevenson’s longest work, and a personal response (if an indirect one) to the era. It takes as a framing device the death of a New England matriarch and the conversion of her home into a museum and library housing the family archives, dating from 1829 to the present. The correspondence then unfolds to tell the tale of mercantile, evangelical men and thwarted women: Stevenson based her characters on her own mother’s and father’s families, and the immediate inspiration was the death of her mother, Louise, who had had unrealized writerly ambitions of her own. In the poem Stevenson’s alter ego, Kay, writes to her mother from an asylum after a mental breakdown:

God knows I have fought you long enough…
At what price
dancing in a sweater set and pearls
on the stage sets of your expectations?

But Stevenson’s poem doesn’t just rehearse the modern woman’s all too familiar agon with her mother; it encompasses the specific legacies of Puritanism or Calvinism that shaped successive generations in New England and the Midwest. The men are the more fascinating creatures, in a terrifying way: their principled combination of piety and self-denial fuels commercial zeal and messianic enterprises. Correspondences offers a portrait of American WASPs with their culture of evangelical moneymaking and self-exculpating do-gooderism. The families’ fortunes rise and fall; the lonely and sacrificial wives pay the price. In the end, even Stevenson’s alter ego hasn’t found happiness in the new feminist dispensation, or in the distance she puts between herself and her family’s legacy. As she writes to her surviving parent, “New England is dissolving like a green chemical./Old England bleeds out to meet it in mid-ocean./Nowhere is safe.”

No wonder Andrew Motion called her “a puritan writer who at once honors and contests her inheritance.” There’s also more to the story than what appears in the poem: when Stevenson returned to England after her fellowship, she left her husband and young children for her lover, the poet Philip Hobsbaum. It was while she was suffering from bereavement and a bad conscience that she finished Correspondences, where at the end of the New England family line stands a woman who acts defiantly, if selfishly, no matter the personal cost. “I learned how to put experience into poetry without ‘confessing’ it,” she wrote in her 1979 essay “Writing as a Woman.” Her protest took a different form from those of Levertov and other American peers; despite drawing inspiration from Williams for the free verse of Correspondences, it was this book that signaled her permanent leave-taking, her “good-bye to all that.”

Much of what we know of Stevenson’s life comes from a surprising source: Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, her 1992 investigation of the long aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s death and the biographies it spawned. Stevenson’s own 1989 biography of Plath, Bitter Fame—instigated at the urging of Ted Hughes’s sister, Olwyn—was both rejected by the estate, in the end, and pilloried by the press. It was a debacle that tarred her reputation for years, and just the kind of entanglement that hooked the psychological detective in Malcolm. She called Bitter Fame “by far the most intelligent and the only aesthetically satisfying of the five biographies of Plath written to date.”

Did Stevenson blunder into a snare set by conniving sophisticates who wished to use the American to settle scores? Malcolm seemed to think so, just as she thought the “gushing girl with the Samsonite luggage”—a reference to a fellow student’s description of Plath in Cambridge—was undone not by Hughes but by England. “Anne Stevenson apparently had not subdued the natives but had been captured by them and subjected to God knows what tortures.” But it was Stevenson herself, in a later conversation in Malcolm’s book, who ruminated on the theory that, “like her, Plath was neither prepared nor cut out for the fast track of English poets’ society.”

Stevenson and Plath were close in age and came from the same educated, middle-class milieu; both emigrated to England, attending Cambridge; both married Englishmen. Yet Stevenson’s elegy in Audenesque verse, “Letter to Sylvia Plath,” is a kind of exorcism in language, taking a Plathian vocabulary (terrible, blood-red, dawn, devouring, birth, queen) and working it into disciplined couplets:

Yet life, more terrible, maunches on,
as blood-red light loops back at dawn,
seizing, devouring, giving birth
to the mass atrocity of the earth.
Poor Sylvia, could you not have been
a little smaller than a queen—
a river, not a tidal wave
engulfing all you tried to save?

Ultimately it was not Plath who had a lasting stylistic influence on Stevenson but that other famous expat, Elizabeth Bishop. Stevenson wrote one of the first studies of Bishop’s work for the Twayne’s United States Authors Series, published in 1966; she was barely out of grad school, and by her own admission it wasn’t very good. But in Bishop she found a perfect model to match her own sensibility, while her early acerbic tone mellowed with the years. She broadcasts her poetic debt in the ode “Waving to Elizabeth”; you hear it in “Washing the Clocks,” with its echo of Bishop’s “Sestina”: “Time to go to school, cried/the magnifying lens of the alarm clock./Time to go home now, the school’s/Latin numerals decided.” Most hauntingly, you see it in “With My Sons at Boarhills,” particularly the close looking:

Their bodies are less beautiful than
blue heaven’s pleiades of herring gulls,
or gannets, or that sloop’s sail
sawtoothing the sea as if its
scenery were out of date, as if its
photographs had all been taken:
two boys left naked in a sloughed off summer,
skins and articulate backbones,
fossils for scrapbook or cluttered mantelpiece.

Stevenson wrote of Bishop: “Ideas never do get anything right. Just look, just look.” The meditation on maternity in a seaside setting is also strongly reminiscent of “The Bight” and “At the Fishhouses.” Perhaps most poignantly, we hear the confession lurking behind the depiction precisely because it is not stated; just as Bishop’s mother’s troubling death is the subtext of those poems, Stevenson’s abandonment of her young sons’ care to their father and grandparents provides the dark, unspoken undercurrent to the wistful holiday scene, precisely because it is not stated.

In her essay “The Iceberg and the Ship,” Stevenson reminded us: “As David Kalstone observed as long ago as 1977, Elizabeth Bishop is hard to ‘place.’” Likewise Anne Stevenson. Ironic, for two poets who wrote about geography. Is she a confessional poet or a nature poet or a domestic poet; an American or a British poet; a formalist or an old-fashioned vers libre modernist? (It’s entirely characteristic that she wrote an essay titled “The Trouble with a Word Like Formalism.”) “Defiantly independent,” Jay Parini pronounced in Stevenson’s obituary in The Guardian. She herself seemed to understand that she was hard to place, as her poem “Temporarily in Oxford” ruefully acknowledges:

Where they will bury me
I don’t know.
Many places might not be
sorry to store me.

The Midwest has right of origin.
Already it has welcomed my mother
to its flat sheets.

The English fens that bore me
have been close curiously often.
It seems I can’t get away from
dampness and learning.

“Independent,” for a female poet, is a double-edged compliment. Kenneth Rexroth called Levertov “classically independent,” a way of saving her from the charge that ideology dictated her muse. Stevenson’s innate skepticism—inherited from her philosopher father—disallowed the consolations of faith or political idealism. The fact that both women expressed their independence first by leaving their native countries—like several self-orphaning female poets of the twentieth century, from Plath, Bishop, and H.D. to Mina Loy and Lynette Roberts—tells me that there’s something inhospitable, uninhabitable, in what we call home ground. (Malcolm: “Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.”) Language itself then becomes the foundation on which to build, and on this abstraction we erect a fiction that eventually bends reality to it. Anyway, “American poetry,” “English poetry”—do they mean anything at all, or are they schematically tailored for anthologies and survey courses?

In the end, any collected poems is a world unto itself: for me, a Wunderkammer rather than Boland’s panorama. I think of myself as rummaging through them rather than reading them in the usual sense. I hold one poem up to the light, root around, hold up another, drawn by my own idiosyncrasies, captivated by this or that music. “The difference, perhaps, between a major poet and a minor one,” Stevenson wrote,

has nothing to do with verbal exhibitionism or political righteousness or anything critically definable, but with an inner coherence that mysteriously unifies an entire oeuvre—and confirms it as “tremendously important” in the minds of a great many readers.

I think in this collection Stevenson was better served by her longtime publisher, Neil Astley, who hewed closely to her own selections from each of her books; Levertov’s editors reprint books in toto, making her tome more unwieldy and uneven. But even this reveals something meaningful: the difference between a sensibility that pragmatically acknowledges the limits of a long life’s work (excising, say, “occasional poems”) and one that romantically believes that every word a poet writes is imbued with an “inner coherence.” Is one more British and the other more American? Perhaps both are transformed in the cross-cultural crucible. Isn’t the best-case scenario one in which the language salvages two, three memorable treasures, or even just one, a fractal of the whole, glimmering with an intelligence declaring, in its inimitable way, I lived?