Monday, June 27, 2011

All Duncan, All the Time

It is strange have been drawn so deeply into the work of a poet whom I found all but illegible until recently, except for a very few poems whose rhythmic or pellucid qualities overcame for me all the occult mumbo-jumbo, those which seemed to embrace a more tangible (that is, social) reality as opposed to wispy intimations of a Theosophical/Gnostic/neo-Platonic nature. That is, I appreciated the anthology pieces--"A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," "Poetry, a Natural Thing," and most especially, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," which moved Emily and I so much that we incorporated into our wedding ceremony. But most of the time, I found Duncan's embrace of the mythic and vatic embarrassing where it wasn't incomprehensible.

The mythic dimension in the other modern poets I've loved has always raised for me the question, Bug or feature? In a 1989 interview with John Tranter, Michael Davidson makes a very intelligent distinction between his generation of Language poets and the concern of Duncan and others with "the numinous"--that sense that true reality was something unavailable to common sense:
I guess the idea of the numinous was translated in my generation into the idea of the ideological. The ideological was also something that inhabits everything, and produces things. Ideology is something that emerges in the unconscious to create, in a sense, a kind of political unconscious. And so, while the gods may be dead, but the ideology is there, and that is an informing power in poetry. And you can play with that, and you can work with that. That’s the difference, I think, between Duncan’s generation and ours.
This transference, if you like, from the numinous to the ideological takes on special resonance when processed through Louis Althusser's definition of ideology as that which "represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (that's from "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses"; a less-often noted but just crucial corollary to this statement is, "Ideology has a material existence"). Instead of the innumerable deities (Greek, Celtic, Egyptian, and so on) that populate Duncan's poems, the Language generation has capital, history, language, and other such theoretical-institutional entities whose reality is determined by their access to the social, rather than to some transcendent realm (though Bruno Latour is useful here in pointing out how, in what he calls "the modern Constitution," the social is itself often constructed as transcendent body).

Whatever names we give to the gods, the strategy of Marxist poets is, according to Davidson, fundamentally isomorphic with that of Duncan: both kinds of poet are "trying to establish relationships to an economy that you can have no control over, yet negotiate with it. But negotiation is another metaphor for a kind of field process poetry, it is your ability to deal with a power that is larger than yourself." This is how I've managed to read poets like Pound and Yeats and Stevens in the past, translating their mythic figures (whether adapted from neo-Platonism, the Celtic Twilight, or invented by the poet--the Canon Aspirin, et al) into nodes in a larger field of force that mapped or inscribed that poet's sense of the social totality.

Duncan, however, won't play along with this strategy; or rather, to be Latourian again, the cost of translating his mythic gods into ideological entities is too high a price to pay--you lose the poem. At the same time, he's wilier than he's been taken for, I think, in terms of his own stance toward myth. Remember that he didn't come to the occult like most people do, because their given gods have failed them: he was born to it (adopted by Theosophical parents who chose him according to his astrological chart) and, I believe, had something of the same stance toward his parents' mythological worldview as Joyce came to have to Catholicism. That is, as a narrative, a force, whose power and significance operates almost independently of one's belief in it (if anything, from a rationalist perspective, it appears that the more outlandish a religion's tenets are, the more unshakable its adherents seem to be).

Joyce is not a bad point of comparison to Duncan, actually, who references him with some frequency: one can read Ulysses as an attempt to broaden and complexify the field of reality available to an Irishman, not by "Hellenizing" Ireland as Buck Mulligan purports to do, but by forcing Catholic dogma, the liberal (Jewish) enlightenment, and Homer to interact with and press upon each other, no one field of numinousness more authoritative than any other. (It's a little bit like Bakhtin's idea of the dialogic novel, except it's the contention of mythic systems rather than persons that matters--or you could turn that around and say it's the person-ization of myth that gives Joyce's novel its matter.)

The gods are real, then, for Duncan; no one of them, however, is THE God. As he writes in The H.D. Book:
I have written elsewhere that I am unbaptized, uninitated, ungraduated, unanalyzed. I had in mind that my worship belonged to no church, that my mysteries belonged to no cult, that my learning belonged to no institution, that my imaginatin of my self belonged to no philosophic system. My thought must be without sanction.*
But Duncan is no polytheist: his Nietzschean feel for the eternal return leads him to construct a notion of myth by which certain eternal forces recur throughout history under different names and with different valences: "Christendom," for Duncan, seems to be a repression of primordial forces in Greek myth (Eros chief among them), forces which reincarnate in the transgressive "spirit of romance" of the troubadours and in heretical notions of Christ as Eros. Romance gets born again contra the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century, and the flame goes on for Duncan in the twentieth century, transferred in a "rite of participation" to his hands from the writing of H.D.**

I see now that it's this sense of the historical in Duncan, however eccentric or esoteric, that has opened the doorway to my being able to read him in truer sympathy than I've managed before. It's also a question, in my case, of maturity: I am less embarrassed now by Duncan's indulgence in "magick" because I am less embarrassed by my own taste for high rhetoric, not to mention the kitschy pleasures of Dungeons and Dragons (reading Duncan is like leafing through the old Deities & Demigods), prog rock, tarot cards, and the other emblems of an adolesence spent searching for alternatives to an oppressive reality that did not correspond to the truth of who and what I felt I was or could be.

So I am newly (re)attuned to Duncan; and exploring, for my article, the rich and unexpected possibilities for a poetic ecology that his writing, in its radical inclusiveness and shrewd troubling of the immanent/transcendent distinction, may have to offer us. Something richer, and darker (Duncan's Freudianism, his nigh-Lacanian sense of the Real as something obscured from any single position or vantage point, his sense of disequilibrium and parallax), close to what Timothy Morton calls "dark ecology," is offered by Duncan's poetics, a greater intensity than what more literal notions of nature writing seem capable of bringing to bear.

But this is also personally important to me, a Rubicon in my own sense of poetics. Back of my long infatuation with Language poetry and the Frankfurt School is this older sense of reality as something occulted, and the vocation and ultimate high of poetry-as-making: world-building, cosmology. For this poet, Duncan raises the stakes immeasurably. And I stand willing to declare myself, though no initiate, as under the spell of Romance.

* I am perhaps unjustifably amused by the resemblance of this list to the contemporaneous litany of No. 6 in The Prisoner: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own."

** "Rites of Participation" (as the most widely distributed chapter of The H.D. Book was called) are NOT rites of initiation: again, one must read closely to discover how Duncan is never in fact guilty of what Olson accuses him of in "Against Wisdom as Such," that is, of "buying in" to a myth or belief system; he's too much the anarchist for that, too much the universalist.


Unknown said...

Over at the Harvard Review, Major Jackson says that he prefers poems which are not “overtly inventive.” What does this mean? Does it mean that new forms may only push boundaries to limits set by an established criterion? What do you think this means? How do occult and cultural forces interact to form established standards? How does what this may mean intersect with how poets play with forms? How can we think toward the future with poetry, facilitating the construction of new worlds beyond yet with dichotomy, richer than that which is realistic or romantic? How is this meaning relevant to the trajectory of poetry through time as a function of the way in which creativity in art must find its visible receipt in consensus? How may this figure into the paradox-ridden conversation as to how language can capture that which is not a prisoner of language? (That is, the tension between language/ideas, Pure Immanence, the Transcendent, enlightenment and the mythic, or however we may label such concepts to gain beneficial nuance from the way in which they “interact with and press upon each other.”) How may collaboration and/or performance figure into such a schematic--whereby, some force never fully graspable escapes from that which maintains the bounds of its meaning (the poem on the page) and yet in its very "escape" simultaneously shows that it cannot be maintained? Please answer from the “All Duncan, All the Time” perspective from which you are currently immersed, if you so please.

Unknown said...

An overwhelming barrage of questions! I shall answer, sort of, in terms provided by Robert Van Hallberg in his new book Lyric Powers, in which he makes a useful distinction between civic and Orphic strains of poetry. Civic poets (often, unsurprisingly, laureates like Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, or Seamus Heaney) may critique society for the ways it's fallen short of its own values and norms, but ultimately affirms those norms. Orphic poetry, on the other hand, steps outside the bounds of any existing social compact -- you can see how one roughly corresponds to an immanent position and the other to a transcendental one. What interests me in Duncan is how he represents an Orphic poet tempted by the civic -- my sense of the break with Levertov is that she succumbed to that temptation, in Duncan's eyes, and he withdrew in horror from the constraints this puts on the poet's freedom.

I suppose then that my interest going forward in an argument for Duncan's visionary ecology is to ask what an Orphic stance toward ecology might look like, and what it can and cannot plausibly accomplish. Levertov, notably, became a mystical nature poet in her later years--I'll have to investigate that work more closely. Perhaps she fulfills what Duncan made possible, once the climate of Viefnam had changed.

No idea what Major Jackson is talking about, but it sounds rather like an attack on Fancy in favor of the Imagination. I shun such Puritanisms.

Unknown said...

Thanks very much. I always look forward to your thoughts.

MASchiavo said...

". . . most of the time, I found Duncan's embrace of the mythic and vatic embarrassing where it wasn't incomprehensible."

Is this how you feel about Emerson, maybe, too? I ask because Emerson seems such a natural fit/answer to this post and many of the other "pastoral" posts.

I ask because it seems, if those indeed are some of the problems you have with Emerson, that you're not alone. I often run into such a wall when I bring up his name. I think the conclusions you've come to on Duncan might aid in a further/re-examination of Emerson, who rests behind all of the major American poets/movements since he brought Whitman to a boil.


Edward Mycue said...

i am glad you are coming around to robert duncan and am pleased with your explanations. jess collins and robert duncan are my models of living together and informing one anothers work. edward mycue

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