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Evolving the Organic: The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov

Evolving the Organic: The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov

There may be no other document of the culture of postmodern North American poetry more comprehensive than The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. This is an eight hundredplus page book that constitutes the bulk of how the most idiosyncratic twentieth century poetry friendship played out. Duncan and Levertov are two of the most important poets of the second half of that century, both being associated with the Black Mountain School, though Levertov never attended or even visited the school and Duncan taught there only briefly. Yet it is the development of what they termed the Organic approach to poem-making that allows us to identify them with Black Mountain, and it is the development of that approach which makes this friendship critical for poets seeking to use a poem-making process to deepen their consciousness.

Robert Duncan was born in Oakland, California in 1919 and, along with Charles Olson, was one of the leading voices of the New American Poetry, as determined by the influential anthology of the same name, based on a poetics that diverged from the reigning school of North American Poetry. The New American Poetry was more interested in utilizing forms indigenous to North America, rather than extend the British Literature tradition. Denise Levertov was born and raised in Ilford, Essex, England and married an American writer and moved to the U.S. in the late 40s, yet was also associated with the Black Mountain School because of her poems published in the Black Mountain Review. Levertov was drawn to the organic form as practiced by William Carlos Williams and had a substantial correspondence with him. She, too, was included in The New American Poetry anthology.

The friendship of Duncan and Levertov, as Belle Randall’s careful reading of the letters suggests, was “free of the demands of physical intimacy; a relationship entirely of inclination…” and between two poets who “shared an almost religious reverence for the mystic properties of language, a fondness for cats and Victorian Fairy tales” (Randall 134). It began with the first of Duncan’s letters, which was fan mail misunderstood by Levertov as an insult. The letter also became the first poem in a book of poetry by Duncan ironically called Letters. It ended with a difference of aesthetics, with Duncan convinced that Levertov was losing her creative energy and human potential in her anti-Vietnam War activities and with her suggesting Duncan was “arrogant, disgustingly elitist and offensively patronizing” (693, 683). Yet to suggest that this falling out was limited to an aesthetic disagreement is misleading, or at least only a partial representation of the truth of the situation. For Duncan the poetic gesture was more than a vocation, it was a life-path and reflection of cosmology. While the same could be said for Levertov, she did dedicate large amounts of time to her duties as mother, homemaker, teacher and anti-war activist, Duncan comes across as more interested in sharpening his craft, his potential (potency?) and most importantly his perception, on which his poetry was entirely dependent, while Levertov was determined to oppose the Vietnam War in such a way that her own development was stunted, at least in Duncan’s view.

As early as 1956 Duncan writes about what would turn out to be the main difference between what motivated each of them: “It is only when the voice in writing lifts into the language itself speaking that the truth of the made thing presides. The feeling of what is false for me is the evident use of language to persuade” (34, emphasis his). Already in this letter we see the underpinnings of the organic from Duncan’s perspective. This is six years after the original publication of Olson’s “Projective Verse” which was critical to Duncan’s development as a poet. Olson called for a verse with the ear as measurer and speech where it is least logical and least careless. Projective Verse as envisioned by Olson is a process in which “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception” (Olson 240). (In the best of this kind of writing, we get the political drift of the writer, but she reaches a state deeper than the usual political dialectic, confirming a statement associated with Albert Einstein, that “sometimes two sides disagree because they’re both wrong.)

So Duncan referring to the “voice in writing” is quite specifically referring to listening (as Olson had called for it) and, in a sense, transcribing that inner impulse which those with aural empathy can develop.

Fifteen years later Duncan, having further developed his poetic theories through the dialog with Levertov, goes on to elaborate what was at the core of what he felt was her inner conflict and that he felt was communicated in an unconscious manner through the content of her anti-war poetry: “And that painful conflict appears again in the realm of the poem between the idea of poem as revelation, as primary knowledge of the truth of things – and of the poem as a vehicle for personal, social, political or religious convictions” (687). This is not to say that one approach is right, and one wrong, or one better than the other, but Duncan was betting everything on the organic. Now here she was, in his eyes, abandoning that approach to communicate those political convictions. Also, she did not seem, or was unwilling to understand what was at the core of Duncan’s trouble with her most strident anti-war verse. A look at how these differences manifested in verse is called for.

Denise Levertov: “Life At War”

                        The disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough

weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.
or Rilke said it, ‘My heart . . .
Could I say of it, it overflows
with bitterness . . . but no, as though

its contents were simply balled into
formless lumps, thus
do I carry it about.’
The same war

We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it:

the knowledge that humankind
delicate man whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,

whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understandings manifest designs
fairer than the spider’s most intricate web,

still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.

We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness; we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good –

who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Vietnam as I write.

Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love;

our nerve filaments twitch with its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have. (735)

                        Robert Duncan: “Uprising: Passages 25”

Now Johnson would go up to join the great simulacra of men,
Hitler and Stalin, to work his fame
with planes roaring out from Guam over Asia,
all America become a sea of toiling men
stirrd at his will, which would be a bloated thing,
drawing from the underbelly of the nation
such blood and dreams as swell the idiot psyche
out of its courses into an elemental thing
until his name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors

And men wake to see that they are used like things
spent in a great potlatch, this Texas barbecue
of Asia, Africa and all the Americas,
And the professional military behind him, thinking
to use him as they thought to use Hitler
without losing control of their business of war,

But the mania, the ravening eagle of America
as Lawrence saw him “bird of men that are masters,
lifting the rabbit blood of the myriads up into . . .”
into something terrible, gone beyond bounds, or
As Blake saw America in figures of fire and blood raging,
. . . in what image? the ominous roar in the air,
the omnipotent wings, the all-American boy in the cockpit
loosing his flow of napalm, below in the jungles
“any life or sign of life” his target, drawing now
not with crayons in his secret room
the burning of homes and the torture of mothers and fathers and
their hair a-flame, screaming in agony, but
in the line of duty, for the might and enduring fame
of Johnson, for the victory of American will over its victims,
releasing his store of destruction over the enemy,
in terror and hatred of all communal things, of communion
of communism •

has raised from the private rooms of small-town bosses and businessmen,
from the council chambers of the gangs that run the great cities,
swollen with the votes of millions,
from the fearful hearts of good people in the suburbs turning the
savory meat over the charcoal burners and heaping their barbecue
plates with more than they can eat,
from the closed meeting-rooms of regents of universities and sessions of

back of the scene; the atomic stockpile; the vials of synthesized
diseases eager biologists have developt over half a century dreaming
of the bodies of mothers and fathers and children and hated rivals
swollen with new plagues, measles grown enormous, influenzas
perfected, and the gasses of despair, confusion of the senses, mania,
inducing terror of the universe, coma, existential wounds, that
chemists we have met at cocktail parties, passt daily and with a
happy “Good Day” on the way to classes or work, have workt to
make war too terrible for men to wage

raised this secret entity of America’s hatred of Europe, of Africa, of
the deep hatred for the old world that had driven generations of
America out of itself,
and for the alien world, the new world about him, that might have
been Paradise
but was before his eyes already cleard back in a holocaust of burning
Indians, trees and grasslands,
reduced to his real estate, his projects of exploitation and profitable

this specter that in the beginning Adams and Jefferson feard and knew
would corrupt the very body of the nation
and all our sense of common humanity,
this black bile of old evils risen anew,
takes over the vanity of Johnson;
and the very glint of Satan’s eyes from the pit of the hell of
America’s unacknowledged, unrepented crimes that I saw in
Goldwater’s eyes
now shines from the eyes of the President
in the swollen head of the nation.               (738)

As we read Duncan, in this poem (getting past his sometimes archaic spelling) and in the introduction to Bending The Bow, the collection in which we find this poem, do we not get empathy for one the most devastating things to happen in a war? “A boy raised in Iowa has only this nightmare…in which his soul must dare tender awakening or close hard as an oak-gall within him” (Duncan i). Is it not this act which makes all war possible? Is this not the root cause of war? Is not the field swirling out from Duncan a balance of the horrors committed in the name of Duncan and his fellow citizens along with the realization of (and compassion for) people who in making this war are simply unaware and doing their work, their patriotic duty? One’s ethics determines their fate, and Duncan knew that the Vietnam War was: “to defend a form our very defense corrupts” (Duncan i).

As for Levertov’s poem, in the interview that for her was the final straw in her friendship with Duncan, James Mersmann writes:

Duncan’s appraisal is actually even more stringent than this. He says: ‘There’s another field of feeling that frequently comes up when she means to write a protest feeling, and that is her own sadism, and masochism, and so the war becomes like, becomes not a gloating but almost as fierce an expression as the fantasies of Dickey. She’ll be writing about the war and suddenly – in one of the earlier poems that’s most shocking – you get a flayed penis, and … when she reads it you get the effect and tone of disgusted sensuality…” (749)

The Dickey mentioned in this passage is the poet James Dickey whose poetry about his own World War Two experiences are referenced in Duncan’s poem “Uprising: Passages 25.” The interview with Mersmann was conducted in 1969 and published in 1974 and failure to apologize for what Levertov perceived as a personal “attack” (the characterization of which is reinforced by the editors of Letters) was the reason Levertov cited in her decision to dissolve the friendship. Yet it was in a 1966 letter that Duncan brought up his concern about this poem and this (as he saw it) sadism, when he wrote: “The words in their lines are the clotted mass of some operation…having what root in you I wonder? Striving to find place in a story beyond the immediate” (530). Levertov responds within five days of the date of Duncan’s letter and, thinking through the act of letter-writing says that this identification with violence may be related to: “…my own violent temper, which in the last few years seems to have been converted into other energies, & second, my anxieties, my ‘imagination of disaster’ which so often presents the most horrid possibilities to me in graphic terms…I’m not sure where such questions lead. But I have the feeling it is well to ask them” (532-3). Duncan elaborated further in November 1971: “I don’t think I am arrogant or coercive to demand a fullness of what a spider-web is if there is a spider-web in a poem, for I believe (and so do you) that images in poems like images in dreams are not incidental or mere devices of speech, chance references, but go deep into our experience. And who in this world has not watched with fascination the activities murderous and cannibalistic of a spider in its web? What child does not know the spider’s invitation to the fly?” (695, emphasis added) Duncan was seeing this through a Freudian lens and we don’t have the benefit of being able to psychoanalyze Levertov.

What we do see in this exchange is Duncan recognizing this as a clue to what was going on in Levertov’s psyche. He was concerned about this and as a friend brought it to her attention. She had been interested in his perspective for some thirteen years at that point, considering him on some level (at least for a time) a mentor. It was only a few weeks after the July 1966 letter that he expressed his dissatisfaction with “workshop” poetry, exemplified, he felt, by Hayden Carruth, among others, because it was missing “the recognition of the process of language as a spiritual process” (543). By late fall of that year, Duncan was more direct in his expression of what he saw happening to Levertov: “…Denny, the last poem brings with it an agonizing sense of how the monstrosity of this nation’s War is taking over your life…” and also warned that in addition to bearing constant testimony to the destruction the U.S. government was responsible for, to also “now, more than ever, to keep alive the immediacy of the ideal and the eternal” (563). Duncan was reacting to her poem “Advent 1966” in which Levertov writes:

There is a cataract filming-over
my inner eyes. Or else a monstrous insect
has entered my head, and looks out
from my sockets with multiple vision… (561)

Duncan wrote the following month “And we pray that compassion will grow in our hearts where outrage now burns” (565).

By 1970, Levertov was still following the path of opposing the war in her poetry and in anti-war activism. Her husband was arrested in such activity and she was trying to prevent herself from becoming “exhausted and despondent” (645). The charge we get from anger, like any other harmful stimulant, can be powerful and hazardous to one’s health and well-being if continued over a long period of time. It was this that Duncan was concerned about, as well as how the poem in Levertov’s hand was changing from the organic gesture of allowing the poem’s content to be discovered in the process, to something approximating what Duncan called Free Verse. Remember, it was Levertov’s corollary to the Robert Creeley line in “Projective Verse” FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENTION OF CONTENT where Levertov rightly substituted the word REVELATION for extension. It is in Free Verse, Duncan pointed out, that “…the poem does not find or make, but expresses” … and that “Free Verse just doesn’t believe in the struggle of rendering in which not only the soul but the world must enter into the conception of the poem…” (408, emphasis added). The organic poet has as her cosmology an organismic paradigm, which we see that Olson found in Whitehead, which we see in Duncan’s perceptions of and concerns about the direction of Levertov’s life and verse and with which he saw her urge for wholeness and self-understanding beginning to slip away.  In one of Duncan’s most important statements on this matter, he writes in late 1971:

What I find myself getting at is that your verse form has become habituated to commenting and personalizing just where the poem itself begins to open out beyond the personal into your imagination of a “you,” a “world” or a history beyond your idea of yourself or your personal history…You remember that you are committed to ‘opposition to the whole system of insane greed, or racism and imperialism’ – a political stance: but we are the more aware that it comes to forestall any imagination of what that system is, any creation of such a system of greed, racism and imperialism is like. The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it:  what if Shakespeare had opposed Iago, or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskalnikov – the vital thing is that they created Iago and Raskalnikov. And we begin to see betrayal and murder and theft in a new light.” (669, first emphasis mine)

But by then the rift was too wide and the friendship, for what it was, over. It took publication of Duncan’s comments in the Mersmann interview to finally end it, and Duncan regretted his actions, suggesting “it was more contentious than truly critical” (707) but for Levertov there was a “statute of limitation” on quarrels beyond which time a friendship would cease to be (713).

Duncan never did articulate it, but seems to understand Carl Jung’s notion that “what you resist, persists.” In other words, the thought-field energy which goes out in opposition to something, only serves to strengthen that field. This seems apparent as Levertov’s imagery above would suggest.

It seems to me that some of Duncan’s best thinking was done in these letters and he realized on some level that Levertov’s intellectual foil was helping him create his best poetry and statements on poetics. Duncan’s outline of the differences between the conventional poet, the free verse poet and the organic poet exist as the best delineation of these three basic strains in postmodern North American poetry and more importantly the cosmology underlying them. History will be the ultimate arbiter of the strength of the field these poems emanate. Yet the warning he wrote of in a 1961 letter remains as the best clue for anyone seeking to use poetry as a wisdom teacher, as a feedback system in our effort to become more conscious human beings: “I see it now, the quest for wholeness (the whole self and the whole world lie in the same event – we find ourselves only as we find the world).” (300) And as the United States heeds neither the warnings of Duncan, or the anti-Vietnam war activism and poetry of Levertov, finding itself now engaged in a war at least as pernicious and unnecessary as the one the Vietnamese call The American War, we are well-served to look at the words of poet Abu al-Ala al Ma’arri, writing in Baghdad 1,000 years ago “Don’t let your life be governed by what disturbs you.” Or as Duncan himself said in “Passages 26: The Soldiers” “The first Evil is that which has power over you” (Duncan 115).

1:46P – 5.17.06, edits, 5.22 and 6.14, 2006 and Feb 25, 2007.)


Duncan, Robert. Bending The Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Duncan, Robert and Denise Levertov. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Eds.    Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi. Stanford: Stanford U. Press, 2004.

Levertov, Denise. New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992.

Olson, Charles. Collected Prose. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1997.

Randall, Belle. “The Autopsy of a Friendship.” Common Knowledge 12.1 (2006): 134-149.

—– Original Message —–

From: Paul Nelson

Sent: Monday, November 27, 2006 11:27 AM
Subject: Re: Notes


I am sorry to hear about your surgery and I hope it goes well. I agree with what you say here, regarding the three audiences and about questions that arise.

As for the Duncan/Levertov, I don’t read that Duncan’s is a more conscious anti-war poem as you state I do here. Instead, I am suggesting Duncan believes the poem should be a revelation, not a statement. This is the core of the organic. I say that Duncan is upset Levertov has abandoned this approach and sees how her anger at the war is taking over her consciousness. She is no longer discovering perceptions about the war and the making of it, she is stating how bad it is. The turn in the poem (ironically stated with the word turns) misses the essential point Duncan makes in his poem that these people barbecuing meat in the suburbs, that the scientists we’ve met at cocktail parties, all have parts of themselves that they have closed off, as he points out in the introduction to Bending The Bow how the soul of a boy raised in Iowa must dare tender awakening or close hard as an oak gall within him. Duncan uses the imagery of other people who have closed off a part of themselves and sees Levertov DOING THE SAME THING and this saddens him. Duncan sees how good men are corrupted as they choose to close their souls when loosing the flow of napalm, and he sees the same closing in Levertov. Does this limit her? Yes. Is this a bad thing? Well, it depends on what your intent as a writer is. The organic allows one to become fully individuated, but Free Verse will likely connect with a larger audience, most of whom are not consciously working on their own individuation.
I have always been able to sense this difference and perhaps I have not been able to fully articulate this. But this Duncan/Levertov argument is a critical difference and many people who read Levertov suggest this break had a devastating effect on her verse. One reviewer suggests after 1970 her work reverted to polite scolding. Now there are people who relate to the anger, who resonate with it and Levertov has plenty of fans, especially here in the Pacific Northwest where she spent her last years. What I am suggesting is that she moved away from a purely organic approach. Again, not my preference. I think it does limit the energy available to the poem. Does that make it bad? Worse than Duncan? No, just not my preference, writing from the stance of a person interested in the soul-building properties of this practice and not necessarily the potential audience for books. My preference. I think Duncan’s as well, and that on some level Duncan suggests there was some degree of splitting off part of her personality (shadow) which she couldn’t bear to examine.

People who are fully individuated understand that they have in themselves the capacity for violence, for all sorts of vile things. (I could tell you a story of recent events that made it very clear to me, my own capacity for violence.) When an individual understands this, and it is reflected in their work (and how can it NOT be when the organic approach is used, as it is totally transparent?) this makes the work a more complete gesture, to me more satisfying.

Now there are those who have split themselves off, have neglected the hard work of soul-building and have not come to the realization that they are capable of such horrific acts. Would they resonate with a more simple WAR IS BAD poem than one which has an underlying tone of I AM CAPABLE OF THIS. ?? Yes, I have seen it. I have seen at the Slam how victim poems score well with the audience, but they don’t reach a deeper level with me, as I prefer not to be victimized.

These are very subtle points and I agree the introduction must be such that a College Freshman can begin to get the difference between what is Organic (and the stance toward reality that supports this worldview) and what is not. I am not good at dumbing things down, as I have spent too much time trying to find and perfect the language and the subtle distinctions that are sometimes difficult to communicate. Your assistance in this matter is greatly appreciated.

I think we ought to reschedule our December 10 meeting. I will send hard copies of
1. What is Open Form Poetry;
2. Walt Whitman Poet of Parturition
3. What Is Consciousness
4. The Tibetan View of Sound and Field Poetics. 

will fix the essays not in MLA and have a bound thesis to you with a minimum 25 page introduction.  I am closing in on a Bowering essay, which will conclude my work of this semester when approved by you.

I will keep good thoughts for you.