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Robert J. Bertholf

The Robert Duncan / Denise Levertov Correspondence:
Duncan’s View

See note [1]

Notes are given at the end of this file. Click on the link to be taken to the note; likewise to return to the text. This piece is 6,500 words or about 10 printed pages long. This piece is 5,500 words or about 8 printed pages long.

The intense emotional and intellectual engagement radiating through the letters of Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan testifies to the commitment the poets made to one another. Each was a spiritualist. Each comprehended meanings in realms of apprehension different from the physical world. For both of them, events of the physical world and perceptions about the nature of living had an order and validity in a spiritual world which existed as a non-morphological presence. The challenge of the poet’s act was to bring into form that world of presence and present it as a revelation of the spirit, an amplification of the activities of living in ordinary circumstances. They shared an intensity of engagement usually reserved for lovers. They did profess love to each other, held huge respect for each other’s poems, and shared a dedication to uncover the possibilities of poetic forms. They were not together that many times over the course of the correspondence, and most of those meetings were sponsored by one household or the other. Poems and letters were their media of communication, not regular visits.

Two larger forces coincided with the relationship. The first is the Viet Nam war. This war and the protests against it reached a focus point between 1968 and 1972, the framing years for Levertov’s movement toward direct action in protests and protesting groups like “Resist,” and Duncan’s attempt to absorb the war into a larger context of cosmic contention. His essay “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife” was published in Caterpillar 8 / 9 [ (October, 1969): 229-249)]. And secondly, Duncan began “The H.D. Book” in 1960, which he wrote through 1961, and then revised in 1963. This book was originally intended as a birthday present to H.D., but once Duncan got started reading the poems and prose and then the books and sources that surrounded the poems and prose, the whole presentation mushroomed into an extended study of modernism, H.D’s. works, and Duncan’s derivation as a poet in three books. Duncan published some chapters in little magazines. He did not finish it, but it like the war dominated his writing and directly fortified his ideas about poetics.

My purpose in this paper is to present Duncan’s side of the correspondence and to account, from his point of view, for the break between the two poets. The first cracks appeared in early 1970, reached the most intense arguments in October / November 1971, and broke apart beyond repair by February 1979. Professor Gelpi has represented Denise Levertov’s position; and he has introduced the whole correspondence.[2] I have no quarrel with him at all. An interesting point is that we both appear in the letters, he as a reader and friend of Denise Levertov and me as a beginning reader of Duncan, “that chap from Kent” as Levertov writes. Duncan prompted me to ask Levertov to write an essay on their correspondence for a book of essays on his poetry that New Directions published. In 1976, I had no idea that I was entering one of the most complex relationships of contemporary poetry, no idea about the dimensions and magnitude of the issues that influenced and determined their relationship. My purpose, then, is to present Duncan’s point of view and not to make judgments, literary or moral, about what was said and what happened.

Robert Duncan at Gotham Book Mart, New York City, 1968

Robert Duncan at Gotham Book Mart, New York City, 1968

From 1953 to 1968, the correspondence between Duncan and Levertov was filled with splendid accounts of the derivation of the poetics of open form by both poets. The letters are intensely literary, full of the news of the day, comments on people and events that we now comprehend as the literary history of the period. Duncan finds his poetics of derivation and revelation, and Levertov takes control of poetic form and in the process emerges as a mature poet. They loved one another, and admired each other’s poems. They sent typescripts of the latest poems to one another as the hottest news of what each was doing. It is a marvelous correspondence full of passionate literary discussions. The Viet Nam War infected the relationship while it provoked serious and poignant reactions in protests against the War. Duncan was as much against the war as Levertov was. “For these men — the Johnsons and Stevensons and Humphries — are creatures of the malevolence that moves liberal and progressive men to enslave a people in the name of their freedom” (L 487). His poems “Uprising,” and “The Multiversity,” are every bit as passionate as Levertov’s poems in To Stay Alive. He was not as active in the social protests, the marches around the nation, and the organizations that protested the war as Levertov was. Finally, their relationship broke apart under the pressure the War generated in their personal lives and in the entire nation.

Robert Duncan in his apartment, San Francisco 1973, photograph by Helen Adam

Robert Duncan in his apartment, San Francisco 1973, photograph by Helen Adam

Duncan was dedicated to the idea of being a poet. The poetics of being a poet were as much a part of his daily living as shopping and cleaning up the dishes. His own work comes into the correspondence from the completion of the book Letters in Paris in 1955, to Bending the Bow in 1968. With The Field, published as The Opening of the Field (1960), he wrote and published books as integrated whole books, with a design and a structure. When Levertov published Here and Now with Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights and Overland to the Islands with Jonathan Williams at the Jargon Society from the same collection of poems in manuscripts, Duncan questioned her motives. Only when the poems were read together did he have a sense of a whole book. In like manner, he reacted strongly against Allen Ginsberg and Philip Lamantia using the poem as a case study in oratory, of overly-dramatic readings which put the personality of the poet before the presentation of the poem. He struggled against the poetic / political power of Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco, especially his radio programs on KPFA, at the same time that he honored Rexroth’s use of erotic themes in his poems, as well as his championing the poetry of Denise Levertov. He struggled too against the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, where he was Assistant Director from September 1956 to July 1 1957, and the exploitation of poetry he found there; but the Poetry Center provided the meeting ground for Jack Spicer’s poetry workshops, and the place where young poets could find a place to read. He argued against conventional verse forms as preconceived structures which determined the poem’s content as passionately as he argued for the derivation of his poetics from the Whitman, Pound, Williams line of literary history. The principles of the “Cleaners’ Manifesto” appear and reappeared throughout the correspondence:

From the March 1948 issue of FOUR PAGES:
1. We must understand what is really happening.
2. If the verse makers of our time are to improve on their immediate precursors, we must be vitally aware of the duration of syllables, of melodic coherence, and the tone leading of vowels.
3. The function of criticism is to debunk by lucidity. (L 195)

Knowing “what is really happening” and the emergence of a poem by “the tone leading of vowels” become touchstones for his poetics of derivation and the poem as revelation.

In the fall of 1968, Duncan published an essay entitled “A Critical Difference of View”[3] in which he took Hayden Carruth and Adrienne Rich to task for their views about William Carlos Williams’s and Louis Zukofsky’s poetics. It was a hostile attack, belligerent and attacking from a high moral standard of literary practice, a passionate defense against what he thought was an assault on the tradition and company from which he was defining himself as a poet:

If shape be taken to mean the appearance of a work as distinguished from form taken to mean the significant structure, Mr. Carruth seems to mean by “imitatively shaped” that Tomlinson has taken over the appearance (as if Williams’s “tercet” were a matter of mere typography like a wing or pyramid poem) as distinguished, one would expect Mr. Carruth to continue, from the form (Williams’s “tercet” being a matter of notation to indicate the actual progression of the line in three phrases or beats and the return to the next line (the versus) with the fourth as first of another progression). But by the time he suggests that Williams’s verse inclines towards the pentameter, it is clear that it has not occurred to him that Williams’s phrasings are of formal significance. By the time the word pentameter describes the measure of blank verse and also of Dr. Williams’s “inclination,” much less his intention, in his later poetry, the word has been divorced from our concern with the rhythmic structure of the poem.

Mr. Carruth considers William Carlos Williams’s articulation of the line in poetry to be a device of an idiosyncratic style or signature — a matter then of private property or copyright — and he questions the propriety of other poets taking over this mannerism — but now he calls it “this form.” As later, he confuses typography (appearance) with notation (form) and we do not know whether Mr. Tomlinson has copied only the appearance of a line articulated into three phrases (in which case he cannot be said to have imitated Dr. Williams’s form) or whether Mr. Tomlinson has taken Dr. Williams’s notation to develop a similar music given the different character of British voice, that seems to measure to Mr. Carruth’s exacting ear as having six iambics with a caesura after the third or even more roughly as having six beats or whatever Mr. Carruth means by the alexandrine, as the Williams line tended in Paul Goodman’s determination ( verse here meaning the return to the margin in conventional verse usually identical with the line) provided a more subtle alternative to single movement of the verse or the traditional phrasing of the line into two parts; he had brought a new variety where the numbers might enter my feet. (L 729–730)

Robert Duncan in the doorway of his house, San Francisco, 1975

Robert Duncan in the doorway of his house, San Francisco, 1975

This kind of writing was part of Duncan’s stance as a poet. He kept a folder labeled “Protestant Letters” for copies of letters protesting issues and actions that disturbed him. The most well-known of these is his review of Robin Blaser’s translations of Nerval’s Les Chimères entitled “Returning to Les Chimères of Gérard de Nerval” of 1967.[4] That essay grew out of Blaser’s reading of his translations at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965. The essay broke the friendship between the two poets that began in 1946 in Berkeley. There are others, the one to James Schevill, who was Director of the San Francisco State Poetry Center, for example:

You write to ask if I would accept a commission of $50 to include my writing a poem for and my reading in a program for the Poetry Center’s forthcoming summer festival at the San Francisco Museum of Art, with “seven or eight leading poets in this area.” There will be, you write further: “an art exhibit showing the relationships between art and poetry.” Nowhere do you name the poets you mean to commission, nor do you indicate any interest at all in presenting poetry in relation to the communities and movements, the ideas, convictions and life in which it arises. I have the dreadful sense that no more meaningful concern underlies your proposed use of my work and my person, divorced from my actual associations and poetics, than that pure vanity in which I might be presented as one of the “leading” poets of the area to substantiate and illustrate the official poetry world represented by the Poetry Center comparable to that other monster of civic enterprise and ambition, the official art world represented by the Museum of Art and the Art Association.[5]

There are several to Ruth Witt-Diamant talking about the behavior of the Poetry Center:

dear Ruth /
One of my greatest disturbances and at times my acute distress in serving as Assistant Director to the Poetry Center was the presentation of the mediocre as the genuine; the duty to find “acceptable” what, if one’s certainty of the genuine were to be calld into operation, would be intolerable. That MacLeish, for instance, is acceptable and even opportune in relation to a public activity like the Poetry Center where it is apparent to a rudimentary sense of the course of poetic spirit that he is neither a minor nor a major poet but a versifier whose skill is limited by the crudity of his sense of language (so that he can only imitate preceding styles) and by his total lack of inspiration. Or that minor poets like Eberhart or Louise Bogan whose inspiration has never moved into the realms of form, who have no poetics, might be considered as teachers.[6]

There are others to Ebbe Borregaard about his museum, to Jonathan Williams protesting the increases in the selling price of Letters, Duncan’s book of poems the Jargon Society published, to the San Francisco newspaper the Chronicle protesting the censorship of Lenore Kandel’s book The Love Book, to Donald Allen about The New American Poetry, or to Grove Press about permissions to reprint poems in anthologies:

The use of passages to be quoted in the course of essays on poetry by critics or scholars can be assumed to be permitted; and I would certainly like to see them so useable for free wherever that can accord with your practices as publisher. BUT IN ANTHOLOGIES PERMISSIONS ARE TO BE ASSUMED TO BE DENIED UNLESS I WRITE SPECIFICALLY OTHERWISE.[7]

There are of course political letters and letters to political leaders such as President Nixon and Senator Alan Cranston. To Senator Cranston Duncan wrote:

I think you will understand how grievous it is for us concerned Americans to come to this day when both the Democratic party and the Republican party have shown in their highest levels addictions to arrogant power, contempt for all truth, and have indulged themselves and defended the insanity of this Asian war and increasingly of an undermining of all domestic welfare even as they mouth good intentions.[8]

So, Duncan’s account of Hayden Carruth’s views on Williams’s and Charles Tomlinson’s poetry was part of a larger habit of taking on issues which offended him and attacking with some rigor. He takes a very high-minded approach to the smallest matters, and with a rhetorical approach practiced by Thomas Carlyle in his essays of social criticism, he complicates the first impressions with an abstracted ideology of poetics. In the end he is unable to change his position, even though new information and ideas come forward to make his position untenable.[9]

In a letter dated February 22, 1970, Levertov takes a stand against Duncan’s attack on Hayden Carruth:

Since you know how much, (& for how long), I love & admire you, dear Robert, I hope I can speak to you about this without incurring your wrath. I feel it was an attack not only factually unjustified and quite disproportionately contentious, but humanly a very thoughtless & cruel act. (L 645)

Levertov points out that Duncan has forgotten what she has told him about Carruth’s life and the difficulties of health he has suffered; certainly he has forgotten that Carruth wrote a very favorable review of Duncan’s book Bending the Bow in The Hudson Review. In a rage inspired by what he thinks is an attack on the Pound / Williams tradition, Duncan abstracts the discussion into the ideology of a poetics that neglects the particular personalities involved. He forgot Carruth as a person in favor of the larger issue and then opened himself to charges that he produced “humanly a very thoughtless and cruel act.” Duncan replies:

Your reproach re. my “Critical Difference of View” is quite justified. In any account I could give of from what my high haunted polemic sprang the fact remains that it was “disproportionately contentious” — what must be saddest to relate is that I raised the question with myself as to whether I ought to rewrite the whole eliminating all reference to Carruth or Adrienne Rich (beyond quoting the two passages that had enraged me) — I did not have in mind Hayden Carruth’s sensitivities and vulnerabilities (for one thing his tone in the review of Tomlinson set the high-handed tone which I took up with a sledge-hammer) tho I certainly did know and was aware that you and Mitch were fond of him, and I have never had the sense that that friendship did not have very real grounds. It doesn’t mitigate my offense here that I was not attacking Hayden in his personal life where I should have had a sense of his vulnerability. (L 647)

Duncan is aware of the nature of his attack, but he does not retrench from his position, and in fact writes “An Addendum” to the letter cited in which he rewrites his position leaving out the personal attacks but not altering the conclusion that Carruth had insulted the Pound / Williams tradition:

There are times when my own views regarding the nature and meaning of poetic form flash forth with an intolerance that betokens remnants of the Puritan bigot in me, whipping the poor would-be heretic anthologist or critic publicly in the stocks or driving him forth from the covenant of the righteous into the wilderness. (L 651)

Levertov responds in a note dated April 4, 1970: “I’m sure you must know how glad your letter made me feel. You’re beautiful. I’d begun to think you weren’t going to write me . . . .” She wrote another note in June, spent the summer in Europe and did not write a substantive letter to Duncan until October 26, 1970. She gives the news, but does not engage in the discussions of poetry or public policy that appeared in most of the letters between them since the beginning. In retrospect, the break with Duncan occurs with the article “A Critical Difference of View.” Levertov has moved into the larger political movement of war protests, expanded her circle of friends and associates at the same time that she has matured as a poet with a determined poetics. In October of that year Duncan sent her a typescript of “Santa Cruz Propositions” in which Levertov appears as “Kali,” and she responds in January 1971:

In what I’m now working on (part IV of “Notebook” poem) I talk about how in fact I’m not Kali at all — cannot (even if I wd.) sustain that anger — but this is not an objection to being mythologized, only a personal disclaimer. Will send it to you soon. (L 658)

With a letter dated September 22, 1971, Levertov sent Duncan a typescript of the poems for “Staying Alive.” Between this letter and Duncan’s response in a letter dated October 4, 1971 there are just a few shorter letters none of which raises substantive issues. Duncan had written earlier that he was aware just how much the protests against the Viet Nam War were taking over Levertov life’s and dominating her personality. He responded to her personally. But in the letter of October 4, 1971, he has abstracted the discussion to the “Revolution or Death” theme:

The question is the poetry and not the revolution — the book clearly isn’t “revolutionary” in the sense of the poem — and the theme may be anguish. I feel that revolution, politics, making history, is one of the great falsehoods — is Orc in his burning madness — this is not to disapprove of the fire’s raging. But Art has only one place in which to be and that is in our own lives right now. That’s how I read Blake’s insistence on the loss of the creative. It would take Art, anyway, to get this matter of revolution into the dimension of the revealed, to create the idea, something more than and toward which one’s longing goes. (L 660–661)

He goes on to discuss the issue of the People’s Park in Berkeley as being used in her poems as a false poetic idea, an idea of political action not immersed in the appearance of poetic form.

Levertov asks for a clarification of his objections to the poems of Staying Alive, and he responds in a letter dated October 16, 1971 by first citing Yeats’s Autobiographies:

About contention, I came across this in Yeats’s Autobiographies (while working on the final copy for chapter Five of “Beginnings,” H.D. Book I.): “All creation is from conflict, whether with our own mind or with that of others, and the historian who dreams of bloodless victory wrongs the wounded veterans.” And reflecting upon the problems of To Stay Alive in relation to the nature of the “Revolution or Death” proposition (or threat? or vow? or ultimatum?), has brought me at last to read Camus in whose The Rebel I find the chapter “Rebellion and Art” begins: “Art is the activity that exalts and denies simultaneously” and “art should give us a final perspective on the content of rebellion.” (L 663)

Duncan’s response has now been launched on the issue of the relationship of these poems to his position established so forcefully in “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife” in terms of a Blakean contrary of good and evil: without contention, Blake argues, there can be no progress in poetry or in society. Duncan thinks that he now becomes part of the contention for Levertov’s poems, and he sees example after example of ways in which she has allowed personalized pain and anger to take over the forms of the poem, allowing the poem to be the vehicle for the message, breaking the poem into its form and its content against every principle of “organic form” both poets valued. She has betrayed the principle of the poem as revelation for the poem as a means to advance political revolution.

But this letter which roams through Nietzsche, Celtic and Roman history, discussions of Kali and Blake, is a prelude to the long attack on the poems in a letter dated October 19, November 3, 1971.

But our initial breakthru was not to be concernd with form as conservative or as revolutionary, but with form as the direct vehicle and medium of content. Which means and still means for me that we do not say something by means of the poem but the poem itself the immediacy of saying — it has its own meaning. And in that is as immediate as the dream. We may go with the force of it, and the poem as deeply as we can as we write [this “is” the ultimate craft or cunning of the poem] or we may not be able to read it or able to countenance what it is saying — then we will get the kind of cover-up of the content in the protestation of a moral attitude, a neurosis, etc. (L 668)

You remember that you are committed to “opposition to the whole system of insane greed, or racism and imperialism” — a political stance: but we are the more aware that it comes to forestall any imagination of what that system is, any creation of such a system of greed, racism and imperialism. These, Denny, are empty and vain slogans because those who use them are destitute of any imagination of or feeling of what such greed, racism or imperialism is like. The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it. (L 669)

In an earlier letter dated January 12, 1961 RD wrote to Levertov:

To imagine what the good is and to imagine what evil is, what goods there are and what evils! This is releasing to our powers, it helps us prepare for actual works — and we’re often mistaken in our imaginations. (L 275)

Throughout this letter, Duncan begins a discussion, modifies it by adding another frame of reference — the role of criticism, the role of poetry, Shakespeare — then another and then another; so returning to a poem like “Tenebrae” for an example then takes the poem away into an intensely complicated and abstracted argument.[10] The principle remains constant: Levertov has betrayed the poem as revelation by allowing it to speak for revolution in place of the assertion of poetic form.

What I find myself getting at is that your verse form has become habituated to commenting and personalizing just where the poem itself begins to open out beyond the persona into your imagination of a “you,” a “world” or a history beyond your idea of yourself or your personal history. (L 669)

He then winds back to the People’s Park by asserting: “Those who thought they had merely ‘made for each other / a green place’ and couldn’t see that the green place was staked out upon a battleground for sure. This kind of thinking outrages me” (L 672–673). His own outrage is intensified by the layers of abstraction surrounding the original lines in Levertov’s poem. However, the means of argument spins around and around until it gets woven into an ideology intolerant even of itself in particular events.

Levertov’s response in a letter dated October 2–November 2, 1971 is long and passionate and rests on her first point that his discussion is based on: “‘Willful misapprehensions’ is perhaps a cliché but it is apt: willful because the misapprehensions are based on prejudices, opinionated preconceptions, a need to make things fit with your projections” (L 674–675). She continues: “Don’t attribute your own complexities of mind & of intention to others — or not to me anyway. I mean really — do stop it. It’s just silly” (L 679). And then in a strong exclamation in caps:

. . . these, Denny, are empty and vapid slogans because those who use them are destitute of any imagination or feeling of what such greed, racism or imperialism is like.” THAT HAS NOT BEEN MY EXPERIENCE AND I THINK IT IS BULLSHIT, WHAT YOU SAY, AND I WOULD SAY IT IS DISGUSTINGLY ELITIST IF I DID NOT KNOW YOU WOULD IMMEDIATELY DISMISS THAT AS ANOTHER EMPTY SLOGAN. BUT I’M SAYING IT ANYWAY. And I find your tone here offensively patronizing into the bargain — sounds like Uncle Cid [Corman] at his worst. (L 683)

Following Levertov’s letter, Duncan wrote two more dated November 8, 1971, and November 9, 1971 and continues his line of argument under the idea that:

It seems to me, Denny, that both the protestation of an esthetic and of an historical justification are mistaken. Your decisions are so clearly not esthetic in character but — as I once as I remember in writing to you realized mine own were — sentimental. We both need to intensify and keep alive as a challenge the challenge of the esthetic. If that word refer to what is pleasing to the senses as the beautiful and not have its ground in a heightend sense [kinesthetic and proprioceptive] [RD’s] of formal elements — the formal elements of the language we build with — then I have no use for esthetics anyway. You’ve got to force that word to mean something before it fits at all as a term in poetry. (L 683)

One of Duncan’s purposes in writing these long explanations is to get himself prepared to write an essay on To Stay Alive. Levertov responded in a letter dated November 9, 1971 that “We have said some harsh things to each other” (L 693). She proposes that Duncan suspend the writing on his essay about her poems for a year and a day, so after one more long letter about her positions dated November 11, 1971, he accepts in a short note dated November 12, 1971.

At this point the intensity of their relationship has ended. The break is clear. In her reaction to Duncan’s essay on Hayden Carruth, Levertov made the point that Duncan had neglected to take the personal life of Carruth into account, and so was lead away into an elaborate discussion and then to make false and cruel statements. When Duncan began writing about To Stay Alive, he launched himself into a reiteration of his poetics based on his own derivations, and his own speculations about the nature of poetry and poetic form. Some of these speculations he shared in letters of the late 1950s and early 1960s with Levertov. “I am drawn by the conceptual imagination rather than the perceptual imagination. By the correspondences and counterpoints of several levels of composition” (L 215). This self-analysis from 1959 applies directly to the writing of the 1970s. Duncan sought out complexity. They agreed that the poem was a revelation, a spiritual statement that could reveal aspects of living even as it enacted poetic form. When Duncan began work on “The H.D. Book” his method of exposition changed so that in each discussion he restated all the literary and personal factors that pertained to a poem or an event in H.D.’s life; and this process was further tangled by inserting his own derivation as a poet into the historical narrative. He was using the idea of the poem as revelation to substantiate a method of writing prose as revelation: in any chapter he did not know what he was to conclude, so he stated again and again the factors focusing the event under discussion in order to discover the conclusions inherent in the materials. It was a cumbersome process. In spring 1973, Duncan announced that “The H.D. Book” was too complicated and that he was unable to finish it. He had defeated himself with his own procedures.

In Bending the Bow (1968), Duncan included the first thirty of “The Passages Poems,” and then in Tribunals he included “The Passages Poems 31–35,” ending with the monumental and visionary “Before the Judgment: Passages 35.” In 1968, Duncan also published The Truth and Life of Myth, his central statment about the operations of the mythopoetic mode in poetry. The years of reading and deriving himself from a multitude of sources, and the years of practicing the process of writing with the sounds of words leading on to meaning were now focusing into major poems and essays. He was thinking and writing and talking in his most concentrated and articulate way. All of these forces of articulation drove his dissection of Levertov’s poems from To Stay Alive.

He approached her poems as he approached the writing of “The H.D.Book” and “The Passages Poems”; here the procedures were woven into the speculations about the nature of poetry and poetic form. He created great complexity waiting for revelation. Even though he earlier recognized that the war and the protests against the war were flooding over Levertov’s life, when he came around to the discussions of the poems he recognized “anguish” as an aesthetic principle in the poems and not the human pain that Levertov was suffering.[11] He had created such a complicated and abstracted process and substance of thought that he was unable to react to Levertov’s pain on a particular, human level. When he finally was able to write to Levertov as one person to another he did not renounce his position or change his mind. And it was a footnote in James F. Mersmann’s book Out of The Vietnam Vortex that ended the possibility of friendship. Duncan pointed out the “sadism and masochism” in Levertov’s war poems.[12] He did not apologize for his remarks; neither did he recant them. The human level suffered for the guarantee of a poetics.

Works Cited

Bertholf, Robert J. and Albert Gelpi eds. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Duncan, Robert. “A Critical Difference of View.” Stony Brook 3 / 4 (Fall 1968): 360–363; reprinted in L 929–733.

———. “Returning to Les Chimères of Gérard de Nerval.” Audit / Poetry, IV.3 (1967): 42–64

———. “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife.” Caterpillar 8 / 9 (October, 1969): 229-249).

Mersmann, James F , Out of The Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry Against the War. Lawrence, Kansas: The University Press of Kansas, 1974.


[1] The first version of this essay was presented as a paper at “The Opening of the Field” poetry conference at The University of Maine, July 2000.

[2] The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi (Stanford: Sanford Univ. Press, 2004). Cited as L plus page in the text.

[3] First published as “A Critical Difference of View,” Stony Brook 3 / 4 (Fall 1968): 360–363; reprinted in L 929–733.

[4] “Returning to Les Chimères of Gérard de Nerval,” Audit / Poetry IV. 3 (1967): 42–64

[5] Letter dated January 4, 1972.

[6] Letter dated November 27, 1957.

[7] Letter dated June 14, 1967.

[8] Letter dated May 12, 1970.

[9] Duncan attributed his temper and anger level to high blood pressure. In the letters he talks about not taking the medications in order to ride the high of the high blood pressure to new perceptions. He might have had high blood pressure, but he also had a malfunctioning valve in his heart that forced his heart to pump more vigorously to circulate the blood. The heart developed a large extra muscle. This condition was not discovered until two months before Duncan’s death.

[10] Duncan’s discussion of Levertov’s poems is framed by a discussion of poetics which gets more abstract as the letter goes on. The discussion progresses: his projection, their love, Hans Hofmann, Narcissus to impulse of art, public occasions of poetry, James Dickey’s fantasies, the poet in History (French Revolution and Hitler), “Tenebrae,” a tremendum of the war, content of poem vs. dream and moralizing, women’s liberation, Levertov does not go into the poem, form in poetry, poet’s role to imagine evil, multiphasic character of language, Buddhist imagination, poetics, the violations in the poems, examples, coprophilias spasm, People’s Park, Judy Collins, poets, Shakespeare and Brecht, Olga poems. When he takes up the letter again on November 3, 1971 he states his procedure:

These pages above have waited now two weeks and returning I am still involved in tracing out and unwinding lines of thought and reaction until a structure of response appears. Sharing with you the working out of a contention—not to change your cause but to bring into that course, into your reading of the poem, the consciousness of an other reading, or other readings. (L 670)

[11] “Denny, the last poem brings with it an agonizing sense of how the monstrosity of this nation’s War is taking over your life, and I wish that I could advance some—not consolation, there is none—wisdom of how we are to at once bear constant (faithful and ever present) testimony to our grief for those suffering in the War and our knowledge that the government of the United States is so immediately the agency of death and destruction of human and natural goods, and at the same time continue as constantly in our work (which must face and contain somehow this appalling and would-be spiritually destroying evidence of what human kind will do—for it has to do with the imagination of what is going on in Man) now, more than ever, to keep alive the immediacy of the ideal and of the eternal. (Letter dated December 16, 1966)”

[12] James F. Mersmann , Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry Against the War (Lawrence, Kansas: The University Press of Kansas, 1974): 94; reprinted in L 749.

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