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This article is taken from PN Review 112, Volume 23 Number 2, November - December 1996.

Robert Duncan's Letters to Denise Levertov Marjorie Perloff

In 1952 Denise Levertov, then living in New York, received a poem-letter titled 'For A Muse Meant' signed only 'R.D.' and bearing a San Francisco postmark. The poem begins:

      spired/the aspirate
   the aspirant almost

   without breath

and refers, some lines later, to 'A great effort, straining, breaking up/all the melodic line (the lyr-/ick strain?)" and to the brewing of'another cup' of'flavor stinking coffee… in that Marianne Moore - /E.P. - Williams - H.D. - Stein -/Zukofsky - Stevens - Perse - /surrealist - dada -staind/pot.'1 Levertov mistook these elliptical passages as a slur on her writing and wrote its author a note to say that if 'R.D.' was indeed the Robert Duncan who had written Heavenly City, Earthly City, a book she had recently read with great admiration, she was truly sorry he disliked her own work so much. To which Duncan responded with a bemused 'on the contrary' letter, its envelope bearing the words: 'It is as it was in admiration.'2

So began the intense and voluminous correspondence between the two poets. For the first decade or so of their conversation (the two finally met in 1955), Duncan was Levertov's ardent admirer; indeed, his letters are almost deferential. Praising 'the non-dream daylight facts of the imagination' in 'The Departure', he exclaims, 'How nervous my tensions seem to me compared!' (12 February 1957). And his blurb for Overland to the Islands (1957) goes ...

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