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On the Brink: On the Centenary of Robert Duncan’s Birth

Robert Duncan, ca. 1980.

If we are so upon the brink of destruction not only of political orders and of civilizations but of the potentiality of world order itself – for that is the nightmare content of our times – involving all beings, all living forms, then we are in such a perversion of government that no man who means good can be a good citizen. If our manner of speech has come, as it has, to be so much a cover that for the sake of freedom men are drafted against their will; for the sake of peace, armed men and tanks fight in our streets; and for the sake of the good life, the resources of our land are ruthlessly wasted, and waterways and air polluted, then we need a new manner of speaking.

—Robert Duncan, “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife”

Robert Duncan wrote and delivered those words in 1968, year of the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and riots and protests across the United States. His call for “a new manner of speaking” that resists complicity in abuses of state power carries across 50 years with the undimmed power to move and persuade. That power is one among many good reasons to return now to Duncan’s mature work, emerging as it did from an apocalyptic imagination obsessed with resistance, love, violent origins, and revelatory endings. His mature poetics began with 1960’s The Opening of the Field, evolved through 1964’s Roots and Branches and 1968’s Bending the Bow, and culminated in the late work of 1984’s Ground Work: Before the War and 1988’s Ground Work: In the Dark. Over these three decades Duncan pushed his poems to embody the largest possible vision of What Is, what he in a crucial essay called “the truth and life of myth.” His essentially lyric practice grew ever more intricate, citational, associative, digressive. This involute quality is present as content—in the occult correspondences and highly allusive collage-work that formalize the “grand design” of his cosmological poetics—and in a syntax that in his most lyric poems revolves around a sonic physicality: word-play, near-rhymes, homophones, alliterative vowel-work, and repeated phrasing. Putting his autodidactic learning in service of an anarchist politics, Duncan could, when raised to ire, marshal his ear for lyric play and considerable erudition against the corruptions and failures of government. For instance, in the second section of his 1957-8 political poem, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” Duncan mimics the deformation of language by those in highest power (occasioned by then-president Eisenhower’s recent stroke), following that with a list of US presidents whose value he questions:

       The Thundermakers descend,
damerging a nuv. A nerb.
      The present dented of the U
knighted stayd.     States.    The heavy clod?
      Cloud.      Invades the brain.     What
      if lilacs last in this dooryard bloomd?
Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower –
where among these did the power reside
that moves the heart? What flower of the nation
bride-sweet broke the whole rapture?
Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson
hear the factories of human misery turning out commodities.
For whom are the holy matins of the heart ringing?

This pattern of litanies and interrogatives goes on for 12 more lines, all haunted by that sweet camerado, Walt Whitman, whose famous elegy for Lincoln serves as an implicit and contrastive valediction of presidential power. It’s easy to imagine adding to this list our current president, especially given that to listen to his spoken broken sentences or to read his tweeted typos indeed feels like “damerging a nuv.” But Duncan’s work—despite its mid-century white male obsession with the patriarchal poetry of Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, and Olson; its maximalist cast of mythological and theological figures; and its sometimes outlandish bookishness—often speaks, as it does here in the late ’50s, with startling prescience and political relevance. And Duncan can also write with a winning self-consciousness about turning toward tradition as an instructive counterpoint to the political present, as in an insightful earlier passage from the same poem:

                        It is toward the old poets
     we go, to their faltering,
their unaltering wrongness that has style,
     their variable truth,
     the old faces,
words shed like tears from
a plentitude of powers time stores.    

Duncan has long been one of “the old poets” I go toward, someone whose “faltering…unaltering wrongness… has style,” “variable truth,” and “a plentitude of powers.” For 20 years I seem to have always already been thinking about—or thinking in proximity to—his poems, no matter how wrong-headed they sometimes seem to me. I like thinking about his poetics—pitched always, and often awkwardly, between process and object, the hermetic and the revealed, citation and song, Romanticism and Modernism, anarchy and democracy, all for the capture of consciousness in syllables. Perhaps I like thinking about his poetics especially where and when it strikes me as most wrong. Duncan can be a beautifully and sometimes maddeningly Platonic poet, intimating at times that the world is but a shadow of What Is, an eidos only partly revealed to the poet, its full revelation always deferred. “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” his most famous poem begins,

as if it were a scene made-up in the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

This poem’s predicated on the fact that the word poem is from poiein, the Greek for “to make.” “The poet is not only a maker in the sense of the maker of the poem,” Duncan writes in “The Truth and Life of Myth,” “but he makes up his mind, he makes up a world within a world.” Written in the decade after his encounter with Charles Olson’s 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” The Opening of the Field was Duncan’s first book built as a unified world; it’s by design that it opens with “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” The meadow/field/pasture is of course on one level the typewritten page itself, the “open field” of the poem made possible by Olson’s vision. But Duncan’s poem sees beyond Olson’s projection of the poet’s breath (the poetic line) and ear (the syllable) into the “eternal pasture folded in thought/so that there is a hall therein,” his own version of Plato’s cave, a “place of first permission,/everlasting omen of what is.” Duncan is careful to claim that the poem “is mine” (i.e. is made by the poet) and “not mine” (i.e. a given property, eternal), and to read Duncan’s mature poems is to be asked to believe in the poet’s dual role as maker and visionary.

In some accounts of his biography—including his own—he was born to this role during the dawn of January 7th 1919. His birth mother died later that day, and his birth father in his grief and poverty was unable to care for him. Six months later, he was adopted by a childless middle-class couple. His second mother, a practicing Theosophist, adopted Duncan because she was told—and believed—that a boy child born on this date was astrologically predestined to be hers. She was also told—and believed—that he was the reincarnation of a citizen of the lost continent of Atlantis, a belief that came to have great significance for him. “Born in 1919 at the close of the War,” he writes in The H.D. Book,

I belonged, I was told, to an Atlantean generation that would see once more last things and the destruction of a world. There was a repeated dream I had as a child that came to be my “Atlantean” dream, for my mother told me it was a memory dream from that previous life. I belonged, too, to the generation that had been destroyed in a cataclysm, before the world we lived in began. I had a part in the fabulous.   

According to Duncan, his Atlantean dream-memory serves as the unspoken framework of and inspiration for “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” which at its core is about the making of poetry as a place for the prophetic. “The open field, the dance and the presumption,” he continues in The H. D. Book, “seem now a prediction of what life will be, now a showing forth of some content of what life is, as in the Orphic mysteries.” In the mythopoetic version of Duncan’s biography, his birth is marked by the end of things—Atlantis, his birth mother’s life, the War—and the endings inside his beginning, like the apocalyptic vision buried inside the poem that stands as a gateway to his poetic maturity, are likewise a kind of prediction that will seem, with the Vietnam War, to threaten to come to pass.

While “Often I Am Permitted…” suggests a neo-Platonic reading of material forms as shadows, Duncan’s later work suggests he came to see material forms as part of a larger process that is itself the literal embodiment or bodying forth of higher principles. “The morphology of forms, in evolving, does not destroy their historicity,” Duncan writes in “The Truth and Life of Myth,” “but reveals that each event has its origin in the origin of all events…The Earth travails toward the truth of Itself in Love.” Duncan’s version of evolution owes as much to Madame Blavatsky as to Darwin, which means that it is essentially a moral order, one in which spiritual goodness—embodied by a drive toward Love—is disturbed by the material presence of evil. “There was a covenant made with Good,” he writes in 1970 in “Passages 35,” “and into its orders I was born.” The failure of Love on a global scale is one reason Vietnam served as a crucible for Duncan’s poetics: it provoked in him the fear that his prophetic dream of world destruction would come to pass and a reckoning with his own failures to Love, failures that haunted him. Though he’d long had, as he writes in an unpublished biographical note from 1984, “an apocalyptic antagonism to the military industrial complex that was to dominate both capitalist and communist societies in a permanent war economy,” the Vietnam War would prompt him to ask, in the 1971 poem “Passages 36,”

                           Is it to suit the myth yet to come —
the ritual mutilation, the despoiling of nature, of earth,
          of animal species, and mankind among them,
with hatred and,     no longer having a feeling of what is done,
          without hatred,     day after day,
                    the burning,      the laying waste?

Calling up in him a destabilizing psychic violence, the Vietnam War forced Duncan to face the aggression, hatred, and destructive impulses in his own nature, an aggression that was, at the root, bound up with the impulses to Love. “Passages 36” tracks the associative drift from the “catastrophe…the mind addresses/and would erect within…itself/as Viet Nam” to  corresponding catastrophes in his own life, which included his recent, protracted attack on his longtime friend the poet and antiwar activist Denise Levertov, whom he’d recently characterized in “Santa Cruz Propositions,” as “Kali dancing, whirling her necklace of skulls/trampling the despoiling armies and the exploiters of natural resources/under her feet…the wine of men’s blood in the vat/of the Woman’s anger.” Apocalypse means, at its Greek root, “to uncover,” and when Duncan confronted Vietnam he uncovered one of his oldest and most irreparable wounds. The “neglect rancoring” exposed by the “end of an old friendship” with Levertov was, for him,

                   very like that coming to know
         my mother was at war with what I was to be;
and in the Courts of Love I raged that year
         in every plea declared arrogant
                  and in contempt of Love.
I do not     as the years go by      grow tolerant
         of what I cannot share and what
efuses me.      There’s that in me as fiercely beyond
         the remorse that eats me…
In Truth     ‘tis done.     At last.     I’ll not

So ends “Passages 36.” It seems fitting that Duncan—who wrote many love poems of exquisite vulnerability—also wrote anguished poems of love’s failure. To be misprisioned by a loved one so thoroughly that the relation feels like violence called forth in Duncan an equally violent counter-response, a cold rage that fuels that brilliant allegory of maternal narcissism, “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” and runs hot through his long, devastating letters to Levertov in the fall of 1971 (which predated the composition of “Passages 36” in December). He was not unaware of this pattern. As he writes of Levertov at the end of “Santa Cruz Propositions”: “from the center of terror/that is the still eye of the storm in her://‘There comes a time when only Anger is Love.’” And though Duncan’s poetics routinely treats discrete events as part of a totality, a “grand collage” in which the world stage and the individual mind are inextricable from one another, it makes sense that, to Levertov, reading her activism and the Vietnam War as mythopoetic events in his psyche was a dubious gesture at best. As she writes in a letter rebutting his readings of her work: 

You say my poems which talk about Viet Nam aren’t at bottom about Viet Nam at all but about the sex war. That is unmitigated bullshit…it is insulting if you mean they are not really about the war as it affects our lives, our whole lives…we as individuals are full of conflicts, contradictions, weaknesses…that can be manifested in cruelty and hate or in understanding and love… But that does not mean that we can reduce every piece of artistic work dealing with inner conflicts under the guise of the overt subject whatever it may be. 

By the time of his attack on Levertov, Duncan was committed to a compositional process of free association with little revision; his poems indeed often discover his own inner conflicts at work within the poems’ overt subjects. In combination with his cosmological poetics, this process sometimes had the unintended effect of rendering everything in relation to Duncan. “Everything speaks to me!” he begins another poem: the unintended consequence (and danger) of being the kind of metaphysical poet he was. And while I’m often moved by his literally apocalyptic process of uncovering hidden connections, I too bristle at Duncan’s sometimes willful, coercive “need to make things fit with [his] projections,” as Levertov writes. Every word, thing, and person in a Duncan poem is allegorical in value—a demonstration of a Truth—it is seldom itself or in-and-for itself; his mythopoetics tends to render the world in terms offered by his mythology, collapsing the material world into the supporting roles of allegory and source of metaphor.

It took Duncan a few years to understand that he’d done this kind of violence to Levertov, as he writes at the opening of the 1975 poem “The Torn Cloth”: 

We      reaving

— “re-weaving”     I had meant

                  to write,

     in twain

                   did      I want her                      

to be      entirely      unutterably                  

     that raging Woman of every “Uprising” ?

                  for the Glory      Wrath

promises in us?   

It is characteristic of Duncan’s associative process to preserve a telling misspelling—almost helplessly, the poem from the outset confesses the plunder done that necessitates reweaving. And unlike “Passages 36,” this poem admits Duncan’s own culpability in the reaving, and attempts to re-weave “this wedding-cloth of friendship/I had ript apart in what I thought/righteous.” And also unlike “Passages 36,” which moves from contemplation of the War to the rancor of his relations with Levertov and his mother, “The Torn Cloth” moves in the opposite direction, almost as if Duncan were undoing the associative warp and weft of the previous poem’s fabric. “From the Snarl/the frayd edges of the inner Reft,/the torn heart of our // ‘Friendship’,” Duncan moves toward the admission that “I will not let go/from the years of our rapport/the momentary/War and the Scars upon the Land.” Is it any accident the poem was written late in 1975, after the end of the War?

Duncan’s regret was heartbreakingly genuine, as was his inability to let go of the connection between his fight with Levertov and the “War and the Scars upon the Land.” Vietnam the historical event had its origins, for Duncan, “in the origins of all events,” and thus was coeval with his own travails with Love, whose covenant he’d come to see he’d broken by attacking Levertov. Both the fabric that brought and bound them together and the instrument of their severance, poetry fittingly serves Duncan as both the process of repair and the object that repairs:

          In pain      where I workt pain
               now I must spin 
the twirl of the needle stabbing
           my spindle,
the thread of a contention,
       the only thread my reparation
              may come from.

To read the Vietnam poems of the late ’60s and the early ’70s is to watch Duncan, “In pain     where I workt pain,” weave poem after poem out of “the thread of a contention” central to his way of experiencing a world that seemed on the brink of collapse. The self-awareness and regret necessary for reparation came too late to save his friendship with Levertov, a loss he felt acutely throughout the remainder of his life. And though like Levertov we might continue to object to Duncan’s conflation of the Vietnam War with his own inner experience of “an order out of Order,” his righteous denunciations of “The powers of business and industry taking over government/War the biggest business of all” in “Passages 35” feel bracingly relevant to our own rage at a similar situation.

I’ve dwelt on this conflict in Duncan and his late work because it both moves me and strikes me as the instructive outcome of the fact that we are taught to love not as Platonists, but as infants, whose instructors are parents, not Socratic philosophers. Idealized Love is no match for the blameless mutual aggressive bond between mother and child or lover and beloved, just as Democracy is no match for actual life in the United States. Long before the Vietnam era, Duncan knew that our democracy was built on empire, and as an ideal was always already flawed. “It is across great scars of wrong,/I reach toward the song of kindred men” he writes in “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” “and strike again the naked string/old Whitman sang from.    Glorious mistake!” Which is to say: he was not unaware that a poet could be empire’s unwitting apologist.

While he did not make that mistake himself, Duncan was, like Whitman, a Lover of the Good; much in the way the Civil War’s material realities challenged Whitman’s idealism, the unrest of the Vietnam era plunged Duncan into a sympathetic disturbance as profound as any other in his life. “Where one’s own/hatred enters,” he writes in 1970 in “Passages 35,” “Hell   gets out of hand.” And isn’t it true, dear Readers, our own hell has gotten out of hand? We are, it seems, everywhere at War. In this New Year of a century Duncan didn’t live to see, what will it mean for poets to continue as makers under this perversion of government? Will we spin thread from contention, from reparation? Will we “draw it out    glistening/into the fabric of intentions”? Will we sit at the loom of the page and weave with the thread of our bitterness, the thread of our great and radiant love? What flaws will it hold, the new good cloth we make with our hands?

Originally Published: January 7th, 2019

Born in Athens, Georgia, Brian Teare grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He earned a BA in English and creative writing from the University of Alabama and an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. His collections of poetry include The Room Where I Was Born (2003), winner of the Brittingham Prize and...