Friday, October 16, 2009
of Robert Duncan
& Denise Levertov
Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books a few years back. I wrote quite a bit of my last book while reading these letters, some of it in the generous margins around its pages. It's one of the most thorough, engaging and dramatic literary correspondences I have ever read -- kind of like reading an epistolary novel.
I picked it up after having put down the Ekbert Faas biography, which used Creeley's first wife as the ultimate authority on his skewed view of the poet. Opening the first few letters to this book served as a useful counterbalance to that perspective, as the letters begin with the two poets gossiping about Creeley and his first wife and how they don't like her and feel like she is ruining him as a writer. An equally subjective viewpoint, no doubt, but one that at least complicates the simplistic views of the biography.
And boy is this book filled with gossip! One of my favorite narratives embedded in the letters is about Creeley and Kenneth Rexroth. In the late fifties Creeley ran off with Rexroth's wife and children to New Mexico. Through the letters we hear that Duncan's partner, Jess, will no longer allow Creeley to darken their door. Duncan at first goes along with this and so does Levertov. A few letters describe their outrage. But then something changes. Rexroth's behavior begins to displease them both, and then they also shyly come to the conclusion that Creeley is the better poet, which conclusion seems to absolve him of some of his wrongdoing. Eventually Creeley is in and Rexroth is out. A true poet's court.
But of course the narrative arc of this correspondence is really about the dissolution of this friendship over their views on the role of poetry in relation to the Vietnam war. Even though I knew it was coming, was basically waiting for the argument to begin and the friendship to end, the vitriol that eventually erupts from Duncan's pen came as quite a shock.
There are hints here and there of tension, but when it finally comes -- wow! And I think a volcanic eruption is the proper metaphor -- it has the feeling of being both intentional and involuntary at once. It's obvious that Duncan has been wanting to say something and that he intends harm, but once it begins, it feels like he loses control over it and that the bile spewing forth overwhelms even him. This is especially evident in the postscripts to the letters. He rages, apologizes, asks for forgiveness, then after signing off writes "p.s....." and starts attacking again.
Also interesting is the counter-narrative that Levertov develops in her later letters to Jess, in which she describes this not as a political difference but rather as the apprentice breaking away from the master and the master refusing to let go. She comes to see the whole thing in terms of an interpersonal/psychological power struggle disconnected from politics. I think she is mostly right, as Duncan himself commits many of the same poetic "sins" of which he accuses Levertov, albeit in different form, so his accusations, however true some might be, feel somewhat hypocritical.