Selected by Dan Clendenin

Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

The Beginning of Wisdom

You have brought me so far.

I know so much. Names, verbs, images. My mind
overflows, a drawer that can’t close.

Unscathed among the tortured. Ignorant parchment
uninscribed, light strokes only, where a scribe
tried out a pen.

I am so small, a speck of dust
moving across the huge world. The world
a speck of dust in the universe.

Are you holding
the universe? You hold
onto my smallness. How do you grasp it,
how does it not
slip away?

I know so little.

You have brought me so far.

Denise Levertov was born in England to a Welsh mother and a Russian Hasidic father. Her father, who had emigrated to the UK from Leipzig, converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest. She moved to the United States in 1948, and in 1955 became an American citizen. By the time she died in 1997, Levertov had published nearly fifty volumes of poetry, prose, and translations. Levertov taught at Brandeis, MIT, Tufts, Stanford, and the University of Washington. It was at Stanford, where she taught for 11 years (1982–1993) in the Stegner Fellowship program, and where her papers are now housed, that Levertov converted to Christianity at the age of sixty. After moving to Seattle in 1989, she joined the Catholic Church.

For Levertov’s poetry, see Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey (editors), with an Introduction by Eavan Boland, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New York: New Directions, 2013), 1063pp.

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