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Duncan's 1960 volume, The Opening of the FieldA Black Mountain school
classic, or a Pegasus flight of a different color entirely?
Duncan, who died of liver failure in 1988 after a long and
productive career as a literatusnot in his case a term of
condescensionwas an enigma within the milieu of the poetry that he served, if to
many critics, little more than an incommunicative facilitator of that higher calling to
which he felt all poets should ultimately be brought. His writingsin verse and in
prose, and sometime in both at onceearned the epithets of arcane, hieratic, oracular
and occult as easily, it seemed at times, as many lesser poets become known, and even
celebrated, for being masters of the mundane, the obvious, and the banal. Indeed, his
style could almost be said to resemble that of the ancient Greek poet Pindarthe
third line of whose first Pythian Ode provided him with an initial line for a poem of his
ownhimself a minder of energies rooted in athleticisms deeper than mere muscle and
sinew. Dionysus of Helicarnassus, writing in Augustan Rome of one of Pindar's dithyrambs,
summarized its unique word-surge as follows:
These lines are vigorous, weighty and dignified, and are marked by much severity of
style. Though ragged, they are not unpleasantly so, and though harsh to the ear, are only
so in due measure. They are slow in their rhythm, and present broad effects of harmony;
and they exhibit, not the showy and decorative prettiness of our own day, but the severe
beauty of the distant past.
But such distinction stranded him with an audience which, by the 1950's, contained
mostly cranks, hierophants, and groupies late of either the Ezra Pound or Charles Olson
fan clubs. Which was unfortunate, since Duncan could, in moments of grace and with flashes
of superb articulation, attain a level of craftsmanship only a very few poets reach, as in
"Sonnet 4," from his 1968 volume, Bending the Bow:
He's given me his thee to keep,
secret, alone, in Love's name,
for what sake I have only in faith.
Where it is . . . ? How it is near . . . ?
I would recognize him by the way he walks.
But it was so long ago and I was never sure.
except in his regard and then
sure as the rose scattering its petals to prepare is sure
for the ripeness near to the perfection of the rose.
I would know the red thee of the enclosure
where thought too curls about, opens
out from, what's hid,
until it falls away, all the profuse allusion let go,
the rose-hip persistence of the truth hid therein from me
The cadence may be Whitmanian, but the forensic insistence on knowing, on
invoking gnosis to bring sense to a "thee" whose conciliating innerness
grants love in Love's name, is clearly Duncan's own. Though the ability to track the
erotic's perduring lilt (and liquefacient hesitancies) might seem to call out from every
line, it wasn't always so; and in all candor it must be admitted that a number of poems in
the 1960 collection fall considerably short of that purity of idiom and perception so
markedly present in the 4th and 5th
Sonnets that together form the portal to Bending the Bow.
Those that do measure up to their standard of excellence, or
closely approximate itsuch as the justly celebrated "A Poem Beginning With A
Line By Pindar" or the homage to Louis Zukofsky, "After Reading Barely and
Widely"enter the rather luxuriant zone of what fellow San Francisco poet
Kenneth Rexroth characterized as "a new dedicated personalism." This personalism
is in ways, he wrote, reflective of the international avant garde which includes
Mallarmé, Stein, Joyce or Reverdy, but not of it, since "'modernist' verse tends to
treat the work of art as purely self-sufficient, a construction rather than a
communication, [whereas] Duncan's poetry is about as personal as can be imagined. .
Duncan himself has remarked, as though to highlight what it is
that makes his approach to poetry "personal in a singular, even outriding sense:
"I make poetry as other men make war or make love or make states or revolutions: to
exercise my faculties at large." But put that way it sounds more self-indulgent and
egotistical than it perhaps should. The resolute shunning of persona in Duncan's verse
should tip the reader to the fact that his is an oeuvre in which the seamless
disseminations of self eclipse all prevarications attendant upon the wearing of a mask or
any of its psychological surrogates. The poet must be free to enact the "'princely
manipulations of the real'" (the citing of reality as always already
"quoted" in some archive or other of the Imagination is constantly adverted to
in Duncan) that release the "potencies in common things" without which vision
fades to simulacrum and desire to mere vulgar desideration.
He had to traverse a densely semantic expanse to reach the
"shores of light" spasmodically liberated in The Opening of the Field.
Earlier poems appearing in the City Lights edition of his Selected Poems of the
previous year are neither as crystalline in their spells nor as focused in their colloidal
alchemies as those of the later collection. The 1960 book opens out the numbered series of
visionary particle accelerations to which Duncan attached the name "Structure of
Rime," and he dropped, pretty much for ever, the more relentless of his pastiches of
the writings of H. D., growing out of an encompassing fascination with her almost mystical
immersion in Greece and the ancient world's cult of the Goddess, which, coincidentally or
not, was also an obsession of Ezra Pound's. (Not that these and similar acts of
"homage" entirely disappeared from his later verse. Rather, they were ushered
into a Duncanesque version of Cocteau's parallel universe ascribed to Orpheus, where by
entering a mirror reserved for the entombment of simulacra, they could, like all good
Freudian sublimations, endorse reality without compromising its "personalist"
To seize upon but one example of how the late '50s and early '60s
fundamentally altered Duncan's modus operandi as a poet: Duncan's characteristic
conscriptions of boy-love, while very much in evidence in such late '40's pieces as "The
Venice Poem: A Description of Venice," are a far cry from the achingly detailed
relief figures or "maps" that emerge so prominently in The Opening of the
Field. A sexually ambivalent haze, given a distinctly Romantic depth-of-field
reminiscent of every Venice praiser from Byron all the way to the early Pound, may hover
over these lines
The lions of Venice crouch
suppliant to the ringing in the air.
The bell tower of Saint Mark
shakes the gold of sound upon
the slumbering city. Gathering,
the bronze boy burns the blue of sky
with jewel blue eyes. The lions
crouch suppliant to
the ringing, burning blue.
He has a heavy head of dreams.
Wary tho he seems, his eye
is fixd upon the boy's eye,
as if he saw all love was frozen there
forming a central sapphire,
cruel and absolute. . .
Absent certain plangencies of the unrestrained erotic, this could almost have drifted
from the pages of Wallace Stevens's Transport to Summer or The Auroras of Autumn.
Though not blank verse, it seems, on reading, a fragmenting of blank verse into
slant-rhyming phrasal segments corresponding, within the ritualistic dimension
hypostasized by Duncan, to units of attention. But notice how in the third section of
"Crosses of Harmony and Disharmony from The Opening of the Field the
crossbeams of space and imagination transform these Venetian images into a soul-grid of
mutations and transmutations:
and from where I was saw
far below in time-swarm man hung
parenthesis . . . .
it have no earthly importance.
It is a proposition from which
time flows and takes on umbrage
ultimate things, trans-
mutations, crossings over,
the tremblings of love.
The texture of this incantational screed is then made to widen in order to incorporate
unattributed quotations and "word-imagos" meant to signify "crossed
barriers of consciousness":
"There is no impression of law or of lawlessness."
There was no law of Jesus then.
only a desire of savior,
man-gate of God,
a roar of the Holy Sea seeking
to take the place of placid potencies,
old orders . . .
From the very onset of his poetic career Duncan had juggled
the potencies of prophet and shaman, priest and avatar as a way of coming to terms with
the guarantors of his craft. Duncan, according to Ekbert Faas's book Young Robert
Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society (1983), had as early as 1940
seen fit to include in a manifesto launching the new journal Ritual a declaration
to the effect that this was to be a magazine
devoted to the dream, the ritual, the incantation, to the poet as prophet and priest,
to omens and fetishes, to the human and the metaphysical experience at its highest
intensity, to mysteries and enigmas, to the revelations of idiocy and of madness, both
simulated and pathological, to the confessional, to creation, to the double-vision of the
paranoic and the mumblings of the schizophrene.
And he went on to stipulate that "the bold new directions" to be pursued by Ritual
would necessarily involve
the whole task of discovering the mysteries of the body and the releasing of the soul
thru the nudeness of the physical, thru increasing honesty, thru rituals of experience
felt at its greatest intensity, the crossing of barriers of consciousness.
The nudeness of the physical was to become a mantra
that would haunt his poetry and fuel the quests of his personal life to the end of his
days. Lacking the freedom from censorship that anti-war activism and psychedelia would
later bring, the poems in The Opening of Field often had to settle for zoological
tropes of the physical whose nudeness had to be experienced homologically rather than
directly, as with the salmon called forth in "Poetry, A Natural Thing,"
Neither our vices nor our
further the poem. "They came up
just like they do every year
on the rocks."
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.
The salmon's beauty, Duncan writes, is "an inner persistence / toward the
source," a sign called forth "in the lateness of the world" by a primordial
undertow "from which the youngest world might spring." Rime in its
enstructurated mappings on the page brings forth similar signs, in their Alcibiadetic
youth and their mazy maturity. Ablaze with the prophetic mantle of Whitman and Blake,
Duncan's "The Structure of Rime II" tweaks the imagery of Egyptian and
Babylonian lore by way of energizing masteries of the soul through an enlivening of
music and measure. Asking "What of the Structure of Rime," the poet's query is
answered by three respondents, a "Messenger in the guise of a Lion," "a
lion without disguise," and "the Lion in the Zodiac." The first of these
roars, "Why does man retract his song from the impoverished air? He brings his
young to the opening of the field. Does he so fear beautiful compulsion?", which
in turn prompts the poet to reply: "I in the guise of a Lion roard out great vowels
and heard their amazing patterns." Then, when the same question is put again, the
second response is "An absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance
establishes measures that are music in the actual world," which is concludingly
followed by the reply of "the Lion in the Zodiac," to wit: "The actual
stars moving are music in the real world. This is the meaning of the music of the
spheres." Typical of Duncan's poetic at this stage, the poem leaves the reader in
state of mutable suggestibility, not being sure just how his prophetic bookishness,
reduced to cryptic formularies, is to be read.
As with so much that appears artistically unresolved in
Duncan's poetry, the way around his characteristic inconsistencies is more often that not
to be found in the writings of H. D., his muse and transsexual goddess of the private
aesthetic cult of which the poet himself was, and to the end of his days remained, sole
member. And it was probably this same membership in the cult of Imagism & High
Psychoanalytic, keyed to the poetess from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, whose interest in the
mysteries of Eleusis and elsewhere, lore which by the 1930's had largely been reclaimed
from theosophists like Blavatsky, Mathers, and Crowley by archeological anthropologists,
such as Jane Harrison of Cambridge University (herself a formidable doyenne of
rites Cybelean and Persephonic), that inoculated Duncan against the
"counter-gnosis" of the Black Mountain wing led by Robert Creeley, who flat out
disapproved any use of verse to map knowledge previously delved by other means.
"I write what I don't know," Creeley confided in his "Notes Apropos Free
Verse," taking his cue from what Charles Olson had said earlier in one of the
"open field" movement's most programmatic essays, "Projective Verse":
From the moment (a poet) ventures into FIELD COMPOSITIONputs himself in the
openhe can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for
itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces
just now beginning to be examined...
Duncan's Black Mountain track was from the beginning, however,
his own Black Mountain track, even if it often doubled back on itself in the course of
retracing the tractions of H. D. off-road vehicles like Helen in Egypt and Hermetic
Definition. It should not be forgotten that it was Duncan, and Duncan alone, among
this group of poets whose verse early on not only attracted the attention of such movers
and shakers as Clement Greenberg, Conrad Aiken and Wallace Stevens, but was actually praised
by them, despite his having drawn upon himself much negative publicity as a publicly
identified homosexual army volunteer in 1941. What he mostly drew from the lengthy
association he had with Olson, Creeley, and others was the sense that the poetic
implications of the idea (first voiced, ironically enough, not by any of the poets just
mentioned, but by one of the better known Beats, Allen Ginsberg) that "Mind is
shapely" could be milked, virtually ad infinitum, as a matrix for
generating "bodies" of text. This led Duncan to conduct the verse experiments
using actual elements of the process of arranging text on a printed page (already alluded
to above) which Michael Davidson pointedly describes in Ghostlier Demarcations (1997),
his study of how mutations in the "material word" (his term) have spurred
developments in certain strains of recent American verse. Zeroing in on these experiments
we can see more clearly how the shapeliness of Mind achieves congruence with the bodying
forth of Imagination by means of a Blakean dialectic in which desire transcends lust and
is permitted to return to its source in the Mother, the Goddess, or as she is referred to
in Creeley's poem "The Door" (which contains a dedication to Duncan), "the
Much of the lore Duncan appropriated from the Egyptian,
Greco-Roman, Celtic, and amour courtois traditions reflects strong ties not only to
the world of his personal muse H. D., but also to the mythohistorical peregrinations of
Ezra Poundsans that poet's consuming involvements with Fenollosan China and
other bric-à-brac culled from exemplary culs-de-sacs in and around the Italian
Renaissance. Duncan's unique take on all this material centers on his application of
Pound's "subject rhyme"a notion heavily indebted to Oswald Spengler's 1918
bestseller, The Decline of the Westto the "material" process
of verse composition. In Pound's Cantos the creations and obsessions of whole
historical periods "rhyme" and chime with one another, producing revitalizations
of traditions once thought lost and imagistic/Imagistic epiphanies born of one world
blending, melding, merging with another, or even several others, all at once within a
poetic consciousness whose ideogrammatic EKG is the poem. Duncan, however, shifts
the focus of Pound's original trope so as to see these "rhymes" or reoccurrences
not as "knots in the web or tissue" of history, but in that of
Rather than turning to synthetic modern theories like Spengler's
or Jung's to explain how Eros got lost in the maze of history and had to resort to
impersonating charismatics such as Christ and Saint Francis just to stay alive, Duncan
reverts to the pagan world of Heracleitos and Plutarch for his vision of the One as a
fluxion for all-encompassing Change. In having straddled two worlds, the Hellenic and the
Hellenistic, Plutarch saw things holistically and not as a statically constituted whole.
This remarkable outsider belonged to neither Greece nor Rome but to the Nous or
mind persisting as a kind of plasma linking the two. In his book Isis and Osiris
(which Duncan cites at length in his H. D.) Plutarch speaks of "the assertion
of Being," or God, as the "Thou art" that mortalizes the "im-mortality"
in the eternizing conceit that is Man. "The fact is," he writes, "that we
really have no part nor parcel in Being, but everything of a mortal nature is at some
stage between coming into existence and passing away." "He, [sic] being One, has
with only one 'Now' completely filled 'Forever'; and only when Being is after His pattern
is it in reality Being."
Duncan quotes this passage in the course of discussing H. D.'s
prose work Palimpsest (1925-26), which as part of a series that includes The
Hedgehog (1925), Narthex (1927), and Hedylus (1927), contributes to that
author's "own full presentation of a Hellenistic syncretism." Palimpsests are of
extreme importance to Duncan because they allow him to conceptualize the
"erasure" of Eros throughout a whole sequence of historical and cultural
"overwritings." "The image of a parchment from which one writing has been
erased to make room for another," he writes, again in H. D., "may also be
the image of an identity where one person has been erased to make room for another, a life
or lives erased to make room for another life." And further,
We think of the doctrine of reincarnation as an alien, heretic, or occult idea within
our Western civilization. There are many today, as always, who would dismiss such thought
of identity in a fiction as frivolous before the solidity of identity taken in the
character of a backbone. But that what once was has an objective existence in what is, is
a concept current in the thought of science and philosophy as well as in the possibly
vagrant imaginations of certain poets. Whitehead pictures the personal identity of a man
so, as "a matrix for all the transitions of life" that "is
changed and variously figured by things that enter it." "If we talk of the
tradition today," W. H. Auden writes, "we no longer mean what the
eighteenth century meant, a way of working handed down from one generation to the next; we
mean a consciousness of the whole of the past in the present."
By implication then, palimpsest as a concept interpenetrates the caul of
subjective life where in relatively superficial ways, "person" extends itself
into "personality" and the shrinkages of privacy become synonymous with
privation and the privileging (to fall back on a currently debased coinage) of the
"return of the repressed" over the possibilities for growth unleashed by
reading. And so, poetry, rightly/ritely handled, can return us to "a continuum of
human life in which our identity contains the past" and thus "find a new
dimension of personal life."
How such psychic overwritings emigrate into poetry is Duncan's
chief concern in both The Opening of the Field and his literarizing psychohistory
of H. D. Unable to follow her as blithely as he would have liked into
"classicism," he plays about its edges, not at all hopelessly out of love with
its antagonist, Romanticism, but rather looking for the ways and means by which he might
see one as the overwriting of the other. "H. D.'s classicism," Duncan believes,
is like that of Plutarch and Philo Judaeus where she sees her own time as "Alexandria"
and her lyricism is dramatic not personal where Shakespeare and Browning are her "masters."
The writer "daring to discard his personality" not only follows a
tradition but is created in it; he may take on personality now as an actor does from the
theater. The idea of generating masters or fathers casting a stamp or mould upon
generations of spiritsthe idea Imagists had of expressing their generation or
timeis related to older religious concepts of reincarnation: the metempsychosis
or transmigration of soul, the metangismos or transfusion, the pouring of soul from
one body into another, of the Greeks, or the gilgul of the Hebrews, in the
Alexandrian world. But it is also here the author of the play giving the actors their
The "here" to which Duncan refers is the context within which H. D., in a
review of Charlotte Mew's The Farmer's Bride in 1916, articulates a central notion
for her generation, namely that "the dramatic poem is Browning, and Browning the
dramatic poem" (italics Duncan's). H. D. had spoken in her review of the
"perverse delight" the "most 'original' among us may take . . . in finding
a new writer to follow," even one requiring that we "discard [our]
personality" to do so.
Of course the road leading from Browning to Pound,
H. D., and to
Duncan himself has been well paved by the goodand, let's face it, not so
goodintentions of modernist and postmodernist literary theory. "The
consciousness of some seems to rest or to have its center more properly, in what the Greek
psychologists called the phantastikon," Duncan quotes Pound as saying in his Psychology
and Troubadours. "Their minds are, that is, circumvolved about them like soap-bubbles
reflecting sundry patches of the macrocosmos." "So the persons and the
images of [H. D.'s] Palimpsest work within each other, as the sequence of times is
a set of interworkings," Duncan writes, this time in propria persona.
"The palimpsest is not only that of image beneath image or person beneath person, but
of time beneath time. . ."
How all this translates into the sort of poems found in The
Opening of the Field is not always easy to fathom. Perhaps a path toward such
fathoming might best be cleared by reverting to the fount of Duncan's imaginings along
these lines, his "Structure of Rime I":
I ask the unyielding Sentence
that shows Itself forth in the
language as I make it,
Speak! For I name myself your
master, who come to
Writing is first a search in
There is a woman who resembles the sentence. She has a place in
memory that moves language. Her voice comes across the waters
from a shore I don't know to a shore I know, and is translated
into words belonging to the poem:
Have heart, the text reads,
you that were
Suffering joy or despair
you will suffer the sentence
a law of words moving
seeking their right period.
Now, just what is going on here? The "woman" invoked here is said to
"resemble the sentence" which may or may not be the same as the capitalized
entity alluded to in the poem's first line. Presumably (although with Duncan we can never
be absolutely sure), the "unyielding Sentence that shows Itself forth in the /
language as I make it" is co-extensive, not to mention identical, with the
sentence we have before us and are reading on the printed page. The sentenceor
Sentenceis being asked (ordered?) to "Speak!" by him who declares himself
its master, though he "comes[s] to serve" in keeping with the stated injunction,
"Writing is first a search in obedience."
The order of words making up that injunction is of capital
importance because it represents a subtle "overwriting" of the premise regarding
obedience contained within the injunction itself. A palimpsest is necessarily
"obedient" to its own self-defining exigency of one reality ultimately having to
overwrite another in order to assure viability to both the text above and all of the
under- or subtexts it occludes and supersedes. The woman (whodoes it need to be
said?is the Goddess or Lady we spoke of earlier), has, we are further told, "a
place in memory that moves language," that in effect causes the sentence that is
Duncan's poem to move along, to coalesce with memory and enter language. Her words
are in fact "translated into words belonging to the poem," and as well sublate,
to import a Hegelian term into the discussion, the text of the poem in which "the
text reads" Have heart, the text reads" . . . , ad infinitum, as
it were, until the reader (who by now realizes he is one with the "I " speaking
Duncan's poem) ends up "suffer[ing] the sentence" in a manner so pointedly
self-inscriptive as to cause images along the lines of the infernal machine unleashed in
Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" to rise up and threaten him.
This then is followed by further infoldings of the vision in
which the "woman who resembles the sentence" orders the poet-dreamer to awaken:
I saw a snake-like beauty in the living changes of syntax.
Wake up, she cried.
Jacob wrestled with
Sleepyou who fall into Nothingness
and dread sleep.
He wrestled with Sleep like a man
reading a strong
I will not take the actual world for granted, I said.
Why not? she replied.
Do I not withhold the song of
birds from you?
Do I not withhold the penetration
of red from you?
Do I not withhold the weight of
mountains from you?
Do I not withhold the hearts of men
I alone long for your demand.
I alone measure your desire.
A demanding Muse, she must be served. Not among the crowds of communal existence, but
along the arteries of syntax where the real bondage rites binding celebrant to Shekinah
are played out. But the poet refuses to relinquish the "actual world" by
"taking it for granted," whatever the risk of incurring nemesis. For Duncan not
even the incomparable thrill shared with Jacob of wrestling with an angel is worth its
sacrifice, and not even if it further means having to play Job in that familiar scene in
which the puniness of Job's human intelligence is contrasted with the world-engendering
genius that is the Lord's. "I alone long for your demand / I alone measure your
desire," she tells the poet, this being another, penetratingly cogent way of
reminding him the choice may not ultimately be his to make. His vocation enjoins him to
follow his calling, to be on call, no matter what is required of him. He is wholly
willing, he tells her, to submit to her insistences, to the sentence of the Sentence, as
it were, because she is the "Lasting Sentence" in whose image he makes
"sentence after sentence." Indeed, he assures her, "In the feet that /
measure the dance of my pages I hear cosmic intoxications of the / man I will be."
But the worm turns yet again, and the voice of Divine Syntax
upbraids him for his feeble attempts at deceit:
Cheat at this game? she cries.
The world is what you are.
so I can see you, a fierce destroyer of images.
Will you drive me to madness
only there to know me?
vomiting images into the place of the Law!
Just as language entails a war between intention and meaning, between words and their
thing-y simulacra, being a poet locked inside the Sentence that is half implacable destiny
and half the service of a troubadour to a Lady (not unlike Bertrans de Born's Maent in
Pound's "Near Perigord") seems to the "I" of Duncan's poem to resemble
nothing so much as being besieged. And like many such sieges, of Bertrans de Born's time
and later, it is persisted in over a long period of time, or in this case an extensive
course of poems, all with the title "Structure of Rime," that by the year Bending
the Bow was published,1968, already numbered "XXV." The Opening of the
Field contains the first thirteen of these, and by "XI" the prophetic
opacity has thinned to a sexually recollective veneer and the poetry to conscriptively
There are memories everywhere then. Rememberd, we go
out, as in the first poem, upon the sea at nightto the drifting.
Of my first lover there is a boat drifting. The oars have been cast
down into the shell. As if this were no water but a wall, there is
a repeated knock as of hollow against hollow, wood against
wood. Stopping to knock on wood against the traps of the night-
fishers, I hear before my knocking the sound of a knock drifting. . .
Though technically "prose," such writing is cleverly cadenced so that its
distribution of stresses avoids those of accentual verse and pits eye against ear in a
welter of impressions that refuses adamantly to be sorted into particularized parcels. The
All night a boat swings as if to sink. Weight returning to weight
in the cold water. A hotel room returns from Wilmington into
morning. A boat sets out without boatmen into twenty years of
The hotel room returning "from Wilmington into morning" floats on a
syntactical illogic reminiscent of Einstein's insistence that the time of his arrival by
rail at the Institute for Advanced Study would be when Princeton stopped at his train. Via
an ellipsis bracketing time lost within time regained Duncan manages to encapsulate the
manner in which memory swallows the live interconnectedness that sensible objects have
with what roots them psychologically to a specific time and place. We remember escarpments
of scene, we do not recapture whole cliffsides of experience. Even in the throes of love
(or Love), all such hand- or footholds are denied us, and Duncan's tactical enlistment of
formulaewater, boat, wharfreminds us that when cast back upon the synecdoches
of desire, it is the meaning of an experience that drains away first. The shards of
sensual frisson into which raw experience quickly fragments may accumulate in a
person over the years like the mental equivalent of kidney stones, but the retrospective
summoning of these shards can still raise an erection, even after decades of burial, in
all but the incurably impotent.
What makes all of this pertinent to Duncan's compositional
concerns in The Opening of the Field is that the structures of rime re-enact love's
inseparability from those dwellings within syntax that are synonymous with the making of
poems. For this poet, to versify is to love and to love is to know the versification of
desire and its spectrum of possible fulfillment so long as any poem lasts. Though
persisting within the (upper case) Sentence is co-extensive with life itself, the poet
(whose role as warrior for the Lady Who Waits resembles Wagner's Siegmund, caught in the
moralizing toils of Fricka) must interpret as he can the glyphs of beauty that desire
strews across his path. The poem is the sole arena in which this hermeneutical agon
occurs and to which the poet must return, again and again, to reclaim his Orphic
The devil of record in The Opening of the Field,
however, is in the details of some of the longer poems filling out the volume"A
Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," for instance, or "The Propositions,"
or "After Reading Barely and Widely." Duncan doesn't merely come alive in
these lengthier efforts, he broods grandiloquently over deeps at least as ambitiously
profound as Whitman's in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," if somewhat more
open to charges of unfathomability.
The most often anthologized of these, "A Poem Beginning with
a Line by Pindar," seizes upon a dithyrambic fragment "The light foot
hears you and the brightness begins" from a 5th
Century B. C. poem by ancient Greece's most famous laureate of athletic prowess and
youthful male beauty, Pindar. It then ranges over a multitude of themes as it plays on the
line in question's ambiguous H. D.-like contextuality throughout its four segments. These
themes include the horizon of ambiguity that expands beyond the line's innocence to
enshroud boy-love with a cover of darkness: "god-step at the margins of thought, /
quick adulterous tread at the heart." The first part of the poem, in causing to swim
into focus a famous painting by Francisco Goya of Cupid and Psyche, lays down the
coordinates of lust on whose grid Duncan will later oppose Keatsian orders of beauty and
truth (through associations with that poet's "Ode on a Grecian Urn") to
countervailing disorders adduced in the accidentals of the painting:
But they [Cupid and Psyche] are
not in a landscape.
They exist in an obscurity.
The wind spreading the sail serves them.
The two jealous sisters eager for her ruin
That she is ignorant, ignorant of what Love will be,
The dark serves them. . . .
The two principals, we are told, "have a hurt voluptuous grace / bruised by
redemption." Cupid's desirability flies out to Psyche like a panoply of wings that in
Goya's canvas he specifically does not possess. ("He is not wingd," Duncan
reminds us.) Both are awash in "Waves of visual pleasure" that "wrap them
in a sorrow previous to their impatience" and that reduce not to a mere patina of
sexual longing, but to "A bronze of yearning, a rose that burns / the tips of their
bodies, lips, / ends of fingers, nipples." The figural layout then parts and spreads:
"His [Cupid's] thighs are flesh, are clouds / lit by the sun in its going down, / hot
luminescence at the loins of the visible"; but here even the luminescence of the
language proves impotent against the unresolvability that is the ironic treadmill of great
arta treadmill not unlike that on which the lovers in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian
Urn" are caught as they forever chase those lovely and unseizable things of youth
that are themselves. Goya's two precocities of voluptas are also caught on an
eternal loom where "Fate, spinning, / knots the threads of Love." And this knot
will prove stronger than its errant, arrant threads, for "Jealousy, ignorance, the
hurt . . . serve them." Duncan's point is that Love is capable of conscripting any
impediment into its service, the material confirmation of which is his use of the ellipsis
indicating that the "structure of rime" will hold through any crosswind, any
wobbling of resolution's pivot.
There is another famous Romantic poem that plays into this
knotting of myth and language. It is Keats's "Ode to Psyche," in which the poet
addresses a goddess of his own invention, one which has been variously interpreted by
critics as a type of the inner life, the "inner life-in-love," or "the
internalized quest turned outward again by the impulse of sharing." Some might claim
that in "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar" Duncan, like Keats in his Ode
of April-May 1819, both sent forth into the world a "manifesto of the
Imagination" and embarked upon the composition of his major poetry. The problem with
that hypothesis is that Duncan rather muddied the romantic program of his poem with the
concerns introduced in its three remaining parts. Effecting a disaffected swerve into Cantos
territory, Duncan finds (as did Pound) little at the top of the last hundred years of
American governance beyond toupées and addled brainsand of course corruption:
great, greater, greatest, the nearer to its heart of darkness one draws.
The Thundermakers descend,
Damaging a nuv. A nerb.
The present dented of the U
nighted stayd. States. The heavy clod?
Cloud. Invades the brain. What
if lilacs last in this
Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower
where among these did the power reside
that moves the heart? What flower of the nation
bride-sweet broke to the whole rapture?
Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson
hear the factories of human misery turing out commodities. . . .
The blighting of Eros super-posed to the commodification of
libido, which is merely the Manure Pile's distinctly American way of eroticizing blight,
the preferred buzz of the bluebottle over the disembodied limbs and detached genitalia
threnodied by Whitman in the Civil War. Keats becoming Whitman, becoming "idiots
fumbling at the bride's door, / [who] hear the cries of men in meaningless debt and
war." The synopticon pours its elixir of images out indiscriminately where history
rots on the dump of the sublime.
McKinley, Cleveland, Harrison, Arthur,
Garfield, Hayes, Grant, Johnson,
dwell in the roots of the heart's rancor.
How sad "amid lanes and through old woods"
echoes Whitman's love for Lincoln!
"The heart's rancor" was what Pound sought to avoid
in the cage at Pisa, at the end of another war. He and his Pisan Cantos are invoked
in Part III (dedicated to Charles Olson), where "Psyche's tasksthe sorting of
seeds . . .every grain / in its right place / before nightfall" must give way
to despair, and she must be brought, as the myth dictates, "to her insect instructor;
/ must obey the counsels of the green reed . . ." The story of her nearly narcotic
dedication to her task, and its re-enactment in the U.S. Military Compound
in Pisa in 1945, glows, for Duncan, with the encrusted aura of a revivified myth. Pound is
Psyche, is the Imagination in extremis, having to "follow to
the letter / freakish instructions" from a "tower" that also saves her from
suicide. "In the story the ants help"; the seeds find their place in the order
of things through their industriousness and grace of labor:
. . . The old man at Pisa
mixd in whose mind
(to draw the sorts) are all seeds
as a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
had part restored by and insect, was
upheld by a lizard
(to draw the sorts)
the wind is part of the process
defines a nation of the wind
In "Canto LXXIV" it is rain that "also is of the process," which
inspired the imprisoned poet, having been clearly inoculated by this time with/against?
the Reverend Mr. Eliot's Four Quartets, to remonstrate againstcertainly not
fall in withthe recycled Nirvana-nostrums of yesteryear's friend:
What you depart from is not the way
and olive tree blown white in the wind
washed in the Kiang and Han
what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
Duncan found his own acquest of candor in "stubborn hymns going up / into the
ramifications of the hostile air," hymns capable of furnishing, like that of the 5th
Century B.C. Greek poet, a grain of sand able to irritate the oyster of poetic imagination
into secreting a pearl like "Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." Near the end
of its final fourth section he explains, in an unclosed parenthesis, how as a poem it came
(An ode? Pindar's art, the editors tell us, was not a statue but a mosaic, an
accumulation of metaphor. But if he was archaic, not classic, a survival of obsolete mode,
there may have been old voices in the survival that directed the heart. So, a line from a
hymn came in a novel I was reading to help me. Psyche, poised to leapand Pindar too,
the editors write, goes too far, topples overlistend to a tower that said, Listen
to me! The oracle had said, Despair! The Gods themselves abhor his power. And
then the virgin flower of the dark falls back flesh of our flesh from which everywhere . .
the information flows
that is yearning. A line of Pindar
moves from the area of my lamp
toward morning. . . .
And what of that line? Duncan mentions in "The Truth
& Life of Myth" that its sense arrived for him in discrete nocturnal emissions of
aphibologia, causing him to experience a senseless almost aphasiac in its giddiness:
When in the inception of "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," reading
late at night the third line of the first Pythian Ode in the translation by Wade-Gery and
Bowra, my mind lost the hold of Pindar's sense and was faced with certain puns, so that
the words light, foot, hears, you, brightness, begins moved in a world beyond my
reading. These were no longer words alone but also powers in a theogony, having resonances
in Hesiodic and Orphic cosmogonies where the foot that moves in the dance of the poem
appears as the pulse of measures in first things.
Does this ultimately affect the poem's value or how we read
it? Not appreciably, if at all; but it does unquestionably riffle the blowsy pall that at
times descends on Duncan's writing, with its Madame Sosostris air of theosophistry and
channeled truths. But the same pall, if somewhat more chi-chi, hangs over James
Merrill's work when it took to introducing outré boreds to ouija boards.
Which raises the question of the kind of esteem in which, 40
years further on, The Opening of the Field should be held. Beyond its several
anthology pieces, it marks a plateau in Duncan's long climb toward self-identity as a
poet. After various unsuccessful attempts to mould conventional verse orders to his molten
purpose he could claim, with the publication of this book, that an important visionary
savannah had been crossed and some necessary lions braved in their psychometric dens.
Among the latter was the sensitive issue of homosexualitythe poet's own and the need
to permit its emergence as a motivating agency in his and other writers' work. Duncan was
way ahead of the Stonewall movement that was to do to subterranean gay culture everything
Susan Sontag had so elaborately done for it in her "Notes on 'Camp'" of
the early '60s. No Boys in the Band crying-in-one's-Montrachet was to be
countenanced in any piece of writing Duncan signed his name to. If the world of the old
Broadway musical was to persist in any form it would have to embrace "Boy wins Eros,
boy loses Eros, boy gets Eros back"big time, with all archetypal cylinders
clicking and turning over. If anything, The Opening of the Field trips over its own
determinedly shouted honesty, its own insistence on candor at any cost. On occasion its
rime suffers an unraveling when the unmusical question is asked, What happens when a poem
exceeds its own fff top and is left with no place to go for an encore? Then, the
coming down seems more painful than any of the contortions endured erecting the
penetralium such poetry was meant to house.
But Duncan seems not to have given this much thought. Secure in
his stabilizations of the period he would go on to keener and brighter things. Certainly
the poems in Roots and Branches and Bending the Bowundoubtedly the
finest of his published worksgo on to concretize and crystallize in the face of
deepening war in South-east Asia some abstractions only hinted at earlier:
"Passages," or sites in which our "composure is interrupted," where
"images come to fit we cannot account for""junctures in the music
that [appear] discordant," emerge alongside "Structure of Rime" sequences
in Bending the Bow, propelling the poetics tempered in the mid-'60s forward.
But no matter how enthusiastic one waxes about a book like The
Opening of the Field, how fervently one exults in its shocktroop eclecticism (how many
poets yoke Keats and Gertrude Stein heterogeneously together, or prop Blake and Lawrence
up with dollops of H. D.'s hyper-Hellenics, Laura Riding and the White Goddess?); its
Wagnerian monodrama of visionary good versus homophobic evil; and its elevation of
prophecy as the Host of progressive politics at a time when Eisenhowerese reigned as both
lingua franca at home and the Esperanto of Pax Americana abroadno matter how
much one might exult in any or all of these as stilts necessary and desirable for American
poets to walk upon, one is still left wondering if a little Duncan doesn't go a very long
way. After all, for those who turn to books like A Vision for permission to have
one, there is always Yeats; and for those who hunger for relations with the Lurianic
Gematriarch, Shekkinah, in their lives, or for the non-Hebraic version of mumbo jumbo
bunched together at Graves-end, there is alwayswell, Robert Graves, or San Juan de
la Cruz, or some Juan else, at some other winter solstice. So, is there anything then for
which, despite all cavils, one must turn to Duncan's poetry because, quite simply, it is
to be found nowhere else? Yes: there is something, something which, regardless of one's
sexual orientation, one can see surviving the extremities, no less than the enormities, of
bad faith, bad feeling, and yes, bad verse. It is indeed there in Duncan, though not yet
in The Opening of the Field. It brims over in Sonnets 4 and 5, found in the opening
pages of Bending the Bowthe real thing, as Henry James once said, at last.
And here it is, in its entirety, the irreplaceable mate to the 4th Sonnet (already cited at the beginning of this essay), from Duncan's
amazing series of five sonnets, his final one,
Love too delighting in His numbers
keeps time so that our feet
dance to be true to the count,
repeating the hesitation, the
slight bow to His will in each change,
the giving up, His syncopation,
the receiving an other
You were not there,
but in love with you I danced
this round, my feet
willingly sped to its numbers,
my glance wed to the glance exchanged,
for the design's sake,
in Love's calling. As if
in the exchange of lives,
that music that most moves us,
unknowing and true to what
I do not know, where other
lovers in intermingling figures
come and go, there were a constant
First Caller of the Dance
Who moves me, First Partner, He
you are most you.