Norman Levine –the view from an ethereal distance


Auden’s lines are well-known:-

As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly –

Watching recently a video of the Canadian writer and poet, Norman Levine who lived in St Ives during the creative upsurge of painters and sculptors, the quality of observation from a distance in this man’s work became more apparent to me. It is perhaps not dissimilar to what has become known as the Martian effect as exhibited in the works of Craig Raine. In Canada Made Me”, Levine writes of his experience as an airman during the war. It is this viewpoint, from the vertical dimension, which is intriguing. That is to say, from a position of detatchment during the engagement.

He writes in the chapter entitled Ottowa, “Distance was the buffer, a way of looking that separated our action and its consequences that allowed us to repeat this performance without having any doubts, or pity, or feeling in any way involved.”

Additionally, in a Polish Jewish family living in a French district of Ottowa, gave him the perspective of being an outsider. He lived overseas from Canada and so again was imbued with the modernist condition of being an exile. Displacement and migration have impacted on populations and reinforced feelings of estrangement.(See for instance Catherine Wilson’s review ) The sense of isolation in St Ives was perhaps relieved by the inspiration of being among artists, from whose sparse technique in sketching he sought to learn. Although, Alison Oldham who has written interestingly about Norman Levine in her Tate monograph “Everyone was working”, states in her Guardian obituary rather bleakly that “Frustration was at the centre of Levine’s art, according to the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, who translated the book for an enthusiastic German readership”.

It is perhaps interesting to compare Auden and Levine as transatlantic literati. Auden’s poem from 1930 was written when he was just 23 and has the assumed and assured voice, partly for effect and partly because Auden already held considerable influence over his contemporaries. This was at a stage when most of his knowledge might have been derived from the CCF at Gresham’s. Subject mattersimilar in atmosphere to that shared between Isherwood and that intriguing novelist Edward Upward in their surrealist fantasies about the English village of Mortmere. Auden was to get a closer look at the realities of conlict when he and Isherwood visited the Sino-Japanese War, working on their book Journey to a War (1939). For an analysis of Auden’s poem see

At the age of 23 Norman Levine had just left service as a Lancaster pilot at an air base in North Yorkshire. He was busy making up for his time after service in the R.C.A.F. studying at McGill in Montreal and back to King’s College London having just won a scholarship there. By now with poetry published and a novel in preparation, he arrived in St Ives in the summer of 1949. Although an outsider he obviously found the experimental zeitgeist as well as the working methods of the painters of interest in his own work. He became renowned for his sparse, lean prose and an examination of his personal library discloses his deep interest in Checkhov. He came to evolve a literary technique which he writes about as being the written equivalent of the quick sketch. Stimulated by the landscape, conversation in his short stories start to show affection for the colourful characters whom he was now meeting; Lanyon, Frost, Weschke and a few years later, Francis Bacon.

In a poem,While Waiting for the Birth of a Child, written for his daughter Rachel in late March 1957 he writes:-

I sat there and listened to the suffering in a human voice

And watched the sky become a lighter blue

Until the houses stopped being black and I could see the windows.

And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a small black toy thing,

A bird, fell against the blue sky, caught the telephone wire

Outside my window, balanced itself, and burst into song.

By penwithlit

Freelance writer and radio presenter

15 replies on “Norman Levine –the view from an ethereal distance”

I am Rachael in my late father poem.I thank you for writing about my father along with Auden.I know he liked Auden’s poetry.

I just found your reply.Thank you.Yes the dvd he did all those years ago is excellent,and has in a strange way a timeless quality,even though St.Ives and all the people have changed.The writers voice echoes through the years.

Rachel I am currently researching the Guildford School of Photography for the National Library of Wales LENS Conference Nov 23/24 2012. A ex student (post WW11, I should have said) remembers a Norman Levine there – who was “from overseas originally’. Many students were ex military – being so soon after the war. The School was run by Ifor & Joy Thomas who were Welsh. I have a feeling that it might have been your father and that the guy who contacted me has mis- recalled Canada as “Australia”. He says that NL was older than him but when you are young even ?3 or 3 years older seems like a lifetime. I shall be so grateful if you can help one way or another. Ifor Thomas had taught photography at the Reimann School of Design when it relocated from Berlin to London in 1936. It is possible that your dad met him there originally – most staff were Jewish of course. All Best to you from Wales ( Hay-on-Wye) Rita

Hello Rachael Levine. I have read and collected your father’s works for a long time. I am a huge admirer of his work. There is little information about his daughter and so it is nice to chance upon this message your wrote.

I am not sure you can help me, but I am trying to find a couple of photographs of your dad by Sam Tata and I would like to know if you have any idea of who is responsible for the Sam Tata estate.

Best wishes,


Hello Philip,
I do apologise for not replying before.I have not long aquired a laptop and am still trying to find my way,and i forgot my way to this page!
I am an artist and a paintbrush is (usually) easier to understand than my laptop.
I will reply to your questions as soon as i am confident in giving you the correct information.
I am delighted that you like my dads writing.He was and will always be an inspiration to me as i travel through the years of my life,i realise how very lucky i was to have come from such a creative background.
For now,


Hello Rachel: Thanks for your two replies. I have seen the book of photographs by Sam Tata. I will check the National Archives in Canada myself. I would like to see that BBC documentary on your dad. Where might I find a copy?

Thank you.


Dear Phillip,
I do hope the Canadian Archives yeild light on your search.The film my dad made with BBC Southwest in1972 was never made into a dvd,but only as a video,and there were not many copies made.I can only suggest that you contact a friend of mine,who was the last person to ‘work’ with the film,and she also has done research into post-war writers in Cornwall.She made copies if the film but added subtitles,so her ‘film’ is not the original,but if you can’t get the original 1972 film,her film is a good substitute.
Her address; Alison Oldham.Hook Farm,Chardstock,Axminster,DEVON EX13 7DD
Tel no. 01460 220021.
Hope this is a help.Let me know how it transpires.
Best wishes,

Trying to find out whether Norman Levine ever did a photography course at the iconic Guildford School of Photography under Ifor Thomas. Might have been in the 50s before his book about Canada. I am researching all ex Guildford students for a big Photographic Conference LENS 2012 National Library of Wales. I have heard that there was a Norman Levine there. Can you get in touch Rachel please. I shall be so grateful. Best, Rita Tait) Hay-on-Wye

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