The Self in Postanarchist Poetry: Passages of the Self in Robert Duncan

Two weeks ago, when I spoke about Duncan’s refusal of integration, I focused primarily on an integrated or cohesive text, and the ways in which Duncan works against these issues. But, in doing so, I gave short shrift to Duncan’s own views on the subject. As I quoted in that post as well, Duncan explained in his interview for The Sullen Art 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). My focus on textual integration, then, overlooked the political (read: postanarchist) elements of a refusal of an “integrated personality” or monadic conception of the self. In this post, then, I would like to situate Duncan’s arguments against integration in terms of subjectivity, arguing that what Eric Keenaghan terms Duncan’s “radical humanism” (109) is made manifest in his fraught relationship with authorial power. As such, Duncan positions the Passages series as one that allows him to, as he writes, “lose [him]self in the hearing of the voice of the work itself” (“The Self in Postmodern Poetry” 227), on the one hand, but also to oppose what he terms his “parents’ cult of American individualism” (226). Nowhere does Duncan grapple with notions of “the self” as freely as in the Passages series, but the complicated relationship between self and other in the series must first be understood as emerging from an already complication political climate.

Keenaghan makes this political climate the primary focus of his essay, “Robert Duncan’s Radical Humanism; or, On the Crises of Reading and Falling in Love.”  Keenaghan argues that Duncan’s work “implicitly critiques the midcentury’s new paradigmatic understanding of ‘the human’” ushered in by the United Nation’s adoption in 1948 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (110). While this move is widely held to be a move in the progressive direction of global responsibility, Keenaghan argues, alongside many critics of contemporary (neo)liberalism, that the document is inherently hegemonic; “‘hegemonic” because it depends on, and promulgates, a liberalist tradition that posits the free and sovereign individual as the basic political unit” (110). While this, on its own, does not necessarily read as damaging, let alone hegemonic, one must also consider that it is precisely this conception of the “free and sovereign individual” that postanarchism works again in its interest in connection rather than separation. In other words, as Keenaghan goes on to demonstrate, these understandings of the monadic self as an “autonomous, liberal subject result in competitive nationalism, ethnic conflict, and factionalist pluralisms based on identity politics” (111), all of which stand in stark contrast to Duncan’s oft-articulated politics of love and communal responsibility, especially one that is, as I have demonstrated earlier, markedly anti-Statist. Instead, writing under “this new epoch of the human” (Keenaghan 120), Duncan insists that these notions of “rights” are attempts to impose an order upon what is already ordered in the natural world. Put explicitly, Keenaghan writes that for Duncan, “[r]ights-bearing subjects are constructed; no a priori human person with secured natural rights exists” (121). And, in fact, it seems to be precisely this issue that Duncan grapples with in his now famous treatise against gay-rights movements, “The Homosexual in Society.” In an attempt to adopt a clearly readable political subjectivity, he notices that natural communal responsibility is usurped by the adoption of a persona: “I was trying to rid myself of one persona in order to give birth to another, and at the same time to communicate the process and relate it to what I called “society,” a public responsibility.” (39) .

What, then, does this mean for Duncan’s complicated relationship with authorial power and the persona of the poet? For Keenaghan, Duncan’s writing is a process through which he is able to separate himself, in some form, from his political subjectivity. “Poetic composition,” he writes, “is not a willful self-expression; rather, it separates the poet from his personality, from what makes him socially recognizable” (112). For Andy Weaver,  Duncan’s poetic composition is a process through which the poet opens the self to external influence: “In order to be responsive to [the] organic order flowing through all creation, “ he argues in “Promoting ‘a Community of Thoughtful Men and Women,” “the individual must open herself to the influence of others but also to the underlying order of language itself” (84). On this, Weaver cites as an example an except from “Where it Appears (Passages 4),” from Bending the Bow, wherein Duncan writes:

                        Statistically insignificant as a locus of creation

I have in this       my own


area of self creation,

the Sun itself

insignificant among suns. (BB get numbers)

In this example, Duncan positions the notion of the self, and the process of “self creation” as a construction, “[s]tatistically insignificant” in light of the infinite possibilities of the multiple.

And yet, as Graham Lyons is quick to note in his article, “Is the Queendom Enough (without the Queen)?: Poetic Abdication in Robert Duncan and Laura Riding,” no matter how critical Duncan is of the self and the notions of authorial power, he cannot ever fully escape the writing subject that is, despite philosophical arguments to the contrary, nonetheless a separate being in the world. He argues, instead, that

The structure of Passages […] simultaneously saps and reinscribes authorial power: it gives him a say in the interaction of his corpus, if only to express what might seem to be vague equivocations (or productive contradictions?). […] Duncan confounds and implies interlocking meaning in the same gesture. (101)

Lyons argues that these “vague equivocations” of the issue of selfhood arise because his deferral of the self, in poetics pieces such as “The Self in Postmodern Poetry,” collected in Fictive Certainties, do not adequately account for some fundamental questions of authorial choice: “Who is making these choices? Who decides (‘selects’) when the poems begin and end, what gives them ‘consistency’?” (Lyons 101). Recalling my previous studies of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, Duncan’s abdications of the power of the authorial position can only ever be partial, despite his arguments to the contrary.

When Lyons catalogues these oppositional questions against Duncan’s conception of a self in the Passages series, he is directly confronting the issues taken up in “The Self in Postmodern Poetry,” where Duncan characterizes the series as one in which these notions of the monadic self are sacrificed in the name of the larger inarticulable Passage beyond. As I have quoted briefly above, Duncan discusses Passages as “a work in which I seek to lose myself in the hearing of the voice of the work itself, a work not of personality or oneself but of structures and passages” (227). Here, Lyons take exception, arguing that these forfeit of “self” cannot adequately account for the particularities of the text’s production. However, it is integral to note that Duncan does not argue that this loss of “self” in Passages is complete or permanent. Rather, he demands a separation of the “self from Self” (230), deferring to both Carl Jung and the Upanishads to validate such a separation. For Duncan, the “self” is socially and politically constructed, and as such it is an example of the anti-communal, anti-anarchist imposition of order upon natural beings. Conversely, the “Self” is open, a gesture towards a larger ontological and teleological conception of the individual as a single node in a larger connectivity. Duncan writes: “One of the possibilities or potentialities kept alive for me (in the open question, ‘Who is the “I” of “Passages”?’) derives from the “Self” proposed by Vedanta, American orientalizing cult and Jungian depth psychology. In what ‘Voice’ or ‘Mode’ or ‘Mind’ it is written, is very close to this ‘Self’” (230). Much like the Jungian collective unconscious, or radical understanding of self-realisation suggested by Vedantic philosophy, the “Self” achieves openness precisely through its refusal of closure.

Closure is one particularly significant feature of the text that reinscribes traditional notions of authorial power and monadic selfhood. As I have detailed in my introductory plateaus, the experimental text resists closure in favor of an open-endedness that allows for radical reconceptions of the self as infinite and interconnected. And, to be sure, Duncan’s disinterest in integration is a hallmark of this refusal of closure. I have already detailed a number of examples from the Passages poems themselves that advocate for a similar refusal of the closed and separated; here, instead, I would like to end with the suggestion that Duncan also approached the materiality of print culture with the same refusal. Consider, for a moment, this brief passage from Duncan’s “A Prospectus for the Prepublication Issue of ‘Ground Work,’” previously unpublished until its 2011 appearance in the previously mentioned collection (Re:)Working the Ground:

GROUND WORK is to be unfinisht copy, immediate copy — having no middle men between the reader and the writer — the errors will be the writers [sic], not the printers [sic], the departures from printing conventions will be in for free, and there will be no publisher hounding the writer for copy to meet his schedule.” (17)

By avoiding the “middle man” of the publishing house, Duncan viewed this early, prepublication-copy of Ground Work as a more direct address to the reader, in which errors and departures from printing convention open up that relationship to new possibilities. This passage is also clearly indicative of Duncan’s well-documented distaste for publishers, which is the reason for the nearly fifteen-year gap between the publication of Bending the Bow (1968) and the first volume of Ground Work (1984) (there were, of course, a number of chapbooks in the interim). Through this flawed but immediate communication, Duncan sees his poetry as enacting a breaking of boundaries between the writing and the reading subjects, thus suggesting a “Self” that is only a node in a multiplicity, rather than the liberalist and humanist conception of the monadic individual that suppresses as it divides and orders.

3 thoughts on “The Self in Postanarchist Poetry: Passages of the Self in Robert Duncan

  1. I think the distinction you draw here between self and Self is really insightful and helpful.

    I kept waiting for you to make the point that you conclude with, that “a ‘Self’ […] is only a node in a multiplicity, rather than the liberalist and humanist conception of the monadic individual that suppresses as it divides and orders”–given the interests in the project, I think that might be a point worth emphasizing earlier (just so you don’t inadvertently “bury the lead,” so to speak).

    I don’t know how helpful or relevant this point is, but the notions you’re drawing out of Duncan seem really similar to Fred Wah’s concept of “synchronous foreignicity,” which he works through in several essays in _Faking It_. I suspect that Wah, as a fan and “early adopter” of Duncan/Black Mountain poetics, would see his concept allied to Duncan’s notion of subjectivity (though Duncan doesn’t really deal with race, which is why Wah’s ideas are so helpful).

    1. Yes, I always seem to bury my lead in these situations. I’ll be sure to bring that notion up in revisions.

      I haven’t dealt with Wah since my masters, really, but I still have a copy of _Faking It_ on my shelf. Give me some time to read it and get back to you.


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