Saturday, October 02, 2004


Ron Silliman
Ruby Slippers Tour 2004

Lawrence, KS
Monday, October 4
, 1:30 PM: Seminar Room of the Hall Center for the Humanities, a talk on Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book

Lawrence, KS
Monday, October 4
, 7:00 PM in the English Room of the Kansas Union, reading

San Francisco
Thursday, October 7, 3:30 PM,
San Francisco State University, The Poetry Center (Hum 512), talk on Robert Duncan’s HD Book

San Francisco
Thursday, October 7, 7:30 PM,
Unitarian Center, 1187 Franklin @ Geary, reading with Judith Goldman

Friday, October 01, 2004


Forty years ago next week, the administration of the University of California of Berkeley, at the behest of Senator William Knowland, forbade students from organizing on campus for off-campus political activity, such as the daily picket lines sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)  that were then occurring in front of restaurants in Oakland’s Jack London Square that refused to hire men & women of color. The students felt that this ban was clearly an unconstitutional abridgement of the rights of the freedom of speech & assembly and determined to challenge it with a test case. One student, Jack Weinberg, set up a card table at the Bancroft Way entrance to Sproul Plaza and was promptly taken into custody by the campus police who deposited him into a Berkeley police car for a quick trip down to the station.


Something, however, happened. As the car got ready to leave Sproul Plaza, it found its path blocked by students who had spontaneously gathered around. Not ten or twenty students. Not even hundreds. Thousands of students gathered and by simply standing around the police car for the next 36 hours set off the first “campus rebellion” of the 1960s. In short order, the roof of the police car – Weinberg & the cops still inside – became the stage for an impromptu & powerful teach-in, as speaker after speaker explained why what the University was doing was wrong and why as students and as citizens they had a responsibility to halt this. None proved more eloquent than a lanky philosophy major by the name of Mario Savio.


In 1964, it took the entire school year for the events set off by this unplanned moment of refusal to play themselves out. The crowd around the police car coalesced into the Free Speech Movement (FSM), led by Savio, David Goines, Bettina Aptheker, Art Goldberg, Michael Rossman & many, many others. There was a sit-in in the administration building, followed by hundreds of arrests. The portly & evil assistant district attorney assigned to prosecute the students at the sit-in would himself become famous & go on to become Ronald Reagan’s portly & evil attorney general. But the students ultimately won, earning permanently the right to organize protests.


What flowed from that initial spontaneous event would take days to explain here, just as it took years, literally, to be absorbed by a society that was only then beginning to understand that it was sliding into the morass of the Vietnam War. Indeed, it would be the following fall of 1965 when UC Berkeley also would see the very first anti-war teach-in in the United States, the one for which they coined the phrase “teach-in.”


Forty years have seen enormous changes in this nation. Weinberg, who became famous (or infamous) for his phrase “Never trust anyone over 30” is twice that age. Savio, who worked hard to avoid being chewed up by the media as the first “celebrity protestor,” went on to become a professor at Sonoma State before dying of a heart attack at the age of 53. One student who was part of the Sproul Hall sit-in went on to build the first Apple Computer.


At the time, I was a shipping clerk for PG&E, the utility company. I came by after work and spent that evening standing around the patrol car, listening to speeches – normally I would have been picketing a restaurant in Jack London Square. Frankly that event helped move me toward the decision to go to college in the first place, an idea that did not occur naturally in my family.


Next week – starting on Monday with a showing of the film Berkeley in the Sixties at the Free Speech Movement Café on campus – the UC community and the hundreds of surviving member of that old crowd around the police car will commemorate that extraordinary moment in U.S. history when students simply refused to let the inevitable happen & took control over their own destiny. The highlight will come on Friday, October 8th, at noon, when there will be a rally in Sproul Plaza, where FSM speakers will dissect the Patriot Act & other clear and present dangers to civil liberties that challenge us now. I plan to be at that rally, which will be gathered around a police car.



Thursday, September 30, 2004


Thinking about how Structure of Rime sort of peters out in Bending the Bow (there is an exception, a piece that turns up right at the end of Duncan’s career, in Ground Work II, but it is just that, visibly an exception) precisely as Robert Duncan’s other long project Passages gets under way, I’m reminded as to how different Bending the Bow is both from Robert’s earlier books and from the two volumes of Ground Work that were to follow Bow after the 15-year hiatus. Bending the Bow is Duncan’s one book that a reader could characterize as topical, and it is especially the sections of Passages in it that most completely fulfill that role. “The Fire, Passages 13” & “The Multiversity, Passages 21” are two of the great political poems of a decade that was filled with great political poems, & one could make a case for “The Fire” as conceivably the finest antiwar poem ever written.


Yet, in the two volumes of Ground Work, only one poem, “Santa Cruz Propositions,” could be characterized as similarly related to events in the “real” world. Dated 1968 in Ground Work II, “Propositions” begins as a series of meditations on the relationship of sea to land, composed while Duncan was teaching at the then-newly-built UC Santa Cruz, before it turns to a series of events that occurred not in 1968, but in 1970, the murder of Victor Ohta, a prominent Santa Cruz ophthalmologist, his wife and children, and his secretary, by one John Linley Frazier, a local crazy who had been living in a shack uphill from the Ohta family home. As I recall, Frazier had been upset about the encroachment of suburban development into the “virginal” mountains. Where the Manson Family murders a year earlier had left behind simplistic messages on their crime scenes (and on their victims), e.g., “Piggy,” Frazier left behind a note stuck in the windshield wiper of the Ohta family Rolls Royce. Duncan quotes from the note in “Propositions.”


Some four years later, I found myself working as a casework at the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice, where, as the new kid in the office, I was assigned the cases nobody else wanted to handle. Which is how I found myself that year corresponding with Frazier & Charlie Manson, both of whom the media had dubbed as “hippie murderers.” The only thing the two had in common was that neither ever used the first person in their correspondence, Manson always referring to himself in the third person as “Little Manson,” Frazier simply drawing the smile of a Cheshire cat where an “I” normally would have gone.


In 1972 & ’73, Santa Cruz was also struck by two other serial killers who, between them, murdered a total of 21 people before they were caught. The combination of three mass murders over such a short period of time caught the media’s attention even in those pre-Geraldo, pre-Fox News days. This sleepy surfing town had, at least on a per capita basis, become the murder capital of North America.


It may seem odd to imagine Duncan turning his attention to such tabloid fodder, even though it was occurring close to home, so to speak. But the fact that it turns up as Duncan’s final focus on the topical, and that it should be dated 1968, is perhaps even odder. Of course the poem could have been begun that year, with the Frazier material added later. And there’s nothing about the other poems in the book to suggest that it’s presence is out of the largely chronological order Duncan was now practicing. Indeed, it appears that the book took 12 or 13 years to write, for all of its 175 pages, suggesting that Duncan’s poetry during this period had slowed to a trickle.


This is the other aspect of The H.D. Book that I haven’t thus far mentioned, that it may have run not only into a series of internal conflicts as Duncan’s dream ran headfirst against the brick wall of the real, but also that Duncan, like so many other authors before him, especially poets, may well have had a slowing down as he aged. Consider, for example, the oeuvres of Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, other members of the same loosely defined generation who died fairly young. If you look at the complete poems of each, the first thing that strikes you is that they produced very little indeed over the last two years of their lives. Indeed, several of the surviving New Americans have been silent for years, even decades. It is the Robert Creeleys & John Ashberys who are the great exceptions, not the other way round.


When Ground Work Before the War was first published in 1984, it had almost none of the impact of his earlier books. The world – including the world of poetry – had changed dramatically since 1968, but there was little evidence that Duncan’s own poetry had evolved during that same period. If anything, the disastrous decision to produce the book’s type on an IBM Selectric typewriter not only made the texts difficult to read, but the attempt to faithfully reproduce the author’s own process & page seemed now remarkably antiquarian. When The New York Times finally got around to reviewing it in August, 1985, it turned to new formalist Mark Rudman, who gave it a thumbs up for all of its pre- and anti-modern gestures.


This is not to suggest that some of the poems from that book, such as “Seventeenth Century Suite” or “Dante Études” are not important poems in the career of Robert Duncan – they are easily that. But as both their titles suggest, they are the projects of a man who is no longer concerned with extending the world of the poem, whether or not one thinks of it in terms of Pound’s dictum to “make it new.”


Wednesday, September 29, 2004


Only one poet received a MacArthur Fellowship in the current round. But that one is C.D. Wright, one of our very finest poets, and a great human being to boot. Hats off to her!

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


The H.D. Book was not the only major critical project that occupied Robert Duncan’s attention in the 1960-63 timeframe, a period in which he was both in touch with Hilda Doolittle up until her death in the fall of 1961 and writing Roots and Branches, especially its second half "Windings." As had been the case with The Opening of the Field, which had undergone title and publisher changes prior to being issued, Duncan contemplated issuing this new as two shorter volumes, one with the Roots and Branches title, the second as Windings. Duncan was also working on what he took to be a major statement of poetics for The Nation, whose poetry editor at the time, Denise Levertov, had become one of his closest confidants. It’s not clear to me whether or not Levertov herself felt the article was too foggy-headed for The Nation or, more likely, that she couldn’t convince the old lefties who dominated its editorial board then as now, but "Ideas of the Meaning of Form" was never to appear in that magazine’s pages. Instead, it first showed up in mimeograph format for Warren Tallman’s classes at UBC in 1961, with a revised version appearing finally in Kulchur 4 that year.

"Ideas of the Meaning of Form," which now can be found in A Selected Prose (New Directions, 1995), reflects its roots as a piece intended for The Nation, as Duncan takes care to work in discussion of two poets – Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore – who had been close to that journal’s sense of itself as an aesthetic – as well as political – project over the years. Indeed, H.D. appears in it only in passing on its first page.

Instead of addressing "the problem" of H.D. – nobody much was taking her seriously in 1960 – Duncan attempts to make a tactical argument joined between two figures against whom he is anxious to stake out his opposition:

The argument Duncan wishes to make is this: poetry fails when it seeks only to include the rational. By extension, this also suggests that the criticism of poetry must also fail that solely operates on a rational plane. Thus – although he doesn’t say this explicitly – his use of dream material, including dream dialogs with H.D. need to be understood as necessary components of a full study of her life & work.

Duncan is very much taking on the School of Quietude of his time here. His analysis that it fails not because the likes of Drew & Hemley are bad writers or lovers of mawkish verse, but that they live only by their conscious wits, and thus are only half alive. Thus Drew’s prescriptions for form are mechanistic and her ability to appreciate the best in modernism is incapacitated. He quotes her as follows:

  • "Pound’s cult of Imagism," Miss Drew goes on, "demanded no rhythmical stress at all, only a clear visual image in lines alleged to be in the pattern of the musical phrase. When read aloud, these pattern’s couldn’t possibly be distinguished from prose. The result was a flood of poems such as William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’ which proves perhaps only that words can’t take the place of paint."
  • Duncan’s immediate response is that "It is of the essence of the rationalist persuasion that we be protected by the magic of what reasonable men agree is right, against unreasonable or upsetting information." He goes on to perform a close reading of "Wheelbarrows," proving her factually wrong in addition to her failures of spirit, then segues into his readings of Moore and Lowell, showing Moore represents the best of what is possible in a rationalist writing*, but that both also incorporate elements beyond reason in what Duncan terms to be their finest work. Negative capability is precisely the capacity to incorporate the extra-rational.

  • Fact and reason are creations of man’s genius to secure a point of view protected against a vision of life where information and intelligence invade us, where what we know shapes us and we become creatures, not rulers, of what is. Where, more, we are part of the creative process, not its goal. It was against such intolerable realizations that these men took thought. The rationalist gardener’s art is his control over nature, and beauty is conceived as the imposed order visible in the pruned hedgerow and the ultimate tree compelled into geometric globe or pyramid that gives certainty of effect.
  • Against Hemley, Duncan adds:

  • What form is to the conventional mind is just what can be imposed, the rest is thought of as lacking in form. Taste can be imposed, but love and knowledge are conditions that life imposes upon us if we would come into her meldoies. It is taste that holds out against feeling, originality that tries to hold out against origins. For taste is all original all individual arbitration.
  • This clearly is the Duncan of Derivations, one whose first movement toward that meadow of the mind is figured as a return, as permission.

    Duncan’s equation – that the School of Quietude = rationalism – will betray him more than a decade later when a group of younger writers, conversant in theory but without any surface rhetoric of mysticism, take up the tradition of which Duncan himself was a part. He perceives – misperceives, really – their interest in linguistics, politicals, literary history & theory as a kind of rationalist revival. This must have seemed especially galling, particularly alongside his own inability to bring The H.D. Book to any conclusion.

    But if The H.D. Book fails precisely because Duncan cannot make his discourse – this union of theosophy, psychology & poetics – equal to the evolution of theory beyond the modernist thinkers he originally posed himself against, and because he cannot erect an imagined H.D. to stand against what was not foreseen, he might have, instead, looked to this new generation with something more of the benign neglect that enabled him to work alongside the likes of Jack Spicer, a writer who, like Duncan, understood the importance & power of the extra-rational, but who, unlike Duncan the theosophist (or H.D. the Moravian), lacked an inherited vocabulary through which to imaginatively organize it & so constructed one of his own out of radios, Martians & the San Francisco Giants.

    Nor, for that matter, did Duncan ever address, in The H.D. Book or elsewhere, the question once posed by Louis Zukofsky, that of a "scientific" definition of poetry. If anything, The H.D. Book itself appears as an argument against this possibility, yet as Duncan himself seems only occasionally to have understood – following Freud – science & the irrational need not be opposed possibilities. The difficulty that Duncan seems finally unable to address is which might incorporate the other & what might happen if the process were in any way reciprocal. Unless qualified otherwise, science in The H.D. Book always means instrumentalism. For Duncan, the Age of Reason was, in fact, a time of forgetting:

  • Conventional poetics, which belongs to the Age of Reason that sought to reduce even religion to a consensus of the opinion of reasonable men, had reduced the frame of mind to exclude the supernatural from individual experience, to rationalize genius and make a metaphor of inspiration, to confine reality to what, as Dryden has it in his Preface to All For Love; "all reasonable men have long since concluded." In philosophy, in poetics, in science, and in politics, men strove to make and to hold a world of sense, practical knowledge, ideal relations, logical conclusions, around which what Freud calls the Super-Ego, grown enormous, built its authority, against an enemy world of the irrational —fearful, to be avoided or rendered harmless—the world of fictions (romance, supernatural, vision and dream), of "sheer madness and vagary." Howling hairy madmen and shrieking desolate virgins appeared in the imaginations of Fuseli, Blake, Goya, Hoffman, Potocki, the Marquis de Sade.
  • The challenge of course to this view, from Duncan’s own perspective, had to be Freud’s Future of an Illusion and it is telling that in The H.D. Book the actual word science occurs most often in two discussions – the first the career of Madame Blavatsky, the second surrounding this book of Freud’s. Duncan takes pains to qualify it, to set the volume aside from the Freudian canon he otherwise wants to claim:

  • The Future of an Illusion is the book of a haunted mind, of a man divided against himself. "Certainly this is true of the man into whom you have instilled the sweet or bitter-sweet poison from childhood on." But this man is Freud himself, the man who followed his genius, his Sigmund, to lay bare the incest-wish in the psyche, his life work with dream and play, his obsession with the City of God or Rome. "But what of the other, who has been brought up soberly?" he asks. This man is that other person of Freud, who lays down the conditions under which dreams and play can come into the question at all. There was truth, William James saw, in the worlds of fiction—it was the truth of religion and poetry in one. But for Freud that truth might be various was at times intolerable. It was his lasting communication that the heroic struggle for the reality principle took place in the earliest years. In the little scene some intolerable action takes place: the beloved Nurse is banished, the child surrenders childish things and undertakes his father’s ways. But the "prehistoric old woman" that Freud tells us was ugly too is still to be banished from the thoughts of the Master in his seventy-first year. It was never to be done; the father was never entirely to win over the child in Freud. He wrote to Ferenczi while The Future of an Illusion was still in press: "Now it already seems to me childish; fundamentally I think otherwise; I regard it as weak analytically and inadequate as a self-confession." The dramatic fiction remained, the ‘As If’ reality could not be dismissed.
  • The irony here is unmistakable, for one might write just as easily that The H.D. Book is the book of a haunted mind, of a man divided against himself. In the same moment, it is the project that empowered Robert Duncan to create his finest works of poetry, especially Roots and Branches & Bending the Bow. It represents a deep meditation on the nature of poetry to person, as well as a history not just of modernism but of the intellectual tendencies that contested throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It is both beautifully & powerfully written, even though Duncan cannot, finally, make the splendor cohere.

    * Duncan does this again, at greater length & far more effectively, in The H.D. Book. Moore, from his perspective is the non-pejorative example of inorganic form, yet inorganic nonetheless, even when Duncan finds her use of the stanza to be very much like the growth of crystals.


    Monday, September 27, 2004


    In attempting to combine theosophy and psychology to create the grounds for a critical discourse for the poem, Robert Duncan makes of H.D. something she is not quite, yet his target is elsewhere & is in fact most clearly figured not in The H.D. Book but in title of his prose poem sequence, The Structure of Rime, emphasis now upon Structure. Marxist economics, Freudian analysis, Jakobson’s analysis of language out of Saussure, Levi-Strauss’ categorization of mythology, Einstein’s ability to harness the power of the sun from elements too small for the human eye to notice all share one key feature – an ability to unravel mysteries that, if looked at only on the surface, cannot be seen at all. The dancing commodities of the first chapter of Capital yield, even for the crudest economic determinist of the Stalinoid school, a base that will account for this flashy, glittering superstructure. For Duncan, the confluence of these intellectual movements raises the category of the Hidden to a privileged position that must have resonated deeply with his theosophist roots as a child, with its claim that secretly all religions are one if only we can deep enough, and also with Duncan’s own experience of participating in a religion that, once his family moved from the near-Berkeley suburb of Alameda to the farming center of Bakersfield, itself became hidden, something not voiced outside of the household, and indeed hardly mentioned at all once the grandmother died, and then entirely absent following the death of his adoptive father. The masterwork of theosophy is itself called The Secret Doctrine, first published by Madam Blavatsky in 1888.

    The Moravian church dates itself back to the Hussites of some 500 years ago, although it found its form & voice through the labors of Count Zinzendorf early in the 18th century. While its focus is inherently a Christian one where theosophy goes further, arguing for the unification of all the world’s religions, both share a mystical heritage and a deep sense that the world is something like a spiritual version of the X files. While Doolittle’s connection to her religious roots appear to have been more tenuous even than Duncan’s, her treatment by Freud is for Duncan a key event, for it is the moment when the world’s discourses cross paths. It is the point through which the intellectual traditions touch the deep personal backgrounds for both these poets.

    For the most part, in the 1950s, poetic modernism, both early & late, has stayed clear of these intellectual traditions. New Criticism may be able to trace its roots through Rene Wellek to the Prague School of Linguistics and thus to Jakobson, the onetime protégé of Viktor Shklovsky, but it has been captured by a group of exceptionally conservative, mostly anti-modern poets, the Agrarians, who use its vocabulary to impose an anti-intellectual lyric regime that by 1940 has begun to systematically capture the English departments of North America. Unlike Duncan, whose agenda demands that he join discourses together, these "specialized readers" work hard to keep literary criticism (and by extension literature) free of these other intellectual discourses, such as pyschoanalysis.

    If, in fact, Doolittle had ever been, as she presents herself, a student of Freud, Duncan’s argument for the joining of these traditions in her late work might carry more weight. But the reality is that she was strictly a patient, and not an especially complete one at that. Her memoir, Tribute to Freud, is muddled precisely by her inability to acknowledge her role in these sessions. Duncan writes:

    Beauty under attack, Imagism under attack, pacifism under attack, and, as the Wars like great Dreams began to make it clear, life itself under attack—H.D. had an affinity for heretical causes. In psychoanalysis again she found a cult under attack. "Upon my suggestion to H.D. that psychoanalysis seemed to affect some people as does Christian Science," Robert McAlmon argues with the contempt commonsense has for such things, "she took me seriously and said yes, it was a religion." It was, Freud felt, to take the place of religion, and he thought always of psychoanalysis under attack as Truth under attack, for the civilization itself—indeed, civilization itself—was at war against knowing anything about, much less recognizing within, the contents of the unconscious. "My discoveries are a basis for a very grave philosophy," she tells us Freud told her: "There are very few who understand this, there are very few who are capable of understanding this."

    For Duncan, The H.D. Book promised – as his mature writing project promised – the discourse that would bring these threads together – it’s the point Duncan is constantly talking around in this book, and why (for example) he thinks to include dream materials (including dream dialogs with H.D., a kind of posthumous interview methodology). Its goal is so very ambitious – to succeed would put Duncan not only alongside Olson or Williams or Pound, but Freud & Marx & Krishnamurti – that the inability of Duncan to complete this project, to ever be done with it, appears to have been, shall we say, inscribed at its beginning.

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