Poetry, Politics, And The “Other Conscience”:

The Duncan/ Levertov Correspondence

Marjorie Perloff

Published in PN Review 112 (Nov-Dec, 1996): 33-38.

In 1952 Denise Levertov, then living in New York, received a poem-letter titled “For A Muse Meant” signed only “R. D.” and bearing a San Francisco postmark. The poem begins:


spired /the aspirate

the aspirant almost

without breath

and refers, some lines later, to “A great effort, straining, breaking up / all the melodic line (the lyr-/ick strain?),” and to the brewing of “another cup” of “flavor stinking coffee . . . in that Marianne Moore– / E.P.–Williams–H.D.–Stein–/Zukofsky–Stevens–Perse–/surrealist–dada–staind / pot.”[1] Levertov mistook these elliptical passages as a slur on her writing and wrote its author a note to say that if “R.D.” was indeed the Robert Duncan who had written Heavenly City, Earthly City, a book she had recently read with great admiration, she was truly sorry he disliked her own work so much. To which Duncan responded with a bemused “on the contrary” letter, its envelope bearing the words “It is as it was in admiration.” [2]

So began the intense and voluminous correspondence between the two poets. For the first decade or so of their conversation (the two finally met in 1955), Duncan was Levertov’s ardent admirer; indeed, his letters are almost deferential. Praising “the non-dream daylight facts of the imagination” in “The Departure,” he exclaims, “How nervous my tensions seem to me compared!” (February 12, 1957). And his blurb for Overland to the Islands (1957) goes like this:

Denise Levertov in these poems brings me again and again to the most intense thing, to that crossing of the inner and the outer reality where we have our wholeness of feeling in the universe. . . . She has no superior in [the] clarification of a scene– moving traffic, mexican girls after First Communion kicking a baseball, or the arrival of sharks off shore at sundown. . . . In the dance of word and phrase to express feeling, in the interior music of vowels, in subtlety of changing tempo within the form, in the whole supple control of freedom, she excells. (included in letter of October 1, 1957)

Notice that it is Levertov’s phenomenology, her tracking of perceptual realities that Duncan admires. “In range,” he writes in an introduction to her San Francisco reading (January 19, 1958), “her poetry moves between this impending reality–what we call the objective world . . . and another world, equally objective, of the imagination that springs into life and voice from the ground of common things.”[3]

But by 1968 something had changed. That something was of course the Vietnam War and the two poets’ increasingly conflicting views of the relation of poetry to politics. Interestingly, the rift that now occurred and that came to a head in an angry exchange of long letters in the fall and winter of 1971-72, is much less an ideological difference than it is a question of how poetry positions itself vis-à-vis politics. Both poets were outraged by U. S. policy toward Vietnam, both deplored the bombing of Hanoi, the duplicity of the Johnson and later the Nixon administrations, and so on. Both read their poetry at anti-war rallies. But by 1968, Levertov was on the barricades, writing and reading from the anti-war poems she was to publish in Relearning the Alphabet (1970) and To Stay Alive (1971). Duncan’s own “anti-war” poems published in Bending the Bow (I am thinking of “The Multiversity,” “Up Rising,” and “The Soldiers,” all of them part of Passages), are, by contrast, more properly understood, Ian W. Reid points out, as “war poems, studies in struggle.” “While the Vietnam conflict is of course substantially present there,” writes Reid, “a ganglion of pain, it becomes simply the most salient manifestation in our day of an abiding social and spiritual reality which brings to poetry a mythic dimension.” [4] “War, as Duncan had put it in the early fifties in A Book of Resemblances, is like love and poetry in that it expresses “the deepest forces and cleavings . . . of man’s hidden nature.” [5]

Consequently, Duncan had little use for what we might call Levertov’s agitprop. It’s hard to write [to you] now,” he tells Denise and her husband Mitchell Goodman in June of 1968, “because you both stand now so definitely at the front of–not the still small inner voice of conscience that cautions us in our convictions but the other conscience that drives us to give our lives over to our convictions, the righteous Conscience–what Freudians call the Super Ego, that does not caution but sweeps outside all reservations.” Such submission to the super ego is a “tyranny of the will,” and Duncan declares:

No, I very much do not subscribe to the Old Testament idea of a covenant or a commitment as a morality. The righteousness, the revival of the Judaic-Puritanic convenanter’s Salvation Army against the evil of war in RESIST [a radical anti-war group] repels me. The ‘Thou shalt not. . .’ written in stone or written in the heart. . . . and the ‘Thou shalt not kill. . is the very evil of a resolution of free immediate individual experience of choice.”

As for the Eugene Debs demand, then very much cited, that “so long as any man is in prison, I am not free,” Duncan objects, “I am but the more aware that this is the very imprisoning message itself.”

The poet, in Duncan’s view, cannot become anyone’s mouthpiece, not even the mouthpiece of a righteous cause. Freedom is of the essence, the freedom to represent the human universe as the poet imaginatively reconstructs it. Indeed poetry’s function, as Duncan was to put it in his long, closely argued letter of October 19, 1971, “is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it: what if Shakespeare had opposed Iago, or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskolnikov– the vital thing is that they created Iago and Raskolnikov [so that] we begin to see betrayal and murder and theft in a new light.” And he adds, “It is a disease of our generation that we offer symptoms and diagnoses of what we are in the place of imaginations and creations of what we are. . . .”

In our current Foucaultian climate with its adherence to the various models of cultural construction, these comments may seem hopelessly retro, outmoded Romantic notions of personal freedom, individual agency, and the uniqueness of the poetic self. Levertov herself has attributed Duncan’s reservations about poetry engagé to his Anarchist upbringing, which, she believes, led him to mistrust group action. “His political awareness,” she remarks, “formed in the ‘40s and early ‘50s, remained static. . . he did not experience the comradeship, the recognition of apparent strangers as brothers and sisters” from which she herself drew sustenance in the difficult Vietnam years (SM 111-12).

But Duncan’s Romanticism is more complicated than such comments would lead one to believe. Poetry, he suggests again and again, is always already political in that it presents us with the motives and results of the political process. Great political poetry, moreover, is apocalyptic in the Blakean sense, visionary in presenting the events in question as part of larger and more universal paradigms. From this perspective, the use of poetry to support a particular revolutionary cause is, for Duncan, “one of the great falsehoods. “The question,” he writes in response to Levertov’s “Revolution or death” poem (“Staying Alive, Part I”), “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” (October 4, 1971).

Let us look at this reaction more closely. “Staying Alive, Part I (October ‘68-May ‘69),” begins with the lines:

Revolution or death. Revolution or death.

Wheels would sing it

but railroads are obsolete,

we are among the clouds, gliding, the roar

a toneless constant.

Which side are you on?

Revolution, of course, Death is Mayor Daley. [6]

In the October 4 letter, Duncan cites this passage and responds:

Do we believe in unilateral peace? Then surely it is we who must create it where we are. But the revolution, like Nixon, believes in inflicting peace on their own terms. I do not ask for a program of peace; but I do protest the war waged under the banner of Peace, no matter who wages it. It is false to the word. Men at war against the State are one thing– and that can at least be true to itself–even if it is not successful; but men at war against war are hypocrites if they argue that there can be no peaceful ways in a time of war. THERE HAS BEEN NO TIME IN HUMAN HISTORY THAT WAS NOT A TIME OF WAR. And any peaceful ways and deeds of peace have had to be created in the face of the need for war– for war against oppression, for war against injustice, etc.

It’s the Altars in the Street I am for, the acts of care in making and attendance. In the midst of apocalypse, that present most vividly the test of Art. Revolutions have all been profoundly opposed to the artist, for revolutions have had their power only by the rule that power not be defined. And as workers in words, it is our business to keep alive

in the language definitions as well as forces, to create crises in meaning, yes–but this is to create meanings in which we are the more aware of the crisis involved, of what is at issue. In posing “revolution or death” you seem to feel that evolution–which as far as we know is the way in which life actually meets its test and creates its self–does not come into the picture. As if, i.e., Man got to “overthrow” reptiles. (4 October 1971)

And in a subsequent letter, Duncan expands on this distinction: “Let’s take that word Revolution, which I reminded you referred to the figure of time and space, the universe and man’s loss as a wheel turning. The wheel of torture. The card in the Tarot shows the wheel turning to the right with Anubis “the underdog” rising. . . And the idea of revolution belongs to the old Ptolemaic universe picture with its revolving concentric spheres” (November 8, 1971).

What is striking about this commentary on “Revolution or death,” is a quality not usually associated with Duncan (perhaps because in his essays he writes more formally, more self-consciously and manneredly)–namely a hard-headed and clear-eyed common-sense. From Marinetti to Breton, after all, the avant-garde of the early century had claimed to be producing a new “revolutionary” art –a revolutionary art that, as theorists from Peter Bürger on down have been telling us for decades, never had any real impact at the political level. But to go so far as to declare that revolution is the enemy of art because revolution must, to succeed, betray the poet’s language, that revolution belongs to the old Ptolemaic universe and should be supplanted by evolution– this is to give avant-garde theory a curious spin.

To begin with, Duncan discriminates between the use of community as poetic subject (Levertov’s mode in To Stay Alive) and a communal vision. “It is not, he explains, “that, as writers, we should not be immodest, but that we must go into the depths of immodesty; not that we should not be narcissistic, but that we should go into the depths of Narcissus. The impulse that informs (and makes necessary the artist’s craft), the hidden and life-creative and destructive ID-entity uderlying and overriding the conveniences of personal identity is what makes the difference between mere craft. . . and significant craft; is why many a good craftsman is even an enemy of Art” (October 19,1971). What this means in practice is, in the words of Duncan’s own title, ground work– the grounding of abstraction and morality in the particulars that might give them life. “I am certain,” says Duncan, ‘language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’ [Pound’s phrase] is our responsibility if we be language workers” (November 8).

The October 19 letter, which goes on for some fourteen long and crowded handwritten pages, spells out the responsibility of the poet as “language worker.” Here Duncan’s Exhibit A is Levertov’s “Tenebrae,” which I cite in full:

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.

(TSA 17-18)

“The opening voice of the poem,” Duncan comments, “proposes a tremendum in which all the empty-headed and heartless meaningless campaigns of Viet Nam even may be seen as “war,” and speak for a being at war that is significant at the level of the individual soul life.” The critique here is Poundian–the demand for le mot juste, for an accuracy which the lines do not fulfill. “War,” presented in the abstract is no more than a counter, “We are at war,” is like a flash-card to which we must respond with predictable horror. The poem leaves the reader no freedom to interpret.

But it is the reference to the “Gowns of gold sequins” and their wearers that makes Duncan especially angry:

In “Tenebrae” it is moralizing that sets in, to deny any ground the heaviness and the bitterness might have verity in. And we get in its place the displaced bigotry in which women are concerned about their gowns of gold, sequins . . . [and] TV watchers are accused of “not listening.”

If we were to read this protest of “they are not listening” with the possibility that the message of the poem does have content as a dream has content– then we would read that following the opening lines, it is the poem itself that is not listening, that has turned to the vanity that all moralizing is in order to evade the imminent content of the announced theme. . . . I think the poems like . . . “Tenebrae” . . . are not to be read properly in relation to Viet Nam . . . but in relation to the deep underlying consciousness of woman as a victim in War with the Man. . . .

It is as if women would give their assurance that although they are filled with rage, they will be good helpmates in the politics of the revolution. (19 October 1971)

Here Duncan’s psychologizing (Denise, he suggests, is subconsciously acting out the beliefs of her radical husband Mitch Goodman, one of the Chicago Seven, so as to please him) may well be overdetermined: the “sincerity” of her anti-war crusade is, in any case, less important than its poetic execution. In her (not surprisingly) angry response in an equally long letter, typed in snatches for a week between October 25 and November 2, Levertov writes of “Tenebrae”:

The tone of this poem is one of lament–solemn rather than wild, lament; note its slow pace. It’s like a funeral march. ‘We are at war’ changes to ‘They are not listening’ because . . . in this poem it wd have been hypocrisy to so identify myself with those who were ‘not listening’ to the sound of the war-waves. The sequin gowns and the white weddings are out of the newspaper pages right next to the war news. The families are the innocent/ ignorant millions of families who do keep the kids quiet with the promise of TV or candy bars or hotdogs, and who make business or other plans regardless of whatever doom threatens and has become indeed part of the very fabric of their lives, economically and in all sorts of ways. The consumers. Certainly I feel all this with anguish. Moralizing? Rather I am keening over them. That does not make it moralizing in any way I find aesthetically unacceptable.

As for Duncan’s “misapprehensions” that her Viet Nam poems “are really about the sex war,” she responds, “Bullshit!” and insists that she has never been a member of what was then called a Women’s Lib group.

But whatever the motive behind Levertov’s protest poetry (and we can hardly expect her to agree with Duncan’s harsh assessment of it), her explanation that the society news (“gowns in gold sequins”) are next to the war news in the daily paper does nothing to dispel the larger charge that it is the poem that is “not listening.” “While you tell us that ‘they’ are not listening,” he writes in his next letter, “not hearing the war, I am listening and hearing more than you consider it legitimate to hear” (November 11). What Duncan means here, I think –and this is an important critique, not only of “Tenebrae,” but of social protest poems in general– is that a genuinely “listening” poem would not present those who “fill their freezers with food” or the kids who watch TV and go to beach picnics as an aggregate to be dismissed condescendingly by an “I” who knows better, who presents herself as sensitive and “above” the mere routines of ordinary people. It is this us-versus-them attitude, here and in neighboring poems like “Life at War,” that prompts Duncan to speak of the poem’s “displaced bigotry,” its empty moralizing. Even those who wear gowns of gold sequins or silver moiré, after all, deserve to have their lives imagined rather than merely dismissed as vain and futile. And so, when Levertov explains in her letter that “The familes are the innocent/ignorant millions of families who do keep the kids quiet with the promise of TV or candy bars or hot dogs,” she is, from Duncan’s perspective, refusing to engage her subject. The “insight and devotion to the world around us” that Duncan had found so moving and exciting in the earlier poetry, he holds, has now given way to facility.

“The poet’s role,” in Duncan’s view, “is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it.” Such imagining depends upon “the idea of the multiphasic character of language and of the poem as a vehicle of the multiplicity of phases,” which, says Duncan, “is more and more central to my thought.” Indeed, “The most important rimes are the resonances in which we sound these phases in their variety of depths [in Charles’s Maximus this appears as taking soundings of the ocean bottom, and knowing the patterns of the fishing rods]–the resonances that depend upon our acknowledgement in our work of what we know of the range of meanings in the language . . . the sexual content so active everywhere in human discourse, the existential propositions of syntax” (October 19, 1971). Without such soundings, political poetry is left, says Duncan, with the “Polonius pieties of those who do not want to question their unmixed good will,” their committment to what Levertov calls “a solidarity of hope and struggle with the revolutionary young” (Author’s Preface, TSA viii).

Duncan’s emphasis on the poet’s need to master “the range of meanings in the language,” (e.g., Olson’s expertise in recognizing the patterns of fishing rods), might suggest that his is a formalist, indeed a New Critical poetics. But as a theorist, Duncan is closer to Plato or Sidney than he is to Cleanth Brooks or even Roman Jakobson. For he is making the case, later to be made by, say, Steve McCaffery or Susan Howe, that poetic form is itself what Wittgenstein called a form of life and hence a form of knowledge. One cannot, Duncan’s letters to Levertov imply throughout, present the horrors of a particular battle or bombing, a government edict or military law, without contextualizing it. To talk of War in the abstract is meaningless. There is no War (as in “We are at war, / bitterly, bitterly at war”), but there are always wars–wars that become the subject of the most varied and contradictory discourses. “You remember,” Duncan tells Levertov, “that you are committed to ‘opposition to the whole system of insane greed, of racism and imperialism’ [see TSA viii]– 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” (October 19). Empty, no doubt, because the abstract nouns in question can point to any number of conditions and situations, because there is no map on which to locate them. How about, for example, another event of 1968–one never mentioned in To Stay Alive–namely the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, with its attendant purges, arrests, and killings, designed to squelch the liberation movement known as the Prague Spring? What “system of imperialism” was involved here?

At the microlevel, poetic knowledge involves the interrogation of words, images, or metaphors. One of the most interesting debates in the Duncan-Levertov correspondence has to do with the meaning of specific terms, for instance spider web and coprophilia. In “Life at War,” the poet laments the callousness of modern man:

the knowledge that humankind,
delicate Man, whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,

whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understanding manifests designs
fairer than the spider’s most intricate web,
still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies. . . .

(TSA 13-14)

“There is of course,” Duncan comments drily, “an immediate sinister extension of meaning here– for where designs are fair as a spider’s web, they remind us of the cruel machinations of Louis XIV who in the poetry of his subjects’ speech became ‘the spider king.’” And he adds, “Us flies have a grim sense of the fairness of spider webs. And as poets we be spiders who must keep alive the imagination of the flies’ relation to the web.”

This commentary on the spider image may sound like mere nitpicking, and Levertov responds with irritation, explaining that she had in mind “designs having the beauty of the spider’s web but not having the purpose that flaws that beauty and makes it sort of creepy” (25 October-2d November). To which Duncan responds in turn:

. . . which reading of a spider’s web is careless, the one that remembers what an actual spider’s web is and is designed for and so sees the word “fairer than” charged with more than one level of meaning? or that one that argues against any further thought about spider webs past the visual delight? . . . . Images in poems like images in dreams are not incidental or mere devices of speech, chance references, but go deep into our experience. And who in this world has not watched with fascination the activities murderous and cannibalistic of a spider in its web? What child does not know the spider’s invitation to the fly?

I’m sure it is perfectly possible to exclaim how lovely! upon seeing a spider- web dew, bejewelled in the sun or moonlight. And I care not if it seem creepy. What is demanded by poetry is that we see (as [Henry] Adams sees his beloved Gothic) the web in its full truth and loveliness.”

This is, I think, a very important statement about metaphor. If the nature of “man’s understanding” is to be represented by means of an image, Duncan implies, then that image better be an applicable one. If we have to suppress one of the crucial meanings of a given word or phrase in order to make the implied comparison convincing, then surely language is not doing its work.

Duncan lodges a similar objection to the passage in “Staying Alive, Part I,” in which the poet longs for a meaningful death, a death

that’s not the obscene sellout, the coprophiliac spasm

that smears the White House walls with its desensitized thumbs. (TSA 30)

“Where and why,” asks Duncan with mock naiveté, “this image of a baby smearing the walls with shit? . . . Since I know of no story of Johnson’s being a coprophiliac, I can only imagine that your projection alone supplies this as an image of evil” (19 October 1971). Levertov answers with exasperation:

re Coprophiliac thumbs

not a baby at all, but Lyndon B. Johnson (and Ricd. M. Nixon after him). Their actions and their lies smear shit all over the White House walls (not that they were ever clean before–but this is a new thick layer). Babies playing with shit are not coprophiliacs, they wd be just as happy with dough or mud or applesauce. They are interested in all the textures and smells to be explored. Coprophiliacs are people with a yen for shit in particular. Why ‘thumbs’ rather than fingers? Because clumsier–and sort of gross, like the gesture of little Jack Horner–and because its thick monosyllable was what I wanted for sound there. Since you know damn well that one uses the word shit non- literally in various connections, and that this connection (Whitehouse context) is obviously that of lies and evil deeds, how perverse to quibble and say ‘I know of no story of Johnson’s being a coprophiliac etc. ‘ Personal associations’ indeed! (25 Oct-2 November 1971).

But of course if we “know damn well that one uses the word shit non-literally in various connections,” and that “this connection (Whitehouse context)” is obviously that of lies and evil deeds, why use a metaphor at all? What does it tell us about the Johnson or Nixon White House that we don’t already know? And what is the relation of the President to Little Jack Horner, an innocent if there ever was one?

Levertov evidently assumes that Duncan didn’t what she meant, but of course he knows only too well. On November 11, he replies:

My complaint about the passage about the coprophiliac spasm that smears the White House walls with its desensitized thumbs is that unless there is some actuality to the President or someone smearing the White House walls with shit then there can be nothing but projection. The idea of coprophilia as having to do with desensitized thumbs and with murderous phantasies (and hence with war) does have to do with Freudian ideas of a phase–thinking the unthinkable.”

Quite possibly, Duncan is also reading Levertov against the Blake of “London” (“I wander thro’ each charter’d street”), where the city’s perceived “marks of evil, marks of woe” include the “hapless soldier’s sigh” that “Runs in blood down Palace walls.” It is possible to unpack this famous symbolic image as meaning that the anguish of the young man who is forced to be a soldier is a ceaseless reproach to the government that has conscripted him. But one needn’t have a particular view of the French Revolution, the reactionary government of George III, or the ministry of William Pitt to be moved by Blake’s image; indeed, his apocalyptic vision (“In every cry of every man, / In every Infant’s cry of fear, / In every voice in every ban, / The mind-forg’d manacles I hear”) transcends the petty finger-pointing of Levertov’s slurs on Johnson and Nixon. [7] Petty, because the violent image does not go beyond the cliché that the President is an evil man who spreads shit wherever he goes. If this is indeed the case, surely it demands more thorough treatment. Was it Johnson who started the war? Or is he carrying out the Pentagon’s wishes? Or trying to fulfill the mandate of his assassinated predecessor? And if the latter is the case, would it make sense to say that Kennedy’s tomb at Arlington Cemetery is also “smeared” by “coprophiliac spasm”? If not, why not?

These are the issues raised by Duncan’s doggedly literal interrogation of Levertov’s war poems. Her outrage, he implies, does not have what Eliot called an objective correlative. And whereas Levertov’s earlier poetry beautifully “caught” the nuances of persons, places, and things observed, To Stay Alive seems to suffer from hubris. Where it should present, it merely preaches with righteous indignation. “Criticism” says Duncan must “make clear some crisis in reading. . . . criticism enlarges our sense of how language works” (October 19). Thus his attack on the war poetry is never petty or personal, never directed against Denise herself but against what Duncan takes to be a wrong turn in what was heretofore an important poetic oeuvre. And he tries to convince her how much more successful the Olga poems, which form the first section (pp. 1-13) of To Stay Alive, are.

It is hardly surprising, however, that the pressure of this extensive and insistent commentary was too much for Levertov. Having patiently written a dozen typed pages of self-defense in the October 25-November 2 letter, a letter to which Duncan responded on November 8 with yet again the same criticism, she wrote him in December a cool letter of farewell, telling him she could never really be his friend again, that their close bond had been irrevocably destroyed by his “coercive” behavior. Duncan took this hard. On January 25, 1972, he responded apologetically: “my contention with you [was a ] contention with my own anima. . . For much of what I suspect you of, or accuse you of, I suspect as some womanish possibility in myself.” In subsequent short letters, he talks about Jess, about his garden, about his own weaknesses. But to no avail. Levertov was not the forgiving type and although she later wrote on her early friendship with Duncan for Scales of the Marvelous and occasionally commented on his work in a blurb or book promotion, she kept her distance right up to the time of his death in 1988.

But from our perspective a quarter-century after the Vietnam War, the question is not whether Duncan was too cruel to Levertov, whether his authoritative pronunciamentos may or may not have been sexist, or even whether he was unfair to specific passages in her poems. Rather, the interest the correspondence raises is in the larger issue of the poetry/politics debate–a debate very much with us today in the guise of the so-called Culture Wars. Is what seems like a one-dimensional and simplistic lyric outburst against injustice or racism to be praised because its author is a member of a minority group and hence not to be subjected to the literary norms of the dominant race and class? Is every poem about AIDS ipso facto moving and worthy? Is there a taboo against offering any sort of critique of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club or bell hooks’s vituperative essays attacking the black middle class? Or, for that matter, is there an unstated taboo against one Language poet actually criticizing the work of another?

Whether or not we agree with its premises, Duncan’s stringent, learned, and brilliant critique suggests otherwise. It suggests that precisely those who know each other well should be willing to argue about their work. That if we all say is “Yeah, great” and let it go at that, as increasingly poets and critics are doing at readings and in journals, there can be no meaningful poetic discourse at all. Duncan’s pointed and passionate criticism may have lost him Levertov’s friendship but it won him, I would posit here, a place among the major poetic theorists as well as major poets of his time. The “coprophiliac” Johnson Administration lasted only four years, Chicago’s Mayor Daley, long dead, has been replaced by many more sinister politicians. But poetry continues in its task which is, in Duncan’s words, “to reveal what is back of the political slogans and persuasions.” “The questions,” as he puts it in response to the “Revolution or death” option, “are not ideological but have to do with where I feel you do not get to the truth of your ideology.” It is an interesting and important distinction.


See Robert Duncan, Selected Poems, ed. Robert J. Bertholf (New York: New Directions, 1993), pp. 35-37. Subsequently cited in the text as RDSP.

Denise Levertov, “Some Duncan Letters–A Memoir and a Critical Tribute,” Scales of the Marvelous, ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Ian W. Reid (New York: New Directions, 1979), pp. 86-87, 90-91. The collection is subsequently cited as SM. The 1953 letter is in the Robert Duncan Archive at Stanford University. Copyright c The Literary Estate of Robert Duncan. All subsequent references to the Duncan-Levertov correspondence are to the Stanford archive. I wish to thank William McPheron, the Curator of English and American Literature, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford University, for his help on this project. I also want to thank Robert Bertholf, the executor of the Duncan estate, for granting me permission to cite extracts from the Duncan letters.

Robert Duncan, “Introductory Notes: Denise Levertov,” in A Selected Prose, ed. Robert J. Bertholf (New York: New Directions, 1995), p. 161.

Ian W. Read, “The Plural Text: “Passages,” SM 161-180,
p. 169.

Robert Duncan, A Book of Resemblances: Poems 1950-53 (New Haven: Henry Wenning, 1966) p. vii.

Denise Levertov, To Stay Alive (New York: New Directions, 1971), p. 29. Subsequently cited in the text as TSA.

It is only fair to say here that Duncan is sometimes guilty of the same fault. “Up Rising,” for example, begins with the lines, “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.”. And later in the poem there is reference to “this black bile of old evils arisen anew, / takes over the vanity of Johnson.” See Bending the Bow (New York: New Directions, 1968), pp. 81-82. Perhaps Duncan is recognizing his own earlier weakness in his critique of Levertov.