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6— Objectivist Romantic: Ezra Pound and the Poetic Constellations of Robert Duncan
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Objectivist Romantic:
Ezra Pound and the Poetic Constellations of Robert Duncan

In the constellation of Poetry there are thousands of distant stars and more immediate planets, lighting the night sky of those who delite in that art with a plenitude of brilliancies, and in time each new poet in his vocation comes to realize that he has a kind of horoscope or constellation of his own in which particular poets of the past appear as influencing spirits in his shaping of his poetic destiny.
Robert Duncan, Fictive Certainties

[Duncan] has created the most exciting poetic world since that of Ezra Pound.
James Laughlin, Sagetrieb

Even more than Charles Olson, Robert Duncan is the postmodern poet who has provided the most compelling and comprehensive study of Pound's poetry and Pound's contributions to poetic language and form. Building on Olson's "Projective Verse," Duncan has enriched our understanding of the derivation of a radical postmodern poetics from the work of Modernist precursors, and he has analyzed more deeply the psychic and artistic factors that affected Pound and his generation.

As Charles Altieri remarks, Duncan's work is based on "a tension between 'the actual real and the real of the imagination' " that leads "to a rich descriptive engagement with the oppositions that plague modern sensibilities as they struggle with models of the real that exclude and repress energies still present in the imaginative traditions." For Altieri, Duncan is an Objectivist poet who "preserves the immediacies called for in the doctrine of sincerity" and exemplifies "how objectivity is ultimately not simply agreement about external conditions but about the possibility of locating what imaginative acts can share."[1] In this chapter I elaborate the dialectic of Duncan's


engagement with the Objectivist and the imaginative poetic modes and thereby situate Duncan's struggle in his reading of the work of Pound. Duncan's use of Pound's work as a consciously applied corrective to his own natural tendencies as a writer exemplifies an unusually synthetic pattern of influence. Like other poets in the Pound tradition, for whom influence appears as a largely conscious and voluntary process, Duncan maintains an openly derivative stance. At the same time, however, Duncan's need to maintain a fruitful poetic relationship with a forebear so different from himself has led him to use Pound's model in a manner distinct from that of other poets of the Pound tradition. Duncan's readings of Pound in The H. D. Book,[2] as well as in his own poetry and poetics, often involve attempts to explicate aspects of Pound's work that respond to Duncan's own Romantic sensibility. Duncan privileges in particular those parts of Pound that reflect an openness either to a mystical or spiritual consciousness or to sensual and erotic impulses generally figured by representations of the feminine.

Thomas Kinsella, another poet for whom Pound is an important model, identifies in Duncan "the basic joint devotion to freedom and rigor" and "the ability—at a crucial stage—to learn openly from the forms of Pound's Cantos and find the necessary personal revolution."[3] Kinsella's comment perfectly sums up the art of derivation for Duncan: an "open" use of his predecessors but always with an eye to the "personal revolution" implicit in going beyond the work of those same poets. In Duncan's derivation of Pound's conceptions and poetic stance we find an influence that is not so much a direct transfer of ideas as a matter of artistic and intellectual inspiration. Duncan does not merely restate Pound's meaning; neither does he distort it. Instead, he enters into a "field of possibility" provided by Pound's work.

Like Pound, Duncan is never satisfied with received notions of what constitutes acceptable poetic sources. Seeking to distance


himself from any rigid orthodoxy of poetic practice, Duncan constantly makes clear his commitment to models that challenge us to widen our definition of open-form poetry. Certainly Duncan's interest in such poets as Dante, Whitman, Williams, H. D., Moore, Zukofsky, Olson, Levertov, and Creeley is consistent with his position in the Pound tradition,but as Michael Bernstein comments, Duncan "is [also] able to supplement the paternity of Ezra Pound by placing alongside his mentor's 'instigation' writers like Shelley, Rilke . . . Gertrude Stein, and Sigmund Freud, all of whom, but for the inescapable evidence of Duncan's own works, one would have presumed unassimilable into such a tradition.[4] In addition, Duncan claims in his Romantic heritage Spenser, Shakespeare, Keats, Blake, Coleridge, Goethe, Emerson, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, the Surrealists, and Wallace Stevens as well as the most "unassimilable" poet of all, Milton. The inclusion of Milton in Duncan's canon is part of a self-conscious polemic against what he sees as the restricted lists of acceptable writers maintained by Pound and Olson. This inclusion is also an attempt to bring Milton's poetry into a camp that Pound would accept—poetry as "news that stays news":

I come in heavy over and over again on Milton because Milton was disallowed by Ezra Pound from the main track of poetry, so in general I'm making it impossible for us to read Duncan without both Ezra Pound and Milton. Now, that forces Ezra Pound into a different court and it forces Milton into a different court, but it also forces a whole track of poetry into a different one. It was one Charles Olson would not accept; and Williams attacked Eliot for coming back to put a memorial on top of him. That's not the way I think of my Milton; my Milton is news, not memorial.[5]

Duncan does not feel confined by any particular tradition, even the relatively "open" tradition set forth by Pound's criteria for "good writing." Duncan suffers little from the "anxiety of influence"; his own notion of poetic history puts him at odds with Harold Bloom. Instead of the strictly canonical and agonistic tradition Bloom identifies in poets of the Romantic Sub-


lime, Duncan emphasizes the role played by active choice in the application of appropriate models: "Blake recognized that he was in the tradition of Milton. That wasn't laid on him; nobody came along and said, 'Blake, you is in the tradition of Milton.' He could have been in the tradition of a million other cats. True tradition is entirely voluntary; it's entirely in your own hands" (Quoted in AV, 121). Bloom may read even such instances as Duncan's use of Pound as cases of "misreading," finding in Duncan's language and poetic stance an agonistic reaction to the ideas and language of his predecessor. I maintain, however, that Duncan's derivations of Pound and other predecessors demonstrate the multiplicity of potential responses by a younger poet, without undermining the previous poet's stated intention.

Duncan resembles Pound in his deliberate assimilation of earlier writers into his own poetry and in his production of critical statements that rationalize this process. Like Pound, Duncan believes that literary influence is not merely a process of revising past works or elements of these, but rather a much broader interaction between earlier and later writers, one involving cultural attitudes and epistemological assumptions as well as literary forms and language.

In the first poem of The Opening of the Field, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," Duncan illustrates his idea of influence as an enriching process of (self)-discovery, evoking the "folded field" from the Zohar where Abraham discovered the cave of his ancestors. This narrative serves as an allegory for the relationship Duncan proposes to establish with his own poetic predecessors. For Duncan, there are four primary ancestors, father figures who inhabit this "hall": Pound, Williams, Lawrence, and Olson, the last of whom is at once father figure and contemporary. Duncan speaks of a poetic "fathering" of the self (there is also a "mothering" of the self in his poems to H. D.) that does not involve an Oedipal child / father relationship—a "repression" of the self or of the father—but rather an opening of the psyche to additional sources through the re-creation of new fathers. Duncan provides here an alternative metaphor to that of "misreading": poetic growth as "re-creation," which


implies that new readings are found in a textual realm and in an interaction with the physical space inhabited by historically (or actually) present forebears. Such an interaction makes possible a greater involvement with matters not included in the psychopoetic framework Bloom's model provides; Duncan seeks to discover the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual centers informing all aspects of a previous poet's life, work, and ideas.

The tradition with which Duncan identifies is not exclusively his own; it is formed by a process of copossession that he shares with such poets as Olson, Levertov, and Creeley. For Duncan, tradition is neither a fixed nor a canonical entity; nor is it the wholly idiosyncratic creation of a single writer. Duncan's sense of tradition, like that of Olson, Ginsberg, and other poets of the countercultural movement of the 1950s and 1960s, is a largely communal sense of continuity always (re)established by the poets who come after and who form it as an active process in their own poetics. Duncan "creates" a tradition, or helps to create it, only as part of this ongoing process and in conjunction with other poets who share his understanding of what models are to be most valued. This is a live tradition defined by what is felt to be of vital importance at the particular historical and cultural moment. Thus, Michael Bernstein is not entirely correct when he suggests that "the tradition whose pupil he [Duncan] proclaims himself is, in the first instance, his own imaginative construct,"[6] although Bernstein is correct in his assumption that Lawrence, Williams, and Pound would not have seen themselves as a tradition or as ancestors of any given poet.

Duncan's tradition, far from being as arbitrary as Bernstein suggests, is made coherent by his insights about the direction of modern poetry, a feeling for the necessary form his own work will take. Bernstein's assertion that Duncan's concern with his predecessors "increasingly begins to seem like the central poem of his imagination" is overstating the case somewhat and sounds markedly similar to Bloom's idea that the central subject of poetry is the poet's relationship to past poets. Duncan, like


Pound and Olson, is primarily interested in representing states of physical, mental, and emotional experience in his poems, and the additional layer of meaning given by the reference to past works is only of secondary importance. Further, as in poems such as Pound's "A Pact" and Olson's "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master," Duncan's relationship to his poetic predecessors remains personal as well as purely imaginative or linguistic.

Duncan differs from Pound and Olson, however, in his respect, even humility, before the acknowledged "greatness" of his ancestor poets. If Duncan is a more forgiving reader of his predecessors than Olson, he is also more syncretic in his use of poetic sources. Rather than viewing ancestors as alternatives between which he must choose (which Olson does), Duncan sees them as sources of differences that can be combined and recombined in productive endeavors. Sometimes, as in the case of Pound and Milton, Duncan's effort involves a reconciliation of what are normally considered opposites in an attempt to disturb existing canonical boundaries. More often, as in the case of Dante and Whitman, on whom Duncan wrote companion essays, his readings of two poets create a fabric of interconnections that contributes to our appreciation of both. Duncan's own art often involves a forced resolution of such contraries, as in his use of Zukofsky and Olson, two poets "who could be posed as polarities of what poetic consciousness might be" (FC, 213). Unlike Pound, whose ideogrammatic linkages in The Cantos generally establish an order of relations between concepts, Duncan uses a method of grand collage that seeks to allow new and unintended relations to enter the poem, never excluding such relations through what he considers Pound's "totalitarian" discriminations. (For further discussion of Duncan's collage method, see chapter 7.)

Duncan's early exposure to Pound and the other experimental Modernists was part of a poetic formation that from an early age involved the construction of a programmatically derivative poetic voice:

By my eighteenth year, I recognized in poetry my sole and ruling vocation. . . . But I could find no ready voice. I was, after all, to be a poet of many derivations. Putting it all together, poem by poem


and even with individual poems line by line, I have had to go by the initial faith in the process of poetry itself, for I do not know, outside of the integrity of this working feeling, what may constitute the integrity of the whole.    (YC, i)

Like Pound and Olson, Duncan is selective and deliberate in his use of poetic sources, but he differs from both of them in the way he incorporates those sources into his own work. Duncan's choice of models is not based on rigorous standards of technique, as is Pound's, nor is it guided by a sociohistorical stance toward reality like Olson's. Instead, Duncan's use of models is determined, or rather guided, by the "movement" and "association" of his readings of poetic and nonpoetic texts, readings that cannot always be rationally explained but that enter his work as formal and spiritual "presences."

At the same time that Duncan enters into a historical dialogue with past writers, his aesthetic emphasizes a fluid use of sources that is not found in Pound's or Olson's work. The various "texts" that form Duncan's "true book" are ordered primarily by his personal reading experience; they are not part of a system, not defined or catalogued as in Pound's "ABC 'S," "guides," or "model curricula" or Olson's "bibliographies." Even though Duncan is interested in what his poems can teach each reader, he generally does not take on the role of poet-pedagogue, as Pound and Olson do; his is the quiet lesson of the mystic or sage. Furthermore, Duncan's use of other writers and texts becomes part of his stated aesthetic in a way that it is not for Pound or Olson. Where they both use the work of others primarily as a means to the end of supporting their own arguments or convictions, Duncan makes explicit that he is a "derivative" poet: that to derive as well as "to emulate, imitate, reconstrue, approximate, duplicate" is itself an important part of his art.[7] As Don Byrd remarks, "He has made the gathering of diverse influences into a poetic."[8]


Duncan's desire to be inclusive does not prevent him from privileging certain traditions in his own work and in his reading of the work of others. He expresses throughout his writing a concern for a "tradition of [spiritual] sensibility," which he also delineates in Pound's writing:

As important for me is Pound's role as the carrier of a tradition or lore in poetry, that flowered in the Renaissance after Gemisthos Plethon, the Provence of the twelfth century that gave rise to the Albigensian gnosis, the trobar clus, and the Kabbalah, in the Hellenic world that furnished the ground for orientalizing greek mystery cults, Christianity, and neo-Platonism . . . . The Cantos returns again and again to speak with sublime and ecstatic voice. In his affinity for Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblichus, or the 9th century Erigena, in his poetic cult of the sublime Aphrodite ("crystal body of air") and of Helios, not without Hellenistic hermetic overtones, in his fascination with form in nature ("germinal") having signature, Pound, as does H. D. in her later work, revives in poetry a tradition or kabbalah that would unite Eleusis and the Spirit of Romance, Gassire's lute and the vision of the Spirit Euterpe which came out of the Rosicrucian John Heydon on Bulverton Hill. This tradition of the spirit.[9]

Duncan's writing, both in style and content, reflects his interest in the Pound of The Spirit of Romance and sections of The Cantos, the same Pound who continues throughout his life to search for beauty and meaning in the work of the troubadours, Cavalcanti and Dante, Sappho and Pindar, and the mystical tradition—the luminous "tradition of the spirit." Olson, however, regards all such matters as Pound's "gentilities," and in the religious "sectaries" courted by Pound and Duncan, Olson finds only false wisdom, an attempt to create symbols that are not constituted by the immediate reality of the poet's "one self, the man or woman he is" (HU, 69).[10]


The differing uses Olson and Duncan make of Pound's work demonstrate that there is no single "Pound" whose influence can be easily delineated. Instead, each poet in the tradition draws on Pound. Don Byrd summarizes the major differences between Olson's and Duncan's uses of Pound in this way:

Characteristically, they were attracted to different aspects of his work . . . . In Pound's The Spirit of Romance, Duncan found the statement of a literary tradition of which he was a part, and much of his prose work, including "The H. D. Book" and the essay on Dante, is an attempt to clarify that tradition and define his own place in it. Unlike Pound, Duncan finds the tradition usefully carried on by Shakespeare and the poets of the nineteenth century. Many of his poems . . . are conscious definitions of a continuing romantic tradition. From the beginning, however, the romantic Pound was of little interest to Olson.J. . .  Olson was attracted to Pound the historian and the instigator of poetic methodology.[11]

Not only do Olson and Duncan appreciate and find valuable very distinct parts of Pound's work—different sections of The Cantos, for instance—and see his importance as a writer and model as lying in different areas; they also read his work within markedly different contexts, different traditions. As we have already seen, Pound is most immediately valuable to Olson as a guide to certain sources in, for example, history, economics, and anthropology and as a guide in the use of extraliterary sources, discourses, and attitudes as valid material for poetic composition. Duncan, too, finds Pound an important mentor or guide but in the more Dantean sense of a spiritual guide into the depths of poetic experience. In a literary essay from his book Derivations, Duncan describes Pound in The Cantos not in terms of a stance toward reality but in terms of a more imaginative, quasi-Romantic quest:

In the Cantos of Ezra Pound, the voices of the guide are distorted by shifts in the making. The poetry, the making, opens gaps in the correspondence with the City of God. A poetry is possible which will introduce the peril of beauty to all the cells of history. . . . I with Ezra Pound sought the orders of history and heard the great bell-notes


ring between the work and the self that gave intimations of the creation, the continuum in chaos.[12]

Duncan sees himself as neither a postmodernist nor a Modernist but as a post-Romantic poet: "Well, I'm not a Modernist. . . . I read Modernism as Romanticism; and I finally begin to feel myself pretty much a 19th century mind. . . . I don't feel out of my century, I like this century immensely. But my ties to Pound, Stein, Surrealism and so forth all seem to me entirely consequent to their unbroken continuity from the Romantic period."[13] As can be seen from Duncan's passionate involvement with the major figures of the Modernist movement, his embrace of Romanticism is not a rejection of Modernist tendencies but rather a defense against a Modernist orthodoxy that precludes any Romantic elements. Duncan sees Pound's poetry as paradigmatic of the possibilities of a twentieth-century art that involves the Romantic imagination focused through a modern awareness and technique:

"Make it new" was the call to order of the day for one who took Pound as his mentor as I did, and, for Pound too, one got the idea that what was involved was not only a spiritual commandment from Confucius but also a technical revolution. I was to be a Romantic, but it was to be no simple Romanticism, such as courses in college portrayed and despised in the portrayal, for in the Romantic too there was to be now no element that was not seen as the function at once of the poem and of the mind; and no element of poem or mind that was not to be seen as a function of a social and historical consciousness. In the Imagist revolution, there had been the announcement that "a new cadence means a new idea"—how a thing was made and what a thing was were inextricably one.[14]

Michael Bernstein discusses Duncan's place in the Poundian tradition in terms of just these contexts:

Rather than stepping back from the titanism of The Cantos to the security of a more modest enterprise, Duncan's work continues—and thus renews—the modernist tradition at its most ambitious by


undertaking a synthesis of heterogeneous "origins" as potentially disruptive to one another as those in Pound's own work. . . . One can, however, by now clearly recognize that Duncan has taken his primary imagination from the history of imagination and consciousness rather than, as did Pound and Olson, from "ideas" put "into action" in the realm of concrete praxis .[15]

The heterogeneous elements in Duncan's poetry derive from a general tendency toward inclusiveness and integration, which are made possible, in part, by his use of fragmentation and collage techniques. He rejects what he sees as a restrictive formulation in Olson's "Projective Verse," the idea that open-form poetry is to constitute a rejection or correction of the closed form: "But I find that [correction of closed form] superfluous. Would you want to go back and correct, let's say, Housman? What do you think you would arrive at? Actually the open thing is really to contain any closed form. Any passage or anything else can be contained as part of a large open form."[16] Duncan's challenge to Olson's notion of projective or open-form writing constitutes a central aspect of his poetics, one in which he differs from many other followers of Pound and Williams. Duncan's idea that traditional, closed poetic forms can exist within a larger open structure allows him to use in his poetry almost any form of writing, including those of poetic models that were off limits to a more doctrinaire projectivist such as Olson.

Despite their differences, however, the poetics of both Olson and Duncan are inspired by Pound's manifestos and especially by The Cantos . The idea of open-form poetry is as central to Duncan's thought and work as to Olson's and mandates a stance open to the world, to nonlinguistic experience. Likewise, the formulation "composition by field" and the whole notion of "field poetics," which had passed from Pound through Williams to Olson and Duncan, suggest that a poem should be conceived and formed within a larger field of objects and energies that the poem can communicate but never completely contain. As Olson observes, the "process" by which the projective poem reaches


completion is never confined within the intramural structure of the poem itself; rather, through this process the poet brings the energy of objects or experiences in the world directly to the reader: "A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge" (SW, 16).

The title of Duncan's 1960 book, The Opening of the Field, indicates the importance these notions have for his poetry. Like Olson, Duncan sees Pound and Williams as central to the liberation of verse from closed form—that is, to the creation of a new openness in poetry comprising formal experimentation and the capacity to move in areas of discourse not sanctioned by the New Critical poets and critics of the 1940s and 1950s. In "Projective Verse" and elsewhere, Olson's rejection of closed form, of the nonprojective, is part of a larger rejection of Western cultural norms. Duncan, however, had to find a middle ground incorporating a Romantic or Sublime tradition within the framework Olson and his Modernist predecessors had established. Even though Duncan finds parts of Olson's project compelling and a necessary antidote to the prevailing poetry of the time, his concern with a language that can define a relationship between human and object and locate a more subjective or subconscious experience of reality makes it impossible for him to reject the Romantic Sublime tradition.

Pound, both as the instigator of a new poetics in the Imagist movement and as a poet who allows a formal openness in The Cantos, is a model for Duncan of the poet's potential to explore hitherto uncharted or even prohibited areas of artistic form and expression in an "adventure of poetics." Duncan quotes from Pound's Imagist credo of 1912, where he writes of "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" that brings "that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the greatest works of art." For Duncan, the discovery of Pound, along with other Modernist writers such as


Stein and Joyce, means "that in an art everything was possible, nothing circumscribed the flowering of being into particular forms" (FC, 66–67).

Duncan's continual search for artistic "openness" is largely a reaction to the dominant poetic mode of the postwar era in which, according to Duncan, the poem was seen "as a discipline and a form into which the poet put ideas and feelings, confining them to a literary propriety, giving them the bounds of sound and sense, rime and reason, and the values of a literary—or social—sensibility." The Romantic and mystical sensibility Duncan seeks, as well as the constant drive toward liberation of sources, forms, and ideas, is a refuge from a critical and poetic school "which thought of form not as a mystery, but as a manner of containing ideas and feelings; of content not as the meaning of form, but as a commodity packaged in form." Duncan's fear of poetry becoming a "commodity," a "Container Design," a "product on the market," forms a link with Olson's poetic and critical practice, which are largely based on a rejection of received Western values, the "pejorocracy" of modern American civilization. For both poets, Pound is the definitive model of a poet and critic who, as Olson puts it, "stayed clean." Pound refuses, at least in The Cantos, to enter the "business" of poetry, to mold his work to the taste of an audience or to the demands of convention. Instead, Pound in The Cantos "remains involved . . . in the agony of the contemporary," showing in the turbulent passages of his poem "the troubled spirit of our times": "A profound creative urge, like So-shu, churns in the sea of Pound's spirit everywhere, as it churns in the seas of our own history; so that we see it most just where contention will not allow our reason to be undisturbed" (FC, 79).

In other words, as Duncan writes in The H. D. Book, Pound's poetry in The Cantos is unlike the work of Eliot and Stevens, with their "melodious poetic respectability"; Pound's work disturbs us, forces us to examine things more closely. Duncan praises Pound for the rigor of poetic discipline that makes possible this examination of truth and value in economics and politics as well as in language and literature:


Pound has sought a cure of tongues by the discipline of the eye, some restraint that would keep words grounded in meaning. The pomp of Milton or the luxury of Swinburne had led men to value effect and enthusiasms in themselves as "poetic," towards an inflation of language. Protesting against the "prolix" and the "verbose," against words "shoveled in" to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound or "decorative vocabulary," Pound insisted that there be "absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation." If we think of his later concern for a monetary credit that is grounded in an actual productive order, "the growing grass that can nourish the living sheep," and his cause against the great swindling of confidences in usury, commodity speculation, money changing and inflation, we find a basic concern for the good credit of things; both words and moneys are currencies that must be grounded in the substance of a real worth if they be virtuous.[17]

While recognizing the value of Pound's "sanctions," his concern for "the equities," Duncan is not satisfied with an aesthetic that emphasizes only rigor and clarity and thereby sacrifices Romantic Sublime impulses, the part of creativity that lies in the realm of the spirit or the subconscious. Olson attacks Duncan in "Against Wisdom As Such" for seeking a false wisdom, one lying outside his own direct experience. But Duncan defends what he calls his "pretentious fictions": "I like rigor and even clarity as a quality of a work—that is, as I like muddle and floaty vagaries. It is the intensity of the conception that moves me. This intensity may be that it is all of a fervent marshmallow dandy lion fluff" (FC, 65).

Duncan's diverse sources fulfill needs that are not only "poetic" but are part of a search for a larger social and sexual identity as well. He found early in his development as a poet that only a poetry of trial and error, of experimentation with very different models, could satisfy his many disparate urges: "The structure of my life like the structure of my work was to emerge in a series of trials, a problematic identity. A magpie's nest or a collage, a construct of disparate elements drawn into the play they have excited, a syncretic religion" (YC, ii).


Duncan tried from his earliest work onward to establish a ground between the two traditions of poetry he loved and admired: a Poundian poetry of "controlld [sic ] strength . . . having the power of exactitudes and discriminations of tone" and the more "rhetorical," Romantic mode of Milton, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Duncan's favorite model as a fledgling poet, George Barker. In "Persephone," an early poem of 1939, Duncan was already trying to infuse some of the "magic of the poetry of Ezra Pound" into his own verse. Although at this stage Duncan could not yet make his way through the more documentary or political sections of The Cantos, he was deeply moved by "Pound's autohypnotic evocation of a world in which gods and elemental beings moved" (YC, iii–iv). This same world of The Cantos continued to serve as a source of inspiration for Duncan during the decades to come. Without it, the first of Duncan's "mature" volumes, The Opening of the Field, could not have existed. Although many of the poems in The Opening of the Field are not ostensibly Poundian, moving toward a mystical evocation of desire and spirituality, the most successful poems are those that achieve a sense of Romantic fervor while fulfilling Poundian standards of craft, concision, clarity, and musicality and employing techniques of ellipsis, juxtaposition, and allusion adapted from The Cantos .

To understand fully Duncan's use of Pound's poetry in forming his own poetic practice in The Opening of the Field, let us examine his reading of Canto 91, from the "Rock-Drill" section, a Canto that exemplifies for Duncan the transcendent quality in Pound's later work "of the poem's moving, as the poet holds in his mind a sacred and divine universe, of a sacramental and divining dance of Mind in syllables, words, and articulations of line" (FC, 211). Duncan was moved to write about this Canto, perhaps the most lyrically beautiful part of the "Rock-Drill" section, on two separate occasions, ten years apart. In 1979, he finds Canto 91 to be a prime example of this "unconditional beauty" in Pound's art, an order of poetry "where Beauty is a sense of universal relations, of being brought into the intensities of even painful feeling." Pound is at times embarrassed, accord-


ing to Duncan, by a "womanly" beauty in his poetry that shows "a hint of vulnerability," and Pound prefers instead to break into a rough and realist "man-talk," "a subliminal voice from some barracks or locker-room." Yet despite his professed disdain for the lyric or Romantic subjects that had already been "spieled on endlessly" by himself and "9,000,000 other poets," Pound increasingly returns to practice "the trobar clus, " where such things as "Spring, Trees, Love, Wind have enduring and hidden meaning." Canto 91 plays on images of eyes, light, and crystal and represents for Duncan the powers of the imagination to reveal hidden meanings through visionary experience. Duncan quotes from the beginning of Pound's poem, then comments:

that the body of light come forth
                from the body of fire
And that your eyes come to the surface
            from the deep wherein they were sunken,
Reina—for 300 years,
                   and now sunken
That your eyes come forth from their caves
          & light then
               as the holly-leaf
              qui laborat, orat.

We recognize an image in the process of the poem not because of some device of speech, not as a descriptive arrangement of words or a striking word, but because we see as we write. In the memory of the first poem and the picture, the poem, moving the imagination, was remembered as an actual experience of a frog leaping and the plash of the pond; the picture actually seen by my eyes was remembered as a picture seen.[18]

Also reappearing in Canto 91 is one of the central ideograms of the "Rock-Drill" section, that of hsien, which takes on new radiance in one of Pound's most memorable images as the "tensile" light of the silk cocoons that "the peasant wives hide . . . now/under their aprons/for Tamuz/That the sun's silk/hsien [picture of ideogram] tensile/be clear" (C, 612). We feel here what Duncan describes as a "painful" beauty, as the sun and the earth, the godhead and the "peasant's bent shoulders" are com-


bined in a vision that enacts, to use one of Duncan's favorite phrases from Pound, "our kinship with the vital universe." Finally, the poem enacts Pound's historical sweep, his "universalizing Mind": side by side are the voyagers Apollonius, Odysseus, and Sir Francis Drake, the poets Bernart de Ventadorn, Cavalcanti, and Dante, and in a negative portrayal the philosophers Marx and Freud. Canto 91 is above all the poem of magnificent women, what James Wilhelm calls the "Queen's Canto." It opens with the evocation of "Reina" of the sunken eyes and proceeds to evoke Undine, Helen of Tyre, Princess Ra-Set, Eleanor, Artemis/Diana, Empress Theodora, "Merlin's moder," Joan of Ark, and Queen Cytherea (with whom the poem ends), not to mention peasant women and water nymphs. Even a kind of chaste, mystical marriage between Merlin's parents is described, for which Pound brings in the language of Celtic myth that is so important to Duncan's own poetry: "By the white dragon, under a stone/Merlin's fader is known to none" (C, 613).

It is likely that Duncan finds valuable and inspirational many aspects of Pound's Canto, and indeed of Pound's poetry in general, at the time of The Opening of the Field . Along with Pound's imagery of light and the notion of a higher order it suggests to Duncan, the feminine presence in Pound's later poetry is for Duncan a redeeming element in Pound's work, an indication of a newfound spirituality. At the same time, Pound's later portrayal of the feminine as essentially representative of a state of ordered beauty amid the chaos of (male) political and economic life—Pound's "rant"—implies for a reader such as Duncan a "threatened chastity of mind," a repression of the necessary sexual dimension. For Duncan, female presence and beauty can never be wholly separate from sexuality, from Eros, from the desire between men and women that represents to him, along with the homoerotic impulse, an essential component of the human psyche.

In an earlier installment of The H. D. Book Duncan writes extensively of Pound's incapacity to admit the darker side of life,


his refusal to allow "that the sublime is complicit, involved in a total structure, with the obscene—what goes on backstage":

For Ezra Pound, the operation of the work outside the spirit of its art, the excess in which what might have been aesthetic, beautiful, or later, in Vorticism, energetic, becomes psychological—sensually, sexually, or religiously sentimentalized—the psychic chiaroscuro of and in any thing—is distasteful, even abhorrent. . . . Spirit in the Cantos will move as a crystal, clean and clear of the muddle, even the filth, of the world and its tasks thru which Psyche works in suffering towards Eros. . . . Healthy mindedness is an important virtue for Pound's art—the clean line. . . . Pound insists upon the "well-balanced," the "mens sane in corpore sano" base. . . . To think at all, to imagine or to be concerned with, that state of the human psyche whose light is Luciferian and whose adversity is Satanic—much less to admit that in our common humanity we are ourselves somehow involved in that state—is, for Pound, to go wrong, to darken reason, a morbidity of mind.[19]

For Duncan, a vision of life that contains Eleusis must also include "the eroticism of D. H. Lawrence," the unconscious world opened up by Freud, and "the mire where Christ was born"; similarly, in an aesthetic realm (always mirroring the spiritual) an appreciation of the craft of Venetian stonemakers should not exclude the fleshly drama conjured up by a painting of Rubens.

It is Whitman, rather than Pound, who provides a poetic model for including this side of human nature. Despite the historical link Pound represents "in the succession from Whitman to us," Pound and his Modernist legacy mandate against a Whitmanic "longing" for sexual, spiritual, even linguistic freedom:

The generation of poets who were contemporary with psychoanalysis also had a bias against abstraction; Pound, Williams, and we as their progeny have sought to test language, as if many of its functions were unreal or unsavory, against a control taken, in mimesis of the empiricism presumed in the scientific method, from the observable "objective" world. But I would see the process at work in Dante's


and Whitman's falling-in-love in light of another reading out of Freud, in which Eros and Thanatos are primary, at work in the body of the poem even as they work in the body of man, awakening in language apprehensions of what we call sexuality and spirituality. Parts of language, like parts of the physical body, will be inspired; syllables and words, like cells and organs, will be excited, awakened to the larger identity they belong to.    (FC, 162)

In the "Rock-Drill" section, in addition to those women present in Canto 91, we find Queen Elizabeth and Cleopatra (important thinkers as well as great rulers), Empress Maria Theresa, Isis and Kuanon, St. Ursula, Isolt, Piccarda Donati, Fortuna and Luna, and Helen of Troy. As in Dante's Paradiso, we find here the noble equivalents of the "dangerous women" who inhabit Pound's hell in the early Cantos. In Duncan's own poetry, particularly in The Opening of the Field, he continually returns to an evocation of women: as a personal and sexual presence, as an embodiment of desire, and as a representation of an aesthetic order—"the Muse." In "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," for example, Pound's queens are united with the "Lady" from his adaptation of Cavalcanti's "Donna mi priegha," who becomes Duncan's guide:

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.

(OF, 7)

Duncan's poem "The Maiden" from the same collection is a tribute to famous women of myth and literature and to women poets. Here Pound's vision of woman as embodying a crystalline purity is "tainted" with an always nascent sexuality:

Because we thirst for clarity,
the crystal clear brook Undine wakes
unquenchable longing, in which
jewels innocent show in lovely depths.

Her persistence makes


Freud's teaching that a child has sexual fantasies

(OF, 27)

Duncan recalls the water spirit Undine from Canto 91—"Thus Undine came to the rock/by Circeo/and the stone eyes again looking seaward" (C, 610). He also remembers Persephone (Proserpine, Kore), who is a central figure throughout The Cantos, one of the "Poundian trinity" of "three goddesses in one." She is especially memorable in the "Lynx" passage of Canto 79 (in a line Duncan quotes from in "The Truth and Life of Myth"): "Kore, Kore, for the six seeds of an error" (C, 490). Duncan's nod to Pound is only in passing here, for he prefers to return instead to Dante's vision of evocative physical beauty, rather than Pound's more reserved and statuesque mythology:

Lovely to look at,  modesty
imparts to her nakedness willowy
grace. Bright with spring,     vestita
di nobilissimo colore umile ed onesto sanguigno
Dante saw her     so that the heart trembled .
In Hell  Persephone showd
brightness of death her face, spring

The grace and stateliness of the "maidens" Duncan evokes in the poem—Ophelia, Rachel, Cora, Dante's Beatrice—suggest his appreciation of Pound's conception of the feminine. But Duncan's use of women is more reminiscent of the Dante/Whitman tradition he often invokes. Freud and Lawrence appear, along with Hamlet of "dark earth," and remind us that the state of girlhood is a precursor to puberty and the onset of sexuality. Like Whitman's, Duncan's sexual honesty will not allow us to forget our true nature: "Men have mothers. They are of woman born/and from this womanly knowledge/womanly" (OF, 28).

Duncan sees in Pound's early writing on Imagism and on the troubadours the possibility of an almost Whitmanian aesthetic, but one that is too firmly entrenched in the past. Pound's thought "does not go forward with contemporary scientific imagination


to a poetic vision of the Life Process and the Universe but goes back to Ficino and the Renaissance ideas" (FC, 190). In Duncan's "opening" poem, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," he creates an ideogram that can include both of his predecessors and that has indications of both past and future.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun's going down

whose secret we see in a children's game
of ring a round of roses told.

(OF, 7)

The "dream" and the "secret" are words from the realm of mystery, a level of language Duncan feels Pound tries to exclude from his poetic world. These are words "pregnant" with meaning, and they bring "children" into the field of knowledge and experience that make up the poem and the book, this particular manifestation of future life is, like the female sexuality that produced it, absent from Pound's vision.

But the image works on two other levels as well: the "grass blowing/east against the source of the sun" is a metamorphosis of a Poundian ideogram, that of east as the sun caught in branches, and a powerful evocation of the Pound of the Pisan Cantos and after—"a man on whom the sun has gone down" (C, 430). These same three lines also allude to Whitman, to the grass of Leaves of Grass blowing in the winds of time and to the "mysterious" and "prophetic" message of Democratic Vistas and that dream vision, "Song of Myself."[20]

There is also a Duncanesque pun here: "the source of the sun" is also the source of the son, Whitman as father to Pound in the last "hour" of his life and subsequently Pound as the father to Duncan himself. Duncan is now a child seeking "permission" to


enter his phase of "mature" poetry, ready to take responsibility for the field as "a given property of the mind/that certain bounds hold against chaos." "We see" (vision as phanopoeia and as apotheosis) the clear and defined image (though through a dream) as we experience the explicitly musical (melopoeic) properties of language in the nursery-rhyme line "of ring a round of roses told." We also encounter the logopoeia of a "dance of the mind" at the end of the poem, a dance that involves the juxtaposition of two central images. The last line of the poem, "everlasting omen of what is," reconciles past, present, and future, bringing together in the poetic process a childlike openness to new experience, the work of the present poet, and the inspiration provided by predecessors such as Whitman and Pound.

As Norman Finkelstein has observed, "Often I Am Permitted . . ." is a "seminal post-modern lyric"; it is an embodiment of the Poundian virtues of precision and workmanship but at the same time allows the freer play of "rhetoric" that is a legacy of Whitman and of the Romantic tradition.[21] It is a poem intended to be read in the tradition of Whitman, Pound, and Williams as an "open" and "inclusive" work, less interested in its own autonomous "intramural" relations than in its multivalent relationship to sources in the natural world (spatial), in poetic models (temporal), and in the realm of an informing spiritual experience (eternal and virtually unbounded) that allows a larger field of poetry to be "folded" into the poem.[22] The poem also serves more locally as an introduction to the poems that follow it in the book and, indeed, through the open-ended "Structure of Rime" sequence, to poems that are to come after the end of the book. Most of the poem's resonances are not apparent without


a knowledge of the other poems in The Opening of the Field and, indeed, without some previous knowledge of Duncan's work and derivations.

Duncan's vision of the field, "meadow," or "pasture" as a communal place consisting of various interacting living communities, yet also open to the human community, establishes the poem and the book to follow in the choric tradition of Duncan's predecessors. It moves from the personal statement of the title to the shared vision of a secret "we see in a children's game." Like Duncan's poem, the secret can be appreciated only in the context of a larger community of concerns. Duncan's poetry in The Opening of the Field demonstrates the desire he shares with Pound and his other primary models to reach outside the concerns of a contained, isolated, solipsistic, or hermetic "lyric self" to the needs of a poetic or artistic community, to the needs of a "world community" of common ecological and spiritual concerns, and to the sense of community as nation exemplified by Whitman's Democratic Vistas and Pound's "American Cantos."

In his four volumes since The Opening of the Field, Duncan has illustrated, through his derivations from a wide range of diverse sources, his continuing artistic struggle with the same dual forces whose interaction shaped his earlier work. In Roots and Branches (1964), Duncan turns for his title to Pound as well as to H. D. and Williams, who move him "in their passion, in their ripeness, the fullness in process of what they are."[23] But despite the derivation of its title, Roots and Branches moves conspicuously away from Pound's influence in the direction of sources more in line with a Romantic mode of expression. In Bending the Bow, particularly in the Passages sequence, Duncan finds his most convincing poetic voice. While the poems in Passages owe a great deal to sequences such as Paterson, The Maximus Poems, and The Cantos, they also represent Duncan's most important work so far.


As we see in the next chapter, Duncan's poetry in Passages is replete with allusions not only to Pound and his poetry but to an entire world of poetic possibilities suggested by Pound's work, by the discoveries he had made a generation earlier, and by the derivative poetics he had in a sense invented. We must not be put off, however, by the knowledge that Duncan's sources are often taken at second or third hand, derived from an earlier derivation, for as he himself suggests in the title of one of his poems, these are "transmissions" from the world to the inner cosmos, the "field" of his work. Because Duncan believes in the "requiredness" of his appropriation of certain sources, a reading of his poems must attempt to come to terms with such appropriations. Rather than seeing the derivation as diminishing the originality and freshness of his work, the reader must try to appreciate the richness that his use of sources brings to the texture of the poetry.

Sometimes such reading is difficult, and the "many energies" that "shape the field" of his poem come to resemble, in Duncan's own words, "a compost" rather than "a vortex." It is unclear at times what Duncan's aesthetic intention is, let alone whether he succeeds in accomplishing it. Yet we must feel that he has touched, through his use of Pound in particular, some of the central questions of poetry in our time. Duncan is constantly seeking the answer to the question of what is "modern" in modern poetry, and in Ground Work: Before the War (1983) he deliberately foregrounds the issue, asking, "Whatever after Ezra Pound would I do with that?" (GW, 86). Is poetic rhetoric still appropriate or even possible in the latter half of the twentieth century, or does "that injunction from Pound/to direct into specifying energies" preclude "such childish things" as the ornate beauty of a poem by Ben Jonson? It is precisely this struggle between two modes of poetic discourse—which affect not only language but every level of experience—that is central to Duncan's thought and his poetry and that informs the very substance and argument of much of his work.

In Passages 36, included in "A Seventeenth Century Suite in Homage to the Metaphysical Genius in English Poetry," Duncan


contrasts in thought and form his visceral feeling for the beauty and carnal presence of the lady Truth in Ben Jonson's masque with the strict rules of Pound's poetics. Duncan outlines these rules in tight stanzas and controlled language reminiscent of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly":

The river of her being is in flood.    It fills her eyes.
Then what's invention or novelty    when  she
surprises us? We'd hide our being overcome?
strive for the essential,    or    make it new?
     She makes her grandstand and revives
emotional enormities,    old ways, grand ways, in me.
     Her left hand
holds a curious ring of keys in which    rooms
     —heavens and hells—
beyond our hopes and fears    are lockt.

I'd like to clear the air,
take on a "modern" stance, Poetics 1924,
a language without ornament
a measure    functional thruout,
nothing fancy,    all
without excess,    expressive,
recalling in archaic mask,
the gesture stylized,    to speak
    from energy alone.

The essential, nothing more!
The temper, fire and ice.
Line, hard cut,    without device.
Eyes, hierarchical, straight forward.
Having that rigor
testimony before the court demands.

But there she stands!    as she is, insistent,
in court dress,    elaborately personified,
decorate with impresae  and her symbolic fuss.
And everywhere,    the language is too much.

(GW, 87–88)

The language is "too much," yet Duncan feels that it is impossible to give it up entirely. Throughout Ground Work: Before the War Duncan vacillates between these two modes of poetry, continuing to celebrate both Pound's techne —the "art-


fulness, steady and careful/(wary) study of the work at hand" (GW, 97)—and the Romantic impulse, the overflowing abundancies in other traditions of English poetry. Robert Duncan is, perhaps more than any poet of the twentieth century, acutely aware of the insufficiency of any single poetic style or methodology to capture the "polyphrastic relations" in a period of rapidly increasing complexity and disconnectedness. Like his master Pound, Duncan is a poet determined to take the risks that will expand our awareness of both language and experience.


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