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This item is taken from PN Review 157, Volume 30 Number 5, May - June 2004.

Letters from Belle Randall, Roger Caldwell, W.S. Milne
Broken Connections


Reviewing The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, a twenty year correspondence that ends with a bitter falling out, Eavan Boland ( PNR 156) takes at face value Levertov's interpretation of events, quoting the poem Levertov wrote on the occasion Duncan's death (`To R.D. March 4th 1988'):

You were my mentor. Without knowing it
I outgrew the need for a mentor.
Without knowing it, you resented that
and attacked me. I bitterly resented
the attack and without knowing it
freed myself to move forward
without a mentor.

But don't other readers recoil, as I do, from the self-righteous tone of this passage? Isn't the speaker too insistent that she knows what's in Duncan's unconscious as well as her own? This is not a reasonable voice: it's the obsessive voice of a friend with insomnia who is going to keep you up all night rehashing the details of a messy break-up until you absolve her of blame. In its repetitious assertions of innocence (`without knowing it') and simultaneous insistence on its own omnipotence, the passage signals an almost desperate attempt on the part of the speaker to prove herself in the right. As a response to the death of a poet of considerable gifts, let alone the loss of a colleague and former friend, Levertov's poem seems ungenerous and neurotic.

Like Boland, I did not know Levertov well, but well enough to witness her bursting into tears one summer at Centrum when students, stung by her candid assessments of their poems, accused her of being unfeeling - a charge to which she tearfully replied, `How could they? Me - with my neurotic concern for other people's feelings?' I had read Levertov well enough to know that it was in the compunctions she would describe as moral (`the ethics of aesthetics') that she was often least convincing. For instance, in New and Selected Essays, (New Directions, 1993), lamenting the embarrassment caused by what she saw as the confusion between public and private in contemporary American poetry, Levertov wrote:

... adults can object and defend themselves... children cannot. Yet there are many poems in which a parent... most often a mother - writes of a child in ways liable to cause acute, even traumatic embarrassment when that child sooner or later reads that poem. These are poems - or images in poems - which focus on the child's body, and in particular its genitalia. Imagine a shy adolescent finding in print a graphic description of his little penis at age five, its color and shape! Worse, imagine his schoolmates reading the poem and teasing him about it! Was the description vital to the poem. Often I would say it was not!

Putting aside the strangeness of Levertov's claim to have read many such poems, and, at the same time, not citing any, her impulse seems laudable, but is it? It isn't the child whose feelings are at issue, but the future adolescent or adult. And what is he being protected from? From the knowledge that he, like everyone else, was once small? From having this made public? Isn't this the protectiveness that instills a sense of paranoia (`You were so small we needed to keep it hush-hush')?

Attempts to define what is and isn't appropriate subject matter for poetry are probably always doomed. Levertov herself has written - and written well - about a flayed penis (`Life at War'), the ugliness of female genitalia, as well as getting fleas from a dog, meditating on the toilet seat, and soaping her lover into a passion, in view of which, when, in the same essay, she complains of `the egoism of writers who assume the reader wants to know that... a sibling once deliberately pissed on them', the line she draws is not clear. The only poet I know who has written about both her little son's penis and getting pissed on by her sister is Sharon Olds, and Levertov's tact in not naming a poet whose identity she nevertheless makes obvious seemed to me then, and seems now - forgive me, Eavon Boland sheer cattiness. Although, to hear Levertov tell it, Levertov is incapable of feeling competition or ambition, she seems singularly unwilling to examine her own motives. In her introduction to Hilda Morley's work, for example, Levertov denies ever having sought publication. Elsewhere, writing of her childhood, she says with finality, `I was not competitive because I had no peers to compete with.' The motives underlying her conflict with Duncan are similarly above question. In `Some Duncan Letters - A Memoir and a Critical Tribute', she writes, `There was no need to look for "what was going on" in me, "from what root" such images come - one had only to look at the violation of Viet Nam.' Here's my side of the story, she seems to say, you don't need to look for his. And Boland, predictable feminist that she is, obligingly reiterates Levertov's view, presenting the correspondence as `a dramatic allegory of an apprentice outgrowing an apprenticeship'.

To me, as to Boland, Levertov once remarked that she may have been the `token' Black Mountain woman poet. Unlike Boland, I wondered what would lead Denise to make a statement which could only devalue the group in which she'd risen to prominence, and on what evidence, since her work was universally admired, and her audience large - of the Black Mountain poets - second only to Creeley's. `What makes you think that?' I asked and got an impatient look in reply.

In support of the contention that Levertov `outgrew' Duncan, Boland claims that `Duncan was a Romantic... Levertov was a moralist: ... for Duncan the glory of the poet was in knowing the reach of the aesthetic. For Levertov it lay in meeting the ethical claims.' But this distinction seems self-serving. How `ethical' is Levertov's claim to an overview of Duncan's unconscious as well as her own? Honouring the `other' as distinct from one's self would seem to be the basis of any ethical system. Moreover, Boland overlooks Levertov's return, toward the end of her life, to a nostalgic nineteenth-century Romanticism. New and Selected Essays opens with an essay praising the Northwest `Nature' poets, attributing to them what has been the Romantic vision since Coleridge (`Such poems... imply the presence of spirit in nature'). This is not to deny Levertov's worth as a poet, but to accommodate readers of The Letters who share Duncan's reservations about her political poetry. Charles Altieri has written of the `undeniable weakness' of Levertov's political poems, `loose propagandistic phrases like "the people" and "The war/comes home to us" neither create fresh insights nor bear up under intellectual analysis' ( Enlarging the Temple). Duncan himself was against the war but disliked groups and propaganda, and it was against group think that he cautioned Levertov. Anyone who remembers the 1960s recalls the heady, romantic aspect of political activism. Perhaps the conflict between Duncan and Levertov was less the story of the apprentice outgrowing her mentor than of a poet's refusal to question her own self-righteousness - a story of pride, and how it can ruin friendships and impede creativity in the lives of even the finest poets.

via email

Pearl before Swine?


I have no wish to unduly protract the case of MacSweeney which has now thundered on through three issues of PNR, but given that what I originally said in my review has been so much misrepresented or misunderstood by his defenders, I may be excused a few comments.

Briefly, I found that Bloodaxe had packaged a minor poet as a major one, that MacSweeney's best work, exemplified by Pearl, was swamped in a mass of (sometimes very) inferior work. Batchelor takes issue with this, seeing Pearl by contrast as only his most accessible work - the equivalent in his oeuvre to Blake's Songs of Innocence whereas his finest work, less accessible, and akin to Blake's Songs of Experience and Prophetic Books is to be found elsewhere. The question is: Where? I am accused, in quoting from the `Odes' and from `Jury Vet', of selecting his worst and most unrepresentative lines. In fact, what I quoted were typical ones: I was simply unable to find much poetic virtue in the first 150 pages or so of what is a fairly lengthy book.

Batchelor's advocacy of MacSweeney is confused. I do not see that accessible work is necessarily inferior to inaccessible work. I do not see that grandiosity could ever be a term of critical approbation (as opposed to, say, grandeur) or, even less, that it could be a poetic technique. The judgement of a poem's authenticity requires no special knowledge, as might a judgement of a poet's sincerity: it is rather concerned with how well the poem works for the reader. And, yes, there is a difference between the charge implicit in a poem on the page, and the emotional discharge (or catharsis) that may be effected in the communication between a poet and his audience. (As we know in performance poetry, work that is unimpressive on the page can go down well with audiences.)

Batchelor compares MacSweeney with Blake. I compare him (a little more realistically) with Ginsberg. Both Ginsberg and MacSweeney at times attempt to emulate Blake's prophetic stance, but in both there is a gap between the aspiration and the achievement. In the work of Blake there is evidence, even in his obscurest passages, of a major imaginative intellect at work. This simply cannot be said of Ginsberg - even in `Howl' there is less of poetry than of rhetoric. The same may be said of MacSweeney's The Book of Demons. Batchelor tells us that MacSweeney's work is challenging. I find that it is not challenging enough. If you want to read really challenging work you will find it in Blake, you will find it in J.H Prynne's work, in a text like Beckett's The Unnameable. You will not find it in MacSweeney (or - for that matter - in Ginsberg).

It is pointed out that The Book of Demons was a prizewinner, and that others must have thought of it better than I did. No doubt, but a reviewer must speak as he finds, and in the awareness that in an unfair world much worthy work has failed to win prizes, and not everything that wins prizes deserves them. Nonetheless my review of MacSweeney found him to be a genuine but minor poet. There should be no great surprise at this. Most poets, after all, are minor poets. Further, to see someone as a minor poet is not, as Batchelor seems to think, to declare him or her to be somehow safe - are Christopher Smart, Cowper, Beddoes safe poets? Here, as elsewhere, Batchelor's reasoning leads him into some unwelcome places, and does nothing to cause me to retract a word of my original review.




With reference to David Gervais's `Shakespeare the European' ( PNR 156), one must surely add the wider dramatic context of opera. Where would Verdi be without Macbeth, Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor? Nowhere, surely. One might even say that these works are more unified than Shakespeare's? But then I am a Scotsman who can get away with this sort of thing (I think)! On which point I am sure I can hear my father's Aberdeenshire voice in Liam Guilar's Lawman (same issue): loeie adun, lay doun; And ich œm bi nicht bi-stole from þan fihte, And I bi nicht am stolen frae the ficht - Layamon, my man, still European yet!
Esher, Surrey


This item is taken from PN Review 157, Volume 30 Number 5, May - June 2004.

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