Showing posts with label Robert Duncan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Duncan. Show all posts

Monday, June 01, 2015

A celebration of

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

@ the University of Warwick


Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Jess’ portrait of Robert Duncan:
The Enamored Mage

Monday, December 06, 2010

At the Poetry Center 1957, L-R: Ida Hodes, Jack Spicer, Ruth Witt-Diamant, Robert Duncan

In 1974, John Taggart asked me for an essay for an issue of Maps dedicated to the work of Robert Duncan. I chose to do a close reading of the first poems of Duncan’s now-classic Opening of the Field where I suggested that Duncan set them out as an argument from which to mount the large, unnamed Life Work that began with these poems. Later today, I will be participating in Penn’s Poetry in 1960 symposium, and will allude to this piece, tho not read from it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Left to right: Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Ruth Witt Diamant,
San Francisco State University 1958


This is a test. I want to see if I can use an online program entitled Writely to write a note in lieu of doing my first draft in Microsoft Word, then having to do a lot of HTML-patching in the Blogger editing tool before I post it. Just the idea of being able to get away from a Microsoft Office product is sufficient motivation. I've already converted from Outlook to Gmail &, at least for now, Yahoo mail as well.1 One problem that I see right off the bat is that the program doesn't offer a "print view" or "page view" version of the screen, a device I use to get a visual sense of how text will appear before I try loading it into Blogger.

All of which makes me think of the problems of platforms and electronic publishing in general. I've been mulling the subject some already over the past few days, ever since I downloaded the tenth issue of W, the literary mag of the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver. As you will notice if you download W, the publication is in Adobe Acrobat's PDF file format. That makes it portable - you can read it offline - and ensures that the look of it will be consistent across operating systems, an important consideration for some of the poems included in the 116-page issue, especially those by Leslie Scalapino & Jordan Scott, texts that take explicit advantage of the page's spatial potential. W (dix) is subtitled a Duncan Delirium and seven of the ten features are either explicitly by or about Duncan or by authors, such as Peter O'Leary & Lisa Jarnot who are closely aligned with an emerging "Duncan industry" that is only just now starting to take wing in the academy. The three remaining contributions, by Scalapino, Scott & Kim Duff, are all poems clearly in the spirit of Duncan's own work. For a journal that neglects to list any of its editors, W is remarkably well put together. For those of us who care about Duncan's work, this issue is a great gift.

But. Always with the buts here at Silliman's Blog, never the glass half full. One wonders just what percentage of people who visit the Kootenay site actually download the file &, even more, what percentage of those who download it then sit down & read the thing. It can of course be loaded online, but PDF through the filter of a browser is a great way of slowing down even a souped-up PC. Adobe doesn't help itself any with its basically gray formatting of viewing screen, perhaps the dullest & most boring presentation of any major software program out there -- I'm sure that they must think of it as "neutral." And it's true that in the corporate world, PDF files tend to have a lot of color. But most web publishers involved in poetry appear to follow the metaphor of the physical book, treating the cover as an opportunity to invoke color, but leaving everything else black & white. The folks at W go one step further. It consists of the five words in the issue's title, the school's (new) address & contact data & the Kootenay logo, the silhouette of what appears to be a bear (tho, in fact, it could be a woodchuck or some similar woodsy rodent as well - it's hard to say).

The result is that W (dix) is a terrific issue, but one likely to be read only by those who already know they're serious in thinking about Duncan, and in thinking about people who think about Duncan. I wonder just how many more readers this issue might have if it were run as a feature within, say, Jacket. Case in point: a quick search of my own hard drive turns up 1152 PDF files, perhaps half of which involve poetry & poetics, with the other half all over the place - the September 11th Commission report, Hardt & Negri's Empire, stuff I've done for my day job, documentation for software, the grand jury report on the cover-up of sexual abuse by the Philadelphia archdiocese for the past several decades. But do I ever, ever, scan through all these files the way one sometimes scans a book case looking for something interesting to read? Have I ever done that even once? Not even in the manner with which I've been known with a journal like Jacket or How2 to just scroll around & see what's there.

No, PDF publication is publishing in the technical sense only. It's really more like the small press publisher - I've had more than one of these - who thinks having a box of books in his or her garage means that the volume is published. And has no clue about the mechanics of distribution. Not that HTML publishing is perfect by any means - it exposes just how little some people know about graphic design & it too requires marketing, missives to the Listservs, etc. But I suspect that the chances of an HTML page being read must be about ten times what is ever likely to happen to an Acrobat file. In a way, PDF publication is not unlike the situation one finds in certain branches of the academy, where a book that is typed (versus typeset) can be "issued" at a cost exceeding $100 with the expectation that a certain number of professional libraries will still be compelled to buy the volume. It's there on the shelves for sourcing something should anyone track it down, but will it ever be read? Sigh.

So let me admonish you that this issue of W is worth the extra time & effort, that Duncan's talk on a "life in poetry," from the Vancouver festival of 1963 is absolutely fascinating, as is Pauline Buntling's memoir of Duncan's visits to Vancouver, that Leonard Schwartz, Stephen Collis & Miriam Nichols all add measurably to the critical work now starting to build up around Duncan, and that some of the poetry here (Scalapino, O'Leary, Jarnot) is first rate indeed. But you'll have to work to read it.²


1Yahoo is in the process of beta testing a new version of its mail program currently. It looks - and behaves - far too much like Outlook for me. Its output in "plain text" mode caused lots of hexadecimal garbage insertions when I tried using it to post to Listservs. Even there, however, it refuses to create truly plain text apostrophes, which leads me to some interesting wordings for posting a note to a listserv. Gmail, tho, is even worse in this regard. So I will continue using the current "old" Yahoo mail program until they rip it from my cold, dead fingers. Or something to that effect.

² As it turns out, I had to convert the Writely file into Word in order to get it to format properly. That might be something I could learn over time, but it’s not immediately obvious.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


The differences between Robert Duncan’s A Selected Prose, edited after his death by Robert Bertholf, published in 1995, & Duncan’s earlier Fictive Certainties, which Duncan edited just ten years earlier, are instructive.


The twenty essays included in A Selected Prose are focused not just on the literary, but on a particular aspect of the literary. It is primarily a record of Duncan as a member of the San Francisco Renaissance. With only two exceptions, the selections either rise out of that experience as statements of poetics and/or theory, or involve a closer look at writers of interest to a New American (Whitman, Pound, Moore, H.D., Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, Levertov, Spicer, Bev Dahlen) or visual artists associated with the West Coast funk art trends of that same period (Jess, George Herms, Wallace Berman). The two exceptions are “The Homosexual in Society,” Duncan’s famous statement of 1944 that appeared in the first issue of the journal Politics (tho the expanded version here first was published in the rather more august Jimmy & Lucy’s House of K) – historically an important text in the history of gay freedom in this society – and a late look at the work of Edmond Jabès. One might say that this is the Robert Duncan a reader might expect from the pages of the Allen anthology. Save for the piece on Jabès, all of the issues addressed in this volume were available for discussion in the U.S. in the 1950s.


The thirteen pieces Duncan gathered for Fictive Certainties are longer and, for the most part, more theoretical. Only three pieces appear in both books: “Towards an Open Universe,” “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” & “Changing Perspectives in Reading Whitman.” One might fairly say that the first two of these essays are the only theory-focused works in A Selected Prose. In Fictive Certainties, they appear instead as relatively minor statements when placed up against this volumes opening work, “The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography,” which outside of The H.D. Book, is the longest sustained prose work Duncan was ever to write. The Duncan of Fictive Certainties is actually a very different writer than that of A Selected Prose. Certainties has only two reviews of poets either in Duncan’s age cohort or younger: Olson & the philosophically minded John Taggart. Further, there are several pieces in Certainties that reflect an interest in the changing trends in theory itself: “Poetry Before Language,” a work that might be read both as an anticipation of Derrida and as a statement of language as a mystical experience; “The Self in Postmodern Poetry;” and “Kopóltuš: Notes on Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology.” This is a Duncan for the Age of Theory, intellectually far broader & more aggressive than the one we find in A Selected Prose.


Since I have argued that the “structure” of Duncan’s great prose poem sequence, The Structure of Rime, is in fact the same term we find first in structuralism – the intellectual tendency that can be traced back through Roland Barthes, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, linguist Roman Jacobson & others ultimately to the Russian Formalists, the piece on Barthes is worth examining a little more closely. Like any Duncan prose work whose title includes the term “notes,” this isn’t going to be an orderly, academic march through the traditional expository stations.


The difficulties start right away, with the title, Kopóltuš. It’s not a word you have ever heard before. You can’t find it in the OED, indeed, according to Google, there is no mention of it anywhere on the internet, with or without diacritical marks.¹ It would appear to be a neologism.


This is followed with an epigram from Barthes’ essay:


“images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment . . . [as] systems of signification”


At which moment Duncan begins by raising the question of naming.


Individualizing (naming) a group of three objects in a certain light, involving red, yellow and cerulean, the equilibration of the members of the group having a certain feel (this arrangement feels "in key") reveals that other elements we do not admit to seeing are present in what we see. We call the complex association of all these (an it) – we call it a kopóltuš (“it is a kopóltuš”), or we may say of the group “it is significant.” (Jess asks if kopóltuš made me think of “poultice” or “cold poultice.”)


Indeed, naming – the rightness or inherent nature of names – is precisely “Kopóltuš’” subject. It’s an intriguing question have been invoked by somebody who was born as Edward Howard Duncan & then raised by adoptive parents as Edward Howard Symmes, taking the name Robert & joining it to Duncan only after he was discharged from the army in 1941.²


How do names mean? Especially complex or abstract ones:


This is a work of art, we say. This is not a work of art. This is a kopóltuš. “Does your key feeling agree with my feeling” does not mean “Is your feeling like mine” but “Does your feel that this is a kopóltuš agree with mine?” No, it is not a Picasso. We agree that we like Picasso, but he is referring to a Picasso I don’t much like; I am referring with praise to a Picasso which he thinks is poor. I am sure this is a Picasso (we can check it out as to whether Picasso actually painted it); he is sure it is not a Picasso (but does it look like a Picasso to him, where he has some knowledge that it was forged; or does he recognize that it is a Braque?). Was this forged Picasso forged by X or Y? This is a Y pseudo-Picasso. This pseudo-Picasso is a genuine Y, who is so skillful at imitating that you cannot tell it from a Picasso. I can’t tell it from a Picasso but it might be Braque. It isn’t a kopóltuš tho, tho it looks like one, it doesn’t feel right. A kopóltuš is not a look but the feel of a look.


We no longer dealing with Barthes here, at least not directly. Instead Duncan has wandered deep into the weeds of that briar patch called Philosophical Investigations. I don’t know – and it’s certainly not apparent from reading Fictive Certainties, Selected Prose or The H.D. Book just how much 20th century philosophy Duncan read, or how widely. Dewey & Whitehead are the only ones mentioned by name in The H.D. Book, unless one adds Walter Benjamin’s friend, Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish Mysticism. To my knowledge, Duncan never mentions Wittgenstein anywhere in print, let alone the tension between Wittgenstein Early & Wittgenstein Late. Yet the piece on Barthes here & the one on Jabès in Selected Prose give at least some sense that Duncan was aware of the changes in critical thinking that were occurring in the 1960s & ‘70s, in which philosophy as a discipline, especially continental philosophy, was hardly a dispassionate bystander.


The problem for Duncan is exactly that. The implicit premise of the H.D. Book, its promise, at least at the outset, is that Duncan will somehow be able to show how theosophy – or at least his theosophy, focusing on the lost & the hidden now as a spiritual or mystic dimension – will somehow solve critical thought, everything that might be captured under that telling rubric Structure. Kopóltuš, in this sense, is precisely what would give voice to that which Wittgenstein says must be passed over in silence in the seventh & final master sentence of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.


Yet Duncan returns again to Barthes directly, quoting:


It is true that objects, images and patterns of behavior can signify, and do so on a large scale, but never autonomously; every semiological system has its linguistic admixture.³


But if things – including names – are not autonomous, if they mean only differentially, if meaning itself is inherently differential, the way the phoneme p differs from the phoneme b, then the whole of the magical world – the world at the heart of all religions, including that secret religion of all religions, theosophy – disappears. Duncan understands the problem at once:


The artist of the kopóltuš said, “It spoke to me.” A theory and practice of magical art may enter into this event, or, not having existed before, may follow in its wake. The artist assembling and arranging objects towards some aesthetic satisfaction happens upon a set that “speaks to him,” a telling arrangement. What does it say? In the Book we read a Burning Bush spoke to him and said, “I AM,” and we read also that Yahweh, also called “God,” spoke out of the Burning Bush. The Bush did not then, autonomously, announce its own being. The “I” was some One else.


Only those who have never read Rimbaud will not hear the allusion in that last sentence. This is the moment that Duncan cannot solve, at least not directly, so he turns instead to a dream in which the painter R.B. Kitaj appears. They touch, temple and cheek “exactly fitted in.” This leads Duncan to the following sentence (which I’m going to delineate, to air out, for the sake of readability):


The figure of the jig-saw

that is of picture,

the representation of a world as ours
in a complex patterning of color in light and shadows,

masses with hints of densities and distances,

cut across by a second, discrete pattern

in which we perceive on qualities of fitting and not fitting

and suggestions of rime

in ways of fitting and not fitting –

this jig-saw conformation of patterns

of different orders,

of a pattern of apparent reality

in which the picture we are working to bring out appears

and of a pattern of loss and of finding

that so compels us that we are entirely engrosst in working it out,

this picture that must be put together

takes over mere seeing.


The master verb phrase – takes over – does not occur until the 117th & 118th words of this serpentine sentence. Here the image Duncan offers as an allegory for structure lies less in the radical distinction between deep structure & surface appearance, but rather twin orders inhabiting the same space & time. The leap Duncan here offers is difference itself: fitting & not fitting, of loss & of finding, a gap we perceive not directly but through suggestions of rime. Yet once the picture itself – the referential world, the realm of signifieds, we bask – or so Duncan presents him and his dream Kitaj in the process of doing – in the pure presence of immanence itself.


The moment itself seems to click into place, the lines of it so perfectly joining present contributing to but overwhelmed by the unalterable establishment of a locality in the context of the whole puzzle yet to be workt out into its picture.


This moment of taking over, of clicking into place might, in some other narrative, be presented precisely by the act of faith itself, the term leap understood quite literally. Duncan does not do this, but rather leaves us right at the end of that sentence, the problem narratively resolved perhaps, but certainly not solved.


Even if Barthes is not the best writer on which to focus these issues – one can imagine Duncan tackling Derrida as well as Wittgenstein had he but the chance & Jacobson & Saussure might have been better choices through which to have attacked the concept of difference in language – Barthes is a particularly apt choice, being the one major structuralist thinker – Elements of Semiology is a text from late in that period of his work – to have become a significant post-structural thinker as well.


And therein lies the rub. Robert Duncan’s critical project not only turns on the thinnest of premises – that H.D.’s brief analysis with Freud makes her an initiate of his – but that the union Duncan seeks between the mystical and critical theory is made ever so much harder by the fact that the latter proves to be a moving target. By the time that Duncan finally finds himself able, or at least imagines himself so, to bring theosophy into the house of theory, theory itself has moved on. Duncan had called his great prose poem sequence The Structure of Rime, not The Post-Structure of Rime.


But by the time that Duncan is coming into the realization of this, the unfinished – indeed, now unfinishable – H.D. Book has already served its other primary purpose, the one that is figured in its early title, The Day Book, a means through which for Robert to test, to formulate, to articulate a critical vision that might then serve as underpinning to his own mature writing, indeed, even the imagined (if never precisely written) elder epic. Which is why, ultimately, The H.D. Book works more – and better – not thought of as the lost or mystery critical masterpiece of the New American Poetry so much as it does as the Ur-blog of its time.



¹ Something I have just changed.


² Something not discussed in “Kopóltuš”


³ I am reminded of George Lakoff’s definition of semiotics as failed linguistics. This passage & indeed Duncan’s focus overall is very much pre-cognitive linguistics. Nowhere is the problem of historical time on Duncan’s thinking more apparent than here.