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Robert J. Bertholf

From Robert Duncan’s Notebooks: On Denise Levertov

Transcribed and edited by Robert J. Bertholf and James Maynard. © The Literary Estate of Robert Duncan.
This piece is 3,000 words or about 7 printed pages long.

From Notebook 23: November 29, 1957

Of Denise Levertov’s work: when I consider her work in regard to my feeling of the course, as it may be influenced or shaped, of poetic energies in history it seems minor: I do not have the sense of great alterations, because of new concept, in the possibility of what a poem might be. But when I consider her work in relation to my feeling of my own poetry, its course and possible achievements, it is major: I have the certainty that both in her use of language toward the poem and in her poetry as it opens fresh routes and particular insights in experience she presents a challenge. Olson’s Maximus, like Pound’s Cantos substantially change and renew my vision of potentialities. Creeley and Denise Levertov, like Marianne Moore or William Carlos Williams in the preceding period, give a particular measure of what achievement must be. I am quite certain that, whatever my differences (and they are definitive), I belong to the second category — or rather, that my work does not move into the realm of potentialities projected, but must be taken, like Denise Levertov’s or Robert Creeley’s, as limited in its imagination and energies to the immediate. I can imagine a larger scope, a “universe” being more included in that immediate. My criticism, my sense of the crisis in which we have either to enlarge our feeing or to become mannerd, is that the “achieved” must struggle (as much as the “potential”) toward width and depth in intensity. The order of the achieved comes with the interplay of a total work. And Shakespeare has shown us how powerful, how ever where moving an enclosed art can be. Mastery, within process, is possible, that is — even where one does not have the temper — well, the genius — that initiates process. In the other — in the work of Pound or Olson, I find mastery, disturbd by (that is, our sense of that mastery is disturbd by) the fact that it is unsettled in relation to the immediate poetry (in relation to the life-work) and projects its achievement out over energies and forms that include the works and achievements of others. Their largest vision thrives on incompletion. Even tho Olson is a contemporary I have always the sense of inheriting from his work: where with Creeley and Denise Levertov I have the sense of approximating.

From Notebook 43: September 21, 1971


(reading To Stay Alive)


“I have heard professors of literature snicker with embarrassment” (because the poet was “immodest, narcissistic”)
(“unfinished,” open-ended)

the young

“for the sense my individual history gives me of being straddled between places extends to the more universal sense any writer my age — rooted in a cultural past barely shared by younger readers, yet committed to a solidarity of hope and struggle with the revolutionary young — must have of being almost unbearably, painfully, straddled across time


“The sense of community, of fellowship, experienced in the People’s Park in Berkeley in 1969, deepened and intensified under the vicious police attack that, for middle-class whites especially, was so instructive.”

the whole

“many of us who have come bit by bit to the knowledge that opposition to the war, whose foul air we have breathed so long that by now we are almost choked forever by it, cannot be separated from opposition to the whole system of insane greed, of racism and imperialism, of which war is only the inevitable expression.”

intended: “not as mere ‘confessional’ autobiography, but a document of some historical value, a record of one person’s inner/ outer experience in America during the 60s . . .”

Its earnest lies in some historical value.


“The high pitch of / nagging insistence . . .”
“You wanted  / to shout the world it its senses, /
did you? — to browbeat / the poor

“Black one, black one / there was a white
candle in your heart”

“stung into alien semblances by the lash of her will”

those endless arguments, pressing on

to manipulate lives to disaster . . .

“Black one  incubus —  / she appeared / riding
anguish as Tartars ride mares / over the stubble
of bad years”

haggard and rouged / lit by the flare
from an eel — or cockle-stand on a slum street”

[the pilgrim years “unfolding”]

part IV Love-hate
“all history / burned out, down / to the sick bone, save
for / that kind candle”

V “Your life winds in me”
                               “ In youth
is pleasure, in youth is pleasure.


“Tell Denise to wear a helmet,” Joe Dunne wrote from Boston: “she’s our Joan of Arc and we can’t afford to lose her.” As the years of the Viet-Nam war have gone on and the cast of the Nixon administration takes over the production from the cast of the Johnson administration and no matter how we denounce and protest the bloody, muddy, cruddy show the house is still sold out, Denise Levertov has put her life over there on the picket line. In the Preface to the volume that appears this Fall To Stay Alive she makes it clear that it is not as a work of art but as a testimonial of commitment that the book is to be properly valued.

From Notebook 43: November 6, 1971

Reflections upon Reading and Rereading Denise Levertov’s To Stay Alive.

When I remarkt that the resolve “Revolution or Death” was an echo of the popular Leftist slogan “Better Red than dead,” Jess replied: “But, of course, any poet wants to be read.” To Stay Alive means, for the poet, to continue beyond one’s generation as the poetry read by a new generation.

What is the war the war illustrates? What the young man under the threat of the draft experiences is the state’s violation of his individual volition, his freedom; and, since the State exacts its draft by the coercion of punitive action, he becomes learned in the criminal nature of the political State.

What the soldier, the voluntary soldier and the draftee, experiences directly is the war itself. Whatever symbol war may be, he actually is of it, in it, and has the ground of his being there.

The evil of the war-makers is not only their project of destruction and reprisal but essentially lies in the phantastic character of that project — they do not experience the actuality of what they but wish. A like evil corrupts the intentions of protest against the war where the protester is aroused by phantasies of acts he has never committed or seen. Phantasies are not in themselves evil — it is as they become claims upon reality that hell enters in.

Turning from the news I am dissatisfied by the report of four hundred killed. “They bombed the North again,” I tell Jess at supper: “and four thousand are dead.” The numbers do not satisfy the requirements my sense of the atrocities they commit demands: “a  children’s hospital. People wantonly sprayd with corrosive acid on the street.”

They, in turn, having like phantasies claim to have done what I would accuse them of. And where they are able to carry out their projects, illustrate fully my projections of what they surely mean to do.

There is a curious identity, as if the message spoke from the underlying content of a dream all mankind dreams in the poet’s cry “Revolution or Death” and her political resolution taken from Brecht’s “Alle order Nichts”

From Notebook 43: October 10, 1971

Go as in a dream
knowing in every scene deep uproilings
of earth beneath your feet
      slumbering     a sullen redness grows

wounds break open in the crusts above,
pustulences upon the skin love wears
      generations of despair mount up
into a momentary swelling     in an instant
four hundred and thirty two thousand years
      inertia of conflicting forces
shows its face     raging

against my body against my soul
      against my spirit     I go then
into the destruction of the grades of me,
      to the undoing of those hierarchies
hold          a vast shuddering underlies
      this mounting of the stairs
from below          this
      bringing up of the question

I will not allow —      old dreams
denied,    the voided images go down
into the preparations for catastrophe

[Notes on Denise’s themes contd.] ache, pain, anguish, suffer, constricting, hurt, cramp,
locked in,                    weight, heavy
cruel / kind                   blindly, burning choking

From Notebook 40: February 19, 1972

Those who find What Is intolerable, in the sense proposed by Denise’s “Revolution or Death,” that is of a refusal to work with the present matter, may at best make a revolutionary change. It will but present new terms for those of us to work with, certainly not better terms — if freedom and going into the truth of things be our work — but terms laid down by the revolution in place of terms laid down by the established orders. The work towards the making of a just society will be as formidable

From Notebook 40: March 29, 1972 on Denny’s Relearning the Alphabet.

(1) “The Broken Sandal” — poems of inner, psychic, mystery, songs of “the process of individuation”
WANTING THE MOON: “Wings of a god,” “Wanting the Moon,” “Not to Have . . .,” “A Defeat,” “Craving,” “Swan that Sings and,” “Earth Dust,” “The Gulf (II),”
“Riders as Dusk,”
“Bullfrogs to Fireflies to Moths”
“A Tree Telling of Orpheus”
“Dialogue,” “Relearning the Alphabet,”
(2) Sentiments of the Anti-war Movement:
“Advent 1966” analysis:
“          in Vietnam the vision     is multiplied
“          my strong sight,    my clear caressive sight
            my poet’s sight I was given
            that it might stir me to song
            is blurred
“         a monstrous  insect with multiple vision
“         a Burning Babe    the flesh on fire
            their sex unknown in the ashes
            set alight, flaming
“         cinders on earth or living on
            moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed”
“         but, as off a beltline, move, more senseless figures aflame”
“Tenebrae (Fall of 1967)
“An Interim”
memorable passages: (p.4) . . . a monstrous  insect
has entered my head, and looks out
from my sockets with multiple vision . . .
And this insect (who is not there —
it is my own eyes do my seeing, the insect
is not there, what I see is there)
will not permit me to look elsewhere . . .

[moments of poetic revelation arise out of the primary ground which is not the poem but the life sentiments and realities of the woman. “When we go, he goes with us / to be your hands that never / do violence, your eyes / that wonder, your lives / that daily praise life / by living it, by laughter.” is utter sentiment, certain moral sentiments informing the idealized occasion].

April 6. The poem (“Advent 1966”) advances an “idea of the poem,” its language a rhetoric to persuade us to take up the proposition

(: in Vietnam infant after infant, set alight, flaming, as off a beltline = more, more senseless figures aflame, their names forgotten = the vision of a Burning Babe (Christ’s flesh) multiplied, multiplied = not the unique Holy Infant burning sublimely, prefiguring the passion) as the cause of the poem. “Because” the poem begins; “because of this” it continues in stanza four: “my strong sight / my clear caressive sight, my poet’s sight . . . is blurred”

In the poet’s sight (Southwell) the vision of a Burning Babe has unity;* {*“an imagination of redemption”} “prefiguring / the Passion upon he Eve of Christmas,” the Holy Infant is “unique.” But “in Vietnam” (prefiguring what? the poet cannot imagine; does not in fact consider prefiguring what? as an issue of the poem)

multiplied, multiplied
repeated, repeated
infant after infant
not vanishing, / not vanishing
more, more
is not there —
. . .
is not there,

the author’s sight is “blurred”; that vision, impaired (“a cataract filming over / ”), is “multiple”: both the vision (thing seen) and the vision (seeing) loose focus and (as in the reduplications in the poem) double toward multiplicity = become “senseless”

From Notebook 47: July 25, 1973 4:20 AM

The war, and then increasingly over the past ten years revolution or internal war, has acted as a magnet to draw Denise Levertov’s mind or as a catalyst to excite a set of reactions. Growing up in Britain during the Second World War she may have known actual scenes of carnage, and being in part Jewish she may have had the more vividly the brooding malaise we all have in our imagination of what Hitler’s abbatoirs were like, but in poems like “Life at War” the feeling is so internalized in terms of a sensual disorder
“caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough

weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day”

That it tells more of a psychosomatic illness, — the images are symptomatic of a personal trouble — than it does of a feeling of the war. “The war makes me sick,” is the declaration, and symptoms come forward to illustrate.

But the “it” of the opening of the poem, what is “caught in the chest, rolling / in the brain like pebbles”

“We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are packed with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it”

is a pollution: “the knowledge” the Poet proposes that man who can be and is responsible, perceptive, joyous, understanding

“still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled braking open of breasts . . .”

The proposition is so grotesque, the “without surprise” and “with mere regret” so inappropriate in attribution, that we are aware the sado-masochistic images that appear illustrate not what soldiers do in war but what war excites in the poet’s mind. Denise Levertov is sick with the picture of Man that the war raises in her imagination. Long before her picture of social relations is polarized, her inner psychic picture of Man’s nature is polarized along the line between Man proposed as

“whose flesh / responds to a caress”
“whose eyes are flowers”
“whose music excels the music of birds,
“whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs”

— a picture of the good of sensitivity and passive receptivity, response to wooing — that verges upon a sickly sweetness

and that very Man turning active, aggressive:

“to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still alive babies”

— are these actual atrocities of the war? are there back of these images the data of testimonies with their objective correlative? Or have these images their verification in the writer’s sick phantasies?

“transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.”

The sensualization of atrocity, even the verbal atrocity of this outburst, is symptomatic and to be understood as continuing and illustrating the content of the proposition: “The war makes me sick”

What of Man “whose understanding manifests design
Fairer than the spider’s most intricate web”?

I have pointed out to Denise Levertov’s dismay in my so presuming to read, that the word “design” itself suggests the duplicity of having designs upon someone or of being “designing” and that beneath the spider’s most intricate web which she consciously poses as illustrating the innocence of “delicate” Man’s misunderstanding is the intent of the spider’s webbing, of any spider’s webbing which she subconsciously acknowledges. The spider’s intricate web is his fishing net, his little meat-trap and, as any imaginary fly knows, a very Buchenwald.

Thruout her anti-war poems, she insists we, the more especially those of us for whom the war is abhorrent, (and the more especially of those, the genteel, those who refuse any violence), are in our failure to stop the War to blame for it. In  “Life at War” she imagines the very Man who is an enormity of the sensitive [“delicate,” caress,” “flowers,” “music,” “laughter,” “birds,” “dogs,” “understanding” is the very Man who turns

[“without surprise, with mere regret”? — he is the invention of some Gothic novel!]

to a monstrous sexual attack upon breasts, babies, eyes and penises.

From Notebook 47: July 30

   Contemplation of the War in Viet Nam for us who are not soldiers upon the battlefields or workers in industries dependent upon the continuation of the War or of that company of technologists and administrators whose fortunes in power are derived from the declared state of special emergency or one of those whose personal lives have been disrupted by the involvement of someone loved, for those of us who have not been personally, immediately affected, contemplation of the War can and has brought dismay, for the society we belong to and must live in is the very society of all these other members whose experience of the war. Our social conscience, our consciousness of that society as a body, is confronted by

From Notebook 66: May 9, 1981

May 9, 1981 entry in these pages that were left blank as I turnd to have a double page for the following Passages in March: The restrictions of saying what you mean is that it is presumed that meaning is not to be found out. Denise so keeps alive and celebrated the umbilical cord that the poem is given no first cry all of its own. There is a delusion mothers and fathers of meaning have that it is what they mean that is the force of it all.

May 10. Reflecting upon Denise Levertov’s “Mass” — Language as such in all writing is a vehicle of feeling, of thought, of message — that the author’s meaning enters is an important element; but words also mean and here the author’s imagination and recognition can work with the elemental parts as belonging to an emergent form: the meaning in the poem itself is content, however feelings and ideas (even ideas of what the form will be) might have seemd in their emotional origin — for the poem will not only be a work of art but also a symptom of its origins, of the culture and society as well as of the individual working — the sociologist, the historian, the psycholoanalyst, the linguist, the physician may each read the text for his particular specification — as an artist the poet works with elements as potentialities of the emergent as poem. What matters now is what these elements mean in the field of the work — they are emotions in the process of being reveald, dis-coverd as belonging to the new

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