Academic journal article Chicago Review

Duncan, Levertov, and the Age of Correspondences

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Duncan, Levertov, and the Age of Correspondences

Article excerpt

Duncan, Levertov, and the Age of Correspondences A review of The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.857 pp. $39.95

The most interesting thing about The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov is the love story it chronicles, one as compelling in its asymmetries (Levertov adored Duncan, who took her into his superior confidence), as it is melodramatic in its content (as my friend Jeff Hamilton put it to me, it reads like a great novel in this respect) and catastrophic in its result (one in which love was betrayed for career; in sheerly material-publication terms, Levertov should be judged the "victor" in the contest of post-amorous fallout). The love affair was of course unconsummated, and never explicitly expressed as such. But this is what we witness in the letters: love as enthusiastic and harrowing as any passionate affair. This part of the book is so good and so interesting, I hesitate here to describe it any further. Its tragedy is as rich as its implications are significant to Black Mountain and New American poetry.

This significance can be summarized briefly: Levertov absorbed the skills, techniques, and ideologies Duncan presented to her (or provided for her), transmuting them into a form that became useful and recognizable to an audience wider than that of any other poet associated with Black Mountain poetry at the time.1 Duncan, following his own poetic destiny, took these skills, techniques, and ideologies to less transparently useful and increasingly unrecognizable forms, in poems that make esoteric demands of the dimensions of both page and book, asking considerable effort (and devotion) of his readers.

What such a summary (which is probably unfair to both poets) fails to capture, and what these letters amazingly demonstrate, is that during the core years of their exchange, Levertov and Duncan perceived each other as workers in the same field (if somewhat unequally, as I've mentioned: throughout these letters, even as she is rejecting him, Levertov treats Duncan as her Master, always seeking his approval); both understood that field to be a capacious place, even as they felt themselves to be its primary caretakers. The letters are filled with their opinions on all sorts of poets, as well as all aspects of poetry. But these judgments aren't characterized by divisive generalities, in which the poets pit themselves against some behemoth mainstream, some blind blundering beast. At times the letters even read as if Duncan and Levertov are inventing the Mainstream themselves, determining who best to navigate its flow (I've borrowed this idea, too, from Jeff Hamilton). Although Levertov and especially Duncan have seemed marginal according to the binary logic that cleaves the maps of later twentieth-century poetry, some facts of their careers make such "oppositional," experimentalist-versus-mainstreamer pronouncements contradictory: at the peak of their exchange, both poets were being regularly published and recognized by so-called mainstream publishers and journals. An important feature of the story of this correspondence occurs outside its pages, after their famous falling out, when Levertov became increasingly popular and successful, drawing a broad readership to her poetry and securing for herself a prestigious career in the academy teaching poetry, and when Duncan, frustrated with the material and creative conditions under which his work was being published, took his famous "vow of silence," not publishing a book of new poetry in the fifteen years between 1968 and 1984. If there is a suggestion that Duncan and Levertov were making the mainstream in their letters, contemporary readers of American poetic history in the twentieth century might acknowledge that where Levertov embraced their mutual creation of poetic credibility, Duncan increasingly abhorred it. That Levertov is undoubtedly more widely appreciated and read these days than Duncan bears this notion out. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

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.