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:
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.