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The Wealth Poverty Buys


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.”1 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 drafted and sent to San Antonio for basic training but was discharged after declaring his homosexuality. “I am an officially certified fag now,” he told friends.2 Two years later, tired of male lovers, he got married and got divorced several months afterward. As Duncan described it, he next became a gigolo in New York. In 1944, his article “The Homosexual Society,” in which he compared the plight of the gays in contemporary society with that of the Negro and the Jew, appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics. Duncan had a poem accepted and then rejected by John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon Review, who decided on reflection that he saw veiled erotic content in the poem.

In 1945 Duncan was back in Berkeley studying medieval history at the university and befriending the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who introduced him to the poetry of H.D. She became a lifelong influence and the subject of his vast critical study of her work, of which only sections have been published so far. His first book of poems, Heavenly City, Earthly City, came out in 1947, the year he met Charles Olson and visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. His next collection, Medieval Scenes, came out in 1950. The following year, he met the painter and collagist Jess Collins, who would became his lifelong partner and the illustrator of many of his books. For the rest of his life, save for an extended stay in Europe, he lived in San Francisco.

Levertov, who died in 1997, was born in 1923 in Ilford, England. Her Russian-born father was a Hasidic Jew who had converted to Christianity, married a Welsh woman, and ended up being ordained an Anglican priest. Her mother was a singer, painter, and writer whose Welsh ancestors included several visionaries, the most famous of whom was the tailor-preacher Angel Jones of Mold. Levertov and her older sister, who was born in 1914, were both educated at home by their parents, who read to them from the works of such writers as Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy. They never attended regular school. Levertov’s parents were also politically active, protesting fascism in Spain and Germany and providing aid to political refugees from Europe. When she was twelve she sent off some poetry to T.S. Eliot, who kindly replied offering her advice and encouraging her to go on writing.

Her first published poem, “Listening to Distant Guns,” came out in Poetry Quarterly in 1940. During the war, Levertov worked as a civilian nurse in London and had her first book, The Double Image, published in 1946. The following year, working as a nurse in Paris, she met the American novelist and ex-GI Mitchell Goodman. They were married in December and eventually settled in New York City, where their only child, a son, was born in 1949. While Levertov’s older poems were being included in an anthology of New British Poets edited by Kenneth Rexroth, the poetry she was writing now was coming under the influence of American language and the work of William Carlos Williams. She met the poet Robert Creeley, a Harvard classmate of Goodman’s, who introduced her to a number of younger poets and small literary magazines. She first came across Duncan’s name and poetry in 1948 in an issue of the magazine Poetry that she found in the American Library in Florence. It was a review by Muriel Rukeyser of his book Heavenly City, Earthly City, which included these lines:

There is an innocence in women

that asks me, asks me;

It is some hidden thing they are

before which I am innocent.

It is some knowledge of innocence.

Their breasts lie undercover.

Like deer in the shade of foliage,

they breathe deeply and wait;

and the hunter, innocent and terrible,

enters love’s forest.3

In her short memoir of their friendship, written in 1975, Levertov writes that Duncan’s poem, with its archaic diction and romantic sensibility, reminded her of her own. Here was an American poet unafraid of sentimentality, a link for her to an older tradition she grew up with. However, once she married American literature, as she put it, she understood that to survive as a poet she had to start using the language she heard around her. By 1951 she was already sending her work to Williams and receiving his advice on how to revise her poems. He liked the luminous simplicity of her style. The poems she wrote under his influence and that of her friend Robert Creeley, with their avoidance of poetic rhetoric, have little in common with the poems she wrote in England or the lush, ornate verses that Duncan continued to write for the rest of his life.

What they shared was a belief in dream and myth, what Albert Gelpi in his excellent introduction to their collected letters calls “the mystique and metaphysics of the visionary imagination.” For Duncan, imagination is our supreme cognitive faculty, the only one able to take hold of the reality and the mystery of our inner experience. Levertov had no problem with that. “The poet—when he is writing—is a priest,” she writes in an essay; “the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it.”4

Duncan agreed with modernists that everything can be the stuff of poetry but he did not have Levertov’s eye for detail and the interest she took in the physical world. He was a bookish poet. What he missed in modern poems was angels, gods, and abstract ideas. Time and time again, he says, men have chickened out in the fear of what the genius of poetry demands of them. Poetry was brought to heel and made obedient to the criteria of rational discourse and its old role as a vehicle of vision and prophesy suppressed. For Duncan, if a poet is not a seer, he or she is not a poet.

Their first exchange of letters occurred in 1953 when Duncan sent her a poem intended as homage to a poem of hers he had read and admired in a magazine. Levertov did not know what to make of it. There was no name or address, only the postmark San Francisco and the initials R.D. at the bottom of the poem. She found the poem, written in a style of Gertrude Stein, equally puzzling and was not sure whether she was being mocked. If R.D. was Robert Duncan, this did not sound like his poetry. She wrote to him, the misunderstanding was cleared up, apologies made, but it was really only two years later, after their first meeting in New York City, while he and his friend Jess were living in Spain, that their correspondence began in earnest.

We are settled in, with more space than we have ever had before. It is the apartment which the Creeleys had here last year. Somewhat settled in that is, beds and mattresses do not arrive from Palma until Tuesday. And when in the world does the Spanish tongue arrive? Here I am an old gabbler in a town of continual gabble, about anything, and I can only really say goodday.

Levertov replies:

My mother arrived 2 weeks ago and has been ill most of the time since so I’ve had no time or concentration for letters. But I do have 3 poems. Damn it, ever since you were here I’ve felt as if I cd. do so much with just a bit more time & quiet to get hold of things, & I’ve been snowed under with housewifery. Though sometimes I wonder if I don’t tend to produce more under pressure. I am not sure.

In that same letter, Levertov confesses that she is not as enthusiastic about Paul Blackburn’s poetry as Duncan is. Their letters are full of such frank exchanges. Duncan, for example, calls Ginsberg’s Howl and Kaddish as close to poetry as Kipling’s “If,” which he disliked. He revised that view of Ginsberg, somewhat, over the years, but continued to be suspicious of the man, regarding him as a self-promoter who liked to shout like Hitler or an evangelist when he gave readings. Levertov, in turn, describes spending an evening with Robert Lowell and finding to her astonishment that, by her own standards, he did not have an accurate ear for poetry. “Imagine,” she writes, “it never occurred to him to think of Emily Dickinson’s dashes as aural notations, rests or rallentandos.” Much of this back-and-forth is very entertaining, as when Duncan describes for her what to expect when she gives a reading in San Francisco:

  1. 1

    Conversations with Denise Levertov, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), p. 84.

  2. 2

    Paul Christiansen, “Robert Edward Duncan,” from American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 1999), Vol. 7, p. 75.

  3. 3

    Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Ian W. Reid (New Directions, 1979), p. 86.

  4. 4

    Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World (New Directions, 1973), p. 47.

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