The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov
edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi
Stanford University Press, 858 pp., $39.95 (paper)
They wrote over 450 letters to each other between 1953 and 1985, often twice or three times a week, exchanging poems and commenting on them, copying for each other long passages from books they were reading, gossiping about their contemporaries. When they began corresponding, and for many years after, they were two unknown poets, Denise Levertov in New York or Mexico and Robert Duncan in San Francisco, struggling to make ends meet and depending on a small circle of literary friends for moral support. “Poetry’s the wealth poverty buys,” A.R. Ammons says somewhere. They published their poems and essays in small magazines with tiny circulations that were nearly impossible to obtain outside a few bookstores scattered across the country.
Duncan and Levertov rarely met face to face and when they did it was usually for no more than a day or two, and yet they were extremely close for almost thirty years. Levertov shared many of her most intimate secrets with Duncan, who was less forthcoming about his own private life. As she said in an interview, “No matter what anybody else said and however much praise and approval I got from other quarters, if I didn’t have his, it didn’t mean much to me.” Their friendship was gradually broken up during the Vietnam War. They disagreed over how—if at all—poetry could be both politically useful and aesthetically sound. Duncan doubted it could. After a final angry exchange of letters, they stopped corresponding regularly in 1972 and were in touch only on rare occasions until Duncan’s death in 1988. In the richness of their prose and their knowledge and in their escalating drama, their letters read like an epistolary novel with an unhappy ending.
Robert Duncan was born in 1919 in Oakland, California, and adopted as an infant after his mother died in childbirth and his father, who worked as a day laborer, could not afford to keep him. His foster parents were devout theosophists who consulted horoscopes and astrological charts while picking out which child to adopt. He grew up amid séances and meetings of the Hermetic Brotherhood and recalls his elders speaking in hushed or deepened voices, or speaking in voices that were not their own. He was told at that early age that his forebears witnessed the destruction of Atlantis and that he himself was fated to witness a second death of civilization by fire and holocaust.
Duncan went to high school in Bakersfield, and in 1936 enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he traded the writings of Madame Blavatsky and other occult classics for leftist politics. He read Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, published his first poems on social issues and class conflict, and started his own magazine. He dropped out of school in 1938, briefly attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and moved on to Philadelphia to join a male lover who had been one of his instructors at Berkeley.
In 1941 he was …