March 2014

Patrick James Dunagan


Robert Duncan: The Collected Later Poems and Plays edited by Peter Quartermain and Robert Duncan: The Collected Essays and Other Prose by James Maynard

With publication of Robert Duncan's The Collected Later Poems and Plays and The Collected Essays and Other Prose, the heyday of Duncan publication has reached its zenith. Finally everything Duncan published is readily available to readers, or rather nearly everything. There are still a few dozen uncollected pieces of prose listed in an appendix in back of Collected Essays that await publication in a future volume, perhaps alongside transcriptions of lectures and/or interviews likewise left out of the recent, ever-terrific A Poet's Mind: Collected Interviews.

Throughout his working life, Duncan proved himself nothing if not verbose. As exhaustive a talker as he was prolific a writer, he evolved a practice of always being in process of developing ideas while in the very act of explicating upon them. One result of his colossal output is that much of the as-of-now uncollected material likely duplicates ideas readily found in Collected Essays and Other Prose.

The Collected Later Poetry and Plays represents the assured completion of the vital gathering already underway with The Collected Early Poetry and Plays. With these two volumes the canon of Duncan's poetry is fully established and readily available to a broad audience. Each collection gathered and published by Duncan is reproduced with sections of uncollected individual poems grouped by year published appearing in between and substantial notes in back give further details concerning much of the work.

There is more than a hint of unorthodox, wide-open yet nonetheless priestly sacrament to these texts. We're undoubtedly at the brink of a too-long-in-coming renaissance of fevered interest in and appreciation for Duncan's substantial contribution to Poetic Orders.

The Opening of the Field (1960) fittingly opens The Collected Later Poems and Plays, as therein Duncan achieves mastery of his mature poetic powers with complete clarity. The initial poem "Often Am I Permitted to Return to a Meadow" has been so heavily anthologized, as well as rather regrettably lampooned, it remains perhaps Duncan's most recognized poem. Opening of the Field is also where the first of his open-ended poem sequences "Structures of Rime" finds its beginnings.

Two poetry collections later, in Bending the Bow (1968), the initial entries of the second sequence "Passages" begin appear. These two sequences continue with over-lapping regularity throughout the later work. In the final decades of his life, Duncan enters into his canonical self-defining practice of poetics structured upon a seamless weaving of the dual activity writing reading / reading writing in a vast web of textual congress. 

Duncan finds within this activity of "writing/reading or reading/writing" it is "not myself, or the Self, but yet another dimension, the work Itself, the poem Itself, where Poetry Itself appeared. The poem, not the poet, seeks to be immortal and must go deep enough into its mortality to come to that edge" ("The Self in Postmodern Poetry").

All of Duncan's late work hinges upon ever-greater actualization of this "edge" where one's actions are not easily definable by way of type, method, or otherwise familiarly known modules typically sought for defining the activity at hand. To "read" then comes to be seen as being at the business of "writing" as much as to "write" then is set within the experience of "reading"; the mirrored, or as in Duncan's more often favored spelling style for both poems and prose "mirrord," activities spurring each other on.

Reading Duncan's prose alongside his poems, it is evident that this is a central feature of his formal practice. Not only does Duncan endlessly bring his prose and poetry together alongside one another -- several texts appear duplicated by both volumes, there being at times no clear-cut separation for editors to abide by -- he constantly seizes opportunity of testifying to his own experience of how fluidly and often writing and reading merge to one vast pulsing draw of energy.

He locates another identity that is the Poem or Poetry itself in the activity, whether he's writing his own work or reading that of Walt Whitman or William Shakespeare (two poets who like Dante and William Blake, or Duncan's contemporaries such as Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, or Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, Duncan repeatedly references as integral to his own work). incarnation of that Presence of a Poetry. This body of words the medium of this spirit. Writing or reading, where words pass into this commanding music, I found a presence of person more commandingly real than what I thought to be my person before; Whitman or Shakespeare presenting more of what I was than I was. And in the course of my own poetry what has drawn me into its depths is this experience of a more intense presence of world and self than I know in myself. ("Changing Perspectives in Reading Whitman")

This assumes an increasingly personal tone in Duncan's later work, throughout the 1970s into the 1980s until his death in 1988, as his aging body notably enters into his writing. One striking occurrence is evidenced by the poem "Let Me Join You Again This Morning, Walt Whitman" one of the texts in both collections.

Duncan included the poem at the end of his talk-essay "The Adventure of Whitman's Line" originally published in the inaugural issue of the short-lived New College of California Poetics journal Convivio, in which context the poem finds inclusion in Collected Essays, while also having never been gathered by Duncan into a collection of his poetry it appears in the Collected Later Poems within "Uncollected Work: 1969-1982."

[] telling too the way the limbs move from an aging spine, courage now in this       
                        persisting, the pains-telling a new phase of the life-story, you at thirty-seven, 
                        Whitman, setting out,
I now at sixty read again, remembering -- but you too inhabiting all ages remembered 
                        in the rejoicing memorial of man's identity    in each step you take -- my own being at thirty-seven
in the opening of the field of grass you made for me facing the nation we inhabit together
                        aged in the wood Dante in the darkly bewildered selva oscura set out from 
                        and returns to -- the human condition -- almost with despair but persisting

Duncan situates his physical health in relation to Whitman's boisterous call for a nationalist poetics (which many, including Duncan, have also identified as imperialistic) yet his concern always remains focused on the poem at hand and its relation to poetry at large, ever integral to both his own person as well as a larger sense of humanity in which any one of us participates.

Duncan's health, for better or worse, is of no concern other than being the state in which he finds himself as he writes, as he reads, but in Whitman he finds relinquishment to an ever-encouraging, greater order.

Alternately, another example may be seen in the late poem "To Master Baudelaire" from Duncan's final collection Ground Work II: In the Dark (1987) where Duncan, experiencing "The Baudelairean words" launches into a reverie full of deep resonance with Baudelaire's envisioning of experience, what Duncan terms "His Malaise":

                        ...this world, 
this great moving image, just now beginning again to be
troubled, yet, as if Eternity had a hold there, at last,
lasting, and I in that hold held,    I, held here, to the last,
in your searching yourself in me,    in my reflecting.

Duncan encourages his readers to see this activity of writing and reading that proves central to his creative life as likewise central to their own, and welcome into their reading and writing lives this figure of Poetry. Again and again, Duncan promulgates the practice. He's relentlessly sounding the depths of his experience of it, probing its workings and sharing his discoveries where he finds them. As he does in his "Afterword" for Beverly Dahlen's The Egyptian Poems:

What is the nature of this voice in poetry? It is compelling. It comes from "below" -- a speech below speech; it comes from behind speech. Not from an unconscious below and behind consciousness, for this is a consciousness below and behind consciousness: that is its force. The "I" itself has undergone a change from the personal "I." Where "I" is an other, as Rimbaud saw. The psychic life she draws in writing may be drawn from her own psychic life, but here its body is the text and it speaks to the psyche of the reader as reader. For the readers too, "I" is an other, as he or she takes identity in the text.

There is no doubting the sincerity of Duncan's insistent calling for such recognition from his readers. He isn't kidding around. Poetry spoke to him and he recognized within it a power to affect profound recognition.

In the vocation of Poetry, some poetry yet to be calls us, "wounds" invisibly, or appoints us, and the "I" passes beyond this "we" (in which the intent to write becomes lost in the conflagration of readings) into a void of person where it is the absence of the Book that needs not the writer but the writing in order to present itself. ("The Delirium of Meaning") 

This is not a practice meant for private isolation either. It is public business, utterly inclusive. Not just literature for study in the university but art meaningful to needs of broader society.

Whitman's politics, like Dante's, is the politics of a polis that is a poem. In both the Preface of 1855 and Democratic Vistas Whitman insists that the heart or soul of this matter of America and of democracy is poetic. He comes not to bring a new religion but to bring -- more faithful to the truth of things than religion -- a poetry. ("Changing Perspectives in Reading Whitman")

For Duncan the poet is always attending to the revelation of the poem in the world around him.

As I write, the writing talks to me. In the Orphic tradition, poets could understand the language of birds and trees. Listening to the roar of the waves, voices appear. It is only a story we are making up, but it comes to us. We find we are living, suffering, loving, dying a story. We had not known otherwise ("Man's Fulfillment in Order and Strife").

Duncan feels enabled by the activation of this "story" working its way on its own behalf to find the means via his role as the poet-host whereby to realize its occurrence. Allowing the poem to lead the way, he relinquishes his interest in exerting overt control over where it may lead. Instead he gives over both his effort and interest to the achieving of unknown ends, as his work progresses he is more than ever listening rather than directing.

I started a series without end called "Structures of Rime" in which the poem could talk to me, a poetic seance, and, invoked so, persons of the poem appeared as I wrote to speak. I had only to keep the music of the invocation going and to take down what actually came to me happening in the course of the poem. Lawrence tells us that, once he was at work on a novel his characters took over, having their own life there. [...] the poet searches out the actuality of the world into which he extends what is now his world of Self -- his search transformed into an art---in order to realize in imagination the world. From the reality of this order, an "interior" feeling that has its heart in the apprehension of universe, being and even self, more real than he is, speak to him ("Man's Fulfillment in Order and Strife").

This unveiling of the process of the poem "to realize in imagination the world" within the poem itself as it enters into being is ushered in by how one lives, the literal surroundings within which daily life occurs. This is an aspect Duncan readily acknowledges having learned from visual artists, particularly his partner, Jess, and other artists, such as Harry Jacobus, moving within their close social circles tied together by friendship and art.

...I see both Jess and Harry Jacobus in their work as relating in turn to my own development as a poet -- for they have brought the imagination into painting again, as I have worked to bring the imagination into poetry. They work with a consciousness of metaphor and symbol, of color and form as terms of a magic ("Statement on Jacobus for Borregaard's Museum").

The household plays a central role for Duncan as the generative, nurturing cauldron site of the imagination.

...we see that the rooms we live in are haunted by our living; that we live in ashes of lavender, in blue lights, in burning orange or luminous gold of ourselves ("Statement on Jacobus for Borregaard's Museum").

The textual ground Duncan urges the poem move on is the actual sounding it evokes: "In the realized poem, the poem that is sound thruout, the poet attends even as we do the order of what the poem is saying" ("From Notes on the Structure of Rime"). Again, the poet's body serves as conduit for forces exerted by demands of the poem.

The heart, the brain, the nervous system -- that tree of immediate, intricately branching, correlations thruout the body -- the visceral, deep inward, tonal condition, are united in one governance in that passion from which all the projected field of "content" and "affect," of "message" and of "invention," arises as the living body or form, the very poem of that always particular, always urgent, always unique demand that a poetry come into existence ("From Notes on the Structure of Rime").

Early on in his own vocation as a poet, Duncan locates the roots of his conceiving how the poem moves in Ezra Pound's achievements with free verse:

He found an imperative in poetry when one "must" write in free verse, "when the 'thing' builds up a rhythm more beautiful than that of set metres, or more real, more a part of the emotion of the 'thing,' more germane, intimate, interpretative than the measure of regular accentuated verse." Craft here is not to impose a form upon a force but to find the force, the very movement of shape, sound and meaning, in which the form of the total process is apprehended ("The Lasting Contribution of Ezra Pound").

Following his Poet-Masters, such as Pound, releases Duncan from any struggle with originality; in fact he delights in being derivative. He enjoys echoing the works he loves, and from which he draws his own poetic powers.

Duncan's poem "After Shakespeare's Sonnet 76" announces itself as being drafted in the "casual imprint that is the Bolinas style" (referencing the small coastal community of Bolinas, California, a sometimes-manic haven for poets during the early 1970s). In the notes for this uncollected poem, which appeared in an issue of Bolinas resident poet Duncan McNaughton's Fathar, is Duncan's description of it in a notebook as written in "the modern anti-genteel mode/of the post-Poundian era/1920-1970."

His "Second Take" published with the first in the same issue of Fathar, returns with seriousness to what proves an ever common theme for Duncan: joining in with a larger company, vaster than imaginable, that is never graspable by a single poem or poet alone, but is an ongoing roar of voices adding to a common response. The writing and reading pageantry that festoons all poetry in a never ending tale of old:    

                        ...I rage,  
O Love, as deep as others rage, the din,  
the news, drowns out the music. Still the old
way Love pursues in which our tale was ever told.

Duncan leaves us with the feeling that the Poem will always be of necessary demand, composed for and by a great eternal community of the like-minded, who although separated across centuries and continents apart, are yet driven against any rational odds to join each other in rising song.

Robert Duncan: The Collected Later Poems and Plays (The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan) edited by Peter Quartermain
University of California Press
ISBN: 978-0520259294
928 pages

Robert Duncan: The Collected Essays and Other Prose (The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan) edited by James Maynard
University of California Press
ISBN: 978-0520267732
592 pages