First-Class Mail: A Poet’s Letters

Kevin Larimer
From the November/December 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The published correspondence of famous poets often accounts for more real estate on bookstore shelves than their books of poems. The letters of Ezra Pound, for example, are collected in nearly 30 volumes published primarily by university presses over the last three decades. For academic scholars who spend their weekends in the special-collections rooms of libraries, the value of these books is obvious. But what are they worth to the general reader, or the practicing poet?

Three new books—The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke, published by the University of South Carolina Press in July; The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, to be published by Stanford University Press this month; and The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in December—collect nearly 1,500 letters, each offering a glimpse into a poet’s private life and creative process. And, according to the editors of these books, they are a poetic gold mine compared with the literary biographies and books of criticism that are devoted to these literary figures.

Barry Ahearn, a professor of English at Tulane University and the editor of the letters between Zukofsky and Williams, says that a poet’s correspondence is the raw material of biography: the poet’s firsthand perceptions, unguarded, unpolished, and uncensored. “It’s a way of recovering the warts-and-all humanity of these individuals, because they are writing things about themselves which they might not otherwise,” says Ahearn, who also edited a selection of letters between Pound and Zukofsky, published by New Directions in 1987, and Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings (University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Of course, plenty of warts are uncovered in literary biographies, several of which have been written about Williams—most notably Paul Mariani’s William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (McGraw-Hill, 1981), which was a finalist for the National Book Award—but Ahearn says that a biographer must be selective about the details of an entire life and therefore offers an incomplete image of the poet. “A biographer is obliged to create a narrative, and in a way the reader of the letters has to create his or her own narrative to try to make sense of what this person must have been like to write these things.”

Much of Ahearn’s collection consists of letters, written from 1928 through 1962, in which Zukofsky critiques Williams’s work. Theirs was a unique twist on the typical poet-mentor relationship, since Williams was 21 years older than Zukofsky. “The reason for the reversal may lie in the two poets’ differing approaches to the art,” Ahearn points out in the book’s preface. “Williams tended to emphasize inspiration, while Zukofsky emphasized craft.” Of course, their relationship was not without its periods of conflict. One such instance occurred when Zukofsky evaluated Williams’s proposed opera on George Washington, The First President, a project that Williams refers to in a letter from January 1936 as “that God damned opera and the fiddling and fussing that went with it…”

Seven years later, after the rift between the poets had been smoothed over, Zukofsky addressed the disagreement: “You know, I remember the squabble of a few years ago and the reason it happened was that I felt you really didn’t care to see me much, and well I never liked to make a nuisance of myself if I’m smart enough to catch on.” The letter, and the 700 others like it, present a human, vulnerable side to the poets, revealing them as ordinary folks stripped of the status of Major Poets of the Twentieth Century that both of them achieved only after their deaths. In fact, a number of the letters refer to their disappointment in having poems and manuscripts returned by magazine editors and publishers. “It should be encouraging to writers,” Ahearn says. “Now Williams is canonized as a major American poet, which certainly wasn’t the case when he was alive. Even in Zukofsky’s case, toward the end of his life, in the last few years he was still getting poems sent back by magazines.”

The disputes between Williams and Zukofsky seem inconsequential compared with the chasm that opened up between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. It was only after years of warm friendship and correspondence that the two realized there were basic differences in their beliefs about the relationship of poetry and politics. Their persistent, often passionate debate is revealed in the 450 letters written between 1953 and 1985 that are collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, edited by Albert Gelpi, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, and Robert J. Bertholf, curator of the Poetry/Rare Books Collection at SUNY Buffalo.

“It’s a huge argument,” Gelpi says. “It brings the correspondence to a remarkable personal as well as literary climax, because these two poets who were so close, who thought of themselves as anima and animus to each other, as brother and sister, suddenly find themselves having to recognize that there are actually fundamental disagreements about what poetry is and how the imagination works and how poetry functions in society.”

The disagreement was incited by the Vietnam War and the questions the conflict raised for poets writing in the 1960s—how poetry should address violence and whether the poet should engage politics—but the source of their differences could be traced back to their divergent religious backgrounds. Levertov was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition; Duncan was adopted by his theosophical parents (who selected him based on his astrological chart). Nevertheless, Duncan and Levertov wrote letters to each other, at the rate of one or more per month, for more than 30 years. “They’re both too strong and too honest and too committed to poetry to obfuscate or to simply pass it over, and they end up really arguing it out,” Gelpi says. Through all of the political and ideological debate, they sent each other poems, critiquing and revising the other’s work. Included as an appendix to the book are a number of the poems Duncan and Levertov discuss in their letters. According to Gelpi, “It’s very revealing about the creative process—the way in which texts take shape, in which the imagination verbs out its understandings.”

These glimpses of creative origin and process—the nuts and bolts of articulate minds engaging in the act of poetry—offer a much fuller understanding of the poets’ published essays and poems. “We get this image of the artist as a kind of demigod because their work is so good,” Ahearn says. “We don’t see the drafts, which get referred to in these letters. We see these people sort of groping and fumbling, making first tentative steps toward trying to grasp the merits of the other person’s work.”

James H. East, an English teacher at Brookstone School in Columbus, Georgia, and the editor of The Humane Particulars, says the fascinating aspect of the letters between Williams and Kenneth Burke, a literary critic who contributed to the modernist conversation in New York City in the 1920s, is the personal disclosure: “They’re allowed in the letters to drop their guard, whereas their public faces and their public articulations of ideas won’t allow the hesitation in sometimes—I mean the real human hesitation, the real human fear.”

In addition to wrangling over the origin and nature of literary form, a subject that preoccupied both writers, the two often discussed medical matters. Williams was a physician as well as a poet; Burke was a hypochondriac. A number of their letters contain Burke’s description of his ailments and Williams’s sometimes chastising medical advice. In a letter dated November 25, 1935, Williams responds to one of Burke’s physical woes: “It sounded as though you really had something this time but I suppose the bugs got mixed up trying to get through the intricate maze of your psychologic entity and just lay down and died of starvation without reaching the spot where they could piss on your essential fires.”

Whatever the merits of the collected correspondence of famous poets—the humor, the historical context, the political commentary, the artistic insight—there will surely be more on the way. In February 2004, for example, Oxford University Press is publishing the fourth volume of The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats. All 840 pages of it.

Kevin Larimer is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.