Into the Maze: Robert Duncan Enchants
Recent years have witnessed an exciting upsurge in posthumous publications by and about San Francisco poet Robert Duncan. Most significantly, University of California Press has continued carrying through with the long expected multi-volume Collected Writings of Robert Duncan, releasing the Collected Early Poems and Plays at the end of last year. At nearly the same time, University of Iowa Press has put out Reading Duncan Reading: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Derivation a collection of essays edited by Stephen Collis and Graham Lyons, while City Lights has republished an expanded edition of Michael Rumaker's richly-hued memoir Robert Duncan in San Francisco (originally published by Donald Allen's Grey Fox press). The time has never been better for the opportunity of a Duncan craze to ignite among robust poetry communities from Oakland to Brooklyn and everywhere in between. Of course, the greatest impasse keeping any craze from happening is the work itself. Clocking in at over 800 pages, the Collected Early Poems and Plays demonstrates the massive size of Duncan's oeuvre; often overflowing with arcane esotericism and personal obscurification yet the richness of poetic lore surrounding his vast output also attests to its essential value.
For many contemporary readers of poetry, there is no easy entrance into Duncan's work. The Collected Early is likely to be found only the more difficult by the fact it covers material predating his well-known and most anthologized works, such as the seemingly ever-parodied yet nonetheless central "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" from The Opening of the Field. Only one of the essays in Reading Duncan Reading, Sarah E. Ehlers's "Robert Duncan's Miltonic Persuasion: The Emergence of a Radical Poetic," even focuses exclusively upon the early work. By all current accounts, today's readers and critics are far more prevalently drawn to Duncan's later poems, however the majority of the Collected Early, originally published by small presses and little magazines, has never been readily available until now. Despite the apparent lack of interest, it proves well deserving of greater attention.
There is much to praise in the overall editing of the Collected Early. Duncan did not gather together and publish the vast majority of the material in collections until much later in the 1950s and 1960s. When doing so, as these were often in volumes presented as "Selected Poems," he frequently fiddled around with the texts, adding and removing individual lines as well as individual poems. He also had opportunity to republish some collections. Caesar's Gate, for instance, was originally published by Robert Creeley's Divers press in 1955 in Mallorca and was subsequently published by Sand Dollar press in 1972. Duncan not only added poems but also wrote an extended new preface, which is thankfully included as an appendix here. In addition, original collages for Caesar's Gate made by Duncan's life partner, the artist Jess, are reproduced herein as are line drawings made by Duncan for Letters. The lengthy selection of appendices and notes to individual poems and volumes make it possible to track Duncan's various alterations as he published and republished them, and also provide testament to the fact of how serious and committed a poet Duncan was at the earliest of stages.
Duncan's confidence in his own nature came early, and he was ever strident in holding himself to his beliefs. He was an outspoken gay man when there was absolutely no acknowledgement, let alone awareness of, such a concept as gay rights (see his article "The Homosexual in Society" published in Politics in March 1944). His poems refuse to pass over or hide the gender of the beloved. His radical culturally-innovative stance infamously led to Kenyon Review editor John Crowe Ransom first accepting and then rejecting Duncan's poem "An African Elegy" after publication of Duncan's groundbreaking essay. Robert Duncan in San Francisco is a one-of-a-kind glimpse into Duncan's life, written by Michael Rumaker, one of the rare firsthand chroniclers of the pre-Stonewall era of gay culture. Rumaker wrote from within the extreme homosexual taboo of the time, not so much the individual particulars but more so the overarching climate of 1950s San Francisco during which Duncan's powers as a poet flourished into maturity.
The earliest poems included in the Collected Early were printed in Kern county high school publications of the early 1930s under the name Robert Symmes, which Duncan's adoptive parents gave him. While the last work included, Letters, was written from 1953-1955 when Duncan was in his mid-thirties and deeply involved with the poet-editor-publishers of Black Mountain College, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and Jonathon Williams. In his Introduction to Reading Duncan Reading, Stephen Collis notes "much of what is characteristic in Duncan's work derives from his being the sort of poet who thematizes poetry itself" and "the issue of derivative authorship that Duncan's practice proposes continues to be of material import." The phenomenal output of the Collected Early is demonstrative of the "derivative poetics" Duncan frequently espoused, often speaking of himself in derivative terms, which he claimed as a mantle of pride rather than a fault. (For readers interested in reading Duncan's own words on his poetics, North Atlantic Books recently published the quite substantial and indispensable A Poet's Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan.)
Reading Duncan Reading is divided into two groups of essays: "Duncan Reading" and "Reading Duncan." All the essays demonstrate how strongly Duncan's work is tied compositionally to his reading and other interaction with the work of fellow poets. Moving from a demonstration of his own declared derivations (found within the work itself) from Milton and the English metaphysical poets to Laura Riding, Pound, Olson, and Zukofsky, on to explorations of interconnections his work shares with contemporaries and younger peers: John Cage, Jerome Rothenberg, Nathaniel Mackey, Susan Howe, and Ronald Johnson. The emphasis throughout is placed upon how text interacts with text. Consciously and not, Duncan's work strives to exist as a point of blurring where aspects of authorship, personality, and homage are intertwined beyond clear recognition. Often intentionally complicated by personal strife, Duncan's work reflects his own dynamic nature.
University of California Press also recently published poet Lisa Jarnot's biography Robert Duncan, the Ambassador from Venus, which possesses a surprisingly clipped narrative, notably lacking in personal details. For instance, Reading Duncan Reading has no less than two essays concerning the relationship between Duncan and poet Ronald Johnson while Jarnot makes no mention of the younger poet whatsoever. So it is a pleasure to find that where Jarnot's book retains a self-proclaimed distance from her subject, Rumaker's memoir offers a vivid description of Duncan right down to juxtaposing his fashion sense with that of his peer San Francisco poet Jack Spicer.
Robert's dress at that time could be described as "California Poet Casual." Unlike the tight work jeans, faded blue work shirt, black turtle neck sweater, stevedore sock hat, high-laced works hoes and leather jacket that was poet Jack Spicer's only outfit and made him look like any longshoreman on the Embarcadero, Robert wore full-sleeved shirts of soft material with broad collars in earth as well as bright pastel colors. He particularly favored, for parties and readings, a wide purple tie with the fattest Windsor knot I'd ever seen. A bright orange tie and a pink one were also worn, but not as often.
As the relationship between Duncan and Spicer is a fascinating and complex klausterfokken situation of rival love mixed within a more than ample generosity of kindred spirit, Rumaker's descriptions of the poets are invaluably perfect gems for broadening readers' visualization of their opposing personalities.
Throughout the Collected Early there are repeated instances where the Duncan-Spicer friendship is attested and the crosstalk between each of their poetry is on prominent display. Included are several homages by Duncan to the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca that predate Spicer's own book After Lorca. In addition, there is Duncan's "Elegy Written 4-7-53 for Jack Spicer," which describes "the wizard text of his mind" and the "multitude of moonish mirrors" in which the poem proposes:
It is in their contradictions that the images
exactly resemble the words of the text...
and figure to the imagination appropriate shapes,
the genesis and Deuteronomy of his mind.
He himself is a tabula rasa upon which
daily he scribbles the same
torah, laws, chronicles and pother
in which panther and lamb lie down together,
a veritable book of friendships.
and goes on to declare:
He has been de-friended to become
this friend of a poetry, wingd as he never was,
increased from all veritable fragmentary acquaintance
into this singular third person invention,
the jokester's monotheistic mind picturing
himself as a poet unbuilt in man's image.
The wry jokiness of an "elegy" written while the addressee was quite alive (Spicer died in 1965) would certainly not have been lost on the subject himself. Spicer's own textual deaths and representative voices of the dead (Lorca and Billy the Kid) are frequent in his work. For familiar readers, the symbiosis in play within the friendship has never been more evident.
Duncan's poetry friendships began early in his life (he mingled with Anaïs Nin's circle in NYC) and reached one notable apex in the later 1940s, during a period often referred to as the Berkeley Renaissance, when Duncan, Spicer, and the poet Robin Blaser first met. This broadened Duncan's already closely knit group of friends bonded by a communal love of books and art. Consequential aspects of this friendship are reflected in Duncan's "Berkeley Poems" from 1946, particularly "Among my friends love is a great sorrow," with its morosely tinged lines of somber acceptance:
We have become our own realities.
We seek to exhaust our lovelessness.
Among my friends love is painful question.
We seek out among the passing faces
A sphinx-face who will ask its riddle.
Among my friends love is an answer to a question
that has not been askt.
Then ask it.
Among my friends love is a payment.
It is an old debt for a borrowing foolishly spent.
And we go on, borrowing and borrowing
from each other.
Among my friends love is a wage
that one might have for an honest living.
Duncan's friendship often came with criticism and quarrel. He refused to placate either himself or his friends.
His correspondence is full of instances of challenge as he clashed with views of others, often at the insistence of listening to and following through with his own poetry. Scholar Siobhán Scarry's contribution to Reading Duncan Reading details an instance where part of Duncan's later poem "Night Scenes" arose from such a spat in his correspondence. Duncan had sent his book Letters to his longtime friend Mary Fabili, with whom he had recently been back in touch after her conversion to Catholicism. She in turn not only found Duncan's work "overly derivative of Stein and Pound" but, as Scarry describes, a letter of hers is "forthright in expressing her concern for Duncan's soul." Scarry includes a portion of Fabili's letter and also a complete draft of an unpublished poem "In Perplexity" from Duncan's notebook, which he began in response, providing "a raw look into Duncan's thinking on religion, orthodoxy and homosexuality." Scarry goes on to describe how Duncan salvaged the last stanza of this poem in "Night Scenes." This is but one example of how any and all friction in friendship nearly always proved generative for Duncan's own work.
The derivative nature of Duncan's poetic practice embedded itself in every corner of his life. The Poem was not only in effect the Life but the World. There is no clear separation. The basis of his belief in his own identity, wherein myth and biography are of one in the same nature, clearly refuses it. The newly added letters and interview to Rumaker's memoir reinforce the challenging struggle Duncan's friendship often proved to be. In the final letter included here, looking back in 1961on the previous years covered in the memoir, Rumaker begins "I have re-read your letters" announcing "Now I find them filled with kindnesses I cherish. They are dear to me." Only to then immediately admit "But I have always been so troubled by you." Nonetheless, in the interview Rumaker readily acknowledges Duncan in remarkable terms that are at once personal and historically as well as culturally relevant today.
Obviously he really is a truly great American poet, I have high respect for that certainly... on the personal side, which to me was only interesting because it rounded out the picture, we all have our flaws, and I certainly wrote about mine, but the main thing is what he accomplished in spite of all that stuff. I respected him not only for his genius, and what he did with it, but for his courage at that particular time. He was like one of those beacons, someone to really look forward to, look to and say, well if he can do this so can I. I mean he fed my own gumption to be not destroyed by these homophobes. That's putting it too bluntly, too simply. Not only as a homosexual, but as a writer, as all those things that you were, or are. Duncan didn't get sucked down by that, he didn't get trapped by that.
Back of everything else, the writing for Duncan remained paramount. The writing that was so utterly inseparable from his reading; but not in any selective sense: all his reading and writing came together in one locus of momentary being which he then poured into the occasion of the poem underhand. This practice of Duncan's began early in his life and only increased in intensity at an ever-constant rate until his death.
Critic Peter O'Leary's contribution to Reading Duncan Reading is "Talking Cosmos: Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson." Toward the end, he cites an introduction Johnson gave for a reading of Duncan's at San Francisco State in 1984 that provides an additional glimpse into what Duncan's friendship meant. Johnson describes Duncan as "one of the two friends I have on this earth who knows everything I want to know, and always gives me more than I imagined." Duncan is likewise generous to readers approaching his work for the first or infinite number of subsequent times. There is always another, unexpected phrasing or concept expressed that somehow proves essential to current concerns. A surprising juxtaposition of images so stridently affirmed in such a peculiarly yet strikingly ostentatious manner, its validity returns readers to his poetry again and again. To read Robert Duncan is to engage in an all-consuming, never-ending voyage full of political, personal, cosmic, literary, and, ultimately, unavoidable ramifications.