Robert Duncan

Active Readership and the Duncan/Levertov Correspondence

I would do a disservice to Duncan’s work if I didn’t end this section by talking about the well-publicized rift that occurred between him and his fellow Black Mountain poet, Denise Levertov, whose work I will discuss in the next group of plateaus. To be sure, the conflict between these poets, documented most thoroughly in the publication of their letters to each other in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi, published by Stanford University Press in 2003), has garnered a good deal of critical attention. However, owing to the largely political nature of each poet’s respective oeuvres, and the political basis for their critiques of each other, the vast majority of the scholarship surrounding their correspondence has relied on politics – and namely their political and poetic responses to the Vietnam War – to analyze this rift. What I would like to argue is not that their arguments are based on political disagreement, but rather that the core of this political disagreement is actually quite clearly poetic, centred on the two poets’ variant understandings of the relationship between the poet and his or her reader. This is to say, as Robert J. Bertholf notes in “Decision at the Apogee: Robert Duncan’s Anarchist Critique of Denise Levertov,”

the discussion comes down to the place of volition, individual choice in thought and action in the community of others also acting individually, and then to the distinction of people acting cooperatively for the common good and people acting uniformly under the coercion of a movement or a government. (5, emphasis added)

In other words, the question of volition, as Bertholf terms it, is largely a question of the role of active readership in the reception of the poet’s work. In essence, Duncan opposes how Levertov relates to her readers on a poetic level as well as a political one.

I will not, in this section, provide an overview of the conflict that is made overt in the poets’ correspondence with each other. This work has been done excellently by a number of other scholars already[i]. I would, however, like to provide a brief survey of the critical work surrounding this correspondence, which, as I have already noted, centres the debate squarely on the political. That is, articles such as Bertholf’s that I have already quoted, or Anne Day Dewey’s “Poetic Authority and the Public Sphere of Politics in the Activist 1960s: The Duncan-Levertov Debate,” both collected in the volume Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, rely almost entirely of disagreements surrounding activist responses to the American war in Vietnam to support their claims. Marjorie Perloff, in her article, “Poetry, Politics, and the ‘Other Conscience’: The Duncan/Levertov Correspondence,” attempts to move this discussion into the poetic realm. However, although she posits that their rift “is much less an ideological difference than it is a question of how poetry positions itself vis-à-vis politics,” her article nonetheless focuses on the political differences between the two rather than the poetic. The only major break in this tradition, as far as I have read, is Gelpi’s analysis in “Poetic Language and Language Poetry: Levertov, Duncan, Creeley,” wherein the author starts to get at the linguistic and poetic heart of the matter. He argues in this article that their feud is really about “different sense[s] of language and how we make meaning” (180), noting that both their politics and their religious affinities influence their variant approaches to language and thus fuel the divide between them. Essentially, Gelpi argues that for Levertov language is “referential,” whereas for Duncan it is “self-reflexive” (181). My work, then, serves to argue that, while political on the surface, the feud between Duncan and Levertov is underscored by variant and mutually contradictory conceptions of the relationship between the authorial presence and the reader of the text. While both invite their respective readers to actively engage with the text itself and the textual community it incorporates, each approach the issues of readerly volition, community, and active engagement in radically different ways. In turn, this contradiction in approaches to poetic readership provokes Duncan to critique Levertov’s political poetry, ultimately solidifying each poet’s views in an almost authoritarian manner that seemingly contradicts the communal poetics suggested by each.

To begin, then, I would like to argue that this divide is made most evident by the varying ways that each poet approaches the role of language and its processes of meaning-making within the poetic text. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Duncan frequently shied away from generic conventions, such as affiliating himself with a school of poetics like the Black Mountain School as a group of writers (which would include himself and Levertov, but also most significantly Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, with whom Duncan noted only partially shared poetic goals). Instead, Duncan often referred to himself as a “linguistic poet,” thus implicitly, albeit very loosely, affiliating his work with the then emerging Language school of writing. It is important to note, however, that Duncan never wholly moved into the Language tradition, asserting at times that his “linguist poet” was always also an “organic poet” alongside Levertov[ii]. This said, Levertov always remained squarely in the organic school, often relishing her association with Black Mountain. She was never, as her correspondence with Duncan makes quite clear, persuaded by the siren-calls of Postmodernism and Poststructuralism. Duncan, then, as a linguistic poet, understands, as Gelpi argues in his article, that “language constitutes the experience of the poem” (185), whereas Levertov, as an organic poet, understands “language … as the medium of the poem, not its source and end” (187). I will discuss Levertov’s organic relationship to language in my next group of plateaus. At this juncture I would like to, instead, focus on Duncan’s work and how the creeping-in of Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, and the allure of Language poetics fueled his criticisms of Levertov, and look to how the poems in the Passages series articulate a poetics that aligns this conception of poetic language with a politics of anarchic individual freedom and an active, engaged readership.

The influence of postmodernism can be noted in the Passages series on both a political and a poetic level. As politics, postmodernism offers Duncan a critique of language’s representational function, inviting him to oppose any art that attempts to voice the concerns of the other. As Perloff argues, “The poet, in Duncan’s view, cannot become anyone’s mouthpiece, not even the mouthpiece of a righteous cause. Freedom is of the essence; the freedom to represent the human universe as the poet imaginatively reconstructs it.” In this way, the polyvocality and communality of Duncan’s “plagiarist” approach to the Passages sequence serves as a refusal to speak in a unified voice, thus nullifying the potentials of his work to speak for or on behalf of a readership. Additionally, postmodernism led Duncan, despite his anarchist-activist affiliations, to become, especially in his later years, decidedly anti-revolutionary. For example, in a letter to Levertov dated 8 November 1971, he argues that her revolutionary politics are out-dated, offering instead that her viewpoint “belongs to the old Ptolemaic universe picture” (687). Understanding that revolution only ever reinscribes the notions of the society it sought to overthrow, and thus echoing Deleuze and Guattari’s recommendations of experimentation rather than opposition, Duncan viewed Levertov’s politics as siding with a leftist approach that is doomed to failure.

On a poetic level, Duncan’s eventual subscription to some of the more popular features of postmodern literature[iii] are clear. Fitting with this turn, Duncan tells Levertov in a letter, according to Gelpi, “that his experience of form is more fluid and unstable than hers” (183). However, the most important feature of postmodernism that Duncan adapts for his work is a conception of language as constitutive of meaning on its own, rather than functioning on a representative level, a distinctly anarchic move once one considers Jesse Cohn’s assertion of anarchism’s scepticism of representation on both a literary and a political level. In a move strikingly similar to Jackson Mac Low’s anti-Saussurian linguistics, Duncan also asserts a number of times that he is particularly concerned with the potentials for meaning innate in language itself, rather than language gesturing towards a meaning that exists elsewhere. For example, as he says in his lecture “Crisis of Spirit in the Word,” “No word refers. Every word is the presence of” (65). Thus the examples of singularities that punctuate Passages refer, additionally, to this anti-Saussurian semiotics that embraces the potentials of language to signify on its own.

Uniting both the politics and poetics he finds salient in postmodernism, and in a turn that now recalls my work on Cage, Duncan says that he is interested in meaning but not in expression. Thus, it is telling that in an interview, Duncan makes this much clear when he says, “But it’s meaning I’m after, not expression. I’m anti-expressionist” (“For The Sullen Art” 13). Additionally, he admits that he sees a counter-poetics in Levertov. As he says in a letter to her dated 16 July 1967: “It does seem clear, Denny, that you are more an expressive poet than a formalist: the poem so often bears the burden of conveying the feel of something or the emotion aroused by something or a thought – giving rise to the poem instead of the poem giving rise to its own objects” (582). Ultimately, what Duncan sees as a dichotomy between expression and meaning functions as the operative that invites active, engaged readers to his own work, whereas Levertov’s apparently dogmatic, prescriptive manner of writing political poetry functions as Perloff’s “mouthpiece” would.

This is all to say that Duncan’s anarchic privileging of the individual freedom of the reader is mimicked in his conception of the relative of freedom of language itself to function on its own, that is, without the burden of conveying the expressions, desires, or ideologies of the poet-figure who merely assembles the pieces of language. If language, as Duncan suggests, and as I hope to have illuminated in the preceding plateaus, is already organized in accordance with a natural or naturalized order, then the poet as weaver merely presents these words to the reader, who engages in an affective relationship (or assemblage) with these pieces. And, as such, attempting to convey a political message, as Levertov does, runs counter to Duncan’s desire to engage his readers as such. Thus, it is entirely unsurprising that Duncan’s ideal reader is one who does not actually know anything of Duncan the poet, the weaver of these word-tapestries. As he summarizes in another interview:

RD: “My real imaginary reader is someone who knows nothing of all of that [Duncan’s literary persona].

AW: “Ideal reader.”

RD: “Ideal reader, who picks up the book anonymous in a secondhand shelf and starts reading poetry, poems of whom he knows not.” (“Naropa Institute Interview” 53)

Receiving this poetry in a free community of public trust and individual freedom, Duncan’s ideal reader is one who arrives without preconceptions, who is invited into the text and has no choice but to engage with the language therein; rather than understanding and agreeing with the poem, this reader is, instead, affected by it. The words Duncan weaves together, then, function not as a map, but as the passages themselves that wind (and at times, even guide) but always primarily allow the reader to pass through them at will, freely.


[i] See, for example, Gelpi and Bertholf’s introduction to the aforementioned collected correspondence. Additionally, their correspondence has been given thorough critical attention in journal articles such as Michael Davidson’s “A Cold War Correspondence: The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.” Contemporary Literature 45.3 (2004) 538-556. and Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry, Politics, and the ‘Other Conscience’: The Duncan/Levertov Correspondence.” PN Review 112 (Nov-Dec 1996) 33-38.

[ii] Levertov’s conception of organic form, articulated most clearly in her poetics piece, “Some Notes on Organic Form,” serves as the most cohesive way to organize her larger poetic project. I will discuss this designation in greater detail in the Levertov plateaus that will follow.

[iii] These are, in the case of Duncan, as follows: the opposition of traditional authority, the relativity of truth, a distrust of fact and rationality, an interest in internationalism, and a politics of equality and collectivism.

2 thoughts on “Active Readership and the Duncan/Levertov Correspondence

  1. An excellent way to end your section on Duncan. I’m especially glad that you end off with a discussion of the title of the sequence, because I firmly believe that Duncan intends the poems to be “passages” that transport the reader, that act as passageways into new possibilities of language, text, thought, etc.

    A few prompts:
    -would Duncan’s use/extension of Pound’s notion of tone leading of vowels, and Duncan’s notion of rime relate to your discussion of his interest in meaning over expression?

    -might Duncan’s well-known dictum (I believe from a letter to Levertov?) that the poet must not oppose evil, but imagine it be relevant to your discussion?

    The distinction you draw in your entry between expression and meaning is a particularly helpful one, and should set up the transition into Levertov’s work really well.

    • I’m gonna have to dig back through my notes, but I recall wanting to avoid “rime” nearly as much as mysticism. I like the idea of bringing it in to this issue of meaning/expression, though. Perhaps when I expand on the Pound connections earlier I can bring these issues in.

      And yes, of course this idea of imagining evil rather than opposing it fits in well. I’ll dig back through the letters and find that, too.

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