Robert Duncan

Guest Post!: Andy Weaver on Robert Duncan

Hi all. Sorry for the most recent radio silence. I recently took over a course directorship and it’s been taking up all my time for the last little while. Seems that this is the perfect opportunity to share with you all the first guest post proper on [generic pronoun], my ever-brilliant former supervisor Andy Weaver‘s recent work on Robert Duncan, from his most ACCUTE paper. Please feel free to comment and share; and remember that if you are interested in writing a guest post or contributing to [generic pronoun] there’s a tab for that at the top!

Also a quick reminder that Weaver’s newest collection of poetry, this, is now available for purchase right here.

Robert Duncan: Reading as Divine Insurrection

To begin, an anecdote. Robert Duncan relates in The H. D. Book a telling example of the importance of reading to his life and his work. On a pleasant October day in 1938, Duncan was outside, “sprawled on the grass” of the UC Berkeley campus reading aloud to two friends from the Black Sparrow Press edition of James Joyce’s poetry (59). His reading was interrupted by the 11:00 bell that called all lowerclassmen at the university—including Duncan—to attend their Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) classes. “Away toward duty,” Duncan writes, “the one command of the State over us, the dutiful students went. In time. Toward the eleven o’clock drill. To march in time” (64). But, caught up in his reading, and emboldened by his friends’ requests to stay, Duncan remains, skipping his military training. “I never went to Military classes again,” he states. “I ceased going to other classes that I had found a sham. I had come into a poetic order more commanding than my fear of military and school authorities, of going on to take my place as a member of some professional caste” (66). This life-changing moment was brought on and entrenched by Duncan’s commitment to reading, to remaining a reader rather than a military officer or a degree-obsessed student.

A growing body of recent scholarship on Duncan has worked to centralize the role of reading in his creative process. Clément Oudart, for example, has extended Duncan’s own notion of “reading-writing” in order to examine the role of “genreading” and “underwriting” in Duncan’s later work, while Reading Duncan Reading, a recent collection of essays edited by Stephen Collis and Graham Lyons focuses on the role of derivation in Duncan’s poetry. While this work on the role of who, what, and how Duncan read and how that reading shaped his own writing is a foundational element to reimagining Duncan’s poetry as a site of textual interweaving, little attention has been paid to how Duncan envisioned the process of reading in and of itself. Specifically focusing on excerpts from The H.D. Book, Duncan’s study of Modernist poetry, as well as from his serial poems “The Structure of Rime” and “A Seventeenth Century Suite in Homage to the Metaphysical Genius in English Poetry (1590-1690),” I will argue that reading, for Duncan, was much more than a way to gain material for his poetry; instead, Duncan envisions reading as a site of insurrection, where the reading subject must constantly and productively deconstruct and reconstruct her subjectivity. Moreover, Duncan’s poetry imagines this process of renewal as enacting divinity within the reading subject by placing the reader at the centre of a nexus of reception, recreation, and dispersion. Reading, then, is a process that engages Eris, the concept of divine strife that Duncan considered necessary for both creativity and ethical living. Consequently, the process of reading for Duncan also underpinned the individual’s relationship with the community. The processes of deconstruction and reconstruction, of syncretism and dissolution, inherent in the individual’s action of reading also reverberate into society, as the individual must constantly reimagine and reconceptualize the actualities of her society, as well as her own relationship with that society. Reading, then, lies at the centre of Duncan’s social, creative, and ethical processes, and functions as a divine insurrection.

To begin, it’s important to understand a basic point about Duncan’s conceptualization of reading. In The H.D. Book, Duncan states that “The Universe is a book of what we are and asks us to put it all together, to learn to read” (121); he reiterates this point later, arguing “Living is reading the message or poem that creation is about” (314). That is, the entire world is a text for Duncan, and he believes that our engagements with the world should be properly considered reading. A poem on the page, then, is merely a transcription of a larger act of active reading of—and in—the world. This conflation of world as text relies upon Duncan’s notion of “rime” [sic], which flows from his belief that the world and everything in it is joined and suffused by an immanent organicism. Since everything is necessarily related for Duncan, everything in the world inherently has resonances with everything else in the world. These resonances are Duncan’s rimes. As he says, “Rime has its fullness in the correspondence throuout [sic] the universe. Thus the higher poetry has its order in hidden rimes, known to those who love thru correspondence” (CLPP xlii-xliii). Peter Quartermain, in his introduction to Duncan’s Collected Later Poems and Plays, succinctly states the relationship for Duncan between poetry and the world: “any poem [is] a shifting event among, inextricably linked with, other interconnected events—not poems only, indeed, but the world” (xliii). Reading, then, is Duncan’s basic relationship to the world.

Such reading, though, also both relies upon and extends another fundamental concept for Duncan, which is productive strife (or, as he tends to refer to it, Eris, the Greek goddess of strife and discord). Duncan saw the world as a place of insurrection, strife, and flux, a place underpinned by a Heraclitean basis of incessant change. The most basic ethical relationship to the world, for Duncan, was an attention to the moment at hand—since the world is constantly changing, we must set aside any responses, opinions, beliefs, etc., that we formed in other moments. We must always open ourselves to the change that is occurring in each and every moment. The way to maintain this openness is to remain a reader—as opposed to a knower—of the world. By constantly reading the world, we engage with the flux occurring before us.

Reading, then, appears throughout Duncan’s work, especially his later poems. “A Seventeenth Century Suite,” for example, foregrounds the act of textual reading by interspersing Duncan’s responses amongst a series of poems by Sir Walter Ralegh, Robert Southwell, George Herbert, Ben Jonson, and John Norris. The sequence implicitly argues for the inevitable interplay between Duncan’s own writing and his 17th Century counterparts. More importantly, though, the sequence highlights Duncan’s conflation of textual reading and world reading, stating in a response to Southwell’s “The Burning Babe,” “wherever in the World I read / such Mysteries come to haunt the Mind, / the Language of What Is    and I / / are one” (CLPP 511). Reading, then, opens the reader to the world, placing her in a position of productive strife that drives a constant reconceptualization of both the world and the reader’s own identity. Or, as Duncan says in a poem responding to Ralegh’s “What Is Our Life,”

Against my body,   against my soul,

against my spirit,   I go then

into the destruction of the grades of me,

to the undoing of those hierarchies [….] (CLPP 509)

The self must be constantly deconstructed and reconstructed in direct response to the world, and reading is the action that drives that incessant dissolution and reconfiguring.

This idea reoccurs/rimes throughout Duncan’s work, especially in the serial poem “Structure of Rime,” where he describes both himself and his poetic self as a sculpture constantly being remolded in a series of lost wax molds: “song, cire perdue, river of me that flows away, melted from cast after cast, wax releasing fingerprint-fine intensions of the man from the world that is a worker in men” (CLPP 133).

Reading also works hand in hand with writing for Duncan, since he conceptualizes the reading process as necessarily active, involving a constant organizing and reorganizing of the world/text. Drawing on his theosophic upbringing, which stressed a syncretic understanding of reality, Duncan describes the world as a mystery text that needs to be decoded by an active reader: “It was not a dogma nor was it a magic that I understood for myself in the Theosophic world about me, but I understood that the meanings of life would always be, as they were in childhood, hidden away, in a mystery, exciting question after question, a lasting fascination” (H.D. Book 146). Such a worldview also situates the reader inside the process of creation, as a seeker who must develop the mysteries of the world, though the reader cannot hope to solve those mysteries. Consequently, readers actively reveal “The quest for meanings” in life:

By associations, by metaphor, by likeness of the part, by fitting as a part of a larger figure, by interlinking of members, by share, by equation, by correspondence, by reason, by contrast, by opposition, by pun or rhyme, by melodic coherence—what might otherwise have seemed disparate things of the world as Chaos were brought into a moving, changing, eternal, interweaving fabric of the world as Creation (146).

Consequently, the act of reading becomes a spiritual, even divine action. Images of reading and writing as divine occur throughout Duncan’s work, perhaps nowhere more directly than in The H.D. Book: “we who take our lives in the afterlife of Christendom in writing and in reading must come across hints of the Word as we follow the word and of the Presence as we find a book lively” (349). For Duncan, the process of encountering the world is a never-ending process of reading the world, actively assembling correspondences or rimes, while simultaneously actively disassembling correspondences from previous encounters of reading the world. The self must maintain itself in a state of flux, one that both underpins and is derived from this divine action of reading/writing the world. As Eric Keenaghan states, for Duncan “individual freedom exists in waiting obediently to respond to an other’s invocation,” and I would only clarify that such an invocation can come from either a textual or worldly other (123). Looked at in such a light, Duncan’s well-known stance as a derivative poet cannot be limited to his use of texts; instead, he imagines all of his work as equally derivative, whether it be derived from a poem or from the world text. As he says “I am […] a derivative artist, not an original, having only that authenticity that I have inevitably in my inevitable human condition. […] I do not express meanings that are my own, I work in meanings which I receive or find in research” (qtd in CLPP xxxvii). Or, as Peter Quartermain succinctly puts it, “Derivation, in Duncan’s sense of it, is the very condition of being human” (CLPP xxxvii).

However, reading—and the derivation it allows—is much more than the condition of being human, and even more than a divine action. Perhaps most importantly, Duncan imagines reading as an ethics. In a sense, reading is the ethical stance that engages the individual in the process of properly living in the world, and it does this by bridging the human and the divine, by exposing the divine in the world in which we live. As Duncan writes in the second entry in the “Structure of Rime,” “What of the Structure of Rime? I asked,” and he receives the reply that “An absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance establishes measures that are music in the actual world” (9). That’s not the easiest sentence to parse, but it’s important to note that Duncan sees an “absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance”—that is, a divine, immanent text of rime—that provides measures (a way of assessing, but also, in the poetic sense, of providing a rhythm, a latent structure) that underpin the actual, physical world. In other words, the type of ethical reading that Duncan calls for allows the individual to engage with (though not to understand or know) the divine that exists in the physical world. Going along with this view of reading, Duncan imagines writing as the active process of revealing to others the divine that he has uncovered for himself as a reader. In the very first lines of the first entry in “The Structure of Rime” series, Duncan writes:

I ask the unyielding Sentence that shows Itself forth in the

language as I make it,


Speak!     For I name myself your master, who come to serve.

Writing is first a search in obedience. (CLPP 8)

The poet—who, for Duncan, can be anyone who “will not take the actual world for granted” (CLPP 8), that is, one who remains attentive to the world-text at any/every moment—then, is both master and servant, one who is always obedient to the text that she or he is reading, yet also the creator of the particular manifestations of that text that she or he actively reads, thereby discovering the rimes between things. As Duncan puts it, “The poet and the reader, who if he is intent in reading becomes a new poet of the poem, come to write or to read in order to participate through the work in a consciousness that moves freely in time and space and can entertain reality upon reality” (H.D. Book 199).

As an ethical stance towards the world, reading also forms the basis for Duncan’s conceptualization of individual’s relationship with the community. In a simple sense, this happens through the notion that everyone reads the same text, the world-text, even though we might be reading different manifestations or iterations of it. Trusting in the divine elements that suffuse throughout the world, Duncan, in “The Structure of Rime X,” argues in favour of what he calls “ThiŸ [sic] ever-lasting of thΛ [sic] first things,”[i] those unknowable divine elements that rime throughout the world text. Later in the same poem, he reiterates his belief in this divine text: “For thΛ sea is thiŸ and clover reminds me of ever. ThiŸ learning is in re- and in turning that forms a ring to reach thiŸ word thΛ. Abounding faith for thΛ sound restored” (CLPP 65). Punning on the two pronunciations of “the/thee,” where the former is a definite article and the latter functions as an objective second-person pronoun (now most often used in anachronistic references to a divine being), Duncan implicitly conflates the divine in the particular. The references throughout this poem to returning (the sea, a ring, the sound restored, in the passage I just mentioned, but also in the riming description that follows of children building and rebuilding sand castles and Galahad’s search for the Lady of the Grail) rime together through Duncan’s belief in the inevitable resonances of divinity throughout all of creation. Consequently, every person is a part of what Duncan terms the “grand collage” or “What Is,” the larger community of the entire world (CLPP 298).

In a more complex sense, though, Duncan’s theory of reading shapes the individual’s relationship with the community by continually imagining that relationship as one of interweaving, response, and derivation. The result is that, just as the individual self is constantly in a state of flux due to its reading of the world-text, so is the actual world constantly shifting because our engagements with it are continually renewed. In “The Structure of Rime XXVII,” Duncan writes, “Angry, confused, then in a cloud in which the Queen is hidden, the workers are released from the old order into the Great Work beyond their understanding. They must go beyond the bounds of their art,” before ending the poem by stating that “In the dawn of the new artist’s vision, the Old World, let loose from what we thought we knew or would take for granted, exhibits itself without rest” (CLPP 490). Thought of in this way, all artists—in fact, all people who actively read the world-text—are continually reshaping the world and all of the communities inside it. By working together, in response with each other, they weave the Grand Collage that is both the world and also the societies in which we live. Consequently, the interplay between Duncan’s writings and his 17th century forerunners in “A 17Cth Century Suite” and the numerous dedications and allusions to the work of other artists in “The Structure of Rime” series offer a subtle but important insurrectionary critique of contemporary society. As Eric Keenaghan argues,

Duncan found himself at odds with the new regime of humanism on the grounds of what Shannon Winnubst describes as liberalism’s ‘enclosed’ sense of the individual that reinforces laissez-faire competition. His late work evinces an awareness of a phenomenon that democratic, queer, and third wave feminist theories are only now starting to articulate: ideologies of the autonomous, liberal subject result in competitive nationalism, ethnic conflict, and factionalist pluralisms based on identity politics. (111)

Thus, the many statements Duncan offers for the porous boundaries around subjects function as a subtle societal critique. “The streams of the Earth seek passage thru you, tree that you are, toward a foliage that breaks at the boundaries of known things” (CLPP 15) and numerous other comments reimagine the subject outside of neoliberalism’s carefully enclosed selves. Moreover, in The H. D. Book Duncan offers a parade of examples where reading literally (such as in the anecdote that began my discussion) or figuratively challenges the structures of society in order to bring about reformation. Perhaps the very best example of the latter appears at the very beginning of the book: “It is some afternoon in May, twenty-five years ago as I write here—1935 or 1936—in a high school classroom. A young teacher is reading…” (35). Duncan goes on to tell the story of Miss Keough introducing him to the work of H.D., and how that introduction changed his life. More pertinently, though, is Duncan’s description of Miss Keough as a reader-teacher, one who went against Bakersfield’s “proving ground of the professional middle class, where [students] were to learn by heart the signs and passwords of that class” (36); instead, she “all but confided that the way of reading required by our project was not only tedious but wronged what we read” (37). The inspired reader-teacher, rather than merely passively passing on the expected curriculum that would be worthwhile only as preparation for a test that would serve as a step towards joining the dominant middle class, teaches her students (or Duncan, at the very least), that literature can reveal “something to do with keeping open and unfulfilled the urgencies of life” (43). Duncan sums up the experience by stating simply that “What I was to be grew in what she was” (39). Reading H.D.’s poem brings about that revelation for Duncan. Listening to another person read that poem brings about that revelation, and that revelation opens Duncan up to the world in such a way that the community’s assumptions about identity, society, and the world will remain in productive strife for the rest of his life and throughout all of his writings.

Works Cited

Duncan, Robert. The Collected Later Poems and Plays. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Berkeley: U of California P, 2014. Print.

—. The H.D. Book. Ed. Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman. Berkeley: U of California P, 2011. Print.

Keenaghan, Eric. “Robert Duncan’s Radical Humanism; or, On the Crises of Reading and Falling in Love.” (Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan. Ed. James Maynard. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Quartermain, Peter. Introduction. The Collected Later Poems and Plays. By Robert Duncan. Ed. Quartermain. Berkeley: U of California P, 2014. xxv-lii. Print.

[i] In a prefatory note to the poem, Duncan explains that “thiŸ• has the sound of tree and / thΛ has the sound of nut” (CLPP 65).


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