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7— In Harmony with the Master: Formal and Political Structures in Duncan's Poetry
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In Harmony with the Master:
Formal and Political Structures in Duncan's Poetry

I can't imagine the failure of certain models. Ezra Pound has never failed me as a model; I mean he still is my master.
Robert Duncan, Allen Verbatim

Pound never theoretically could face what he was actually doing in the "Cantos"; they didn't have what he understood to be form. I mean, he wanted to manage the "Cantos" as a totalitarian poem; they didn't prove to be totalitarian so he was as distressed by them as by the democracy from which he came. We couldn't have a more extreme example of democratic composition than we had out of that man who kept hoping he'd rescue himself by having totalitarian order.
Robert Duncan, to Howard Mesch

During the period from World War II until his death in 1988, Duncan was the most persistent and ardent advocate among the poets of his generation for a continuing experimentation in poetic form that was in keeping with the seminal advances made by Pound and his Modernist contemporaries. As early as 1938, when Duncan was nineteen, he became aware of the innovative formal qualities that characterized High Modernism in all the arts. Among his principle discoveries of this period was Pound; Duncan was chiefly struck by Pound's experimentation with "changes in energy, movement and tone, so exactly made." In works by Modernists such as Pound, Joyce, and the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, it was, Duncan realized, "the composition, not the exposition, of content that counts."[1] Pound's "composition" in The Cantos was responsible for an art that aimed for "the dissociation of ideas."


Duncan's initial interest in reading Pound was motivated by the important position Pound held in the first decades of the century within a group of Modernist writers and artists who for Duncan constituted the basis of a "new poetics" and an entirely new way of approaching art and literature. Displaying little of the ambivalence Olson sometimes felt toward his Modernist predecessors, Duncan praised them for their advances and sought to understand, rather than judge, their deficiencies. In a section of The H. D. Book written in the mid-1960s, Duncan explained the sense in which Pound and his contemporaries provided models that continued to be relevant a half century later:

Pound, writing in 1914, felt that a break was necessary with the preceding generation in poetry: "Surely there was never a time when the English 'elder generation as a whole' mattered less or had less claim to be taken seriously by 'those on the threshold.'" For my own generation, our elders—for me, specifically Pound, H. D., Williams, and Lawrence—remain primary generative forces. Their threshold remains ours. The time of war and exploitation, the infamy and lies of the new capitalist war-state, continue. And the answering intensity of the imagination to hold its own values must continue. The work of our elders in poetry was to make "a Dream greater than Reality"—a time-space continuum in which their concern for quality and spirit, for romance and beauty, could survive. Estranged from all but a few among them, they made a new dimension in which eternal companions appeared.[2]

Anticipating the concerns that would dominate the Passages sequence beginning in Bending the Bow the following year, he expressed in this 1967 essay his appreciation for the vital connection the Modernist movement had established between literary form and political engagement. For Duncan, the preceding generation of writers represented a historical era that called forth a revolution in poetic technique and in psychopolitical stance. Like his Modernist predecessors, Duncan and his postmodern contemporaries lived in a time of crucial sociopolitical activity; like Pound and others of his generation, they had to find within their poetics an "answering intensity of the imagination" as well


as a "time-space continuum" adequate to contain a powerfully new statement of social, political, and spiritual values and concerns. Like Pound in particular, they had to accomplish this monumental task apart from mainstream cultural and artistic movements, substituting "eternal companions" for the "estranged" culture of a largely alien society. In a March 9, 1963 letter to Olson, Duncan had suggested the essential change in cultural orientation that took place for the generation of High Modernists who reached their adulthood and artistic maturity just before World War I. The cultural turmoil of the period around World War I had impelled writers toward an idea of poetic form that could incorporate history, "a syncretic world-poem where locality and field are crucial."[3] Duncan valued as a model for his own generation the imaginative act of a work like The Cantos, which could contain within it personae of many times and places, thus providing a poetic analogue to "the flux of cinematographic art" and exemplifying a sense of "virtu moving through time."

In the last chapter I discussed the important role derivation plays in Duncan's work. For Duncan, this "gathering of diverse influences" also constitutes a formal principle in his poems, a means of textually incorporating parts of what he calls "the conglomerate," the poetic "information" that provides a continually developing source of inspiration. Duncan's favorite conceptual model for the poem is that of the "cell," an entity that is never completely self-sufficient—it is separated from the outer world only by a thin semipermeable membrane—but that contains within it inner surfaces whose "aggregate amounts to something large." Duncan views The Cantos as a primary model of the poem as "cell": "Pound's inspiration in his Cantos, ultimately distressing to him, is in such an increase in the internal surface of the poem. It does not homogenize; for its operations are not archetypal or simple. Its organization is not totalitarian


but co-operative. . . . Every intense realization for me goes to inform anew the field of the poem."[4]

With the idea of the poem as cell, Duncan evokes the organic notion of the poem as physical and living form. The cell is an ideal model for Duncan, suggesting at once physical growth and process, inherent complexity, and a dynamic interrelation between the poem and the exterior world. Duncan views Olson's "Projective Verse" as a further exemplification of this same physical conception; in Olson's projective poetry the syllable—"the immediate minim, the immediate sounding event of our speech"—takes on the energy of a single "molecular particle" within the larger cell of the poem as a whole.[5]

The idea of developing the internal complexity of poetic form is of central importance to Duncan, who sees himself as carrying further or redefining unresolved aspects of The Cantos, that great American work of "polyglot assemblage."[6] The work that Pound ultimately saw as a failure ("a mess") because of its lack of "coherence" is attractive to Olson, Duncan, and Ginsberg for precisely that reason—they see in it a statement of the impossibility of total coherence or total closure. For Duncan in particular, the uncompletedness of this large form, this cosmic form as "a creation in process," is a liberating factor. It underlies his thesis that the poem is "an organically incremental process," a "cell" in constant movement and mutation that overflows not only the permeable boundaries established between forms and genres but also those imposed between the works of one poet or poetic work and another. In this sense, the operation of a single lyric within the tradition of a long poem or poetic sequence such as "Song of Myself," The Cantos, or Duncan's own Passages


and "The Structure of Rime" represents an intertextuality not only of language or semiotic systems but of forms themselves.

Duncan, following Pound, seeks a craft that allows him to explore "the form of the total process," rather than one that imposes a fixed form on the natural "force" of poetic expression:

THE CRAFT : art or skill of rendering a medium (in poetry, the sound and sense of the language) as a force fit for the complex of impression, perception, information, emotion, apprehension, in which the impetus and intent of the work arises. Pound gave us to "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase," thus opening up wider and more complex articulations of feeling and thought, and in rhythmic structure to preserve "the shape of your words, or their natural sound, or their meaning," thus directing our concern to what is happening—shape, sound, and meaning in movement.[7]

Whereas for the Objectivists craft is primarily a vehicle for exercising greater control over the poetic medium, Duncan prefers a less rigorously technical use of the term. He chooses to experience his craft not as an artisan forming his material but as an artist allowing the natural energies of language to enter into a poetic composition. The term that Duncan uses to describe his own poetry—collage —indicates his belief that the poem is open to just such a process of experiencing "what is happening," of assembling a form based on a cosmic "poetry of poetries." Although The Cantos gave him the model for the form of collage, Duncan's own use of the form, particularly in the poetic sequence Passages, attempts to go beyond Pound's understanding of the collage form as a vehicle for the "reincarnation" of various themes and personae throughout the poem. Duncan's collage is a means of exploring correspondences in the universe that defy rational understanding.[8]

By the time Duncan visited Pound at St. Elizabeth's in 1947, he had been reading Pound diligently for ten years, using the discipline of Pound's poetics as a corrective to the excesses of his own exuberantly Romantic nature, while also attempting to


write a few poems in a Poundian style.[9] Duncan went to Pound with the purpose of meeting and paying homage to a poet who was "an absolute master," but Duncan appears to have had little of Olson's desire to "help" Pound or serve as his advocate. Duncan had made it clear from the beginning of his correspondence with Pound that they had strong ideological differences, and thus he had achieved a distance from the older poet that Olson never had.[10] The visits were also much less prolonged than Olson's, consisting of a few afternoons during a single week, and they certainly did not have the same impact on Duncan that they had on Olson. Although younger than Olson, Duncan was by this time a more established poet who had been forming his own poetic voice and convictions since the late 1930s. Duncan was also less concerned than Olson about the direct relevance of Pound's political message. Like Olson, Duncan saw ways in which the form and content of The Cantos reflected Pound's politics. However, when Duncan adopted formal elements from Pound's work, he hoped to divorce them from Pound's political system by combining Pound's form and voice with those of other contradictory sources. Thus, what chiefly interested Duncan in Pound's work was the creation of a radically new poetic form and the way that form reflected a changing social and psychological reality.

Emphatically, Duncan was going to deal with Pound as a poet or not at all and would not humor him by listening to the "political rant" to which Olson was subjected. Nevertheless, Duncan found the sessions trying, particularly because Pound seemed to have no interest in developments in the arts, such as most recent work of Matisse or Stravinsky, for whom Duncan


professed a high regard. Pound was also not impressed by Duncan's poetry in Heavenly City, Earthly City , questioning why Duncan found it necessary to write the same kind of Romantic poem he felt Modernist poets had already gone beyond.

Nonetheless, Duncan's artistic engagement with Pound gained renewed importance as a result of their meetings. Duncan's "Variations upon Pound's essay Cavalcanti ," his translations of "Donna mi priegha," and his Venice Poem demonstrated a continuing effort to come to terms with Pound's art and influence. Duncan was also beginning to take a greater interest in the question of form as it applied to all the arts. In his essay "The Poetics of Music: Stravinsky," Duncan showed a new desire to address the more formal qualities of music and the visual arts as well as those of literature.

The Venice Poem, written in the spring and summer of 1948, was the early poem that owed the greatest debt to The Cantos . Duncan was preoccupied at the time of The Venice Poem with at least two of the same problems Pound and the other Modernists faced: how to incorporate larger forms in his poetry and how to understand the poetic medium in relation to the other arts. In the poem Duncan explored Pound's "tone leading of vowels" and "fugal" form as musical structures and also tried to derive poetic motifs from visual works of art. In The Venice Poem, unlike Duncan's earlier work, Pound's influence could be seen not only on the level of language and tone but also in terms of overall structure, technique, and conception.

At the same time, Duncan was increasing his own "erudition," taking courses in medieval history and Renaissance architecture and studying Greek with the hope of progressing to Sanskrit and Chinese. In Poundian terms, Duncan was gathering the "materials" on which to base a longer poem and with which to form his own "ideogrammatic configurations."[11] Just as Olson was beginning to adapt Pound's use of historical sources to his own project in what was to become The Maximus Poems,


Duncan was finding Pound's brand of "culture," at least as a base, increasingly stimulating and fruitful.

Composing The Venice Poem forced Duncan to come to terms with the structure of The Cantos as "an assertion of relationships," which "grasped as a picture or ideogram is the meaning ."[12] Unlike traditional forms such as the sonnet, sestina, or quatrain, in which Duncan was no longer interested, the type of form represented by The Cantos had become by this time "very much my own." Even the words he used to describe poetic composition were suggestive not of literary discourse but of other artistic disciplines such as dance, painting, and architecture:

How to increase the complexity of interpenetration of parts; how to make the poem go on as long as possible—that is to contain the maximum quantity of moving parts so that the final performance of choreography and design will keep me intrigued intellectually and emotionally: all this posed against the endurance of the ideal audience—the ideal audience being one that can take precisely as much as I could take myself.[13]

Strangely enough, despite Duncan's obvious concern with the formal relations in The Venice Poem, Pound thought the poem did not have enough of "a plan." For Duncan, who read The Cantos as a "stream of consciousness," a "time flow" with no particular unifying structure, Pound's comment must have been surprising. This second piece of negative criticism from Pound was disheartening to Duncan, who saw Pound's statement as a sign of dissatisfaction with the final form of his own Cantos and his failure to understand, or admit, the radically free form they took. Indeed, Duncan felt that in The Cantos Pound relied too heavily on a "preplan" to guide the structure of the poem.[14]

Duncan's response to Pound's criticism notwithstanding, it is true that The Venice Poem suffers from a lack of cohesion, due


either to Duncan's inexperience with a poem of this length (we recall the dubious merits of Pound's first drafts of early "Cantos") or to the lack of any programmatic and unifying philosophical framework. If anything, the poem is based on a system of personal and aesthetic concerns that only occasionally bear the weight placed on them by so ambitious a project. The Poundian imperatives quoted in the poem—"We must understand what is happening," "Watch the duration of syllables, the melodic coherence, the tone leading of vowels," and "The function of poetry is to debunk by lucidity"—do not seem to guide the reader in any meaningful way. Although The Venice Poem represents Duncan's first understanding of "the full structural imperative of a form seeking to come into existence in the process of a poem," his description of that process indicates a different notion of plan from the notion Pound professed for The Cantos: "It was like dreaming and in the dream working out the dream and knowing coordinations of its form and content as a language, coming to know the meaning of what was happening."[15]

Unlike Pound, who wants so badly to "make it cohere," Duncan prefers to work in a state of dream or trance, relinquishing the controlling presence of the poetic ego to experience the "natural" forces at play in the language and form. The Venice Poem enacts such a liminal state between art and music and "upon the edge of poetry," and accordingly it has "no coherence/other than the melodic vein/suffusing in pearl luster/over all surfaces."[16] The resemblance of Duncan's poem to The Cantos remains one of surface; words and phrasing taken almost verbatim from Pound's work ring hollow here. In The Cantos, the more lyrical passages gain their power through contrast with the pages of historical documentation and political and economic commentary that surround them, thereby assuming a special status as states of experience alternative to the world of everyday events. Duncan's poem provides no such sense of a


sustained historical context, and the value Pound confers on his moments of lyrical intensity is correspondingly diminished.

Twelve years separated The Venice Poem from the publication of The Opening of the Field, but they were twelve years of intense activity. During this time Duncan participated in many of the most significant developments in American poetry. He was a leading member of the San Francisco Renaissance, a central force in what came to be known as the Black Mountain movement, and a friend and supporter of the Beat poets. Duncan sees his experiences in 1952 as the crucial turning point for his own work. It was in that year, reading Olson's Maximus and discovering the work of Levertov, that he first understood the importance of Olson's "Projective Verse," a "call to order" for post-modern poets that "landed in our world and made a proposition that you have to start doing something."[17] Soon afterward, Duncan's discoveries of Creeley and Ginsberg occurred, and with them came a new understanding of the possibilities contained in the work of earlier poets such as Whitman and Williams and of open-form poetry in general. He also read from the strikingly new forms of poetry that appeared in these years and constituted a revolution in poetic practice as abrupt as that brought about by Pound's Imagism early in the century. The most prominent of these were the first four books of Williams's Paterson (1951) and his Desert Music (1954); Olson's Maximus Poems 1–22 (1953) and In Cold Hell, In Thicket (1953); Ginsberg's Howl (1956); continuing sections of Zukofsky's "A" ; and Pound's "Rock-Drill" Cantos (1955).

In a letter to Olson on June 17, 1954, Duncan vowed to "rouse my mind and fix my attention."[18] He remarked the "drive toward a maximum energy" in "Projective Verse" and the "current" of new writing in the work of himself, Olson, Ginsberg, and Creeley, a current that "runs underground," not appearing "upon the surfaces of this literary world of not-critical


criticism." Duncan then complained about the critical reception of Pound's Cantos as well as of groups such as the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Objectivists, whose works were largely "indigestible to the professional readers." Duncan likened the current critical climate to a "Pandora's box of stagnant pre-occupations to be cleared away" that had to be replaced by the "clear in-sight hear-say testimony in act" of a "projective" stance. Duncan's wordplay here encapsulated the poetics that he, Olson, and Creeley, among others, were trying to advance. For Duncan, poets and critics must respond directly to the original somatic impulses behind poetic composition (in-sight hear-say) and pay closer attention to a poetic "process" (a testimony in act) unmediated by conventional attitudes and assumptions.

Duncan also defined his present relation to Pound in this letter, written only four months prior to Olson's announced dissatisfaction with Pound in "I, Mencius. . . ." Duncan claimed that Pound's economic standard in Social Credit should be expanded to include all areas of language and poetry. In Pound's work, "the language [itself] is a social fund, an air, water, earth or fire, an elemental wealth in which we, any, all have a social credit: unbounded, to claim. Inspiration (in-breathing), currents, roots and light/heat." Following Pound's example, Duncan argued, poets in the tradition had to continue the "critical task" to which "Projective Verse" pointed. "If it is we is [sic ] a literary movement with our fortunes to win I gladly default," he wrote. "But if it is there might be, even if only in—as if accident—academe, a spark from that flinty task to arouse us, get a move on, it's to be done."

Duncan moved part of the way toward the world of academe two years later, joining Olson to teach at Black Mountain. At the same time, he began writing the poems included in The Opening of the Field . In the four years Duncan spent on this book, the Pound tradition continued to develop its new poetics, as the fifth book of Paterson, Zukofsky's "A" 1–12, Pound's Thrones, and Olson's The Distances all appeared. These texts, along with Whitman's Leaves of Grass (now Duncan's "bedside book"), served as background for Duncan's new poetry, the "field" into


which he was now "permitted"—"a made place,/that is mine, it is so near to the heart,/an eternal pasture folded in all thought" (OF, 7 ).[19]

It was during this time that Pound's notion of the ideogram became a central formal principle in Duncan's work. In a letter to Olson from the summer before he began The Opening of the Field, Duncan wrote that he was "reading again Cantos 85, 86, and 87 and realizing that some of these ideograms are coming into my language."[20] Exactly which ideograms he had in mind we can only guess because his use of them in his own poetry was more metaphoric than literal. Nonetheless, his experimentation with the ideogram as a structure of language was a significant stage in the development in his work. The ideogram, at least as interpreted by Fenollosa and Pound, is an active, verb-oriented structure that always moves the writer or reader toward a new or at least a more developed understanding or sensibility; thus, for someone of Duncan's poetic temperament the ideogram remains semantically open. Duncan found the ideogrammatic form to be a liberating conception; an ideogrammatic experience of the cosmos as "a creation in process" would differ from what he saw as a traditionally paradigmatic notion of the universe. According to Duncan, Pound's notion of "design" as "intent in an open possibility" was inspired by his discovery of Fenollosa's essay "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry." Pound's discovery of a "moving syntax" came from Fenollosa's claim that "the true noun does not exist in nature": "Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap-shots. . . . The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them."[21]


Duncan's relation to Pound's use of the ideogram remains a problematic one. Although we see in Duncan's poetry examples of his adaptation of Pound's ideogrammatic method, I take issue with Laszlo Géfin's contention that Duncan's primary method of collage is essentially ideogrammatic simply because it involves the "incorporation of foreign matter."[22] To call Duncan's poems "collage ideograms," as Géfin does, is to confuse two distinct concepts and to promote a reductive understanding of both Pound and Duncan. The primary purposes behind Pound's method of ideogram, or "pictographic script," are condensation and scientific accuracy. Pound views the ideogrammatic method as "the method of science" and understands it to be based on a perfectly reliable and simple conception of language and referentiality. The method of the Chinese writer, according to Pound, "when he wishes to define red," is "very much the kind of thing a biologist does." There is no need in Pound's understanding for the kind of process Duncan envisions in the "grand collage" because according to Pound the ideogram "is based on something everyone KNOWS" (ABC, 22). Duncan's collage, however, is a method based on "faith," which can lead him into uncharted and irrational areas of personal experience. Pound explicitly contrasts the ideogrammatic mode with the metaphysical mode of Western thought that predominates in Duncan's thought and work.[23]

Nonetheless, in "The Truth and Life of Myth," Duncan discusses two of Pound's ideograms and refers to their impact on his own thinking. The first of these is the ideogram for the Confucian concept of sincerity, which Pound describes as "the sun's lance coming to rest on the precise spot . . . to perfect, bring to focus." For Duncan, this ideogram sums up the process of poetic composition, in which "the work of art is itself the field we would render the truth of" and in which we "focus in on the process itself as the field of the poem." Duncan differs from


Pound, however, in his interpretation of the implications of sincerity for poetic composition, emphasizing the way in which a recognition of process allows "discord" to enter the form of the poem.

The second ideogram is "fidelity to the given word" or "the man standing by his word." Once again, Duncan revises Pound's use of the Confucian term for his own purposes: "This faithfulness, this truth to the word, I take to mean not that the writer deny the possibility of error and defend his statement, but that he face the possibility of error and seek the truth of his statement" (FC, 48–49).

More important to Duncan than the explicit use of these ideograms in his poetic technique is the way in which the ideogrammatic unit functions as a symbol for a more general principle of order in Pound's work. Although Pound's belief in "the Confucian myth of the state" troubles Duncan, he cannot help admiring the "heroic" gesture Pound makes in his "commitment to order," to "the Law." In his essay "The Lasting Contribution of Ezra Pound," Duncan cites as one of Pound's central legacies the introduction of Confucian thought and order (and the ideogram as emblematic of that order) into modern poetry. Duncan writes of his "concern with the nature of the Law," which is "inspired by the poet of The Cantos ."

The law is a term that encompasses a broad range of meanings and resonances in Duncan's usage. It connotes everything from a universal or cosmic law of nature (like Pound's germinal consciousness, directio voluntatis, or omnia quae sunt, lumina sunt ) to a principle of human behavior that has "its root in a man's inner order, the law of a lawful anarchism . . . opposed to the politics of coercion." The term also operates on a more formal level in the poem—as a law of creative order, of language and syntax.[24]

Duncan's questioning of the notion of the law in its range of manifestations anticipates the examination of political systems


found in his later work. It is in responding to the explicitly political level of his nation in crisis that Duncan finally achieves his strongest and most Poundian poetic voice as well as his most complete synthesis of form and content. This political register comes to the forefront in the poems of Bending the Bow, but it begins to appear in The Opening of the Field . Duncan's longest and most important poem in the latter book, "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," suggests a new voice in Duncan's poetry based on a Poundian certainty in the poetic validity of political conviction. In contrast to The Venice Poem, the power of political statement in this poem gives force to Duncan's rhetoric and allows his lyricism a larger sweep. If Duncan's poetry had always contained a prophetic strain, here his prophecy involves areas of the psyche that operate outside the context of merely personal relevance and that suggest a shared human consciousness of social existence.

In "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," the poet becomes a healer who through his activity can return "brightness" to a world whose beauty is threatened by the stupidity and avarice of political leaders. Duncan, like Pound and Whitman before him, identifies personally with the deterioration of his country:

                    I too
that am a nation sustain the damage
        where smokes of continual ravage
obscure the flame.
               It is across great scars of wrong
        I reach toward the song of kindred men
        and strike again the naked string
old Whitman sang from.

(OF, 64)

Again he combines the visions of Whitman and Pound, this time in a condemnation of the presidents throughout the previous century of American history:

Harding, Wilson, Taft, Roosevelt,
idiots fumbling at the bride's door,
hear the cries of men in meaningless debt and war.


Where among these did the spirit reside
that restores the land to productive order?
McKinley, Cleveland, Harrison, Arthur,
Garfield, Hayes, Grant, Johnson,
dwell in the roots of the heart's rancor.

(OF, 64)

The image of the "idiots fumbling at the bride's door" and the expression of hope for "restor[ing] the land to productive order" are reminiscent of Pound's denunciation of infertility as a reversal and desecration of the natural process in the "Usura Cantos" and elsewhere.

Whitman and Pound are central to Duncan as the prophetic American poets who in their old age were able to achieve an unaltering wrongness that has style/their variable truth," a poetry made of "words that shed like tears from a plenitude of powers time stores" (OF, 63). From his opening invocation of Pindar's ode—"The light foot hears you and the brightness remains"—and with it a world of youthful beauty and exuberance exemplified by Cupid and Psyche, Duncan moves to an appreciation of the tragic loss of youthful radiance in the work of "the old poets." In the third section of the poem, he turns his full attention to "the old man at Pisa," the suffering Pound of the Pisan Cantos, a heroic figure "who must struggle alone towards the pyres of day":

            Psyche's tasks—the sorting of seeds
wheat  barley  oats  poppy  coriander
anise  beans  lentils  peas   —every grain
               in its right place
                           before nightfall
gathering the gold wool from the cannibal sheep
(for the soul must weep
     and come near upon death);
harrowing Hell for a casket Proserpina keeps
                         that must not
     be opend . . . containing beauty?
no! Melancholy coild like a serpent
                           that is deadly asleep
we are not permitted
                  to succumb to.


     These are the old tasks.
     You've heard them before.
     They must be impossible. Psyche
must despair, be brought to her
                          insect instructor;
must obey the counsels of the green reed;
saved from suicide by a tower speaking,
    must follow to the letter
    freakish instructions.

In the story the ants help. The old man at Pisa
     mixd in whose mind
(to draw the sorts) are all seeds
          as a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
had part restored by an insect, was
    upheld by a lizard

              (to draw the sorts)
the wind is part of the process
                 defines a nation of the wind—
    father of many notions,

let light into the dark?     began
the many movements of the passion?

from east men push.
                     The islands are blessd
(cursed) that swim below the sun,

man on whom the sun has gone down!

(OF, 65–66)

I quote this third section at length not simply for the allusions to Pound himself but for the example of Duncan's writing in a projective mode where the form, loosely based on that of the Pisan Cantos, reflects its content. In the beginning of this section we find a "sorting of seeds" as Duncan, through the workings of Psyche, distributes them in evenly spaced rows in the line. The careful listing of the types of seeds shows an awareness of their uniqueness and functions as a celebration of the degree of attention that Pound brings to every "task," every act of writing. The seeds become "charged with meaning," just as they are charged


with the possibility of fruitful production. Our return to the "field" here is the culmination of the Poundian metaphor Duncan repeats again and again in the book: of the seed as "generative imagination," as "ancestral grain," as "Corn that at Eleusis Kore brought" (OF, 43), as potentiality and desire, as tradition, as "fathering force/a temenos,/bounded by grandparents, that founds/one field" (OF, 56).

The story of Psyche becomes that of Pound, who, like her, experienced hell in his months at Pisa and who was saved from insanity by the "insect instructor," by the "green reed," by the lizard and the wind-all "part of the process." Pound's tasks, like those of Psyche, "must be impossible"; he cannot make The Cantos, his epic, cohere on either a personal or a sociopolitical level. Just as he cannot put his own thoughts and works "in order," he cannot save the world from destruction. In coming to terms with Pound's experience, which devastated him but at the same time allowed him to achieve the brilliant poetry of the Pisan Cantos, Duncan finds a moving story of suffering and redemption:

As at Pisa, uprooted from his study and his idées fixes, "a lone ant from a broken ant-hill," Ezra Pound was to come . . . to a turning point, exposed, at the heart of the matter. Mussolini had been torn to pieces, like Cola di Rienzi, his Renaissance counterpart. "Manes was tanned and stuffed," Pound remembers in the first Pisan canto. The poet had hitchhiked his way to Pisa and surrendered, given himself up to the army. Had he expected death? His fellow prisoners were led off to the firing squad each day. And for the first time in the Cantos, in these Pisan cantos, some attitude of authority, some self is surrendered, so that a pose seems to have fallen apart, exposing the genuine, confused, passionate mind. "A lizard upheld me," he testifies. He is in the condition of first things.[25]

Duncan emphasizes the timeless quality of such a story in the lines "These are the old tasks./You've heard them before." Just as the line of Pindar that begins Duncan's poem joins the work of Whitman, Pound, and Olson in Duncan's poetic experience,


such archetypal stories as that of Psyche can be reintegrated into the modern experience of a prisoner in war. Duncan pays tribute to Pound's own art in The Cantos, whose landscape "is a multiple image, in which the historical and the personal past, with the divine world, the world of theosophical and poetic imagination, may participate in the immediate scene."[26]

Pound is "restored" in the passage, as he was restored to his own country after the war; he "defines a nation of the wind," becoming the "father of many notions." Continuing the metaphor of the germinating seed, Duncan views Pound as an agent of the new fertility in American poetry, spreading his ideas, both right and wrong, as if in the wind. The pun on "nation/notions" reflects Pound's own preoccupation with America as an "idea," an eternal possibility.

Pound's influence on Duncan operates on an intensely personal level as well. Duncan's question "Who?" and the hesitant revelation of "let the light into the dark? began/the many movements of the passion?" returns us to the level of Duncan's own experience, reflecting a tentative, yet almost mystical, union between the speaker (Duncan) and the older poet (Pound). But in the final lines of the passage, Pound once again takes on an archetypal role as the Odyssean voyager of his own Cantos, searching in vain for a country, for a place to rest. At the time of Duncan's writing, Pound was still without a home, living out what would be the end of his term at St. Elizabeth's.[27] In a section from The H. D. Book written three years later (1961), Duncan makes explicit the connection between Pound and Odysseus: "Like Odysseus's, Pound's exile can be read as the initiation of the heroic soul (the hero of Poetry) descending deep into hubris, offending and disobeying orders of the imagination and returning at last after trials 'home.' Odysseus offended Poseidon


and is shipwrecked; Pound offends the Elohim and comes at last, like Job, to trials of old age and despair."[28]

Like Odysseus, too, Pound saved his greatest task for last. It was "the crucible of the war," the depth of his experience during his imprisonment, that made possible what was for Duncan one of the greatest works of twentieth-century poetry, the Pisan Cantos . Pound's imprisonment and "exposure to the elements," writes Duncan, "touched a spring of passionate feeling in the poet that was not the war but was his age, his ripeness in life." The "prophetic mode of high poetry" Pound achieved after the war was "a challenge" to young writers of the 1950s, unlike the works of Stevens, Moore, and Eliot, which remained "within the rational imagination" and did not "suffer from the creative disorders of primitive mind, the shamanistic ecstacies and the going 'after strange gods.' " Pound, along with Williams, H. D., and Lawrence, was a poet who "saw literature as a text for the soul in its search for fulfillment in life and took the imagination as a primary instinctual authority." He was, as Duncan puts it in one of his favorite phrases, on a continual "adventure in poetry," charting new territory, taking risks in "seeking to fulfill [his] vision of the poet as seer and creator."[29]

It is in the Passages sequence begun in Bending the Bow and continued until Duncan's death twenty years later that his poetry bears the greatest stylistic, formal, and thematic resemblance to The Cantos. Passages is, like Pound's Cantos, a "work in progress," never to be completed, or as Duncan says in his introduction to Bending the Bow , "passages of a poem larger than the book in which they appear" (BB, v). Although Pound's original intention in The Cantos may have been to achieve a set form of one hundred "Cantos," following Dante, it was clear by the time Duncan began Passages that The Cantos would never reach a final state of completion. Duncan remarks in his introduction to Bending the Bow that Pound "sought coherence in The Cantos and comes in Canto 116 to lament 'and I cannot


make it cohere' " (BB, iv). In The H. D. Book, Pound's inability to "unite" The Cantos, to make them adhere to a predetermined form, to establish closure, is seen not as a failure but rather as a sign of Pound's unique vision of art as "dynamic form." Unlike Yeats, who chose to see The Cantos as "prescribed composition, or an architectural plan, having sets, archetypal events . . . imposing a diagrammatic order of such archetypes on history," Pound saw the important structure as the form the poem took "on the page." Duncan compares Pound's feeling for structure in The Cantos to his analysis of Clément Janequin's music, which is a "music of representative outline" rather than a "music of structure." For Pound, the ideal form is that of natural process, "the forma, the immortal concetto, the concept, the dynamic form which is like the rose pattern driven into the dead iron-filings by the magnet."[30]

Duncan calls Pound's final Cantos "the Cantos of Contrition" and reads them as the apotheosis of this poetry that "takes shape in the air," a work not ordered and arranged but always marked by "the defects inherent in a record of struggle." Duncan remarks how Pound sought in Mozart a symbol of musical coherence against the "chaos" of Beethoven and Bartók, but could not escape the fact that his own "struggle to form" was ultimately Heraclitean. Duncan quotes Heraclitus in support of his claim that all music, and by extension poetry, is by nature in conflict with itself, capable of discordance within its own structure. "[In] being at variance it agrees with itself," says Heraclitus of the (Orphic) lyre. "There is a connection working in both directions." Duncan's poetic sequence, like Pound's Cantos, will be "polysemous"; it will be connected "as in a mobile" not only by "what comes one after another as we read, but by the resonances in the time of the whole in the reader's mind" (BB, iv). Passages, like The Cantos, will be outside the realm of chronological time, the event of each line contributing to the "emerging articulations of time" in the work as a whole.


Unlike The Cantos, Passages is not presented as a single, epic work; the fifty poems that make up Duncan's sequence appear alongside other poems in three different books.[31] Thus, the poems cannot be read as closed off from Duncan's other poetry, as constituting in any sense a unified, epic structure. Duncan's individual Passages are also shorter on the whole than a single Canto and can be read more easily as self-contained poems that relate to one another in oblique ways, rather than as part of a narrative continuity or as "building blocks" of an overarching structure. All but three of the Passages sequence also have their own titles, suggesting a greater degree of self-sufficiency. Their design is flexible, neither totally conforming to the pattern of such "long poems" as The Cantos, Paterson, and The Maximus Poems nor completely following in the tradition of lyrics or lyric sequences. As Duncan himself says, they are "not part of a great poem at all": "They're part of a tapestry . . . a weaving that would be at the same time loose enough; indeed, I'm dissatisfied with how little I am able to break up my close weave."[32]

Even if Duncan's poem/sequence is less a monument carved in stone (Pound's "Rock-Drill") than a "weave," the debt of Passages to The Cantos is unquestionable. Allusions to techniques and forms as well as to individual words, phrases, and ideas of The Cantos can be found throughout. The inaugural poem, for example, is entitled "Tribal Memories," which informs the reader immediately that on at least one level Duncan's series takes its cue from Pound's definition of The Cantos as "the tale of the tribe." Duncan's work also focuses, like Pound's poem, on memory—both the memory of the individual poet/persona and the mythic memory of the human race, the tribe, or the nation. Duncan makes clear the mythic stature he intends, vowing to send out his poems "among tribes setting each a City / where we Her people are / at the end of a day's reaches" (BB, 9). His "City [which] will go out in time, will go out / into time, hiding even its embers" (BB, 10) echoes the sacred city of Wagadu from The


Cantos ("4 times was the city remade, / now in the heart indestructible" [C, 465]) as well as Pound's sacred cities of Dioce and Ecbatan.[33]

In the second poem, "At the Loom," The Cantos makes its physical entrance into Duncan's sequence:

                A cat's purr
in the hwirr thkk            "thgk, thkk"
   of Kirke's loom on Pound's Cantos
                  "I heard a song of that kind . . ."

my mind a shuttle among
        set strings of the music
lets a weft of dream grow in the day time,
             an increment of associations
     luminous soft threads,
the thrown glamour, crossing and recrossing,
          the twisted sinews underlying the work.

Back of the images, the few cords that bind
     meaning in the word-flow,
          the rivering web
         rises among wits and senses
gathering the wool into its full cloth.

(BB, 11)

Duncan's poetic allusion to the beginning of Canto 39, also picking up the back-and-forth dance of Canto 4—"beat, whirr, thud, in the soft turf"—provides him with the visual and aural imagery he needs to describe his own poetic process. "At the Loom" not only contains some of Duncan's best poetry; it also demonstrates the incorporation in his own work of parts of The Cantos . Here his use of Pound is not merely for echoes, allusions, or stylistic or thematic parallels; it involves a tangible process by


which Pound's "material" enters into Duncan's "loom" and is reworked by virtue of his "craft." Duncan extends Olson's notion in "I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master" of making new clothes out of the master's "shoddy"; in the passage just quoted Duncan not only describes the process in his poem but physically reenacts it in the resulting language, form, and texture.

By formally acknowledging that The Cantos will be his primary poetic source in Passages, Duncan prepares the way for a series of poems that pay tribute to the various currents of Pound's opus. Passages 3 and 7, for instance, reflect the form of Pound's "fragments" in the final Cantos. (Passages 7 is also called "Envoy," recalling Pound's "Envoi" in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly —"go, dumb-born book.") These poems convey an eerie sense of affiliation with the final "fragments" of The Cantos, which were appearing at the time Duncan was writing and which marked Pound's gradual descent into silence as he neared the end of his life. Still more clearly, the designation of Passages 31 through 35 as "Tribunals" mirrors the title of Pound's Thrones . Like Pound's later Cantos, these poems express Duncan's continuing concern with the law, with the necessity for some unified spiritual and political order to be placed against the deterioration of the modern world.

On a more local level Duncan's poems adopt several of the devices of The Cantos, such as pictures (pictographs) in the text, Poundian fragmentation and juxtaposition, quotation from several sources including John Adams (Duncan provides notes at the end of Bending the Bow ), and different adaptations of what can loosely be called the ideogrammatic method. In "At the Loom" Duncan applies Pound's technique of presenting and then defining or explaining a Chinese ideogram to the English language: he provides definitions for the words warp and shuttle from The Oxford English Dictionary, along with examples of the words' uses. Duncan derives a series of poetic images from the words' various gradations of meaning:

warp,  wearp, varp:    "cast of a net, a laying of eggs"
    from  *warp-    "to throw"


       the threads twisted for strength
                that can be a warp for the will.

       "O weaver, weaver, work no more,"
                Gascoyne is quoted:
        "thy warp hath done me wrong."

And the shuttle carrying the woof I find
    was skutill         "harpoon"   —a dart, an arrow,
             or a little ship,

         navicula              webershiff,

crossing and recrossing from shore to shore—

    prehistoric *skutil        *skut -
            "a bolt, a bar, as of a door"
            "a flood-gate"

(BB, 12)

In both this poem and "Spelling" (Passages 15) Duncan most explicitly takes on the Poundian role of poet as teacher or pedagogue. "Spelling" not only reflects the influence of Pound's didactic poetry but also refers to Olson's dictionary-inspired writings and to Olson's belief in the revelatory potential of etymological roots. Duncan goes so far as to instruct the reader ("performer") of the poem to write the italicized words on the blackboard as he reads, in "earnest mimesis of a classroom exposition." Like Pound and Olson, Duncan takes the poem to be a lesson in language; he seeks a perfected use of language that will be accurate and sincere and at the same time charged with meaning through etymology, sound, and poetic expression. In "Spelling," instead of merely tracing words to their Anglo-Saxon roots as in "At the Loom," he establishes correlations of sound and etymology among words by examining their derivations from Greek and Old English.

"The Fire" (Passages 13) contains another adaptation of the ideogram, as Duncan places thirty-six words in a square on the page at the beginning of the poem and then reverses their positions at the end. Here the words can be read in any direction within their arrangement (either horizontally, as in English, vertically, as in Chinese, or even backward or diagonally). Thus, the words themselves, removed from any fixed syntactic or sequential relation to each other, can serve as visual images as


well as units of language. Like Chinese ideograms, they exist as objects outside of syntax. In reading the poem, the semantic and imagistic connections between words occur in various patterns of meaning. The words take shape in the reader's mind both as individual mental images, as parts of a more complex picture made up by the whole square, and as a complex ideogrammatic configuration.

Duncan reinforces the sense of the visual in the poem by juxtaposing these two "word paintings" with descriptions of two paintings by Piero di Cosima and Hieronymus Bosch. Through the Bosch painting, Satan enters the poem in the form of a catastrophic vision of modern life that is redeemed only by the presence of the repeated but reversed grouping of words that ends the poem. As in The Cantos, the "political rant" that breaks out of the poet's tortured psyche ultimately falls away to reveal a transcendent vision of the natural world, an original world of light and shadow, earth and water, now and forever, "the condition of first things":

faces of Princes, Popes, Prime Usurers, Presidents,
    Gang Leaders of whatever Clubs, Nations, Legions    meet
        to conspire, to coerce, to cut down

    Now, the city, impoverisht, swollen, dreams again
    the great plagues—typhus, syphilis, the black buboes
            epidemics, manias.

My name is Legion and in every nation I multiply.
    Over those who would be Great Nations Great Evils.

They are burning the woods, the brushlands, the
         grassy fields razed; their
               profitable suburbs spread.
  Pan's land, the pagan countryside, they'd
                lay waste.






































(BB, 44–45)


Duncan's strikingly innovative arrangement is perhaps as close an approximation as is possible in the English language of Fenollosa's description of ideograms as "the meeting-points of actions, cross-section cut through actions, snap-shots ... things in motion, motion in things." This arrangement also exemplifies what Duncan finds valuable in Pound's Imagism—the image that charges language with meaning, thereby "giv[ing] value to an otherwise valueless language and world." Duncan writes of Pound's Imagist practice: "To evoke an image is to receive a sign, to bring into human language a word or a phrase ... of the great language in which the universe itself is written." Duncan contrasts the practice of Pound and H. D., poets who infuse their language with "origins in a more than personal phantasy," with that of a poet such as Eliot, whose "images are often theatrical devices." What Duncan finds in Pound's poetry, and what he tries to instill in his own writing, is a meaningful myth of everyday language in which "our daily words [are] a language of poetry, having the power of themselves to mean, and our role in speaking [is] to evoke not to impose meaning."[34] Duncan's explanation in The H. D. Book of the poet's task as one involving a Jungian collective unconscious certainly applies to a poem like "The Fire," where "the things of the poem," the "powers of stones, waters, winds," become a ritual enactment of the search for shared meanings, for the mysterious and the sacred.[35]

Duncan is a poet so highly aware of his own use of poetic models that in his work the poem, book, or entire corpus can be viewed as an open field for the interplay of poetic sources. Duncan is not confused by this complex relationship to past writers and texts; instead, he speaks forthrightly about the natural process of derivation, which is a central aspect of all poetry. Duncan's metaphors for textual influence—the poem as a


"folded field," a weave of fabric, a "grand collage," or a cell permeable by a variety of materials—certainly imply an intertextuality that is not altogether different from Kristeva's textual cross-junction. But the concrete nature of Duncan's allusions to other poets and the self-conscious gesture he makes in adopting them as models—the "love" he expresses for their work and the "permission" he asks of them to write—suggest a different intertextuality from that described by Bloom, Barthes, or Foucault. In Duncan's work, the identification of the previous author as source remains an important, even necessary component of the poem's meaning; yet the personal and historical dimension of that reference is not subjugated to the purely textual relation of the two poems. The poetic form Duncan chooses supports his view that just as the individual poet is not subsumed by the tradition, neither are the predecessors in the tradition repressed by the developing poetic ego. Instead, there is a constantly balanced and respectful interaction between past and present, individual poet and larger tradition.


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