When I write about Duncan’s assertion, in “Notes on Notation,” that the poems in the Passages series “are but passages of a poem beyond that calls itself Passages” and that they ultimately “belong to the unfolding revelation of a Sentence beyond the work” (5), I do not mean to suggest that these poems, while dispersed throughout the Ground Work and Bending the Bow collections, in some form unity or unify into a larger textual whole. In fact, to suggest such a thing would do a great disservice to Duncan’s poetics at large, wherein, in terms of both authorial subjectivity and textual production, Duncan was vehemently opposed to such visions of unity or integration. He makes this abundantly clear, especially in the many interviews he participated in, particularly in the latter half of his writing career, compiled in A Poet’s Mind[i]. For example, in an interview for The Sullen Art in 1960, Duncan argued that his preference for the multiple is rooted in this discomfort with integration and unity, when he says that “[s]ince I’m quite the opposite of what would be called an integrated personality (I dislike personality and I dislike integration), I tend to cultivate — not a disintegration, because that’s a part of the same subject as integration — call it a multiphasic possibility” (9). Similarly, his “Naropa Institute Interview” weaves together this opposition to an integrated or unified personality (or, subjectivity) with an opposition to a unified or integrated text by arguing that when a poem is produced in a manner that leaves itself open to the multiple, we (as writers and as readers) “disappear in the poem” (51). Indeed, for Duncan, the unintegrated or multiphasic text is necessarily political in its desire to “disappear” (but not to “disintegrate”) the individualized self.
Although I am aligning this practice with a radical poetics – and, more strikingly, as one in line with a postanarchist approach to reading and writing poetry – Duncan concedes (and, thus, I must as well) that this is not entirely a radical or new position. In fact, he sees a strong canonical precedence for this poetic “disappearance.” Also in the interview for The Sullen Art, Duncan notes that one of the reasons he has such an interest in the works of Pindar[ii] is because “he [Pindar] didn’t have that modern worry about whether [his work] was ‘integrated’” (10). This idea that integration is a major feature of the modern is central to Duncan’s understanding of the modernist poets, and he even goes as far as to say, in an interview with David Melnick in 1985, that part of the reason Ezra Pound found writing so difficult[iii] towards the end of The Cantos was that his interest was in a reactionary integration rather than a responsive openness (“Then You Live” 40). Part of the Black Mountain School’s response to modernist poetics was a refusal of integration, and a return to the classical disinterest in unity that he found in Pindar. What all of this means, then, is that when Duncan refers to his work as a part of a larger “Sentence” or an external but ever-present Book called “Passages,” what he is really referring to is a larger poetic project, but one that he can never actually articulate, let alone complete. In a Yale interview, he remarks: “I do feel I’m working on a very large poetic and that it never gets stated” (“Yale Reports: On Poetry” 20). The Passages series, then, is an attempt to articulate this inarticulable larger poetics, and, as such, is free from the boundaries that would otherwise govern a project that prioritized consistency, integration, and unity.
Duncan posits the Passages poems as the primary site of his articulation of this larger poetics, arguing that they seem to exist elsewhere, and that they come into being by way of his producing them through an apparently infinite process of reading, writing, and rereading. He discusses this sequence most candidly in an interview for Unmuzzled OX, wherein he argues that Passages serves as a “test point” for this larger poetics “in which, theoretically, everything can coexist. It doesn’t have any boundaries supposedly” (86). As such, Duncan describes the process of writing a Passages poem as entering into the field[iv] of Passages by way of writing, which, for him, is an entirely unplanned experience. As he asserts in the same interview: “when I return to ‘Passages’ I find out what’s going on in it. The poem’s dependent, in the first place, on a particular tone from which I recognize that ‘Passages’ is ‘on.’ I don’t sit down and say, ‘Now I’m going to write a Passage’” (91). The seemingly spontaneous nature of the production of a Passages poem signals two important things about the series: first, that the poems gesture towards this larger poetics; second, that they cannot possibly complete it. What they share in their serial relationship to each other is tonal (and thus formal) rather than thematic. Unsurprisingly, Duncan’s own discussion of the series as such in the Unmuzzled OX interview provokes interviewer Howard Mesch to ask why the poems, then, are not united, at least, into their own collection. Duncan’s response seems to summarize the discussion rather well: “But they’re not in a book of their own any more than I’m in a world of my own. … So, in this sense, they’re not part of a great poem at all. They’re part of a tapestry” (92).
Thus it is entirely fitting that very early in the sequence – in fact, the second poem attributed to the Passages series – takes up this image of the tapestry, and aligns the poet with the weaver at his/her[v] loom. “At the Loom (Passages 2)” (Bending the Bow 9 – 10), uses the image of the tapestry as a metapoetic device; in this poem, the poet as weaver, however, is more concerned with the loom itself, and the process of the weaving, than with the image constructed. While Duncan does take a moment at the beginning of the poem to note the “luminous soft threads” (9), the bulk of the poem is concerned with the “[b]ack of the images, the few cords that bind / meaning in the word-flow” (12-3). Later in the poem, Duncan foregrounds this interest in process rather than end-product, arguing that “art shall never be free of that forge, / that loom, that lyre –” (26-7), and that these tools are more central than “the fire, the images, the voice” (28), which are secondary conduits, but ones that are necessary to bridge the gap between art’s meaning and its form. Tapestry, in this vein, refuses integration in the way that other mediums, for example painting, do not[vi].
The image of the tapestry is brought to the fore in this poem by way of Duncan’s allusion of George Gascoigne’s “The Complaint of the Green Knight” (from Posies, 1575). Duncan’s intertext spans three lines: “‘O weaver, weaver work no more,’ / Gascoyne is quoted: / ‘thy warp hath done me wrong’ ” (42-44). The lines describe a scene in Gascoigne’s original, in which the Green Knight bemoans his fate in the form of fabric:
The fatal sisters three which spun my slender twine
Knew well how rotten was the yarn from whence they drew their line
Yet must I wrap always therein my bones and body both,
And wear it out at length, which lasteth but too long.
O weaver, weaver, work no more; thy warp hath done me wrong. (Gascoigne 21-29)
The “rotten yarn” of Gacoigne’s original causes the end-product tapestry to be warped, but instead of bemoaning this fate, the figure of the poet in Duncan’s poem instead relishes this “warp” by sending that word itself through etymological derivations that complicate its meaning so much it ends up virtually incomplete: “warp, wearp, varp: ‘cast of a net, a laying of eggs’ / from *warp ‘to throw’” (38-9). The poem, and by proxy Duncan’s poetics, embraces language as rotten yarn, acknowledging that the poem is necessarily incomplete and unintegrated, and that its boundaries are necessarily frayed.
To return to the beginning of this plateau, then, I must restate that this concern with the unintegrated is necessarily a political concern. As such, it is significant that “At the Loom” ends with a condemnation of the state and of a nationalist discourse in general:
facing its foe for the sake of
allegiance, the legion, that the
vow that makes a nation
one body not be broken.
Yet, it is all, we know, a mêlée (58-64)
This characterization of the nation as founded on war and violence (“all … a mêlée”) is not at all shocking once one recalls that Duncan was an unabashed anarchist and an ardent pacifist; his interviews are littered with condemnations of nations. For example, when discussing the role of nationality for an Australian Radio Interview, Duncan expressed this condemnation by arguing that, “[e]arth and sky, earth is your country, and we took hold on locality on earth, but the main thing that it is is that we again looked at the heavens and that erases any possibility of nation” (30), eventually summarizing this by saying “it’s simply that nationalism had become antiquated” (31). And yet, as if to refuse integration even more, he argues in the aforementioned Unmuzzled OX interview that this refusal of unity and integration is a markedly American concern:
Americans have no history. Their continent is a polyglot assembly — and now an empire. So our real art form is an ‘empire.’ Cubism, which started collage, is not an assemblage. In a collage, everything is specific in its sentiments, everything in Schwitters is specific, and so are nineteenth-century American assemblages; but when it comes to ours, everything goes in there. Unity is really posited someplace else. (90)
In the plateaus that follow, I will look to Duncan’s radical anti-Statist anarchism, and attempt to reconcile it with his concern here, and throughout the Passages sequence, with a distinct Americanism. For my purposes here, however, it is simply important to note the politics inherent in a poetics that posits unity as “someplace else” and leaves it at that.
[i] See: Duncan, Robert. A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985. Ed. Christopher Wagstaff. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books. 2012.
I have chosen, in this plateau, to focus primarily on interview responses offered by Duncan and compiled in the aforementioned anthology because the issue of refusing integration is one that bridges the (admittedly small) gap between Duncan’s social politics and his poetics, and as such, his own candid words are best suited to support my analysis of this concern. Additionally, the intersections between politics and poetics in Duncan’s work have certainly not been critically ignored (they are, after all, central to both Sherman Paul’s chapter on Duncan in The Lost America of Love, and to Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf’s collection Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, The Politics of Poetry. More recently, this intersection is also a primary feature of Palgrave Macmillan’s 2011 collection, (Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan, edited by James Maynard). However, in each case described, these critical responses to Duncan do not devote much time to this concern with integration, opting instead for the issues of anarchic freedom and communal responsibility that mark his disputes with Denise Levertov, which I will discuss further in later entries on both authors.
[ii] Duncan’s interest in Pindar is well documented, namely in his often-anthologized poem, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar.”
[iii] Duncan says that Pound’s writing late in his life was strained. He tells Melnick that “Pound, really, at the end, I think, found continued work painful. Pound was a great source for us, but the main part of the Pound story is that he didn’t read toward the end of his life himself” (“Then You Live” 40). Pound’s Cantos series famously ends with his lamentation that “I have tried to write Paradise/ … / Let the Gods forgive what I / have made” (“CXX” 1-6), an admission and a recognition that his attempts to make the series cohere had failed.
[iv] The use of the term “field” here is loaded, as the term carries with it important connotations of Duncan’s method of “composition by field.” I use it to denote a space, but also hope that it carries Duncanian echoes.
[v] Because I have privileged the author’s own voice in this section, from this point I will use the masculine pronoun to discuss the figure of the artist, and in this way, to align this figure with Duncan. I acknowledge that rhetoric and brevity are taking the place of gender neutrality here.
[vi] Painting, for Duncan, is a process of integration in a way that weaving is not. In “The Fire (Passages 13),” also in Bending the Bow, he writes: “He [Piero di Cosimo] inherents the sfumato of Leonardo da Vinci — / there is a softening of outline, his color fuses” (30-1).