Robert Duncan: The Collected Early Poems and Plays (The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan)
University of California Press, 2012
875 pp., $49.95
Robert Duncan: The Collected Early Poems and Plays
In a 1959 letter to painter Jasper Johns, the poet Frank O'Hara had this to say of Robert Duncan: "I can't stand him myself, but he is their [the West Coast's] Charles Olson-to me he is quite flabby by comparison, but maybe [that's] because I'm on the East Coast."
The comparison to Olson is not a compliment. In an interview with Edward Lucie-Smith, after pausing to find exactly the right word, O'Hara calls Olson a "great spirit," not a great poet, and suggests that Olson is too preoccupied with "saying the important utterance, which one cannot always summon up and indeed is not particularly desirable most of the time."
In her recent biography of Duncan, Lisa Jarnot sees in O'Hara's slight of Duncan a clash of personalities. She notes that Duncan sent O'Hara a letter after he had read his long poem "In Memory of My Feelings" in the 1958 issue of Evergreen suggesting that he and O'Hara shared certain elements of style. Irritated by Duncan's "affected tone," Jarnot writes, "O'Hara returned the letter via Donald Allen without a response."
But there's something more going on here. Duncan was right to note similarities between his work and O'Hara's. Like Duncan, O'Hara regularly used devices indebted to surrealism—parataxical juxtaposition of incongruent images (often of sex or violence), illogicality, and a multiplicity of "voices." And like Duncan, O'Hara was more interested in the process of writing than its product. In terms that could be applied to his own work, O'Hara writes in a piece on Picasso that the painter did not devote himself to a specific style but "explored the possibilities for discovery in himself as an artist, and in doing so he embraced, absorbed, and expanded" the material of his work. This is not too different from Duncan's remark in his long poem "An Essay at War" that "we pick up from a poem / or the sound of a poem the sound / of words saying themselves to us and saying / what we have been wanting to say. / Without a plan?"
The tone of Duncan's work, however, differs sharply from O'Hara's, and this is no small matter. O'Hara aimed for an "authentic" voice—a voice, as he put it, that does not sound "more elegant, more stupid, more appealing, more affectionate or more sincere than the words will allow them to be." For O'Hara, an "affected" voice makes for bad poetry because it undermines the truth-telling aspect of poetry in a world in which there are no Truths, only truths. For the Surrealists, automatic writing was a means of discovering the primordial Self buried in the unconsciousness, but for O'Hara, it was just a tool of composition that allowed one to capture the disparate feelings of a temporal being.
But for Duncan, whose parents were both theosophists and who grew up thinking, as he said in 1982, that he was "of the last generation of Atlantis," deeper meanings were everywhere. His 1968 preface to The First Decade provides one of the clearest early statements of his poetics:
I have sought to liberate in language natural powers of the poem itself. Form came in commanding cadences and rimes, sequences of vowel sounds and consonant clusters that let toward melody; and in the excitement of the music, I was transported beyond the model into the presence of the poetic intention itself—I began to see and hear with the eyes and ears of the poem.
The poet's task, in other words, is to immerse himself in language in order to discover some mystical order or primordial "poetic intention" hidden in language's phonemes. He is a Christ figure who immerses himself in the suffering of the world, as he wrote in 1946: "Glad Christ! of whom partaking I / am—as a universe is crucified in me—/ Christ-crossd upon the body of my world." In so doing, he reveals the source of all that is.
This is what Duncan means when he states on various occasions that his principal concern in his poetry is "formal." He is a mystic, preoccupied with the "mystery of order." "I am a fanatic," he writes in 1964, "not an aesthete."
In The Collected Early Poems and Plays of Robert Duncan, we have Duncan's work from 1939 to 1956. In the 822 pages that constitute Duncan's "early" work (and which covers over half of his oeuvre) we have more than one example of the ponderous tone that O'Hara found off-putting. In "I Am Not Afraid," for example, Duncan announces unblushingly: "I am not afraid of writing a great poem. / I am not afraid of writing a perfect lyric." And in the title poem from Writing as Writing, Duncan intones: