Gnostic Gospel

The secret history of Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book.

by Lisa Jarnot
Gnostic Gospel
Photo: Harry Redl

“I seek now in working upon the later draft of the book not to correct the original but to live again in its form and content leaving in successive layers records of reformations and digressions as they come to me.”
           —Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book


It’s hard to find one particular point of entrance into Robert Duncan’s epic The H.D. Book. The project is constructed more like a beehive than a superhighway, or perhaps the more accurate metaphor is one that Duncan himself employed in a 1970s lecture when talking about his work—a spiderweb made from spiders experimentally dosed with LSD. Duncan noted that the tripping spiders lost track of the threads, got bored with one path, and moved in another direction. True to form, The H.D. Book stands as a complex homage, a “tribute,” Duncan says, to the women in his life and to his vital early influences as a writer. It becomes an ornate palace of hero worship, with its meticulous reading of the poet H.D.’s life’s work and its sprawling history of the Modernist poetry movement. But it’s also a text of autobiographical richness and an acknowledgment of family influences. It points out the ways in which Duncan transformed his adoptive parents’ hermeticism into a poetics looming with hidden structures. “It must have recesses. There is a great charm in a room broken up in plan, where that slight feeling of mystery is given to it which arises when … there is always something around the corner” he quotes Gustav Stickley in “The Architecture: Passages 9,” superimposing a floor plan of a craftsman’s home with the structure of the poem. If there’s any guiding feature of Duncan’s poetry and prose it is exactly that obsession with recesses, with “what lies back of” as he often described a way of intuiting and thinking—as if peering around a curtain to a séance in another room. What lies back of The H.D. Book is a wonder with first sources, and an acknowledgement that poets can throw themselves into a search for knowledge with wild Erotic abandon. Duncan’s confidence as a thinker and talker and writer was generated partly by his adoptive parents’ belief that he had been incarnated from the realm of Atlantis. Aunts on both sides of the family studied theosophy, and one favorite aunt, Fayetta, wrote copious treatises on the metaphysical. Duncan subsequently had the audacity to count himself among the great minds (not of his day, but of all days) and to write about his fellowship with them. He embraced (and analyzed and critiqued) that inflated sense of self and used its energy to carry out creative endeavors. In The H.D. Book, in his plays, and in his lectures, he is “a circling man in a seizure of talk,” a description he gives to himself in the poem “Despair in Being Tedious.” The H.D. Book is one of the platforms from which Duncan unleashes his knowledge onto the reader. (I remember Robert Creeley admitting to me that he never had to read certain books, including Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, because he felt he’d absorbed them just by being in Duncan’s presence.) Duncan’s habit of gnosis-mongering and his undeniable charisma certainly throw him into alignment with Stein and Pound more than with H.D. He had personality, and he knew how to use it to lure others into his web. There was always entirely too much of Duncan in the room, though most who encountered him forgave that out of a deference to his wit and knowledge and ability to engage an audience.

What also made Duncan charming was that his hero worship was never blind and his aggressive exaltations were never without self-reflection. Duncan admitted at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference that he might indeed be fatuous (as his friend Philip Whalen had pointed out to him). And yes, there are pockets of overly grand gesture in The H.D. Book. When he wrote of Randall Jarrell’s dismissal of H.D.’s work as silly, Duncan must have also had in mind his own silliness. It was something he took pride in, that he loved puns—the lowest form of humor, as he called them—and that he indulged in “pretentious fictions,” as he proudly told fellow poet Charles Olson. I think this is partly what makes Duncan such a great writer. His humanness hangs out all over the page, and he often pulls off romantic gestures just by daring to go there. Duncan has been described as square, lurid, florid, and Victorian (by himself as well as by those critical of his work), but at the heart of his writing is a life-embracing enthusiasm, a technical excellence, and an enormous skill with principles of collage and assemblage.

Duncan’s disavowal of traditional thinking, academic jargon, and conservative poetries is likewise reflected throughout The H.D. Book:

That in working this book, it must be built up, risking the composition of the whole (where I incur some critical failure in the book’s not resembling what literary criticism calls for today) in order to, but also because I must, take the directive of the immediate sense, as in Charles Olson’s “instanter” movement that projective verse demands.  

He begins with a description of a classroom, but he reclaims the intellect away from the classroom, away from academic circles, and away from the neat logic and linear narrative of literary criticism. Duncan was proud to say that he was “never graduated.” While he came and went from Berkeley (mostly to study with medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz in the late 1940s), his intellectual energies could not be contained in a degree program. In his freshman year of college he wrote home to his mother in Bakersfield to tell her that he was so infatuated with Stein, Freud, Dostoyevsky, Stravinsky, and Kafka that he no longer knew what he was supposed to be reading for the classroom. Berkeley friend Ham Tyler remembered in Scales of the Marvelous,

Robert and I shared a common fault—if we had read one example of Milton’s prose, such as the assigned Areopagitica, why not then go on to find out what else he had to say on church and state, and then perhaps why? If that approach is multiplied by the number of important writers, past and present, it is easy to drop out of phase with requirements.

Another thing that excites me about The H.D. Book is its search for secrets and affection for secret belongings. Duncan’s fascination with a figure central to H.D.’s family history, Count Zinzendorf, seemed focused on the way Zinzendorf fostered the Moravian Church as a brotherhood of secret agents of sorts: initiates recognizing each other with a knowing glance, a flash of the eyes. Duncan describes his entrance into poetry as a conversion experience and the realm of poetry as high adventure. As a teenager in a conservative household, he longed for kin. It was H.D.’s poem “Heat” that ruptured his fragile allegiance to the San Joaquin Valley middle class. He was queer and owl-eyed and had little intention of fulfilling his parents’ wish that he become an architect. He constellated H.D. as his mother (and Freud as his grandfather by default). By the time he had finished his first year of college at Berkeley, he was immersed in the fellowship that would feed the rest of his career—“sisters” Lili and Mary Fabilli, Virginia Admiral, Cecily Kramer, and Janet Thurman, and ancestors Pound, Joyce, Stein, and H.D.

In my coming-into-poetry, The H.D. Book was an object of intrigue. I first encountered it as a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I arrived there in 1986, when Robert Creeley was teaching survey of literature classes and the university’s special collections had just acquired Robert Duncan’s papers. One afternoon a week, I made my way over to the English department to audit Creeley’s graduate seminar on the poetry of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and John Ashbery. Creeley began the seminar with a recitation of Duncan’s “The Venice Poem.” To a roomful of chain-smoking bearded graduate students he sighed “this ‘blue sapphire’ this is beautiful, you dig?” His nearly speechless enthusiasm for the poem sent me on a quest to know Duncan. Most other afternoons I was in “the stacks” of the Poetry Collection, where I was employed as a work-study student. The curator at the time, Robert Bertholf, though territorial about various pieces of paper, granted me free reign of the Duncan kingdom. It occurs to me now that he thought I was too naïve and young to take away or make use of any real information about Duncan. One of my first jobs was to catalog all of Duncan’s 80-plus notebooks—to create a page-by-page index of everything Duncan had ever written in a journal. I spent every moment I could rifling through Duncan’s musty yellowing notebooks, each page releasing the scent of exotic foggy San Francisco alleyways, and each page covered with Duncan’s ululating sea-wavy script, with notes on topics as dense and rich as the damp eucalyptus scent of those pages—Whitehead’s philosophy, Darwin’s evolutionary theories, John Dee’s magic, Wallace Stevens’s phonetic patterns, H.D.’s Mithraic mysticism, Pound’s troubadours, Spicer’s dictation, Stravinsky’s poetics of music. It was an education in itself. I was destined to lose interest in the classroom. Two years later I’d be on my way to San Francisco, sans diploma.

Alongside Duncan’s notebooks were boxes and boxes of manuscripts. It was there that I found The H.D. Book, in its various drafts with its various handwritten emendations and stacks of typescripts, as well as six original notebooks, filled with what has become today this first publication in the University of California Press’s Duncan series. In some pockets of the Buffalo poetry community, The H.D. Book was a holy grail. My mentor Jack Clarke, an English department Blake scholar, encouraged me to read it in full. With him I studied H.D.’s Trilogy alongside Duncan’s drafts of The H.D. Book. When Jack’s friend Harvey Brown arrived in Buffalo for a visit in the spring of 1987, he seized on the fact that I (and my friends Elizabeth Willis and Michael Boughn) had access to the papers in the Poetry/Rare Books Collection. Could we, he asked, get him a copy of The H.D. Book in its entirety? Harvey, a great friend of poets and great editor of lost editions, was intent upon publishing a bootleg of the treasure under his imprint, Frontier Press. In 1970 he had produced a delicate, slate-gray-covered edition of H.D.’s Hermetic Definition(s), in an attempt to force her work back into print and compel her executor, Norman Holmes Pearson, away from his territoriality about her work. Harvey had golden dreadlocks and wild eyes that made him seem entirely feral, but somewhere way back he was the son of a wealthy Ohio businessman. He grew marijuana and was generous with it. He knew strange and wonderful people. He told us stories of his friendship with reggae icon and voodoo practitioner Peter Tosh. He had supported Charles Olson financially and had seen him through his last days of liver cancer. Jack and Harvey’s insistence that The H.D. Book had some kind of cosmic significance loomed large in my imagination. I was 20, provincial, and ready for adventure. Duncan too gave hints of some secret that was hidden in H.D.’s work—he sensed that she was privy to some mysteries. In a 1960 meeting with her, she told him that she had fallen into a Roman Mithra cult in London during World War II and had “seen too much.” Whatever it was, I wanted to be in on it. Over a period of weeks I quietly xeroxed all of Duncan’s writings on H.D. and handed them to Harvey. When he died in 1991, the project seemed lost. But another member of our circle rescued it. In 1995 it arrived in my mailbox on a floppy disk, with no return address. Some years later it showed up on the Internet under the imprint Frontier Press.

I wonder what it means for Duncan’s works to be rescued from the secret societies that have coveted them for so long. Now and then I hear talk about an emerging “Duncan industry,” and it makes me uneasy. But then again I remember the stubborn resilience that characterizes all things Duncan: there’s hardly room for him in a neat academic niche. For those of us who have loved Duncan for so long, there now comes the promise that the splendor of his poetry will reach the audience it deserves. As for The H.D. Book, perhaps it will serve as a reminder of the poet’s potential to be self-motivating, curious, and awake to the possibility that some foggy recessed alleyway will open up a world.

Originally Published: April 13, 2011


On April 15, 2011 at 9:23pm Paco Marquez wrote:
Nice article. However, never is the word "gnostic" mentioned in the article other than in the title, and I'm very curious about that. By doing a brief search I found a book called "Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness" by Peter O'leary in Amazon...
Can anyone shed more light?

By the way, I also searched Ernst H. Kantorowicz and found that his "classic book" is "The King's Two Bodies",

POST A COMMENT welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.


 Lisa  Jarnot


Lisa Jarnot was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1967. After studying with the poet Robert Creeley at the University of Buffalo, she earned her MFA from Brown University. Her poetry is known for its startling yet inviting aesthetic. Jarnot has commented, “I think poems are always collage on some level… Collage is a way to force awareness out of the random flow of information that’s constantly bombarding us.” In addition to the . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.