A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov

By Donna Krolik Hollenberg | Go to book overview

8
“To Speak of Sorrow”
Levertov’s Emergence as a Social Poet
(1963–1966)

Robert Duncan’s superior understanding of Levertov’s work reflected a shared concept of the poet’s task. Both poets saw themselves as servants of Poetry’s power, not as masters of it. Both believed in words as powers rooted in a mysterious source, rather than as tokens employed at will. Out of need, the poet accesses this source by closely attending to his subject. “Writing poetry was a process of discovery, revealing inherent music,” Levertov wrote.1 It was then the poet’s obligation as a craft sman to realize that music in the poem. Later, in the seventies, after their friendship had ceased, Levertov described this view of the poet’s project as a sense of “aesthetic ethics,” claiming that her differences with Duncan originated here as well. For her, the need to write was related to having something at heart to say, and thus “to a high valuation of ‘honesty,’” whereas Duncan was concerned that her emphasis upon honesty could become “a form of selfcoercion, resulting in a misuse of the art.” In the early sixties, however, Denise was not concerned with what ultimately would divide them. She was grateful to Robert for the reentry into her life of “the magic, the ‘romantic,’” which she had temporarily waived under the influence of such mentors as Williams and Creeley, who emphasized “a kind of economy.”2 Duncan continued to help as Levertov turned inward in response to marital difficulties and losses, the most grievous of which was the illness and untimely death of her sister. In the process of mourning Olga’s death, within an atmosphere of increasing political unrest and violence, Levertov would come to see herself not only as the recipient of a gift from a mysterious source and as an attentive observer, but also more fully as a participant in the social life of her time.

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