Robert Duncan

“Do you know the old language?”: Passages as Anarchist Intervention

In 2008, when Andy Weaver published his article “Promoting ‘a community of thoughtful men and women’: Anarchism in Robert Duncan’s Ground Work Volumes” in ESC: English Studies in Canada, he noted that “when it comes to Duncan’s poetry, [the] underlying political anarchism often goes unnoticed” (75). Weaver points to Duncan scholars Norman Finkelstein and Nathaniel Mackey, whose studies tend to downplay, overlook, or shy away from what Weaver argues is the integral role of anarchism in Duncan’s poetry (both his explicitly political works, and those that are not so overt in their politics). In the five years since the appearance of Weaver’s article, however, Duncan scholarship has seen an important increased interest in the role of anarchism in his work, especially regarding his late poetics. The appearance in 2011 of Palgrave Macmillan’s (Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan, for example, marks an important turn in the surrounding scholarship towards Duncan’s anarchism[i]. Perhaps taking up Weaver’s call, Duncan criticism over the last five years has taken seriously the role of anarchism in the formal make-up of his experimental poetics.

For Weaver, Duncan’s formal anarchism is a means through which we can understand Duncan’s turn from a more didactic political engagement in his Vietnam War-era poems, exemplified by the Passages poems included in Bending the Bow, to the anarcho-communism implied by Duncan’s form in the Ground Work volumes. “Specifically,” he writes, “I would like to suggest that the writing in the Ground Work volumes is effective political poetry because it avoids (for the most part) the oppositional, polarizing attacks found in his Vietnam War-era poetry” (“Promoting” 71). In this case, the poems collected in the Ground Work volumes provide readers with a more effective anarchist poetics by virtue of their politics of communal engagement; they propose “a textual anarchist-communist community, a community that includes Duncan himself, the diverse writers from whom he quotes, language itself, as well as the reader. The form of Duncan’s later poetry works to tear down the boundaries between individuals” (“Promoting” 93). As my first two entries on Duncan suggest, these late poems, and especially the Passages poems therein, propose an anarchist approach to language that resists notions of intellectual property in favour of interconnection between and within texts and readers/writers[ii]. In their serial nature, the Passages poems suggest an anarchism predicated on disrupting the traditional closure-based boundaries of the text; “serial poems, by their nature, are anarchistic because they call into question the boundaries between the individual and the surrounding community […] In other words, serial poems emphasize the openness of the writing and expose the arbitrary nature of textual closure” (Weaver, “Promoting” 82). But, as Weaver is quick to note, this lack of closure and cohesion does not at all imply formal chaos. Rather, they refuse to impose order upon the already natural or organic order that Duncan sees as pre-existing (“Promoting” 83)[iii]. In this sense then, the openness of the serial poem embraces Duncan’s long-held belief that controlling, let alone owning, language is an impossibility. As Anne Day Dewey points out in “Creeley, Duncan, and the Uses of Abstraction,” Duncan “came to perceive language as a force beyond the poet’s control” (91).

But, as Duncan’s contribution to anarchist publications like Direct Action, and his attendance of anarchist-activist group meetings attests, his anarchism is not at all limited to poetic form. Instead, this anarchic approach to poetry was born out of an anarchist desire for communal responsibility in a very real sense. Weaver notes this link when he draws a clear parallel between Duncan’s activist anarchism and his poetic one, writing: “if, as anarchists hold, non-hierarchical equality is an organic characteristic that exists in the natural world, then this equality must stretch beyond the human world – all creatures are, if not equal, then equally necessary in anarchistic thought” (“Promoting” 90). Similarly, Duncan himself often spoke candidly about the intersections between his activism and his poetry, noting that while these two concerns are necessarily linked, he actually takes a radically different approach to each; his poetry is clearly responsive, while his political activism is reactionary. As he explained in a 1985 interview with David Melnick, these two concepts (reaction and response) are quite different from each other: “In reaction, imagination doesn’t have to come in. Old habits govern. In politics and many things, I would say I would be ‘reactionary,’ because I have a blind ‘reactionary’ fury and a hatred at what goes on in politics, which is hardly known as a response” (“Then You Live” 40). In light of what I (and countless other scholars) have noted about Duncan’s pacifism, such an endorsement of “fury and … hatred” seems quite out of place, and in the interview Melnick, too, is taken aback. But, as Duncan goes on to explain, there is a significant time and place for such a reaction. Reaction serves, in Duncan’s politics, as a momentary break from the activity of responsibility. “Responsibility is not a total kind of thing,” he writes, “because there is a point at which reaction will set in and we see why reaction exists, because otherwise we’d be exhausted by responsibility” (“Then You Live” 41). So, to temper the potential exhaustion of unrelenting responsibility, the anarcho-pacifist Duncan advocates brief moments of blinding rage. Nonetheless, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Duncan’s politics, then, were wholly reactionary, and worse, that his poetry is indicative of a similar political vein[iv].

What I would like to suggest here is that Duncan’s late poetry, and especially his Passages series, should serve as an intermediary tactic somewhere between the anarchic formalism noted by Weaver, and his raging endorsement of a reactionary politics. In doing so, I would like to pick up a word Dewey uses to describe Duncan’s poetic involvement in issues of social change, when she argues that Duncan “renders poetry an intervention in culture” (“Creeley, Duncan” 103, emphasis added). Understanding the Passages series as intervention, as a poetic series that intervenes in the lives of its readers, is one that requires that we reenvision Duncan’s ethical poetics as one that advocates, as many critics have argues, for an active and responsive readership (that, he hopes, will extend well beyond textual practice), but that also invites its reader to be angry, to resist even as s/he responds. The positioning of Passages as intervention is best understood, I will demonstrate, by a close look at how the series makes use of the second-person pronoun throughout, but especially in Bending the Bow.

The appearance of the second-person pronoun in the Bending the Bow Passages poems can be loosely organized into two main groups: the first group emphasizes connection, especially between the reader and the author; the second group comes in the form of questions, especially ones about the reader’s knowledge. On the first group, these connections are typically characterized in the form of romantic love, wherein the direct address to the reader comes in the very traditional manner of the poet addressing the beloved. In each case, and in keeping with the poetics of love I have articulated already, the connection between the speaker and the beloved is prioritized above emotion or desire. One excellent example of this is “These Past Years (Passages 10),” in which the speaker describes the connection between him and the beloved as follows:

hiding my inconsolable grief

in yours arms.   Sometimes

when I am away from you

I have to make that journey

the journey to you (14-8)

Later, the speaker maps out this journey, begging the knowledge of the beloved’s location: “where you are / to come to you” (26-7). A similar romantic connection appears in “The Currents (Passages 14),” where this connection is immediately linked to language. Duncan writes, “I loved all the early announcements of you, the first falling / in love” (40-1). Here romantic connection is tied to “announcement,” to the process of transcribing the lover in order to make real the connection. This link to language quickly becomes a link to logos, when the lovers’ connection is related, in “The Torso (Passages 18),” to the discourse of knowledge:

I have been waiting for you, he said:
I know what you desire

you do not yet know   but through me

And I am with you everywhere.   In your falling
I have fallen from a high place” (“The Torso (Passages 18)” 43-7)

In these cases, a direct relationship is formed between the author who speaks to the reader through the traditional address to the beloved that has become a major feature of the lyric love poem. And yet, this is also inherently an anarchist political act, as these direct addresses seek to destabilize epistemology in favour of an affective connection between poet and reader. Thus it is not surprising that this first group is so inherently linked to the second, a series of direct addresses to the reader in the form of questions about the reader’s knowledge, such as the “Do you not know that Egypt / is the image of Heaven?” which appears as the first two lines of “Moving the Moving Image (Passages 17).” And, this trajectory finally manifests itself clearly in “The Fire (Passages 13” when Duncan’s speaker asks his reader’s linguistic familiar only to eventually concede his own ignorance: “Do you know the old language? / I do not know the old language. / Do you know the language of the old belief?” (12-4). In this final case, the “old language” is not necessary prior knowledge, and it is certainly not a knowledge that is being tested. Rather, it is a logos hedged on “belief,” an epistemology that sacrifices knowledge at the altar of love, of affect. These direct addresses work to engage the reader on a direct level with the text and its methods of “tear[ing] down boundaries between individuals,” to return again to Weaver. In this sense, the Passages series functions as an intervention into epistemological (and, as I will discuss in the plateaus that follow, also ontological) boundaries that would seek to impose an order on what, for Duncan, would otherwise function just as well. Duncan addresses us as anarchist in these moments, desiring an attentive, responsive reader on the one hand, but also a reader ready to resist boundaries simultaneous to their dissolution.

[i] Essays that prioritize anarchism in this volume include Stephen Collis, “Duncan Étude III: Intellectual Property or the Poetic Commons,” and Jeff Hamilton, “Robert Duncan’s Craft Exchanges: Doing Ground Work in the Pastoral.” A number of other articles collected in this volume include significant attention given to the role of Duncan’s active engagement in anarchist and direct-action groups, and the influence of this engagement on his poetry.

[ii] In Weaver’s words: “If, as Duncan believes, all language is owned and created by all individuals, then all utterances are also necessarily the community’s, not the individual’s, and can be used by anyone” (“Promoting” 80).

[iii] Duncan, in his interview for The Sullen Art, for example, argues that the world is ordered in natural and organic ways, as in atomic and molecular structures that govern all organic and inorganic life. With the recent confirmation of the Higgs boson particle, we now understand this organization to be even more pervasive than Duncan could have imagined. Nonetheless, Duncan maintains that the imposition of order is unnecessary, and that, even more controversially, this natural order implies that “the disordered is literally impossible” (“for The Sullen Art” 11).

[iv] Duncan’s brand of anarchism began as more openly activist, but eventually moved, as he got older, to a distinctly anti-revolutionary activism, owing both to his (anachronistically postanarchist) realization that the only revolution that could be effective must occur on the singular and psychical level, and to his own aging process.  As he was once quoted in saying, “But at fifty-seven I don’t look forward to participating in some revolution; it wouldn’t have even begun by the time I would be kind of getting more tired and crawling into a corner” (“Australian Radio Interview” 34).

2 thoughts on ““Do you know the old language?”: Passages as Anarchist Intervention

  1. You’re very kind to me and to my article in this plateau. Feel free to point out problems in my work, too, which I’m sure are plentiful.

    I don’t have any substantive comments on this entry–it’s very solid from start to finish. I do think you might need to explain away the standard use of “reactionary,” which goes against (I think?) Duncan’s use of the term. Also, I’m a bit lost in a dazzle when you say “In this final case, the ‘old language’ is not necessary prior knowledge, and it is certainly not a knowledge that is being tested. Rather, it is a logos hedged on ‘belief,’ an epistemology that sacrifices knowledge at the altar of love, of affect.” Perhaps you could unpack those sentences, which seem central to the your argument in the entry?

    As an aside, I think you’re going to have to discuss Duncan’s use of, and faith in, eris/Strife sooner or later. I think that it is a central part of Duncan’s anarchism, and would go hand in hand with the notion of “intervention” that you very productively include.

    It’s really quite a joy to read you reading Duncan (as Duncan reads…)–there’s a lot of reading going on!

    • Ah, I knew you were gonna bring up the eris stuff sooner or later. You are, of course, correct, and I’ll bring it in in my edits.

      And yes to the need to unpack my crazy language in that passage. When I get excited about a concept, I turn to these weird Zizek-esque metaphors. I know what I’m getting at, but I will have to explain it more clearly and in more real-life terms in my edits.


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