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Mystery, myth, and presence: concord and conflict in the correspondence of Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan.

"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. (82)


Levertov speaks of his male, conceptual grasp, and her own, feminine confinement to "the immediate" (86).

After the death of a beloved cat, and prompted by a particularly strong storm hitting his home in Stinson Beach, California, Duncan shares his anxieties in terms that become explicitly religious: "God! everything lost in life rehearses in a little grief. And this loss is in the midst of happiness. Do I really dread so that everything might be swept away? Sometimes, Denny, I also say to myself that [I] have been prepared by all that accompanies me and would rejoice to be its survivor in a new life" (109). The phrase, "a new life," makes further sense in the context of a letter that he writes in August of the same year. Speaking of what they share in their love of poetry, Duncan observes: "We're drawn pretty much to poetry that opens up life for us" (133). Sounding like Wordsworth (whom he acknowledged to Levertov he'd been rereading), he asks:
 aren't there a series of longings for we know not what? ... [Plato
 argues that we do know and from that his own concept of
 reincarnation] But I wld. argue that these are honest
 do-not-knows that we cannot deny, for we do know the longings
 involved in all of them

 1. that individually we may die utterly, be "laid in rest"

 2. that individually we may "make our mark," have immortal
 presence--in a scribble on a cave wall, in generation, in a
 message, in a drama enacted that becomes part of communal
 memory: this is spirit

 3. that we may participate in the divine. (135)


Levertov and Duncan also shared an interest in the mysticism of the Hasidic masters. In a letter of October 1958, Levertov asks Duncan whether he has read Tales of the Hasidim. She says, "It is a world I enter, which nourishes me in a way I can only think of as atavistic or as a "heritage" (140). Duncan replies a few days later saying,
 Well, I ain't no jew so it must be more than the blood that
 is aroused by these practices and poetries of those despised
 joyful rabbis. It's the spirit that leaps to them--and the
 heritage, the source for the spirit recognizes its own in
 African lore too. (142)


Throughout their correspondence, they also both appreciated the mystical element in certain seventeenth century authors like George Herbert and Henry Vaughan (Duncan refers to the alchemical work of Vaughan and never finished a book on Vaughan that he had planned) (528).

Earlier, in May of 1958, Levertov had shared her reflections on the issue of revising vs. not revising poems. Duncan increasingly sought not to revise. His poetic "process" involved preparing himself in such a way that when he wrote, what he wrote remained unrevised. Levertov acknowledges the attraction in terms that include a telling religious reference.
 The acceptance of accident--the letting-go of the top layer of
 mind & its prejudices and restraints--the entering of magic
 worlds one cannot direct, natural magic not contrived by oneself
 in a tall mooned-&starred hat--the religious sense of
 abandonment--all that is very attractive to me, not just as an
 idea but as something I have experienced. (116)


It is fair to say that Levertov is probably referring as much to experiences she later recorded in Tesserae as to such experiences that accompanied her writing of poetry. (5) It is also interesting to compare a later observation on the issue of chance. In her 1975 essay, "Some Duncan Letters--A Memoir and a Critical Tribute," she says this:
 It was just because his awareness of every nuance of style, of
 every double meaning, was so keen, that he has, through the years,
 been almost obsessively protective of the gifts of chance, of
 whatever the unconscious casts upon his shore, of "mistakes"
 which he has cherished like love-children. (New and Selected
 Essays 200)


Coming at the related topic of mystery from a different perspective, Levertov, on November 13, 1961, speaks of reading some of Duncan's poems, and his essay on St. John Perse. She says she paused over his concern "not to make that mystery less but to make that mystery more" (quoted, 316). She wonders whether Duncan's phrase contradicts a favorite sentence of hers, from Ibsen: "The task of the poet is to make clear to HIMSELF, & thereby to others, the temporal & eternal questions." In the end she decides the two sentences "can accord," having observed that the goal is "to see in light what is light in its nature and to see in dark what is dark--to recognize mystery, not to attempt to undo it" (317). Levertov and Duncan would seem to agree on the task of poetry to recognize mystery, but the issue of "what is dark"--and how to deal with it in their poetry--would come back to haunt them.

Related to the concern for experiencing and expressing the being, spirit, and mystery of life is their common interest in myth and primitive religion. In some of her early poems Levertov had shown an awareness of primitive religious beliefs, even including a reference to Sir James Frazer in "The Absence" (Collected Earlier Poems 81). In October of 1966 Duncan replies to an apparently lost letter, answering some of Levertov's questions about the Greek myths, Antenor and Crysaor (558-59). In a letter of February 1967, Duncan offers Levertov some advice, gleaned from Rundle Clark's Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (567). Then, on February 28, 1967, Duncan writes Levertov:
 I have accepted an invitation to participate with two other
 poets (as yet not announced) and three historians of early
 Christianity in a conference on myth in poetry and
 religion ... It's a great opportunity for me. (570-71)


The conference, held in Washington, D.C. in October of 1968, eventually included Levertov as well. In fact, Duncan seems to have been instrumental in getting her invited (576).

Thinking about the essays they both will subsequently write, Duncan suggests that "One of the preparations we might make is to list first what myths we think ourselves most involved with" (576). Several months later he writes, "I meant to be writing to you every morning on myth; and months have gone by. Not so mythy either" (580). As they developed their essays, they shared ideas in a number of letters. Their different views of myth, however, became apparent in the essays they wrote. Some of these specific differences then appear later, in the argument that ended their friendship.

Recalling some of his earlier comments to Levertov, Duncan records a kind of culmination of his thinking on myth when, on August 16, 1967, he writes: "I must begin the Myth essay with the reality of the spiritual world ... with poems as prayers and evocations, awakenings of being in us; yearnings for awakenings of being; and poems as testimony of the spiritual world" (590). Duncan sounds more religious here than he will in almost any of his subsequent letters.

Duncan roots his myth essay in a cerebral, almost deductive--certainly reactive--approach. He starts the August 16th letter by saying, "I have been launching out into Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy for the first time." He says,
 my own thought quickens around what he is most blind to Eros
 which he wants to see as a weakness when the Xtian Love appears:
 as he frames his attack, my consciousness of the power coming to
 be of redemption not of our nature but within our Nature. (588)


He then quotes a bit from Nietzsche, prefacing it with,
 Right now anyway I find Nietzsche marvelous: 'For now in every
 exuberant joy there is heard an undertone of terror, or else a
 wistful lament over an unrecoverable loss ... , It's my hope
 too that the confrontation with Nietzsche may strike the key
 note I need for starting the myth paper which still pends. (588)


From Nietzsche comes a familiar dichotomy: joy and terror, positive and negative, good and evil, that will pervade Duncan's later thinking.

A few months later Duncan continued to have myth on his mind. And here he weaves in the scientific--particularly biological--element glimpsed earlier in the notebook entries he had shared with Levertov. After talking with some students at Berkeley, he tells her,
 I found myself particularly concernd with suggesting what the life
 cycles for the poet might be; and relating the larger life cycle
 (between the germinal cell and the individual body) to a picture of
 organism .... And returning to me in that an idea long present
 (why we so readily imagine the tree or the flower even we are, or
 the "totem" animal), that life unfolding its forms, we, having our
 source in life ultimately--are informd by an intention that dreamt
 of trees as well as us. (594).


"An intention that dreamt of trees as well as us" appears to be a way for Duncan to refer to God. In a letter of February 26, 1968, he also reflects on Levertov's "A Tree Telling of Orpheus," the poem which Levertov said came to her as she thought of the myth paper (592-93), and to which Duncan then gives a mythic reading (607).

It is curious but not unexpected that the actual essays on myth come out quite differently. Duncan's is the more pugnacious and, frankly, more anti-religious, despite what his earlier letters' talk about the spiritual world may have led one to expect. Levertov's essay, on the other hand, is primarily autobiographical, capacious and accepting. Levertov recounts how her myth essay starts from an inductive review of her poems and the discovery of a dominant, recurrent theme, the sense of pilgrimage that she refers to in a letter of July 1960 (584-85). (6)

On the face of it, the two essays at first reveal a number of interesting but ultimately superficial resemblances. Both essays refer to psychology: in Duncan's case psychoanalysis, in Levertov's case, Jung and Freud. Both refer to George Herbert; Duncan more tellingly, if idiosyncratically; Levertov in more "traditional" terms. Levertov refers explicitly to Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion. Duncan lists myths (Gilgamesh, Ouranos and Kronos) that Eliade cites. (7) At heart, however, their views of myth differ. For Levertov myth is predominantly positive and productive, if not absolutely univocal. Duncan's view of myth is a shifting one. His essay (revised before being published; see #418) is a performance, Levertov's more an intimate sharing. Of Duncan's one might say "the style is the man." That seems less true of the relatively transparent style that characterizes Levertov's.

Duncan begins by acknowledging the poet's "yearning to participate in the primordial reality" ("Truth and Life" 38), but it is a primordial reality that "challenges the boundaries of convention" (38). Myths, he says, "resist our interpretations and understandings and confound our philosophies" (38). Here again is the dichotomous view. Invoking a term, "presence," which we shall see again, he acknowledges that "the poem that moves me when I write is an active presence in which I work" (38). But then he adds, invoking science for the first time in this essay: "I am not concerned with whether it is a good or a bad likeness to some convention men hold; for the Word is for me living Flesh, and the body of my own thought and feeling, my own presence, becomes the vehicle for the process of genetic formation" (38). Extending the analogy, he adds, "The individual poem stirs in our minds, an event in language, as the individual embryonic cell stirs in the parent body" (38). In a later elaboration of the same metaphor as it applies to myth, he says, "All mankind share the oldest gods as they share the oldest identities of the germinal cell" (39).

But it is when Duncan turns deconstructionist avant la lettre that his ideas foreshadow the argument that will later erupt in the correspondence. He says that in his collection of poems, Medieval Scenes, "I wanted to project the mistrust of reality that informs the gnostic vision of the world. But I do not mistrust reality any more than I trust it: I seek it with an ardor that leads as it misleads" ("Truth and Life" 43). A little later he comments that "the gods convey cunningly duplicit messages" (43). In a vatic utterance that briefly takes up the biological analogy again, he says,
 There is trickery in the very nature of creation itself; innovation
 can only come from what we do not know. We might recall here
 the emerging picture of the evolution of life in our contemporary
 cosmic myth where freakish mutations excited by cosmic radiations
 from the sun and other stars enter into the creation of new
 species. (44)


Whether we credit his conclusions or not, one can see the re-emergence of chance, now wedded to the dichotomous theory of myth and poetry.

Preparing for the essay's conclusion, Duncan proposes a contrast among the poet, the scientist, and the religious man. "Each," he says, "is like a cuckolded lover, who sees his beloved Truth at once violated and that, insincerely, by his rival" (44). Re-emphasizing the ambivalence of the creative artist, he says:
 How out of it all the creative artist must seem, where he plays with
 belief and disbelief, absorbed in serious fictions, "imitations" of
 what other men really feel and think. (44)


Then, striking a note on "life" to which I shall return, he almost parodies Christian phraseology as he asserts, "we come to no life unless we are ready to die utterly to let life take over" (44). As shall become apparent, the terms "reality" and "life" are ones that continued to have currency in his correspondence with Levertov.

After some preliminaries, (8) Levertov's essay begins with a brief overview of myth, first acknowledging "the great gulfs of the unconscious, in constant transformation like the marvelous cloudscapes one sees from a jet plane" ("A Personal Approach" 20). It is for this reason, she says, that "if our poetry is to seek truth--and it must, for that is a condition of its viability, breath to its lungs" (20), it will "allow for all the dazzle, shadow, bafflement, leaps of conjecture, prayers and dreamsubstance of that quest"(20). Invoking the idea of "presence," she notes that the mythic figure "Acteon (or any other personage of the imagination) must be present in the poem. It is that presentness that is the 'direct statement' I do believe in: not the banishment of Acteon" (20).

She then looks through her earlier poems for "elements that were real to my imagination, whether in the form of culturally inherited myth or personal fiction; hoping to show how, and what kind of myths enter one poet's work" (20). What she finds she refers to as "the theme of a journey that would lead one from one state of being to another" (21). She calls that theme "the sense of life as a pilgrimage." Later she adds, "Mythic allusion in poetry only becomes dynamic myth when the deep imagination, not the superficial fancy, is at work" (21).

She goes on to refer to specific poems from The Double Image, many of them not reprinted in her Collected Earlier Poems. (9) She records her interest in fairy tales, in wells and fountains, in the language of birds which, she says--citing Eliade--"symbolizes access to the transcendent reality" (24). Referring to "Scenes from the Life of the Peppertrees" and the poem she wrote while composing the myth essay ("A Tree Telling of Orpheus"), she asks whether the walking trees that appear in both poems might be "a symbolic representation of the concept that all creation strives to return to the primal oneness" (24). We recall that Duncan (Letters 594) had suggested something like this.

She sees myth at work in two of her poems, "Xochipilli" and "Psalm Concerning the Castle." The latter, "written after contemplating a Han dynasty funerary castle," she says, is authentically mythological, inasmuch as it is "the record of a kind of mandala-landscape outside of time and inside the soul, as well as because of its origin in the enduring powerfulness of ancient belief captured in a sacred object" ("A Personal Approach" 25). Here Levertov's knowledge of Jung appears to be an integral part of her way of being, not an "acquisition" by means of books--as some of Duncan's erudition does. Then, sounding a bit like Duncan, she notes:
 the modern poet is not infrequently a syncretist. It is rare for him
 to subscribe to a single orthodoxy, but his nature as poet is so
 essentially religious that, exposed as never before to the knowledge
 of many faiths, many mythologies, he instinctively takes from any
 or all something of his sustenance. (27)


And, again sounding like Duncan on poetry, she says: "Examination of my own work for the presence of myth has confirmed me in my belief that myth arises from within the poet and poem rather than being deliberately sought" (29).

Levertov moves toward a conclusion by first observing that "Myth remains alive only when it retains its capacity to provoke, at a deep level, the 'shock of recognition' and a sense of personal relevance" (30). Invoking the idea of mystery, she observes that" [E]ven when cut off from tradition, the correspondences that, if he hold open the doors of his understanding, he cannot but perceive, will form images that are myth. The intellect, if not distorted by divorce from the other capacities, is not obstructive to the experience of the mysterious" (30).

What becomes clear from this brief comparison of their two essays: Duncan's theory of myth derives from Nietzsche and anticipates structuralist and post-structuralist (if not explicitly deconstructionist) elements. Levertov's theory derives from an existential and inductive approach, and perhaps the more capacious views of comparatists like Eliade and Jung. When the two essays are thus juxtaposed, it is tempting to read them as a dialogue--if not a dispute--between the two poets on their respective views of myth. Duncan almost vehemently affirms the duplicitous power of myth, at the same time he would hold the poet aloof from any forms of belief. Duncan makes only one reference to a specific poem of his, though he does talk in general terms about how writing a poem affects him in a more or less mythic way. In her essay, Levertov uses her own poems as testimony to the power of myth, and she concludes that even the poet without religious allegiance may find sources of "renewal and inspiration" in myth. It is almost as if she is trying to persuade the aloof and uncommitted Duncan to be less suspicious.

LIKE the sense of "being" that was part of what they sought in myth, we have seen that terms like "life," "reality," and "presence" appear early in the correspondence, sometimes as a gloss on the idea of mystery. Simply put, Duncan and Levertov share a devotion to poetry that achieves life, reality, and presence. Though complicated, contested, or denied in the last few decades (by deconstruction and other postmodern theories), for these two late Modernists the idea that poetry can convey a sense of reality, perhaps even a heightened sense of reality, and with it a sense of "presence," is a matter of doctrine bolstered for them by the authority of such revered predecessors as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

To pursue, for a moment, the significance of the term "life," we can look back to early in the correspondence. In December of 1957 Duncan shared some different passages from his notebooks. Referencing Werner Jaeger on Homer and Edmund Burke on the sublime (and tossing in additional references to Joyce, Picasso, Breton, Ernst, Artaud, and Charles Ives), he concludes:
 It is because life is real that we are deeply attracted to to
 kalon, to the Beautiful. Surely no instant can lie deeper, more
 ancient to us, than this striving for articulate, moving, lasting
 form which we can see throuout the Universe. (Letters 80)


In August of 1958 Duncan writes a long letter--already referred to--in which he speaks of poetry as "embodied reality," and later concludes, as we saw earlier, that "We're drawn pretty much to poetry that opens up life for us" (133).

Duncan begins a letter of January 12, 1961 praising the "recognition of life, of spirited life" (271) in the work of some young poets. Later he says, "It's the hidden currents of life, the revelation that takes us over, that comes to speak at last in the poem." It is a search not for "real poetry" but for "real life" (272). In a letter of July 1962 which praises Levertov's poem, "The Secret," and other poems from that period, Duncan affirms that "Our realization of a form is the only way we know to realize an experience: MAKE IT REAL" (359). Levertov echoes these ideas of realization and language in her talk of "realization" in the 1968 essay, "Origin of A Poem."

The issue of "presence"--and a telling image--surface in the earlier 60s as well. In September of 1961 Duncan was struggling with the early chapters of his book on H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) when he learns of a stroke she had suffered, which affects her ability with words. His comment seems almost "tossed off": "while I can imagine living entirely in the language of what is seen and felt and heard as sound--what an utmost agony it is not to find the word for it! Our feeling is so strong that 'In the beginning was the Word,' that the actual presence of the mountain (as a painter can see it) can seem insubstantial if we cannot find its word" (309). As we have seen, Duncan's emphasis is frequently on language.

Shortly after this, on the plane leaving San Francisco after a visit to Duncan and his partner, Jess Collins, Levertov re-affirms her love for Duncan and his poems: "I can't say what I feel about your poems, usually, any more than I can say what I feel about you as a presence, except to say I love you. Perhaps some of it can someday be a poem for you" (316). This is the same letter (quoted earlier) in which she refers to "recognizing mystery."

Responding to her complaint of his cold response to her letter, Duncan writes one of his most intimate letters to Levertov, acknowledging not only his love but the three "presences" which she is for him. "You are," he says, "right about that letter of mine that was cold somehow springing up in reaction to your 'I love you'--it was from the same love for you, Denny, in my own heart that I cannot say somehow and can at best refer to" (325). He then describes in great detail how Levertov is a "presence" to him.
 You see you have three presences for me, Denny, that touch the
 deepest life feeling. One is the Denise I have been able openly to
 speak of, the companion in art--where in certain poems of yours,
 by grace of your "poet," I am brought into that heart of life that
 poetry opens: then this poet you are I love because you are most
 true.

 Then there is, related, another presence: an idea of you or
 something you mean to me--yet it also seems to be really you and
 to reach the heart. I am troubled here, Denise, to make it clear,
 but just as my poet has existed in the light of your poet, my self
 does. And the "to thine own self be true" has existed, for always
 now it seems, as if that meant being true in your eyes.

 The third is just your real actual presence, where I have never
 felt these ghosts of conscience. When I've been with you, Denny,
 you are at last just you and I could not possibly not be just me
 as I am. That's what I did want to write most--how real all the
 rest is--but the pure joy, all the ever-lasting delight of these
 times in my life when I am actually with you. (325).


An extraordinary testament to Duncan's love. Complicated by his skeptical, conscience-ridden intellect, this analysis seems to struggle with the issue Gelpi points to: that for Duncan and Levertov, not actually being in each other's "presence" very often during their friendship, they became for each other "ideals" and--more than that--psychological figures, "anima and animus," as Gelpi says (xxviii), adopting the Jungian terminology with which both Duncan and Levertov would have been familiar.

How did such an intense friendship, such a deep relationship unravel? And what were the long-term consequences, especially for Levertov, who outlived Duncan and continued to publish poetry until her own death in 1997? I shall first briefly rehearse the causes of that alienation, giving some different emphases than Gelpi does in his introductory essay. I shall then conclude by examining some of Levertov's fine late poems, in which the presence of Duncan and their friendship seem apparent if not pervasive.

It is tempting to see a "drama" in the trajectory of their subsequent disaffection with each other, beginning in March 1968, just a few months before the myth conference. The time is one of tension. Levertov's husband, Mitchell Goodman, is coming up for trial because of anti-war activities. Levertov and Duncan are increasingly distracted by the war. The strain and final collapse of their friendship is precipitated by their differing views on the war, and by Duncan's determination to tell Levertov how her views on the war were negatively affecting her poetry. The strands of the web are woven from images of myth, mystery and religion, as well as frequent references to life, reality, and presence.

If one had to pick a specific "event" that began the argument, it would probably be Duncan's letter of March 30, 1968. In it he refers to Levertov's "demotic persona" (10) as she addressed a women's march in Washington, D.C. in January of that year. Duncan had seen the TV footage and comments that "In the PBL view of you, Denny, you are splendid but it is a force that, coming on strong, sweeps away all the vital weaknesses of the living identity" (607).

In October of 1968 Duncan's myth essay had been revised and was going to press. With his mind on a number of essays he is planning to write--Whitman, politics, and World Order are mentioned--he writes to Levertov of her and her husband's anti-war stands. He then asks a question that links war, politics, and poetry. It is a question that seems directed to both himself and Levertov, and one that employs that term, "reality," which continued to carry a charge for both of them:
 Do we want or dare passionate reality? To suffer the reality of what
 we are? It is some hovering suspicion of what the passionate reality
 of Man may be, some hovering suspicion in me of what I have
 always recognized as true in the testimony of others, that darkens
 my brooding. (620)


Duncan suggests that, as person and poet, he feels challenged: to experience a "passionate reality" that may involve something "suspicious." What he "has recognized as true, in the testimony of others" seems to hint at some dawning self-knowledge. It relates to a reality not unlike the "what is dark" to which Levertov had referred in her letter of November 13, 1961 (317). It is as if he is challenging Levertov to face the same kind of reality in herself. And that may be the basis for much of what he will later say about the poems in her volume, To Stay Alive.

As Duncan becomes more strident and insistent about how Levertov's anti-war position is affecting her and her poetry, Levertov seems to pull back. The everyday details that always fill her letters now convey an almost cryptic message. In a letter of October 1968 she talks of learning from the mystical Welsh poet and artist, David Jones, things about her own Welshnesss. She comments that Jones is like the poet, Louis Zukovsky, someone whom both Levertov and Duncan had admired. But, she says, recalling her and Duncan's earlier talk about the Hasidim: Zukovsky's "rational" Judaism goes counter to her own, more "romantic" Hasidism (621). Then, almost unaccountably, she refers to her mother's blossoming in the years following the death of her father, a father whose relation to her mother Levertov characterizes as benevolent but tyrannical (621). It seems that religion, family, and the past are becoming sources of strength--and growing independence for Levertov.

In another letter she speaks of her life "deepening and darkening" and says, "I want to say Pray for me, but to whom? I don't know which god has afflicted me. Is it Eros?" (623). Duncan's response is to see her sadness as a phase of the artist's life, but he does say he will pray for her (624). Yet his next letter, on "life," "disease," and his offense at the anti-war "Movement," opens another wound (629). When she responds in April of 1969, she says that she can't write about "'the movement' life or and [sic] 'life and death'," but--as if in rebuttal--she does say she has been moved by a "Chardinesque quality of illumination of the ordinary that was my own first introduction to Williams" (632). Again, it's as if she is pulling back from Duncan, finding an alternate source of renewal, again in the past: a kind of regresser pour mieux sauter.

Levertov's busyness and Duncan's lung operation in spring 1969 put the smoldering disagreement on hold. But in February 1970 Levertov explains her long silence by her not knowing how to respond to Duncan's critical article about poet Hayden Carruth (645). (11) Duncan writes a long letter in which he tries to explain. He speaks of an "emptiness of being" that he feels, but ends by railing against both Carruth and Adrienne Rich, whom he calls "a syzygy of critical adversaries" (652).

Levertov's trip to Europe in summer 1970 again eases the tension. But then Duncan's letter of October 1970 opens things up again--all the way back to March 1968--as he describes his "Santa Cruz Propositions" poem, in the second section of which, he says, "you come to mind to deliver the image, Kali dancing" (657). Levertov's "demotic persona" of March 1968 has become the Indian goddess of creativity and destruction, and myth is again alive and well in their correspondence. In January 1971 Levertov responds with opening lines that resemble those in Part IV of "Staying Alive": "I'm not Kali at all--cannot (even if I wd.) sustain that anger--but this is not an objection to being mythologized, only a personal disclaimer" (658). A month later she says, "don't, very dear friends, cut me off & condemn me to Kali category, please--I am just as human as I ever was" (658-59). In a letter of October 4 she reminds Duncan, "you do have that habit of projection, of setting people up in roles--of mythologizing, as you did for instance when you identified me with Kali" (662).

If the "demotic persona" letter of March 1968 was the start of their alienation, then their exchange that begins in mid-October 1971 is likely the climax. In the first letter, he uses her disclaimer about not being Kali against her and then ends by re-asserting that "[t]he wish for reprisal is the Kali wish" (664). He follows this with a long letter on October 19th, but because of circumstances, she gets this one-two punch at the same time (674).

It is clear that the October 19th letter was hard for Duncan to write. He begins by admitting he's had a dream in which he says, "At fifty-three I do not seek it, but I more than don't care, I will welcome the end of this life" (664). As he starts talking about To Stay Alive, he admits to the charge of projection (665). Then, focusing on a line in "Staying Alive," (12) he says, "We realize that the poetic truth of Viet Nam has to do with the deep well of your own life--as the fire in Paterson, we realize has to do with the well of Williams's life" (667). He concludes that "as a poet you won't go with the poem" (667). The well, referred to earlier, will become important as the exchange of letters continues.

Duncan then uses the "demonic person" to praise what he sees in Levertov's poems about her sister, Olga: "This demonic person in the poem given the poignancy of her humanity you also knew--it is one of your everlastingly moving and revealing poems" (667). In a third installment to the October 19th letter, Duncan proposes that the "well" is the "well of language." Duncan's November 3rd installment emphasizes "the multi-phasic character of language and, again adverting to the line about the well, he says, "Our partisan feelings and resolutions act as censors of the imagination that must go deep into the well we would call ours" (670). (13)

Duncan then quotes a few lines from a different poem, "Life at War," focusing on a specific image:
 delicate Man
 ...
 whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
 whose understanding manifests designs
 fairer than the spider's most intricate web. (671)


Duncan's comment: "there is of course an immediate sinister extension of meaning here ... And as poets we be spiders who must keep alive the imagination of the flies' relation to the web" (671).

Even as their differences become more apparent to each other, more glaring, and obstructive of any agreement, it's as if they do see some things more clearly. Levertov's response of October 25th to November 2nd fills thirteen pages in the published letters. Her almost point-by-point response shows her independence. She begins with what she calls his "misapprehensions ... based on prejudices, opinionated preconceptions, a need to make things fit with your projections" (674-75). Touching on a number of points in his letters--including Olga--she then returns to the TV footage from 1968, scolding him for misinterpreting the image she made (677). In time she addresses the issue of a poem having its own meaning, and she admits that it may be a "revelation" of "what one didn't know one knew." Taking the offensive, she continues:
 I do not believe, as you seem to, in the contradictory (&
 autonomous) "meaning" of a poem and I think your insistence on that
 leads you wildly astray often, in that aspect of your criticism
 which insists that people are saying what they do not mean (682).
 (14)


In defense of her view of criticism, she argues that poetry should give "that keener sense of being alive that Stevens speaks of as one of the things a poem must do" (683).

She then turns to Duncan's repeated references to "the well" and what Duncan saw as an "autonomous" "well of language." "In fact," she says, "what Bet meant was the well of my unscattered, deepest, strongest, serenest self in contrast to the part of myself that is frantically compunctious and tries to do too much" (683). Admitting that the image can refer to the "well of language," she concludes, "But this is 'as well as' not 'instead' and your substitution of one meaning for another is typical of your arrogance" (683). (15)

Levertov then responds to Duncan's criticism of the spider web image, calling it careless reading. She ends by analogizing the web to "a great gothic cathedral with its traceries and rose windows," calling it "a bit like the beauty of a perfect web with the dew on it on a fall morning." She asserts, however, that "(unless one wants to get into a whole anticlerical kick or something), [it] is a gratuitous human act of praise, gratuitous in the way David Jones means in Epoch and the Artist" (684).

Duncan writes two more letters on November 8th and 9th, 1971, but they can't have arrived before she writes on November 9th, proposing a truce: "Let's try to just be friends again in a new way" (693). She adds, "I think it would be wise if you gave up your whole idea of writing something about my book ... I wish you would put the whole thing aside and not give me that kind of attention" (693). As we shall see, Duncan had, in fact, already gone public with some of these views (see p. 79-80 and footnote 16 below).

Duncan's letters of November 8th and 9th react to hers of October 25thNovember 2nd and carry his argument about Kali, words, and language even further. After contrasting "Revolution" and "Rebellion," he introduces what he calls "a third vision of 'a new life'--Christ's New Dispensation, profoundly different from the Christ of Judgment, for it relieves the Law; Dante's Vita Nuova" (689). He asks:
 Can we poets propose the phrase "new life" as if the creative force
 of the idea of the New Dispensation, of baptism, did not rush in;
 and the definition Dante gave to the Vita Nuova rush in to whatever
 presumptions we make, if we not powerfully create our own
 meaning to stand with the spectral meanings already present in the
 thought. (689)


The phrases "new life" and Vita Nuova recall Duncan's earlier use of the phrase, and all the references to "life" in poetry that he and Levertov had formerly shared. In this particular passage, verging on implied dichotomy, he seems to argue for both conventional--or traditional--associations and "spectral" meanings. He alludes to "what science pictures life as" (689). And he backs this up with references to evolution, Darwin, and DNA (691).

Then, in the midst of his impassioned defense of anachronistic meaning, there comes a moment of calm. He suddenly adverts again to Levertov's "Olga" poems. But here, instead of using Levertov's poetry against her, he refers to Olga and the poems in which she is realized as "still an other world present, a well come--the immediacy of here and now--that is very different from cyclic return, retribution, or a new life" (690). Seeming to contrast what he had just called "a new life" with the life that the "Olga" poems celebrate (presumably a life "that does not need to be redeemed or judged"), he goes on to say, "the presence of Olga in the 'Olga Poems' has this life, the life of immediate being that does not need to be redeemed or judged" (690). He says, "All of Part VI vibrates with it" (690), and he quotes the first five lines of Part VI, which begin, "Your eyes were the brown gold of pebbles under water" (quoted, 690). His praise of these lines, in a poem that Levertov always valued for its connection to her past life and her sister, must have struck deep.

In another kind of partial reverse, he begins his "cover letter" of November 9 by admitting that he has gone back to read the poems in an earlier volume, O Taste and See. His response to this rereading is unexpected, even to him. "But how radiant the reading has been" (692). He marvels: "You bring me over and over again into events of your life as events of a Mystery" (692). Then, after repeating the word "Mystery" two more times, he concludes: "The politics of anguish rushes up to illustrate the theme ... seeks to find, to verify, the presence of his Mystery in the actual world" (692).

While Duncan was penning these two letters, Levertov, as noted, was writing to call a truce. But, once again, letters crossed, and she received his of November 11 before he could have received hers. His long letter (five pages in the collected correspondence) goes a step too far. In one more refutation, he provides an essentially deconstructive reading of her work. Admitting that "I read as I write, and poet to poet I do want to win assent to my concept of the poem" (694), he again uses his erudition to full--if sometimes cruel and questionable--effect. He accuses her of not seeing "the duplicity and complicity of truth (the duplicity and complicity of God)" (694) and adds, in self-defense, "What makes me arrogant is that I cannot imagine that for some their words do not betray sinister meanings" (694). He responds to her defense of the spider web image, sounding like a Foucauldian as he reminds her of motivations and forces--other than "gratuitous praise"--accounting for the gothic cathedral. In defense of his interpretations of the spider web, he says "images in poems like images in dreams are not incidental or mere devices of speech, chance references, but got deep into our experience" (695), and he re-asserts the associations with "murder and cannibalism" of spiders (695).

In time he returns to the goodness and evil of God: "I read the story of God the Father only as a jealous wrathful and evil (over-powering and tyrannical) creativity sick with itself and its creation striving to imagine love and good. To think that the evil of this world proceeds from any true goodness is intolerable to me" (697). Here we come almost full circle to where --along with Nietzsche, and additions from Blake--Duncan had concluded his myth essay. As Gelpi notes: the contrast of Duncan's Gnostic and Levertov's (as yet only latent) sacramental views of God, the world, and language, are too strikingly at odds. It is little help that, at the end of the November 11th letter Duncan suggests that he'll be more cautious with what he says when he writes the article for which these arguments were to have been a preparation. In retrospect, Duncan's whole argument could be seen as disingenuous, given his actual behavior.

Duncan accedes, in a note of November 12, 1971, to her request for a truce; he even tells her not to read the letter he'd just mailed. She responds with two brief notes from her visit to Russia. Significant in the second note are her references to visiting shrines of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Mayakovsky (about whom she had written in To Stay Alive). And, for someone who always found solace in art, there is also a mention of her visit to the famous Hermitage. It is hard not to see her mention of these details as yet another form of "return" to the valued resources of renewal she found in the past.

Of course it was a portion of an interview with Duncan, quoted in James Mersman's Out of the Vietnam Vortex, that is the direct cause of the final alienation. Gelpi rehearses the facts. Duncan gave the interview in 1969. It was published in 1974. That interview made public Duncan's Freudian interpretation of Levertov's imagery in a number of the anti-war poems. From that he proceeded to denigrate the quality of these poems. Gelpi suggests that Duncan knew he was being pursued by a "daemon" but could not help it. Levertov's letter of December 1975 expresses her sense of pain and betrayal. (15)

The end of the friendship as such, however, is not my concern. Rather, it is the consequences of the things said in October and November 1971, that continue to concern me. Despite the pain and sense of betrayal, Levertov, I conjecture, learned a more nuanced awareness of the darkness in words and images; an awareness that she implicitly credits to Duncan in a number of subsequent poems. In that way the argument that ended their friendship gives new value to the meaning of "mystery," "myth," "reality," "life," and "presence" as they appear, along with a number of other familiar constellations of imagery, in some of the best poems of her last years.

To begin this concluding series of observations, it will be necessary to take a step back before the end of the friendship, in order to look at one of Levertov's most significant--and complex--acknowledgments of Duncan's importance to her development. It is also one of her earliest expressions of independence. In August of 1966 she wrote to Duncan that
 the range of response in you & me overlaps--& that is a large
 area--but beyond the area of overlap extends in quite different
 directions. Years ago that shamed & embarrassed me--but now
 not. You are more the Master, a Master poet in my world, not less,
 just because I feel that the only emulation of such a master is to
 be more myself (AS I wrote in a little piece written at Bob Hawley's
 suggestion recently, which I hope you will like.) (17) One doesn't
 try to be a mountain; one feels living in the presence of a mountain
 that one is a free being who must stand straight & breathe deep,
 which in human terms means that one must have the courage of
 one's own responses even if someone one so much admires is appalled
 at them. (547)


It is almost as if Levertov is taking up the "thread" of a conversation begun five years prior to that letter, when Duncan had been struck by H.D.'s loss of speech, saying, "Our feeling is so strong that 'In the beginning was the Word,' that the actual presence of the mountain (as a painter can see it) can seem insubstantial if we cannot find its word" (309).

Years later Levertov continued to seek, and find the words, and would use the image of the mountain--its presence and its absence--in ways that recall as they acknowledge, at least unconsciously, Duncan's "presence" and the analogy he had coined, and which she then borrowed. Levertov does so, even as she transforms that image into the symbol it becomes in her later poetry. She thus achieves, in poem after poem, the aim she had expressed in 1961 (316), to perhaps one day write a poem for him. (18) Of course, "To R.D., March 4th 1988" is the most obvious instance of such a poem, but she continued to write "in the presence of the mountain" almost until the time of her own death.

Of course, she had been writing about mountains since the 1940s. "Sarnen" concludes with "There is no need to escape / from the motionless mountain" (Collected Earlier Poems 3), and a mountain figures prominently in "With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads," where, at the end, the speaker is able to see--in a new way--a mountain that had always been there. But it is in the Mt. Rainier poems of Evening Train that we can see how the image of the mountain, and its symbolic import, have changed. (19) The poems on Mt. Rainier, after Levertov had moved to Seattle, are at one and the same time brilliant if oblique tributes to favorite artist Paul Cezanne, and to Duncan. Here Levertov rings variations on the themes of presence and absence as she is "living in the presence of a mountain." And it is here, I think, that we see Duncan apotheosized as that mountain she had referred to in her letter of August 1966. Working like Cezanne, (20) who had painted and repainted Mte. San Victoire over the course of several years, Levertov gives us several poems that study as they evoke the mountain in different light, different seasons, different moods. (21)

"Settling" describes the experience of coming to live "in the presence of the mountain." Accepting the climate of Seattle, the final sentence of the poem asserts: "Grey is the price / of neighboring with eagles, of knowing / a mountain's vast presence, seen or unseen" (Evening Train 3). "Elusive" and "Morning Mist" play variations on presence and absence: "The mountain comes and goes / on the horizon, / a rhythm elusive as that of a sea-wave ..." ("Elusive" 4), and "The mountain absent, / a remote folk-memory" is followed by the lines, "we equate / God with these absences--Deus absconditus ..." ("Morning Mist" 5). "Presence" subtly personifies the mountain as "clouds disguise its shoulders" yet "one perceives / the massive presence, obdurate, unconcerned" (6). In "Effacement," the mountain becomes other than itself, "majestic presence become / one cloud among others" (70). The final poem of the section, "Open Secret," is a familiar one, and probably one of Levertov's best. It begins: "Perhaps one day I shall let myself / approach the mountain--" (14). But over the course of several lines the speaker changes her mind: "This one is not, I think, to be known by close scrutiny, by touch of foot or hand ..." In the speaker's reluctance to approach too near--as if it were, in effect, holy ground--the mountain acquires an almost mythic force, making the penultimate sentence that much more convincing: "This mountain's power / lies in the open secret of its remote / apparition ..." Even the ambiguity of the syntax suggests something of the mountain's mystery. In the end, the mountain is as distant and unknowable as another human being often is.

These late "mountain" poems have a different resonance than earlier poems like "Sarnen" and "With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads." It is not just the difference between a young poet and a mature poet. "With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads" is as precisely perceptual as one could wish. The mountain even carries its own symbolic load. But that early, imagined mountain cannot compare to the evocations of Mt. Rainier. In these later poems it is as if the speaker is always thinking of other associations that the mountain suggests. The mountain is god-like, transcendent, almost dominating. And even as we propose such predications, it is easy to see how the mountain can be, at once, an almost shamanistic object and a substitute for either god or a powerful human force; a father-figure, or a mentor like Robert Duncan. So, though Duncan is never mentioned, these poems suggest a sense of the mountain, present and absent, that also embodies the truth of what it means to live in a mountain's presence.

Less obvious echoes of Duncan occur in a number of the late poems that employ metaphors of science like those Duncan had introduced her to in the correspondence. By this time Levertov herself had experienced cancer, its remission, and the constant possibility of its return. Recalling Duncan's talk of cells and mutations, Levertov, in "A Reminder," "Tragic Error," and "After Mindwalk" uses images of the microscopic and cellular level of life to warn and tease out the sense of presence and absence, along with that of mystery in the world around us.

"The Reminder" (Evening Train 67) begins as an artist's rendering of Lago di Como--which the poem refers to as "an earthly paradise." But in the second half, the scene with cypresses and "villas more elegant / in slight disrepair than anything spick and span" gives way to talk of the lake's pollution, "the malady / we know the earth endures" and which the speaker says "seems in remission." In retrospect, it is possible to see these lines as referring to the lake, the earth, and Levertov's awareness of her own experience with lymphoma. The poem ends with a line that might have come from Duncan: "Deep underneath remission's fragile peace, / the misshaped cells remain." We can trace one source of Levertov's sensitivity to a scientific view of the earth, and our place in it, back to Duncan's numerous comments in the 60s and the beginning of the 1970s.

The second poem, "Tragic Error," revises and re-interprets the Genesis injunction to "subdue" the earth. Here Duncan's deconstructive readings of the Old Testament, especially in the myth essay and in his heated epistolary exchanges with Levertov, also come to mind. After an overview of how human beings have misread and misapplied the Biblical injunction, the poem sums up what the speaker suggests should have been its central message:
 Surely our task
 was to have been
 to love the earth,
 to dress and keep it like Eden's garden.


Then the speaker goes a step further:
 That would have been our dominion:
 to be those cells of earth's body that could
 perceive and imagine ...


Here are echoes of Duncan's myth essay and the notebook entries he had shared with her in years past. But Levertov has so thoroughly absorbed the insight as to transform it. Yes, we are to be like the cells Duncan had imagined, but now these cells are transformed so they "could bring the planet / into the haven it is to be known." This is a far cry from Duncan's skepticism. Levertov even adds her own--positive--"reading against the grain," ending the poem with an almost Biblical analogy, suggesting that "the haven it is to be known" should be compared to the way in which "the eye blesses the hand, perceiving / its form and the work it can do." There is a subtle mystery, another kind of "open secret," implied in this line.

The lead poem of section VIII, "The Tide," has as many multiple meanings as Duncan could have ever hoped for. A response to Bernt Capra's film, Mindwalk, and the ideas of physicist-philosopher, Fritjof Capra, "After Mindwalk" too plays variations on the biological motifs to which Duncan had treated Levertov in the many places we have considered. The first verse paragraph tries to articulate the new way in which we have to look at the world, because of quantum physics. Terms like "physical," "material," and "real" no longer mean what they did. "Small" and "large" are also "bereft / of meaning" in Capra's quantum universe. And now it is not matter but "process, process only, / gathers itself to appear / knowable" (Evening Train 105). This most ambiguous sentence, beginning with the Hopkinsian phrase, "gathers itself," seems to acknowledge that the "process" approach to knowledge and "reality" is the only viable one in the present, quantum age.

The second verse paragraph (only four lines long) reverses this sense, expressing the "bleak arrest" and "panic's black cloth falling / over our faces" that such awareness brings. The third verse paragraph--two lines --glosses this sense of panic by reference to "Pascal's dread." But whereas Pascal had said, "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread," it is the "infinite spaces" "inside our flesh" that now causes the speaker's dread. Here it is not the cellular level that is the focus. Instead, the speaker plunges even further into the "infinite spaces" inside the human body:
 infinite spaces discovered
 within our own atoms, inside the least
 particle of what we supposed
 our mortal selves.


She is thinking of how each atom--of which all things, including our cells, are composed--is a nucleus surrounded by its circling electrons. The final verse paragraph focuses on the tension between what--in the quantum view--we are made of ("infinite spaces," "bits of the Void left over from before / the Fiat Lux") and how we can know it. The poem at this point implicitly addresses one of the puzzles that faces neuroscientists and psychologists who study the mind/body problem. How is it that consciousness "arises" or "emerges" from chemical and electrical changes in the brain, and--more significantly--how can consciousness focus attention on the very "processes" that supposedly account for the existence of such consciousness?

Levertov's poem at best suggests some of this complexity. Its chief purpose, however, is to draw some consequences of the quantum world view. The poem's strained syntax suggests the difficulty of the challenge, even as it might recall the syntax of some of Duncan's more difficult poems. The object of scrutiny is not the infinite spaces of the universe that caused Pascal's dread, but the infinite spaces discovered within our own atoms. What the poem says, and realizes, is perhaps, again, spurred by her awareness of cancer, and how, for instance, radiation deals at the atomic as well as the cellular level. As the poem focuses on those inner spaces, predication comes to its limit.

The most that can be said: those spaces are "immeasurably incorporate." They are part of us, and they are almost beyond counting. But, furthermore, they are in what the poem calls "our discarnate, fictive (yes, but sentient) notion of substance." We are made of almost countless atoms; they constitute our bodies, but we can't see them, and thus we can scarce imagine them as incarnated. In this quantum view, "our mortal selves" are fictive, but--paradoxically--sentient. The notion of substance has been evacuated of meaning, and with it goes our sense of mortal selves. Seemingly, all that is left is "sentience." Acknowledging that even the idea of substance is "inaccurate as our language," the final clause of the poem nevertheless re-asserts meaningfulness, saying that the flux of which we are composed nevertheless is a home, a locus where "the soul alone / pervades, elusive but persistent."

Acknowledging the radical challenge of modern science, and the inability of language to articulate the situation, (22) Levertov has gone Duncan at least one better and, after a trek along a kind of via negativa that is modem science, she emerges with an astringent but durable faith and hope. Once again, absorbing something like Duncan's almost skeptical perspective, this poem transforms it. The poem's final claim, that "soul alone / pervades," will be interpreted in a number of ways. But if seen, for instance, in the light of poems like "'In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being'," (Sands of the Well 107), it is not such a radical, unorthodox, or outlandish claim. Pantheistic? No. Trinitarian? Only by inference. Still, it is a fundamental affirmation asserted in the face of forces and scientific speculation that Duncan had used to argue his particular brand of Gnosticism, in those months leading up to the end of their friendship.

Sands of the Well contains at least one poem that obliquely harkens back to the Levertov-Duncan friendship. The title poem employs that favorite image of the well, into which Duncan had urged her to look deeply--and in ways differently than she had been used to doing in the late 1960s. In this late poem Levertov does exactly what Duncan had encouraged. Looking into what may be only an imagined well, the speaker describes how "The golden particles / descend, descend ..." The image of "golden particles" recalls an image from the "Olga" poems to which Duncan had referred in that most critical of letters from October 1971. Duncan quotes the first line from part VI of the "Olga" poem: "Your eyes were the brown gold of pebbles under water" (690). Later in that "Olga" poem Levertov recalls other times when she remembers Olga's eyes: "by other streams in other countries; anywhere where the light / reaches down through shallows to gold gravel" (To Stay Alive 124). "Sands of the Well" is a subtle variation on one of Levertov's most frequent poetic "gestures": the look into a [self-reflecting] well. Yet, in this single poem Levertov is able to evoke the presence of both her sister and the friend who had so praised the poems about that sister.

A last poem, "Translucence," from the posthumous collection, This Great Unknowing, conducts a final dialogue with Duncan, meditating on the power of goodness in the world. It is a goodness that Duncan had found hard not to approach with a suspicious eye. At the height of their argument in 1971, Duncan had attacked Levertov's poem, "Staying Alive." At one point in that poem she recalls an objection Duncan had put:
 Robert reminds me revolution
 implies the circular: an exchange
 of position, the high brought low, the low
 ascending, a revolving,
 an endless rolling of the wheel. The wrong word.
 We use the wrong word. A new life
 isn't the old life in reverse, negative of the same photo.
 But it's the only
 word we have.... (To Stay Alive 41)


Duncan had objected to her use of "revolution." He also objected to her use of the phrase, "a new life." As we have seen, his letter adverts to Dante and all the associations that the phrase, "a new life," can evoke. His lengthy excursus includes reference to "the new Dispensation" of the Gospels.

"Translucence" evokes Dante in a way that recalls Duncan's enigmatic use of the Vita Nuova in that letter. The poem begins:
 Once I understood (till I forget, at least)
 the immediacy of new life, Vita Nuova. (Great Unknowing 48)


Referring to "redemption not stuck in linear delays," the speaker recalls "the source / of unconscious light in faces / I believe are holy ..." Then, playing on "new life" and "redemption," the poem goes on to compare these holy people to translucent Japanese screens or lampshades, and then to Lazarus "but a Lazarus (man or woman) without the memory of tomb or of any / swaddling bands." (23) The poem finally compares them to infants in their receiving blankets. It reaches its climax in two straight forward assertions:
 They know of themselves nothing different
 from anyone else. This great unknowing
 is part of their holiness (48).


Like "Missing Beatrice" in one of her earlier poems (Breathing The Water 24), these "holy" ones are unconscious of the joy they bring to others, and of its rarity.
 They are always trying
 to share out joy as if it were cake or water,
 something ordinary, not rare at all. (48)


Here Levertov re-asserts the power of joy, of goodness and of "a new life," as embodied in people who seem unconscious of their own goodness. It is Levertov re-asserting the possibility of holiness and unself-conscious "goodness" manifested in the way these people behave. It is, in effect, a refutation of Duncan's skeptical view. It is also the realization of joy's "rarity" that--at least in part--places the speaker in the role of outsider, observer, attentive "scribe" or "prophet" of the extraordinary; a role that Levertov had learned--in part--from, and shared with Duncan.

For Levertov, the two friends' formerly common effort to evoke in poetry the presence of what they experienced survives after the end of the friendship, and even after Duncan's death. An appetite, a taste for "presence" (and absence (24)) informs her late poetry with a complexity, a Keatsian openness not only to "dark" mysteries, but to living in uncertainties, doubts, and revisions that resemble the attitude with which Duncan had challenged her--and perhaps even the "love of chance" that she had recognized was a part of him. (25) Levertov had tested and then absorbed the content and the effects of Duncan's "mentoring," transforming his often polemical--and pontifical--claims into organic, supple practice in her own verse.

These few examples may be a small indication of how a close reading of the correspondence between Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan will continue to yield insights: in her "visions" of peace and love, and beatitude, poems like "Sands of the Well" and "Translucence" stand out. In both we find images that glow with the power of their--by this time long-faded (and now muted by death)--friendship. Yet the pebbles, grains of sand, and the Vita Nuova recall the height of their critical relationship. It is as if Levertov is still recalling Olga and Duncan, as she intimates a world and a way of being toward which all three--in their different ways--had aspired.

Notes

(1) Berthoff, Robert J. and Albert Gelpi. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2004.

(2) See "Some Duncan Letters ..." pp. 195 ff.

(3) See "The Sack of Wings" in Tesserae, pp. 1-2.

(4) Throughout this essay I reproduce the often idiosyncractic spelling found in the correspondence.

(5) See particularly "By the Seaside" and "Janus," as well as the revelatory "Oracles" and the "dream" recollection titled "Mildred."

(6) See A Meeting of Poets and Theologians to Discuss Parable, Myth and Language. Duncan's essay is also reprinted in Fictive Certainties. Levertov's myth essay has not, to my knowledge, been reprinted.

(7) It is also possible that Duncan could have gotten just these references from a variety of other sources besides Eliade.

(8) As one of Levertov's early poems had alluded to Victorian mythologist, Sir James Frazer, so her essay on myth explicitly cites Mircea Eliade, Jane Harrison, and Robert Graves, and refers obliquely or in passing to Jung and Freud. She also cites the work of Duncan, Charles Olson, David Jones, W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, and H. D., not to mention Margaret Avison, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

(9) There would appear to be a place, here, for some basic research into why these poems were never reprinted.

(10) Though he uses "demotic" throughout this letter, in later letters he switches to the term "demonic."

(11) Gelpi (xxx) notes that Duncan's response to the "genteel conventionality" of this and other poets Levertov had encouraged through her work at W. W. Norton was "cool and condescending." It would not be hard to explain his response as outright jealousy of Levertov--for the degree to which her work with Norton (and other presses for whom she reviewed manuscripts) had put her more in the public eye and more in the poetic "mainstream" of late twentieth-century America.

(12) The phrase is attributed to "Bet," Rebecca Mitchell Garnett, a friend of Levertov's.

(13) Though Duncan is probably aware--at least subliminally--of the number of Levertov's earlier poems in which she uses the well image, it is fair to say that here he is focusing on Bet's quotation almost exclusively. But the intensity of the argument, I would submit, must have affected the way Levertov would see that image in the future.

(14) The passage concludes: "To interpret art as a series of Freudian slips (which is essentially what you do when that perversity takes you) is as tiresome and compulsive and reductive as, for instance, 'the method of of St. Beuve' which Proust railed against."

(15) Levertov and Duncan square off on an issue that has engaged critics since at least the time of the New Criticism. Levertov argues for at least a modified intentionality; Duncan, for the anachronistic, almost deconstructive, interpretation of the meaning of the text. As we know, polysemous (even anarchic) meaning has virtually carried the day. But most writers of my acquaintance still affirm and retain for themselves a sense of communicative intention in what they write. Of course, in everyday life, to insist that "people are saying what they do not mean" is tantamount to calling them liars. But, somehow, to construe literature in that way continues acceptable.

(16) As the correspondence makes clear, with a few exceptions, they were never in contact again, up to the time of Duncan's death.

(17) It is instructive to compare the letter's phrasing to the published "tribute" that appears as "For Robert Duncan's Early Poems," and which had been published in a journal earlier that year. See New and Selected Essays 243.

(18) "I can't say what I feel about your poems, usually, any more than I can say what I feel about you as a presence, except to say I love you. Perhaps some of it can someday be a poem for you."

(19) Both Sands of the Well and This Great Unknowing also contain several poems on Mount Rainier, or other mountains.

(20) Two poems that refer to Cezanne are "Le Motif" (Sands of the Well 74) and "For Those Whom God Loves Less" (Sands of the Well 96).

(21) The ambiguous title of this first section of Evening Train ("Lake Mountain Moon") precedes twelve poems, six of which deal with the mountain, three with the moon, and three with herons, gulls, or other birds. The mountain poems are the most impressive.

(22) Cf. Hannah Arendt's discussion of science and language in the "Prologue" to The Human Condition, 3-7.

(23) The Lazarus allusion also recalls Levertov's poem, "Ascension" (Evening Train 115-16).

(24) See "The Absentee" (Breathing the Water 20) for one of her most Duncansian poems.

(25) See again "Some Duncan Letters ..." (New and Selected Essays 200). The terms "reality" and "realization" continue to appear in her prose reflections as well.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Berthoff, Robert J. and Albert Gelpi The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004.

Duncan, Robert. "The Truth and Life of Myth in Poetry." A Meeting of Poets and Theologians to Discuss Parable, Myth and Language. Washington, D.C., The College of Preachers, 1968.

Levertov, Denise. "A Personal Approach." A Meeting of Poets and Theologians to Discuss Parable, Myth and Language. Washington, D.C., The College of Preachers, 1968.

--. Breathing the Water. New York: New Directions, 1987.

--. Collected Earlier Poems. New York: New Directions, 1979.

--. Evening Train. New York: New Directions, 1992.

--. New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992.

--. Sands of the Well. New York: New Directions, 1996.

--. Tesserae. New York: New Directions, 1995.

--. This Great Unknowing. New York: New Directions, 1999.

--. To Stay Alive. New York: New Directions, 1971.
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Author:Block, Ed, Jr.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
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Date:Sep 22, 2005
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