Robert Duncan

“When the words he wrote / were his”: Robert Duncan and Communal Language

Duncan told me his poetry was picked up
from other people.     The only time he
felt, he said, like using quotation
marks was when the words he wrote
were his. (John Cage, “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only    Make Matters Worse) Continued 1968 (Revised)”13)

Robert Duncan’s Passages seems, to me, to be the best example of the way Duncan’s politics (of borrowing, of anarchism, of active readership, of a refusal of integration, and of a politics and ethics of communal love). I say this especially because the series is, as Palmer writes, “perhaps the most radical example of his poetics” (x), most notably regarding Duncan’s use of allusion and intertext. The word Clément Oudart, in “Genreading and Underwriting: A Few Soundings and Probes into Duncan’s Ground Work,” uses to describe these Passages poems, “palimpsestic” (paragraph 6), is especially apt, with its connotations of rewriting, re-visioning, and expanding. While many of the other poems Duncan wrote throughout his career also contain similar allusions and quotations, the Passages poems are set apart because of the distinctly revisionist nature of the serial poems themselves. Seemingly aware of this, Duncan ends his poetics piece, “Notes on Notation,” by explaining the Passages series and why it must, necessarily, be set apart. He writes:

In Passages verses may be articulated into phrases or tesserae of utterances and silences leading to a series of possible sentences. As Passages themselves are but passages of a poem beyond that calls itself Passages and that is manifest only in the course of the books in which it appears … phrases have both their own meaning and yet belong to the unfolding revelation of a Sentence beyond the work. (5)

The similarities between this poetic series and the singularities involved in the poststructuralism and postanarchism I have outlined throughout this project are clear; in each case, the singularities (poems or persons) “have their own meaning” and at the time belong to a greater commonality. It is the same politics of sameness, of love, that unites “all humans” in Duncan’s politics and that unites the poems of the Passages series: the connections that form the assemblage are much more important that the individuals themselves. For Duncan, the ethics of reading and writing is inherently a process, and a process built on the conceptions I outlined last week about communal love and trust.

In terms of the Passages poems, this process is most clearly evident in the “reading-writing” that Duncan uses throughout. The process of reading through a vast array of original or source texts becomes evident in the poems themselves, which Oudart insists we should read as emblems of a process rather than end-products: “The published poems,” he writes, “ought … to be read as notebooks, as a groundwork for an illusory Book to come” (paragraph 55). An example of this reading-writing process is “The Concert, Passages 31 (Tribunals)” (Groundwork 15-31), which begins almost immediately with a reworking of the concepts of Jakob Boehme, a seventeenth century German Christian mystic. Duncan’s use of Boehme is sporadic, ranging from an allusion on line four to Boehme’s concept of “Salitter,” a term referring to the essence of God, to a quotation that lasts from lines eight through eleven. As readers, however, we should be thankful for the way Duncan uses Boehme in this case, because on line twenty-eight Duncan offers us a citation, and thus we avoid one of the dangers Oudart points out about Duncan’s intertexts. That is, “Duncan’s treacherous, half-said handling of quotations and translations – which partly turns the intertextual clues into red herrings – may induce unwary critics to quote him when they are in fact unwittingly quoting Duncan quoting [someone else]” (paragraph 25).

To be sure, “The Concert” has its share of plagiarisms – but of course, they are not plagiarisms if Duncan’s point is specifically that one never owns the words one has written. The “MUST MUST MUST” on line fifty-six, and the “MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!” later (58-59), are from Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” an uncredited quotation, but one that remains easily identifiable nonetheless due to Olson’s characteristic and confrontational capitalization, and to the endearing way that Duncan attributes these words to “the Poet” (57). More difficult to decipher, then, are lines fifty-nine through sixty-three, and lines sixty-six through seventy, which are both quotations from Rudolf Karl Bultmann’s 1955 text, Theology of the New Testament. Bultmann’s name does not appear anywhere in the poem, and Duncan’s choice to refer to him as “the scholar” does nothing to make clear the allusion (66). What is perhaps more interesting about this example, however, is the way it is rewritten. The changes are minimal: where the original texts reads “songs and especially ecstatic speaking in tongues” (Bultmann 161), Duncan changes the “song” to the singular, and where Duncan places an ellipsis between “prayers” and “song,” only one word is actually removed, and this the word “and.” This kind of disrespect for the original source copy may, at first, be interpreted as an irreverence, but I argue that it is, in fact, precisely Duncan’s politics of the commonality of language that enables Duncan to work so freely with his source texts. If his reading-writing is valued as equal to its source text, if language is valued as common, and thus never owned, then the manipulation of the source text, however minute, is an act of love.

In “Transmissions,” the quotations become even more difficult to decipher as the polyvocality of these poems shifts to multilingualism. While a reader may be tempted to dismiss these quotations, when one attempts to follow these “intertextual clues” – as Oudart called them – the content of these quotations prove integral both to the individual poems, and to the serial project as a whole. “Transmissions” begins with two lines of Greek, “όνομα βίος / έργον δέ θάνατος,” both uncredited and untranslated. The Greek is a line from Heraclitus, which means “Its name is life, its work is death,” which, even after translation, remains obscure and largely unhelpful. The importance of this quotation lies entirely outside the text: the phrase is a play on words, where the “it” in question is a bow (as in, a bow and arrow), the Greek word for which is “βίός,” the only difference being an accent on the “o” (Brown 135). The word for life needs only an accent to become a symbol of death. This quotation exposes the arbitrary nature of the signifier, the mutability of the signified, and the importance of connection and context, but only with a basic knowledge of Greek and a familiarity with Heraclitus. As an Italian quotation from Dante suggests in “Before the Judgement,” the reader is told “Guarda, guarda” (7), that is, “watch, watch.” And, the importance of detail recurs in “Transmissions” when Duncan quotes Philo’s On the Creation of the World, with the lines “Under the graver’s hand /    the minutest seal     takes in / the contours of colossal figures” (68-70).

In fact, if the reader does not maintain this attention to detail, much of “The Torso, Passages 18” is lost. The poem, unlike the Passages poems of Ground Work, maintains one thematic intertext, quoting Gaveston’s lines from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II throughout. As with the slight changes to Bultmann’s text, Duncan alters one of Marlowe’s lines slightly, changing the poem’s last line from the original, “the king, upon whose bosom let me die” (I.i.14), to “the King upon whose bosom let me lie” (54). With one letter Duncan overturns the death sentence for the homosexual, and emphasizes again the act of love over the subject position of the homosexual. This important change is only available to a reader with an eye for detail, and indeed, the entirety of this poem suggests that it has such an eye itself, moving meticulously from one specific, singular body part to the next: “the clavicle” (20); “the nipples” (23); “the navel” (28); “the pubic hair” (31). In fact, the torso that is the poem’s namesake is never represented in its entirety; it exists only as an assemblage.

Images of singularities that form assemblages abound in the Passages poems. In “The Concert,” Duncan writes that

                            the stars also
are and remain    severe and distinct,
each being of the universe     free to itself
having its own law (15-18)

The lawless, anarchic stars are “distinct” from each other, but are necessarily bound by sameness in the universe. Thus it is not surprising that when the Ego of the speaker encroaches on this image towards the end of the poem, his attempts to own or to take the magnificence of the stars is doomed to fail. The speaker bemoans his “man’s share of the stars’ / / majesty [is] thwarted” (79-80). Similarly, “Transmissions” is filled with references to singularities and multitudes, exemplified by lines ninety-seven and ninety-eight which read: “Not one     but many energies shape the field. /    It is a vortex.   It is a compost.” The reappearance of the common Black Mountain term “field” here is important because it is shaped by those singular “energies” that inhabit it; even the field is only an assemblage, reducible to parts but never really able to be disassembled. It should come as no surprise, again, that the Ego in “Transmissions” suffers the same pitfalls of the Ego in “The Concert;” it attempts an appearance on line thirty, when Duncan writes of “[t]he ‘I’ passing into sIght.” The personal pronoun loses stability, as it is reduced to a singularity in the assemblage of “sight,” but also because the word “sight” transforms the upper-case “I” into the “eye” which can only ever see the singular in its inclusion in the multiple.

Finally, material language plays an important role in this politics of love. Duncan sees individual words as separate entities, operating as I have suggested the singular operates in relation to the multiple. He makes this clear in “The Concert” when he writes that “each / ‘word’ [is] a severd distinct thing” (54-55). But the individual words do not, and cannot, operate on their own. Instead, all words function as a sort of reference towards a greater meaning, one that cannot be grasped in its entirety, only understood through its constituent parts. This is why Duncan is so resistant to the idea of owning language, and why his poems are always (re)visions or expansions, working towards a greater “Book” (Oudart paragraph 55), or “Sentence” (Ground Work 5). He explores this concept most clearly in “Transmissions” when he writes:

                           –no one
nor poet
nor writer of words
can contrive to do justice to the beauty of that
design he designs from
We pretend to speak.    The language is not ours
and we move upward beyond our powers into
words again     beyond us      unsure measures
the poetry of the cosmos (56-64)

And Duncan’s work never “contrive[s]” to do such a justice – he acknowledges throughout that this is an impossibility. Instead, the Passages as a poetic series tries to capture this mystical whole in parts, to stress the connections throughout, and, most importantly, to value (or love) each incarnation equally. The serial poem is, for Duncan, an act of love, both poetic and political. Its statement is that we can only understand the world through its bits and pieces, and as such we must value those pieces. So, Duncan’s reading-writing, re-writing, misquotation, and plagiarism show that his poetry works in this same way: he can only understand, let alone communicate, this greater poem in these small parts, and thus every small part deserves inclusion.

6 thoughts on ““When the words he wrote / were his”: Robert Duncan and Communal Language

  1. I’m glad you discuss the specifics of (mis)quotation here: like I said in response to your entry from October 8, using the commons of language doesn’t necessarily make it communal, requiring instead a close attention to detail and some prior knowledge.

    I’m interested by your implication that people, like texts, are made up of cited (or cite-able) moments. Are you also saying that our actions have meaning in themselves and yet belong to an unfolding meaning of a self/subjectivity beyond such actions? (I’m echoing Duncan here) Does this have (dare I say it) religious connotations or implications, especially given the idea of a “book of life”… or is there instead an idea of a “true self” lurking behind this formulation?

    I also wonder about “The Torso”’s take on the blazon: how does the enumeration of body parts relate to the anatomization of the beloved from the Petrarchan tradition? Is it just a continuation, or is there a radical dismemberment going on?

  2. “Are you also saying that our actions have meaning in themselves and yet belong to an unfolding meaning of a self/subjectivity beyond such actions?” — Oh, lovely and perfect. Yes, I think that’s exactly what Duncan (and I) would say. But, you are also correct to not a kind of religious basis for this. Not a true self, but some kind of divine conglomerate working in the background. Duncan sees this as a natural order that unites all beings, but that we can never understand. It’s the least pomo thing he does.

  3. In the last paragraph of this post you write: “The serial poem is, for Duncan, an act of love, both poetic and political.” I find this assertion fascinating, but I would want the specifics explicitly played out because the last paragraph makes mention of mysticism and wholes and parts.

    • Ha, caught me. So I wanted to avoid talking about mysticism in Duncan because I typically have no fucking idea what he’s talking about most of the times. But, you’re right to want this more clearly fleshed out. I’ll work on that.

  4. To take up the comments in the notes, I think Duncan’s spirituality/mysticism is part and parcel of what you discuss in the entry, Dani. I don’t pretend to understand Duncan’s theosophy/mysticism/what have you, but it informs his belief in a synchretic understanding of the world (which you gesture towards at the end of your entry).

    As for the entry itself, this is a dazzling bit of thinking (and very lovely and performative because of it). I just want to extend a few of your points:

    -I think you’ve overlooked (or at least not mentioned explicitly) the pun happening in the title “The Concert,” and it’s important because that pun states exactly what you discuss in when you argue for the synchretic nature of reality for Duncan: it is a concert, a “concerting” of multiples that one experiences as a whole. Also, the definite article suggests the divine/spritual aspect of the idea for Duncan: “the concert” is in many ways a synonym for the “Grand Collage” he discusses in his “Introduction” to _Bending the Bow_.

    -you imply throughout the entry a slight annoyance or frustration with Duncan’s elusive allusions. I think that’s fair, but, at the same time, I think Duncan’s primary reason for including those allusions (and in the fashion he does) is because he is following the tenets of his poetics, meaning he is discovering what needs to be written as he writes, not before. In this sense, Duncan is always the first reader of his own writing (and much more so than that could be said about most authors)–there is an aspect of surprise or unknowing in Duncan’s act of composing, so his reading of his work is an active process. Along these lines, and following off of Oudart’s thoughts, Duncan doesn’t need to cite quotations for himself. So, although they are often frustrating for us as readers, it’s important to note that Duncan’s allusions aren’t intended as exclusionary, as, say, Pound meant his.

    -you say that “the connections that form the assemblage are much more important that [sic] the individuals themselves.” I think you might be overstating your case here, in that your comment promotes hierarchical thinking. I think it’s more precise to say that for Duncan the individual elements are every bit as important as the assemblage (if only because individual elements are manifestations of the assemblage–or, as Duncan might write it, “The Assemblage”). Also, the individual elements are crucially important because, to look at it the other way, they are the only manifestation we encounter of the assemblage.

    [These are all nit-picky points on my part, but I think the small nuances are important when the entry itself is so inclusive and wide reaching.]

    • I take your point on all three notes, Andy.

      I hadn’t even thought about the fact that a focus on connection rather than constituent parts ends up promoting hierarchical thinking. I much prefer your more egalitarian take on it. Thanks!


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