Contemporary Literature 45.3 (2004) 538-556
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A Cold War Correspondence:
The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov
Bending the Bow
in the course of a letter—I am still
in the course of a letter—to a friend,
who comes close in my thought so that
the day is hers.1
Robert Duncan was often "in the course of a letter" to that friend—Denise Levertov—and The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi, shows just how often each poet's letters bled into poems and poems into letters. The address to Levertov, for Duncan, was profound, if problematic:
You stand behind the where-I-am.
The deep tones and shadows I will call a woman.
The quick high notes . . . You are a girl there too,
having something of sister and of wife,
and I would play Orpheus for you again,[End Page 538]
recall the arrow or song
to the trembling daylight
from which it sprang
In this first poem of Bending the Bow, Levertov is centrally placed, as a mythopoeic Eurydice to Duncan's Orpheus, but also as bearer of the martial bow to the strings of his Orphic lyre. Duncan would descend to Hell to "recall" Levertov to her proper (poetic) sphere through his critique of her antiwar activism. But like Orpheus he would lose her by turning back to reify his friend into a demonic Kali, "whirling her necklace of skulls" and "trampling the despoiling armies and the exploiters of natural resources/under her feet."2 As his psychic anima, Levertov revealed to Duncan the extent to which his "where-I-am" is female, but when she challenged his view of that feminine presence, his entire projection was unsettled. As his anima (Duncan playfully placed the emphasis on the last syllable), Levertov would ultimately express animus at being fixed into roles—adept, disciple, Eurydice—and would seek a divorce from the Jungian dyad. In the powerful duplicity of Duncan's figure for America at war—a Heraclitean bow that is both conflict and music—this relationship found its creative ground and foundered on that same ground.
Although the close relationship between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov is part of the history of postwar poetry, never has the depth of that relationship been revealed so vividly as in this correspondence. Containing nearly five hundred letters written over thirty years, this collection testifies to the sustaining love and creative respect that each felt for the other. Both used correspondence as a sounding board for their evolving poetics, framing their affections and disaffections with the work of fellow poets as a way of distinguishing their own practices. In the absence of adequate editions of Duncan's or Levertov's prose, these letters may be the very best introduction to their thought beyond the poetry. Their close attention to praxis—to the making and revision of poems at an almost microscopic level—is revelatory. Their readings of each other's works—sometimes word-by-word or line-by-line responses—provide [End Page 539] invaluable commentary, and their responses to the commentary often include equally important bibliographical information. Especially when their contention over the Vietnam War surfaces, the letters provide an important insight into how each negotiated the conflicting claims of social activism and formal innovation.
The story told by these letters can be read on several levels. At the first level is a narrative of two major poets of the postwar period, the gestation of their poetics, their debts to the Pound/Williams tradition, their domestic and personal formations. At a second level, the correspondence is a chronicle of gender politics in the second half of the twentieth century. Both poets began by adopting a familiar 1950s master/adept role, coded masculine/feminine, that changed...