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.
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:
The audiences here are avid and toughend—they’ve survived top poetry read badly; ghastly poetry read ghastly; the mediocre read with theatrical flourish; poets in advanced stages of discomfort, ego-mania bumbling; grand style, relentless insistence, professional down-the-nosism, charm, calm, schizophrenic disorder, pious agony, auto-erotic hypnosis, bellowing, hatred, pity, snarl and snub.
Levertov’s tastes in poetry were much broader than Duncan’s. She has nice things to say about Hayden Carruth, W.S. Merwin, Jim Harrison, Richard Wilbur, and a number of other contemporaries, while Duncan can find little of value in the work of poets beyond his circle, which included Olson and Creeley. For him, there was one and only one true church. He looked upon the poets she recommended as unbelievers and blasphemers. Even a friendly critic and anthologist like Don Allen, whose The New American Poetry (1960) made Duncan’s work widely known, was written off for showing as much interest in Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara as he did in him.
This inflated view of his work should not come as a surprise. Poets can be opinionated and often downright stupid about their contemporaries. While being so, they are forced to define their ideas of poetry in interesting ways. Here’s Duncan explaining to Levertov the kinds of poems he sees their contemporaries are writing:
the conventional poet=the universe and life are chaotic; the poet (the civilized or moral man) is given an order to keep against chaos. Every freedom is a breakdown of form.
the free-verse poet=the universe and man are free only in nature which has been lost in civilized forms. The poet must express his feelings without the trammel of forms. Every formal element is a restraint of true natural feeling. O wild wild wind etc.
the organic poet=the universe and man are members of a form. Our freedom lies in our apprehension of this underlying form, towards which poetic invention and free thought in sciences alike work.
His objection to formal verse and free verse is that they do not encourage innovation in poetic form. The first relies on established conventions and the latter believes in no rules. For Duncan and Levertov, every experience has its own inherent and unrepeatable form which lies there to be discovered. In other words, form is not something the poet gives to things, but something he receives from things. This idea of the primacy of the process of composition over the end product, which has its roots in Emerson’s and Whitman’s poetics, was further developed by Pound, Williams, and their followers. Many other poets and critics don’t see it that way. They are suspicious of a theory and practice that can be primarily corroborated only by a discerning ear. It comes down to subjective judgment—as if there was any other. I can hear an original music in Levertov, but not as often in Duncan’s poems, which for me carry too many reverberations of Romantic and Victorian poetry.
The true test of all these poetic theories came with the war in Vietnam and the need to convey something of the helpless outrage and despair writers felt at the time. Explaining how one of her early war poems got written, Levertov writes:
Looking at the fragile beauty of human bodies I was struck afresh by the extreme strangeness of men actually planning violence upon each other—I mean, it is so bizarre when one stops to think about it, isn’t it. That we can ever take it for granted.
As the war dragged on and more people were slaughtered, Duncan’s and Levertov’s lives were more and more taken over by the events. She marched in peace rallies and participated in group poetry readings to benefit the resistance movement and so did Duncan. He wore a peace button and a black armband in mourning for young Americans conscripted to kill, and he attended a number of demonstrations, including the rally for writers, artists, and intellectuals at the Justice Department and the big march on the Pentagon the following day. Still, when it came to poems reacting to the war, his letters are full of caution. He sees a conflict between Levertov’s admirable desire to stop evil and a poet’s true task, which is to understand the nature of that evil. A poem that forgets that task is either futile or it belongs to a political meaning that has no truth in itself. “Give over trying to win thru the poem,” he advises her.
Anybody like me who went to dozens of antiwar poetry readings during those years would have to agree. Most of the poems one heard were like political speeches or editorials one readily agreed with and then quickly forgot. Among the hundreds of anti-war poems by known and unknown poets, one image sticks in my mind after forty years, from a poem about President Johnson sitting late at night in the kitchen of the White House with a pencil and paper trying to write a poem that will explain to the antiwar poets the kind of political mess he finds himself in. He wants to say that he’s not such a bad guy, but has a tough time finding the right words. I thought it was marvelous. What we usually tend to recall in poetry is a voice that says the unexpected.
On the other hand, when Levertov writes, “I stand fast by what has caused me to feel,” I can comprehend that too. It’s not easy to preserve an aesthetic distance while watching, on the late evening news, villages being burned, men, women, and children being hunted down in their fields. Notwithstanding his cautionary letters, Duncan himself wrote many angry war poems, in one of them going so far as to perceive Satan’s features in Eisenhower’s idiot grin, Nixon’s black jaw, and the sly glare in Goldwater’s eye:
Now Johnson would go up to join the great simulacra of men,
Hitler and Stalin, to work his fame
with planes roaring out from Guam over Asia,
all America become a sea of toiling men
stirred at his will, which would be a bloated thing,
drawing from the underbelly of the nation
such blood and dreams as swell the idiot psyche
out of its courses into an elemental thing
until his name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors
And men wake to see that they are used like things
spent in a great potlatch, this Texas barbecue
of Asia, Africa, and all the Americas,
And the professional military behind him, thinking
to use him as they thought to use Hitler
without losing control of their business of war….
This poem is no good at all as far as I’m concerned. It’s interesting to compare these opening stanzas of “Up Rising” to Levertov’s “Tenebrae,” the poem that annoyed Duncan so much:
Heavy, heavy, heavy, hand and heart.
We are at war,
bitterly, bitterly at war.
And the buying and selling
buzzes at our heads, a swarm
of busy flies, a kind of innocence.
Gowns of gold sequins are fitted,
sharp-glinting. What harsh rustlings
of silver moiré there are,
to remind me of shrapnel splinters.
And weddings are held in full solemnity
not of desire but of etiquette,
the nuptial pomp of starched lace;
a grim innocence.
And picnic parties return from the beaches
burning with stored sun in the dusk;
children promised a TV show when they get home
fall asleep in the backs of a million station wagons,
sand in their hair, the sound of waves
quietly persistent at their ears.
They are not listening.
Their parents at night
dream and forget their dreams.
They wake in the dark
and make plans. Their sequin plans
glitter into tomorrow.
They buy, they sell.
They fill freezers with food.
Neon signs flash their intentions
into the years ahead.
And at their ears the sound
of the war. They are
not listening, not listening.
Duncan charges her with bigotry for writing about women who are so much concerned about their gowns of gold sequins, and about wedding partners who have no genuine desire and TV watchers and hoarders of food, who are accused of not paying any attention to the world. Levertov’s poem, which begins “bitterly bitterly at war,” conveys how the experience engulfs our entire being, but, he writes, it degenerates into the “full solemnity of a political etiquette, or approved moral stand.” Duncan has a point. He had a low opinion of Auden’s poetry, but Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” is precisely the kind of poem that avoids such pitfalls; without moralizing it deals with the same indifference on the part of the public. In the end, Duncan was not being fair to Levertov. How many Americans lost sleep over the millions killed in Indochina? Not many, as we know, and she was understandably appalled. And so was he, when he wrote in an introduction to one of his books of poems:
When in moments of vision I see back of the photographt details and the daily body counts actual bodies in agony and hear—what I hear now is the desolate bellowing of some ox in a ditch—madness starts up in me.5
The truth is that it was not only the war in Vietnam that came between them. Levertov had changed. She no longer needed Duncan as a mentor and that drove him to want even more to win her assent to his view of poetry. “Now Robert,” she writes to him, “I’m risking a great deal in writing you this letter. You know you are a major person in my life & I cannot endure the thought of your being angry with me—but I cannot not write it & keep my self-respect.” The cause of her irritation here is a nasty article Duncan wrote about her friend Hayden Carruth and a letter in which he objected to her increasing support of political violence in opposing the war. The phrase “Revolution or Death” in one of her poems shocked him. He accused her of preparing to wage war under the banner of peace and reminded her that all revolutions have been deeply opposed to the artist.
She replied that clearly he feels that the quality of her work has fallen off because of the time and energy she has spent in political involvements. He counters that by saying that her need to be of service to her cause was in conflict with the aesthetic concerns of the poems. There will always be wars, he tells her, as if that bit of wisdom could be any consolation to a woman whose son was in danger of being drafted and whose husband was about to stand trial and go to jail for being engaged with others in a conspiracy against the military draft law.
In one of the long letters before their final breakup, Levertov admits that, yes, hers is a naive, romantic, emotional point of view. Still, she says, she is impressed by the freedom and the courage and vision of the people in the revolutionary left. As for his accusation of sloganeering, she calls it bullshit and disgustingly elitist. She says in another letter that she has put up with his arrogance for years but has assiduously suppressed such feelings. Wearily, Duncan reminds her that he shares with her the spirit of rebellion and that as a homosexual he knows something about being among the cursed. As it usually happens in long quarrels, both parties take an increasingly dogmatic position until they reach a point where they have nothing more to say to each other. Duncan, to make matters worse, was a convinced Freudian who overanalyzed every word she wrote. He couldn’t free himself of the suspicion that her noble sentiments hid some kind of base personal motive or demonic possession, and that was just too much for her to ever forgive him.
Levertov has left some truly magnificent poems and so has Duncan, though, in my opinion, not as many. However, their poems about the war are not memorable. He argued that poetry should transcend historical actualities and then contradicted himself when he sat down to write; she believed that it must confront them head on while admitting that poetry can only be socially useful if it’s aesthetically sound. Charles Olson, who had an epic poet’s view of things, pointed out, “it’s not either…or, but not only but also…and also.” Of course. Some of the best antiwar poems ever written don’t even mention the subject directly. The lyric and didactic impulses in poetry have always been in conflict and have seldom been reconciled in a poem. Whitman, Pound, Jeffers, Lowell, and a few others managed to do the impossible on a few rare occasions, so we know it can be done, but not in any programmed way. No good poetry can be written to order, regardless of how worthy or pressing the cause. Duncan’s and Levertov’s letters are an invaluable historical document on how difficult it is to respond to such questions while innocent blood is being spilled. They seem to me even more eloquent and relevant today as we find ourselves living through another senseless war.
November 4, 2004
Conversations with Denise Levertov, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), p. 84. ↩
Paul Christiansen, “Robert Edward Duncan,” from American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 1999), Vol. 7, p. 75. ↩
Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Ian W. Reid (New Directions, 1979), p. 86. ↩
Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World (New Directions, 1973), p. 47. ↩
Bending the Bow (New Directions, 1968), p. 1. ↩