Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Mystery, Myth, and Presence: Concord and Conflict in the Correspondence of Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Mystery, Myth, and Presence: Concord and Conflict in the Correspondence of Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan

Article excerpt

"By almost any measure, the correspondence between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov constitutes the most important exchange between two American poets in the second half of the twentieth century." With these words Albert Gelpi begins his introduction to that correspondence. (1) A paragraph or so later he observes, "What gives the correspondence historic as well as personal importance is the fact that its consistent and even obsessive concerns help to map the contested terrain of American poetry since mid-century" (ix). Gelpi's essay is a masterful assessment of the correspondence and a significant contribution to Levertov criticism, tactfully informed by his own personal knowledge of both poets. Gelpi's essay also suggests some ways in which the correspondence may continue to prove valuable. It is one of those ways that this essay proposes to explore. From selections of the correspondence, amplified by references to hers and Duncan's other published prose, I hope to trace some of the implications of their falling out, and how Levertov's continued indebtedness to Duncan manifests itself in some of her finest later poems.

From early in their correspondence, Levertov and Duncan acknowledged a shared interest in discovering and expressing in their poetry what Gelpi refers to as an "awed attendance on the mystery of things" (xii). A bit later he observes that "the notion of the creative process that they shared was essentially (but as we shall see, differently) religious." He adds that "what bonded them was the effort to invest the kinds of formal experimentation they learned from Pound and Williams with something of the metaphysical aura and mystique of the Romantic imagination" (xii). We see such Romantic leanings in some of their poems of the late forties and fifties. In fact, Levertov suggests that such Romantic affinities were part of what drew her to his poetry and then became an early source of their friendship. (2) Levertov admits that Duncan had greater sophistication and an "erotic irony" that gave his romanticism "an edge" (New and Selected Essays 199).

Though they both lacked formal schooling, Levertov--four years younger than Duncan--was, in fact, awed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge, an erudition that fills his letters to her. This awe at his "almost encyclopedic range of knowledge" (New and Selected Essays 199) was one of the reasons it probably took her so long to assert her own independence of his judgments. As we shall see, however, she absorbed what she read with a wholeheartedness that made what she learned a part of her being, in ways that Duncan's sometimes largely "cerebral" knowledge of things was not.

Their friendship began in an exchange of views on not only poetry, but the spiritual--often explicitly religious--sources, connections, and effects of poetry, and art. Early on Duncan admits his "spiritual appetite" now includes Max Ernst and Marc Chagall (19), the latter a favorite of Levertov for several reasons both personal and aesthetic. (3) In one of his earliest attestations of love, he twice employs the term "being" in a way that will come to have a common resonance for them:

   I can't separate always the ... ?but what is the separation
   there? the love of everything you write and that I love you.
   There's friendship and its courtesies--you're perhaps right
   that we've to deserve friendship. But love is nature to nature
   and your being is what sustains me there, not your
   deserving." (107)

Later, he says, "A letter from you is never dull, for your handwriting itself renewd, found in the post, quickens my day ... Out of which, it's all the only stem of it, being" (108). (4)

Duncan shares pages from his notebook--replete with erudite reflections on life, spirit, evolution and "the cosmic process"--that verge into the metaphysical and the spiritual:

   History is the tale of individual genius sloughd off as the
   body sloughs off the individual cell; in the morphology of
   spirit our intensities of experience have their full meaning
   when they are seen as epiphanies, sympathies or opennesses
   in consciousness in which the shared is cosmic. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.