A Drama of Truth: Robert Duncan and Tradition
"But whatever realm of reality we seek
out, we find it is woven of fictions."
I dislike manifestoes except when absolutely necessary—as when dire historical or political conditions make them critical to the survival of a particular marginalized group or viewpoint—and thus I especially dislike them when they’re about poetry.
Too often one finds oneself in the middle of a kind of demitasse Fountainhead of poetics, a vaguely post-adolescent over-throwing of a previous generation’s values that reads like it’s been written by someone who once wore black, hung out at the mall, and, like, smoked!
Reading such an aesthetic manifesto, one feels bound by a kind of horrified politesse: one must nod, and appear to agree in order to avoid being summarily castigated. Meanwhile the Person in Black rages on, blowing the smoke of a clove cigarette in one’s face, and one weathers a growing ennui (a word that comes only in the presence of such a manifesto).
It is the tedious noise "tradition" makes, the literary manifesto. Specifically, it’s the familiar (and predictable) historical noise of one aesthetic supplanting another; a jockeying, vaguely patriarchal music (something about fathers and sons, "the anxiety of influence," etc, etc.) that has about its character something of the refrain of the missionary hymn, and thus as its goal a kind of obnoxious conversion effect: Make it new! Follow me!
I tire easily of the invidious schoolyard hierarchy the manifesto sets up (you’re either for us or against us, shirts vs. skins), and it’s no accident young men (as part of fledgling aesthetic movements) seem to excel at these exercises, the way they gloried in armpit farts during elementary school. Ezra Pound, for example, was apparently adept at this noise. (See: Imagism, Vorticism, etc.)
And before you think I’m wearing the binding undergarments of the killjoy: yes, I am being broadly didactic, and of course there are exceptions to my acid exasperation.
I do find myself attracted and sympathetic to certain singular autodidacts whose intelligence, manic charm and poetic brilliance help me look beyond the outlandish demands of their obviously outsized personalities. And I especially love autodidacts whose passionate and (seemingly) misplaced energies cause them stigma within, and rejection by, the very communities their works are so engaged with. I love those manifesto writers who engendered no canonical aesthetic movements, have few followers, and with whom the noise of tradition seems to pause, or stop: the reader can hear their poetry so much more clearly for the silence that follows them.
Case in point: Robert Duncan.
Though he got a prime spot in Donald Allen’s seminal 1960 anthology The New American Poetry; though he taught at several institutions—Black Mountain College and New College of California—during crucial aesthetic flowerings; though his influence towered over and flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area for many decades; though his influence is clear in the early work of poets as various as John Wieners (Ace of Pentacles) and Joanne Kyger (The Tapestry and the Web); it’s clear that, with pointed exceptions, his is a poetics that has remained on the outskirts of current aesthetic conversations, and seems to have all but disappeared among the current youngest generation of poets.
Even poet, scholar and Duncan devotee Peter O’Leary admits, in his excellent study Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness, that, though "many poets have engaged Duncan’s influence in their writing...none of them could be adequately called 'a poet under the sign of Robert Duncan'" except Nathaniel Mackey, whose engagement with an African muthos beautifully expands Duncan’s Judeo-Christian purview. In the latter chapters of his study, O’Leary traces Duncan’s continuing influence on the mythopoetic imagination of Mackey, and Mackey himself has written gorgeously and generously, in his elegant volume of essays Discrepant Engagement, of Duncan’s poetics and its impact on his own work.
And there are, of course, important colleagues upon whom Duncan had considerable influence, such as Denise Levertov, with whom he corresponded about poetry, poetics, and, most disastrously, politics. The sequence of their letters reads as half Romance and half a literary version of Godzilla vs. Mothra: the product of the relationship between two of recent poetry’s most staunch autodidacts. Even the reader who adores Duncan can’t read the sequence without cringing in embarrassment or without feeling enormously apologetic about Levertov’s bearing the brunt of Duncan’s clumsy handling of his ungainly ego: one particular manifesto-like letter is upwards of twenty pages.
But why has Duncan’s influence faded among the twenty- to thirty-somethings of American poetry? Is it because, like many West Coast writers, he suffers from a lack of attention from canonizing critical forces of the East? Is it because he’s both an openly gay writer and an experimental poet, evading easy critical categorizations in an age obsessed with both identity- and aesthetic-based factions? Is it because "open field" or "Black Mountain" or "San Francisco Renaissance" poetry is rarely taught in MFA programs? Or is it, as some have speculated, because of the sixteen years between the publication of Bending the Bow (1968) and Ground Work: Before the War (1984), a span of time in which his silence caused his influence outside of the San Francisco Bay Area to disappear?
One could respond "Yes" to all these questions, and I think one might be right. However, it’s likely there’s a larger pattern behind this lack of influence. A fragment of this pattern can be found, I think, in Duncan’s quasi-manifesto, The Truth & Life of Myth, first published in both limited and trade editions in 1968, and reprinted in New Direction’s 1985 collection of Duncan’s prose, Fictive Certainties, though not, strangely, in their 1995 A Selected Prose.
If for many Moderns, literary tradition was a ruin that stimulated a sense of loss contiguous with the continuous political catastrophes of the early-to-mid 20th century, then for Postmoderns, tradition could be loosely characterized as interlocking linguistic systems continuous with personal alienation from, and an antagonism by, the realm of contemporary global socio-political and economic strife. Perhaps the main difference lies in the attitude with which each generation approaches "the real": in mourning and with longing, or with mounting suspicion and aggression.
The Truth & Life of Myth clearly chooses neither of these attitudes, though Duncan’s ideas might at times be said to possess characteristics of both. He does claim rather craftily that "I do not mistrust reality any more than I trust it: I seek it with an ardor that leads as it misleads" (67). However, Duncan’s allegiances can be most clearly found in his own words:
The very word "Romantic" is, in literary and social criticism today, pejorative. But it is in the Romantic vein—to which I see my own work as clearly belonging—that the two worlds...mythological vision and folklorish phantasy, are wedded in a phantasmagoria…the spiritual romance (38).
In a poetic culture where the reigning forces of recent tradition are Language writing and "Official Verse Culture," Duncan’s nomenclature for his aesthetic vision—the "mythological poet"—seems grossly out of step, as does his claim that "The surety of the myth for the poet has such force that it operates as a primary reality in itself, having volition" (21). In our times, where Duncan writes "myth," we might write "language" or "identity" or "experience," depending on our aesthetic bent, and thus his absolute devotion to the idea that myth "command[s] the design of the poem" perhaps explains why, formally, he has few inheritors aside from Mackey (21).
Habitually mixing the languages of Platonism, revealed religion and Romantic trope, referring casually to authors as diverse as Homer, Milton, Blake, H.D., and Jung, Duncan is a poet who can claim, without irony, "Idea, for me, is not something I have but something that comes to me or appears to me; as in Plato, a thing seen" (29), and I think it’s Duncan’s lack of irony about his vocation as well as the possibilities and functions of both imagination and language, that makes him most vulnerable to our postmodern distrust.
For he is, primarily, a religious poet—a comparative rarity among contemporary poets—who bypasses a purely Romantic reliance on "Imagination" to draw a direct correlative between divinity and formal experimentation: "The Divine Will in Poetry is Creative," he writes, "and its inspiration never single-minded or strait, but creates a field of meanings," a statement that gives a radically religious gloss to the idea of page as field, as well as to the title of his 1960 volume The Opening of the Field (68). Duncan argues not just for a religious sense of the poem, but that "It is the very idea that there is a miraculous grace ever about us, a mystery of person, that our modern critic refuses to allow" (35). Not much has changed, in that respect, since 1968.
And perhaps it is in contemporary "religious" poets of formal experiment as diverse as Nathaniel Mackey, Brenda Hillman and, most recently, D. A. Powell, that we witness not merely how history, imagination or myth make clear to us what Duncan calls "the scene revealed of what cannot be revealed," but how, as Duncan writes, "The heightened sense of myth versus history charges the poem with a moving counterpoint between what we see and what we do not see" (49). This vision, of course, depends on a belief in a world beyond the one seen, and it is in this belief where Duncan parts most clearly from mainstream postmodernity. Of the realms of reality available to us in poetry, however, it is perhaps true that Duncan’s is one of the most beautifully conceived and executed, a place where we "take seriously what seems to most men the one ground surely not to be taken seriously" (71).
Peter O’Leary. Gnostic Cantagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 200) p. 174.
Robert Duncan. The Truth & Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography (Fremont, MI: The Sumac Press, 1968).