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Craft Vs. Conscience

How the Vietnam War destroyed the friendship between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.
After years of friendship, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov clashed over what a poet's role should be in a time of war. Ange Mlinko dishes on what broke them apart.

Photo of Denise Levertov by The Luce Studio, courtesy of New Directions. Photo of Robert Duncan © Matthew Foley, courtesy of New Directions.


One day in early September 1966, the poet Robert Duncan, then 47, was walking to a streetcar stop in San Francisco when lines of verse began drifting to him out of nowhere. He held onto the phrases until he could scribble them down at the stop. The rest of what would become two poems—“Passages” 28 and 29—occurred “in rushes on the streetcar and on the Berkeley bus, me muttering ecstatically. All there by the time I reacht Berkeley.”

These poems would appear toward the end of what may be Duncan’s finest book, Bending the Bow (1968), which was written largely in response to the Vietnam War. He laid out their impetus in a letter to one of his dearest friends, Denise Levertov: he had been dwelling on Victor Hugo’s visionary poem in which the angel Liberty is born from a single feather falling from Satan’s wings as he is hurled out of Heaven. God’s loving glance transforms the feather into L’Ange Liberté, redeeming the sin of disobedience.

But it was Denise Levertov herself, Duncan wrote, who provided the surge of inspiration: he was in a “rapture” walking to the streetcar, because he had been listening to a tape of Levertov reading her poem sequence “Olga Poems.” (It would be published in 1971 in To Stay Alive, her anti-Vietnam book, a counterpart to Duncan’s.)

Denise Levertov was one of the most important people in Robert Duncan’s life. They had been carrying on a correspondence since 1953, and their letters at times resembled those of lovers. The title poem of Bending the Bow is a paean to their friendship and appears early in the book, between his love poems to men.

I’d been

in the course of a letter—I am still
in the course of a letter—to a friend,
who comes close in to my thought so that
the day is hers. My hand writing here
there shakes in the currents of . . . of air?
of an inner anticipation of . . . ? reaching to touch
ghostly exhilarations in the thought of her.

Within a few years this friendship would shatter. The story unfolds in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, and is analyzed in the essays of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, both edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi. Ostensibly, the friendship foundered on their divergent ideas of what a political poem was. What seemed to be a passionate, but private, intellectual argument escalated to public betrayal.


It all began when Robert Duncan wrote a fan letter after admiring Levertov’s poems in Cid Corman’s Origin magazine. She in turn had been struck by his chapbook Heavenly City, Earthly City some years previously. The contrarian band of poets who rejected the influence of T.S. Eliot and published in places like Origin or Black Mountain Review were few but keenly attentive to one another’s work. By the time Levertov heard from Duncan, she was already friends with Robert Creeley, corresponding with William Carlos Williams, and championed by Kenneth Rexroth. Duncan, meanwhile, had met and corresponded with a range of avant-garde writers and poets from Laura Riding to William Everson to Charles Olson in his studies and travels in Berkeley and around the East Coast.

“I imagine Coleridge to have been like you in many ways,” Levertov wrote Duncan in 1956. He was famous for his talk; Ellen Tallman recalls his flights of speechifying as “exhilarating, intoxicating, exhausting.” Others were critical: Adrienne Rich was dumbfounded by his insensitivity on their first meeting—she recalls the experience in What Is Found There—and Anais Nin wrote in her diary, “It was as if he were impelled by a fear of getting lost, interrupted, confused, and must maintain a monologue, not a dialogue, as if a dialogue might endanger him in some way.”

But Levertov received these monologues as good company in a time when travel was limited and correspondence one of the only ways to assuage a poet’s solitude. Duncan’s letters theorize for pages. Levertov’s replies hardly ever try to match him for intensity: her letters are lighter, filled with news and anecdotes and off-the-cuff opinions and remarks. She was, after all, in highly social New York and consumed too with raising a child. Though he was only four years her senior, she assumed the role of student or acolyte, perhaps because she was still in the process of learning how to be an “American,” as opposed to British, poet. But her career flourished to an even greater degree than his, and they spoke as equals about the business of poetry (where to read, whom to contact, honoraria). They also exchanged poems for critique, and Levertov did speak her mind:

I don’t really understand your ballads, why you are writing that way. . . . It seems wasteful both of yourself and in general (like writing sonnets). Or do you think I’m too narrow-minded?

Duncan replied:

The two ballads were in part of origin a gift for Helen Adam who herself writes nothing but ballads which horrify all aesthetic sense and subvert because they appeal to something just long enuf ago to have preceded values—and then I do not know why we are ashamed of fancy. Has imagination really won the battle? So: there was another determination in yielding to these pseudo-ballads, for the freedom itself from my own technical pride. Yet there is no pure invalidity possible. And both ballads in spite of my concept return like crows to the corpse of some experience . . . to disrupt the personal. . . . But I don’t believe in this battle of the species. . . .

A year later, Levertov conceded his point that “there is no pure invalidity possible”:

God knows whether I feel the same any more—I doubt it—& don’t remember exactly what I did say. . . . Because after all why the hell not (the ballads, I mean). If that were all, maybe yes, it wd. be a regression of a kind; but I’m sure it’s not all. . . . But the events of my own life of late have changed me & made me more open, I believe—there’s room for it all, all, anything—no matter—if life informs it.

In this early exchange you can see her tentativeness, his pontification, her acquiescence, which becomes a pattern that she will eventually break. But here Duncan was encouraging openness. He rejected Coleridge’s disparagement of fancy as against imagination. He urged her to rethink her binary view of modern and traditional verse (“wasteful . . . like writing sonnets”) pledged in loyalty to William Carlos Williams. And when he wrote, “I don’t believe in this battle of the species,” meaning the battle between “concept” and “the personal,” he touched on an issue that would blow open later—the role of the individual in the political poem. Likewise, the question of what was “real” in a poem became a point of contention. Levertov objected to Edith Sitwell for being too fanciful, citing “No ideas but in things.” Duncan replied:

I have dis-appointments as well as appointments with the real; and let them be. Or, rather, go with them as far as I can. (As going with Edith Sitwell I have found in-substantial grandeurs that ask substance; it is not distrust of the unreal, but love of the real that moves me to search elsewhere: that makes Williams substantially “great” for me.)

Several essays in The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry wrestle with the essential divide in the two poets’ natures, and how their visions of “the real” contributed to their rupture. Albert Gelpi’s “Poetic Language and Language Poetry” is a fascinating account of their differing religious sensibilities: Duncan was a gnostic, Levertov was an incarnational Christian. John Felstiner also sees her father’s Jewish heritage as playing a decisive role in her aesthetics: “A [Jew] believes in the invisible . . . but he desires that this invisible should become visible and reveal its power.” By contrast, Ellen Tallman writes, “the adventure for Robert is not knowing and the consequent quest for what could be. . . .” Donna Krolik Hollenberg writes that Levertov’s turn toward the confessional was announced by her admiring elegy for the New York School painter John Button, who painted figuratively at the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Graca Capinha writes that for Robert Duncan, language was action: it did not dwell at a remove from “reality.”

The two friends took pleasure in their rare meetings—they were often scheming to fund each other’s visits through readings, carefully tallying up the fees and honoraria. Disagreements and critiques were cushioned by assurances of love: Levertov: “. . . because to me you are one of the great, as well as belov’d, I have never & will never speak ‘critically’ of you to anyone but yourself.” Duncan is even more demonstrative, as in this letter of 1961: “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.”


By the mid-1960s, questions of craft—not to mention conscience—became subsumed in the debate over the Vietnam War. Duncan was working on the poems that would comprise Bending the Bow, Levertov on the poems that would first appear in Relearning the Alphabet and then be reprinted in To Stay Alive with an author’s preface tying their genesis to the war and her opposition to it. Both struggled aesthetically with the turn from lyric to public address. Both risked their reputations: not only did Levertov lose her mentor George Oppen’s support with her new, politicized poetry, but the reception of her work in general hit a low point. Scribner wanted Duncan to cut the war poems from his manuscript—his editors thought them “didactic and shrill . . . without the complexity or, broadly speaking, the fine quality of the other poems.” They were also “completely rejected” by the Blaser and Spicer circles “as examples of bad verse and the public corruption of my talents.” (Eventually, Bending the Bow would be published by New Directions, Levertov’s publisher.)

However similar their struggle to write a new political poetry, it became clear early on that they differed radically in their approaches. The conflict was twofold: Duncan did not approve of Levertov’s activism—he considered group action coercive and demagogic, at one point saying she was “conscripted” into activism, thus equating it with the draft—and both of them variously disapproved of each other’s poetic methods. In Anne Dewey’s words:

Whereas Staying Alive struggles to maintain faith in the individual as a locus of political agency, Bending the Bow abandons the limitations of individual “conscience” to articulate alternate historical agents from a disturbingly distanced, at times amoral perspective that Nathaniel Mackey has called Duncan’s “cosmologizing stance.”

By 1965, Denise Levertov and her husband Mitch Goodman were organizing, marching, and giving speeches. Their son Nik was approaching draft age. In 1968, Goodman was indicted with four other protesters, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, for conspiracy to counsel draft resisters. Known as the Boston Five, they were convicted and sentenced to jail time but were vindicated on appeal. In contrast, Duncan’s pledge to wear a black armband and a peace button to provoke discussion might have seemed quaint. His letter of March 30, 1968, criticized Levertov’s appearance in the Rankin Brigade Washington protest, broadcast on TV: “. . . Denny, you are splendid but it is a force that, coming on strong, sweeps away all the vital weaknesses of the living identity; the soul is sacrificed to the demotic persona that fires itself from spirit.” He goes on to make a startling analogy:

Do we believe in unilateral peace? Then surely it is we who must create it where we are. But the revolution, like Nixon, believes in inflicting peace on their own terms. I do not ask for a program of Peace; but I do protest the war waged under the banner of Peace, no matter who wages it.

In so many words, Duncan was warning Levertov that her protests were so engaged with the war that they were partaking of war themselves. Protests were, indeed, bloody. Among the events leading up to Mitch Goodman’s arrest was the mob assault on four clean-cut boys who burned their draft cards on the steps of the South Boston courthouse. No arrests were made, and the boys themselves were blamed for bringing violence down on their heads. Did Duncan’s criticism put him on the side of the unsympathetic public? The correspondence cooled off.

The poets were sensitive to agitprop in each other’s poems, if not in their own. Levertov first criticized Duncan for slack language and dehumanizing the enemy in “Earth’s Winter Song” in early 1966: “It’s so easy to think one is feeling for a burned child but so hard to remember the human soul, capable of change, of the murderer.” Later that year, Duncan described going off his blood pressure medication so that he could write “The Soldiers” with unsuppressed wrath. And then he spun off on a meditation that directly implicated Levertov in the very criticism she had lobbed at “Earth’s Winter Song.” He was thinking of her poem “Life at War” when he wrote:

We are not reacting to the war, but mining images here the war arouses in us. The “all-American boy in the cockpit” has back of him the poet James Dickey’s actual war experience that I found affecting (infecting) in reviewing Two Poems of the Air. . . .

Now I see the ghost of that boy in his play of total demolition, his decoration Boehme could call it, striving thru Dickey and then thru me (the boy-me in my own fantasy play of burning houses and people) to reach the redemption of the real, to be “containd”. . . .

what is going on in your
still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises in carcass-gulleys

The words in their lines are the clotted mass of some operation . . . having what root in you I wonder?

Levertov took the question in stride, affirming his tendency to psychologize and project by offering this quotation from Ernesto Cardenal:

Los dictatores estan dentro de nosotros, la Bomba H esta en nuestro interior, de alli ha salido. Todo lo malo que ha hecho el hombre lo llevamos dentro, los regimenes politicos no son sino objectivaciones de lo que somos. (The dictators are inside of us, the H Bomb is in ourselves, it is from out of us that it burst. All the evil done by man we carry in us, political regimes are only objectifications of what we are.)

They went back and forth on these questions for some time. But when Duncan painted her as the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali, in his poem “Santa Cruz Propositions,” she wrote back:

It was good to have a letter from you but before I can reply to it I have to try & find out what you don’t make clear: whether you are objecting to To Stay Alive for (1) “not being revolutionary as poetry,” i.e. for not being innovative formally, & therefore in your opinion not being decently consonant with its theme . . . ; or (2) that you feel the quality of my work has fallen off, possibly because of the time & energy I’ve spent in political involvements (in which case I would of course feel very sad to have lost your approval—but I would not be crushed by it as I once would because in my slow (lifelong! retarded?) growing up (nearly 48!!) I no longer feel that kind of dependency, thank god—& I’m sure you will be as glad as I am that this is so, for not believing in coercion it must sometimes pain you when you find yourself by the sheer force of your being having a coercive effect—(do you understand?)—or (3) whether your argument is all ideological. . . . Because 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.

This unleashed the full force of Duncan’s wrath. He accused Levertov of projecting her own feelings of female victimhood onto the Vietnamese in such poems as “Life at War,” What They Were Like,” “Tenebrae,” and “Enquiry.” He denounced her as moralizing and sloganeering. “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it: what if Shakespeare had opposed Iago, or Dostroyevsky [sic] 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.”


Their mutual accusations and point-by-point rebuttals stretched from October 4, 1971, to November 12, 1971. Finally, utterly shaken, they agreed to put their differences aside for a year and a day. But only a couple of months later, Duncan struggled to make amends: “I have begun to see . . . my contention with you as contention with my own anima” (461). When she was silent, he offered, “What I do realize is that I have myself to the particular responsibility in the Art I have so projected as being the responsibilities of other poets.” (462) His awkward phrasing betrayed his struggle to see himself clearly. The following August, Levertov tried to explain herself too:

I wish I enjoyed writing letters instead of finding it a chore: then you wd not have such a painful sense of my having just dropped our old and intense friendship. Whereas what has actually happened is only that I no longer have the emotional dependency on you, on your approval, I had for so long and which was not really a good thing.

Neither poet seems to have understood to what extent they had absorbed the war outside and, like combat veterans, brought it into the household, dooming it. In 1974, an interview with Robert Duncan appeared in Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry Against the War:

[Levertov]’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 an effect and tone of disgusted sensuality. And when you look at her poetry it tells more to look at that flayed penis and realize that her earlier poems are talking about stripped stalks of grass! She’s got one that loves peeling. Suddenly you see a charged, bloody, sexual image that’s haunting the whole thing, and the war then acts as a magnet, and the poem is not a protest though she thinks she’s protesting.

This public airing of their unresolved private conflict was the last straw. Levertov held back for a year, but finally wrote Duncan that their friendship was “twice broken, deeply betrayed.” Six months passed before Duncan wrote her back, never mentioning the interview. In 1978, at last, he wrote to praise her book Life in the Forest. Levertov would have none of it. Again delaying her response for a year, she finally wrote, in 1979, that their relationship was over. There are two versions of the letter: the long one she didn’t send, and the short one she did. “Gradually my love for you dwindled, until I cannot honestly say I feel it anymore,” she wrote in the long, unsent letter. More formally, more coolly, she rephrased it for the note she did send: “There can be a statute of limitations on emotional commitments. . . .”


William Butler Yeats wrote “All creation is from conflict.” Duncan quoted that to Levertov in 1971. It was his belief—bolstered by Yeats and Freud and Hesiod and Heraclitus and Blake and Dante—that conflict dwells within; that each of us is a mass of teeming, unknowable impulses; that we translate feelings to thoughts via symbols that stand now for one thing, now for another. We hide our true motivations from ourselves as a matter of course. And it was his belief that “THERE HAS BEEN NO TIME IN HUMAN HISTORY THAT WAS NOT A TIME OF WAR.” So the idea of a war poetry had to encompass the fact of evil, not just in its particularity, not just in its time and place, and certainly not just as an entity dwelling in the Other, but as an ever-present condition that extended through history: all history situated in each individual. This was his version of “the real.” Hence, Bending the Bow.

Levertov didn’t exactly disagree. But, as Donna Krolik Hollenberg points out, Levertov was deeply changed by the Eichmann trial, “a turning point in awareness of the Holocaust as historical memory and moral burden,” and for which she had written her first political poem in 1961. She found a new sense of purpose and vocation in the notion that a poet can be a “proxy witness” (not precluding direct action) for events situated in history. And so To Stay Alive combined passages of high lyricism with snippets of letters and reportage in a “notebook poem” that constituted Levertov’s bid for an immersive “real.”

These were not frivolous differences. To those grappling with the consequences of “free verse” and “organic verse,” the position of the poet vis-a-vis politics went to the heart of craft as they were re-visioning it. Duncan and Levertov (and many of their cohorts) did not view their task as mastering a verse form or even perfecting the stand-alone poem: it was about crafting a life work, with the relationship between poems, and between poet and world, replacing form as an end in itself.

Duncan’s caveats against agitprop are still worth pondering today. “It is a disease of our generation that we offer symptoms and diagnoses of what we are in the place of imaginations and creations of what we are.” Consider these lines from Levertov’s “Tenebrae,” which he criticized as “moralizing”:

children promised a TV show when they get home
fall asleep in the backs of a million station wagons,
sand in their hair, the sound of waves
quietly persistent at their ears.
They are not listening.

Their parents at night
dream and forget their dreams.

They wake in the dark
and make plans. Their sequin plans
glitter into tomorrow.
They buy, they sell.
They fill freezers with food.
Neon signs flash their intentions
into the years ahead.

And at their ears the sound
of the war. They are
not listening, not listening.

“Moralizing? Rather I am keening over them,” Levertov objected. Duncan replied: “Your decisions are so clearly not esthetic in character but—as I once as I remember in writing to you realized mine own were—sentimental.”

And so unsentimental could Duncan be that he wrote bluntly in 1971: “I am not talking about prisoners, blacks, children, and angry women in revolt—I am talking about those with work to do deserting their work. And our work is surely to get the words right. . . .” There is no bolder declaration of language as ethics—or as the very ground of ethics, without which principled stances would not be possible. Arguably, this conjunction of philosophy and poetic craft has even less purchase today. Perhaps that is why Marjorie Perloff wrote in her essay, “Poetry in a Time of War,”

Whether or not we agree with its premises, Duncan’s stringent, learned, and brilliant critique suggests . . . that precisely those who know each other well should be willing to argue about their work; that if all we say is “Yeah, great” and let it go at that, as increasingly poets and critics are doing at readings and in journals, there can be no meaningful poetic discourse at all. Duncan’s pointed and passionate criticism may have lost him Levertov’s friendship, but it won him, I would posit here, a place among the major poetic theorists as well as major poets of his time.

At the pinnacle of a career spent brooding on the ramifications of free verse, Duncan found great, and troubling, wisdom in Victor Hugo’s image of God redeeming L’Ange Liberté out of a single feather molted from the wings of disobedient Satan, as expressed in these lines from “The Light (Passages 28)”:

now down-falling doom’s darling,
one feather of his wing / lost

in God’s gaze found Libertas

the Master Victor Hugo saw in that dream
Poetry is / or at his singing tables

heard rumor of

an angelic being true to Lucifer
as Satan was false to his Self / and fell

One might read the beginning and ending of Levertov’s gorgeous abecedarian poem, “Relearning the Alphabet,” as a response, finding something not troubling but joyful in the spontaneous impulse of God to redeem that one feather:


Sweep up
anguish as with a wing-tip:

the blaze addresses
a different darkness:
absence has not become
the transformed presence the will
looked for,
but other: the present,

that which was poised already in the ah! of praise.

Duncan and Levertov could not have written such beautiful poems, or made such electrifying correspondents, had they not been thinkers who engaged the deepest questions about war, violence, and creation. Even at the end, writing poems about wings, they both found light in liberation, and liberation in a rebellion that looked, from both perspectives, an awful lot like love. For, as Levertov wrote, “there comes a time when only anger is love.”
  • Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010),...


Craft Vs. Conscience

How the Vietnam War destroyed the friendship between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.
  • Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010),...

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