Essential Gossip: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan and U.S.-Australian Poetics

By | 15 February 2023

Face-to-face meetings – like those I have described between Ginsberg, Duncan and Australian poets – inevitably involve complex emotions, not only admiration, but a struggle for mutual recognition: embarrassment, shyness, disappointment, perhaps finally friendship and understanding. This protean mix of sensibilities, which occur when poet and reader are no longer separated by the pages, is the subject of Denise Levertov’s ‘Poet and Person’ (1982), published shortly after her second visit to Australia in 1981:

I send my messages ahead of me.
You read them, they speak to you
in siren tongues, ears of flame
spring from your heads to take them.

When I arrive you love me,
for I sing these messages you’ve 
learned by heart, and bring,
as housegifts, new ones. You hear

yourselves in them,
self after self. Your solitudes
utter their runes, your own
voices begin to rise in your throats. (Candles in Babylon, 6).

So far, the poem’s narrative describes an ideal encounter between poet and her reading public: the poet’s writing anticipates their arrival, she lives up to expectations when her adoring fans meet her. In the poem, this relationship is imagined as creatively productive, inspiring: ‘your own / voices (to) begin to rise in your throats.’ However, from here, a volta sends ‘Poet and Person’ off in an entirely different direction. Levertov writes:

soon you love me less.
I brought with me
too much, too many laden coffers,
the panoply of residence

improper to my visit (…)
I take up
so much space.
You are living on what you can find,
you don’t want charity, and you can’t
support lingering guests. (Ibid).

The poet disappoints by fact of being too much, ‘tak(ing) up / so much space’, and failing to meet the more contained standards of their persona on the page. Levertov did not believe in a complete bifurcation between the ‘poet’ and the ‘person’, elsewhere writing: ‘I believe in the essential interrelatedness and mutual reinforcement of the meditative and the active (and) hope to show the reader something of that relation I feel exists, and must exist (…) and which may not be denied without imperilling both.’ Yet her Australian visit forced this relation into a stark, immediate, and intimate crisis.


Levertov’s ‘Poet and Person’ speaks to a private experience of disappointment. In the early 1970s, she had begun a relationship with the Australian poet and scholar Ian Reid. Twenty years her junior, Reid wrote to Levertov in 1972, inviting her to submit to The Southern Review, the journal he edited. Levertov responded with her poem ‘In Silence,’ which struck Reid as ‘a wonderful lyric, imagistic in its economy and sensuous in its fluid rhythms’ (Hollenberg, 296). When he replied, thanking her, and asking whether he could interview her by mail and publish the transcription alongside her poem, she agreed. Thus began a conversation which led Reid to visit her in Boston in 1975.

Levertov describes her romance with Reid in ‘Modulations for Solo Voice,’ a series of twelve poems published in Life in the Forest (1978), where she noted that (now with a ‘cheerful distance’ from the affair) they might be subtitled ‘Historia de un amor’ (66). In the first of the sequence, ‘From Afar’, Levertov’s idealisation of Reid borders on sentimentality: ‘I wanted to learn you by heart / There was only time / For the opening measures’ (68). But, as the series progresses, the sappiness of fresh love is tarnished, as Levertov introduces a more complex mess of emotions: longing, loneliness, frustration, ecstasy, and later anger. ‘I am angry with X, with Y, with Z, / for not being you’, Levertov writes in ‘Psyche in Somerville’: ‘Enthusiasms jump at me, / wagging and barking. Go away. / Go home’ (72). In ‘A Woman Pacing’, Levertov grapples with fear and inadequacy, comparing herself to an aging flower ‘turning brown’:

In two years I may be richly 
gone into compost – juice and fiber 
absorbed in the dark of time past,
my fever a flame remembered, 
                              old candle, 
                              old shadow. 
Or in two years I may be straw. (74).

Once she stops pacing and reconsiders, the speaker accepts the situation, asserting that risks are a cost of a life well lived. Arriving at the ‘Epilogue’ of ‘Modulations for Solo Voice’, Levertov casts a jaundiced eye over the affair, deciding that in hindsight it was hollow and foolish: ‘I thought I had found a swan / but it was a migrating snow goose (…) I thought I had found a fire / but it was a play of light on bright stones’ (89). Looking back, Reid admits that at that time he was ‘gauche, with very little social and amorous experience’ (Hollenberg, 296). He was married, so the relationship was doomed to go nowhere. As Levertov writes: ‘I thought I was wounded to the core / but it was only a bruise’ (Life in the Forest, 89).

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