Tuesday, February 15, 2005


The differences between Robert Duncan’s A Selected Prose, edited after his death by Robert Bertholf, published in 1995, & Duncan’s earlier Fictive Certainties, which Duncan edited just ten years earlier, are instructive.


The twenty essays included in A Selected Prose are focused not just on the literary, but on a particular aspect of the literary. It is primarily a record of Duncan as a member of the San Francisco Renaissance. With only two exceptions, the selections either rise out of that experience as statements of poetics and/or theory, or involve a closer look at writers of interest to a New American (Whitman, Pound, Moore, H.D., Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, Levertov, Spicer, Bev Dahlen) or visual artists associated with the West Coast funk art trends of that same period (Jess, George Herms, Wallace Berman). The two exceptions are “The Homosexual in Society,” Duncan’s famous statement of 1944 that appeared in the first issue of the journal Politics (tho the expanded version here first was published in the rather more august Jimmy & Lucy’s House of K) – historically an important text in the history of gay freedom in this society – and a late look at the work of Edmond Jabès. One might say that this is the Robert Duncan a reader might expect from the pages of the Allen anthology. Save for the piece on Jabès, all of the issues addressed in this volume were available for discussion in the U.S. in the 1950s.


The thirteen pieces Duncan gathered for Fictive Certainties are longer and, for the most part, more theoretical. Only three pieces appear in both books: “Towards an Open Universe,” “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” & “Changing Perspectives in Reading Whitman.” One might fairly say that the first two of these essays are the only theory-focused works in A Selected Prose. In Fictive Certainties, they appear instead as relatively minor statements when placed up against this volumes opening work, “The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography,” which outside of The H.D. Book, is the longest sustained prose work Duncan was ever to write. The Duncan of Fictive Certainties is actually a very different writer than that of A Selected Prose. Certainties has only two reviews of poets either in Duncan’s age cohort or younger: Olson & the philosophically minded John Taggart. Further, there are several pieces in Certainties that reflect an interest in the changing trends in theory itself: “Poetry Before Language,” a work that might be read both as an anticipation of Derrida and as a statement of language as a mystical experience; “The Self in Postmodern Poetry;” and “Kopóltuš: Notes on Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology.” This is a Duncan for the Age of Theory, intellectually far broader & more aggressive than the one we find in A Selected Prose.


Since I have argued that the “structure” of Duncan’s great prose poem sequence, The Structure of Rime, is in fact the same term we find first in structuralism – the intellectual tendency that can be traced back through Roland Barthes, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, linguist Roman Jacobson & others ultimately to the Russian Formalists, the piece on Barthes is worth examining a little more closely. Like any Duncan prose work whose title includes the term “notes,” this isn’t going to be an orderly, academic march through the traditional expository stations.


The difficulties start right away, with the title, Kopóltuš. It’s not a word you have ever heard before. You can’t find it in the OED, indeed, according to Google, there is no mention of it anywhere on the internet, with or without diacritical marks.¹ It would appear to be a neologism.


This is followed with an epigram from Barthes’ essay:


“images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment . . . [as] systems of signification”


At which moment Duncan begins by raising the question of naming.


Individualizing (naming) a group of three objects in a certain light, involving red, yellow and cerulean, the equilibration of the members of the group having a certain feel (this arrangement feels "in key") reveals that other elements we do not admit to seeing are present in what we see. We call the complex association of all these (an it) – we call it a kopóltuš (“it is a kopóltuš”), or we may say of the group “it is significant.” (Jess asks if kopóltuš made me think of “poultice” or “cold poultice.”)


Indeed, naming – the rightness or inherent nature of names – is precisely “Kopóltuš’” subject. It’s an intriguing question have been invoked by somebody who was born as Edward Howard Duncan & then raised by adoptive parents as Edward Howard Symmes, taking the name Robert & joining it to Duncan only after he was discharged from the army in 1941.²


How do names mean? Especially complex or abstract ones:


This is a work of art, we say. This is not a work of art. This is a kopóltuš. “Does your key feeling agree with my feeling” does not mean “Is your feeling like mine” but “Does your feel that this is a kopóltuš agree with mine?” No, it is not a Picasso. We agree that we like Picasso, but he is referring to a Picasso I don’t much like; I am referring with praise to a Picasso which he thinks is poor. I am sure this is a Picasso (we can check it out as to whether Picasso actually painted it); he is sure it is not a Picasso (but does it look like a Picasso to him, where he has some knowledge that it was forged; or does he recognize that it is a Braque?). Was this forged Picasso forged by X or Y? This is a Y pseudo-Picasso. This pseudo-Picasso is a genuine Y, who is so skillful at imitating that you cannot tell it from a Picasso. I can’t tell it from a Picasso but it might be Braque. It isn’t a kopóltuš tho, tho it looks like one, it doesn’t feel right. A kopóltuš is not a look but the feel of a look.


We no longer dealing with Barthes here, at least not directly. Instead Duncan has wandered deep into the weeds of that briar patch called Philosophical Investigations. I don’t know – and it’s certainly not apparent from reading Fictive Certainties, Selected Prose or The H.D. Book just how much 20th century philosophy Duncan read, or how widely. Dewey & Whitehead are the only ones mentioned by name in The H.D. Book, unless one adds Walter Benjamin’s friend, Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish Mysticism. To my knowledge, Duncan never mentions Wittgenstein anywhere in print, let alone the tension between Wittgenstein Early & Wittgenstein Late. Yet the piece on Barthes here & the one on Jabès in Selected Prose give at least some sense that Duncan was aware of the changes in critical thinking that were occurring in the 1960s & ‘70s, in which philosophy as a discipline, especially continental philosophy, was hardly a dispassionate bystander.


The problem for Duncan is exactly that. The implicit premise of the H.D. Book, its promise, at least at the outset, is that Duncan will somehow be able to show how theosophy – or at least his theosophy, focusing on the lost & the hidden now as a spiritual or mystic dimension – will somehow solve critical thought, everything that might be captured under that telling rubric Structure. Kopóltuš, in this sense, is precisely what would give voice to that which Wittgenstein says must be passed over in silence in the seventh & final master sentence of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.


Yet Duncan returns again to Barthes directly, quoting:


It is true that objects, images and patterns of behavior can signify, and do so on a large scale, but never autonomously; every semiological system has its linguistic admixture.³


But if things – including names – are not autonomous, if they mean only differentially, if meaning itself is inherently differential, the way the phoneme p differs from the phoneme b, then the whole of the magical world – the world at the heart of all religions, including that secret religion of all religions, theosophy – disappears. Duncan understands the problem at once:


The artist of the kopóltuš said, “It spoke to me.” A theory and practice of magical art may enter into this event, or, not having existed before, may follow in its wake. The artist assembling and arranging objects towards some aesthetic satisfaction happens upon a set that “speaks to him,” a telling arrangement. What does it say? In the Book we read a Burning Bush spoke to him and said, “I AM,” and we read also that Yahweh, also called “God,” spoke out of the Burning Bush. The Bush did not then, autonomously, announce its own being. The “I” was some One else.


Only those who have never read Rimbaud will not hear the allusion in that last sentence. This is the moment that Duncan cannot solve, at least not directly, so he turns instead to a dream in which the painter R.B. Kitaj appears. They touch, temple and cheek “exactly fitted in.” This leads Duncan to the following sentence (which I’m going to delineate, to air out, for the sake of readability):


The figure of the jig-saw

that is of picture,

the representation of a world as ours
in a complex patterning of color in light and shadows,

masses with hints of densities and distances,

cut across by a second, discrete pattern

in which we perceive on qualities of fitting and not fitting

and suggestions of rime

in ways of fitting and not fitting –

this jig-saw conformation of patterns

of different orders,

of a pattern of apparent reality

in which the picture we are working to bring out appears

and of a pattern of loss and of finding

that so compels us that we are entirely engrosst in working it out,

this picture that must be put together

takes over mere seeing.


The master verb phrase – takes over – does not occur until the 117th & 118th words of this serpentine sentence. Here the image Duncan offers as an allegory for structure lies less in the radical distinction between deep structure & surface appearance, but rather twin orders inhabiting the same space & time. The leap Duncan here offers is difference itself: fitting & not fitting, of loss & of finding, a gap we perceive not directly but through suggestions of rime. Yet once the picture itself – the referential world, the realm of signifieds, we bask – or so Duncan presents him and his dream Kitaj in the process of doing – in the pure presence of immanence itself.


The moment itself seems to click into place, the lines of it so perfectly joining present contributing to but overwhelmed by the unalterable establishment of a locality in the context of the whole puzzle yet to be workt out into its picture.


This moment of taking over, of clicking into place might, in some other narrative, be presented precisely by the act of faith itself, the term leap understood quite literally. Duncan does not do this, but rather leaves us right at the end of that sentence, the problem narratively resolved perhaps, but certainly not solved.


Even if Barthes is not the best writer on which to focus these issues – one can imagine Duncan tackling Derrida as well as Wittgenstein had he but the chance & Jacobson & Saussure might have been better choices through which to have attacked the concept of difference in language – Barthes is a particularly apt choice, being the one major structuralist thinker – Elements of Semiology is a text from late in that period of his work – to have become a significant post-structural thinker as well.


And therein lies the rub. Robert Duncan’s critical project not only turns on the thinnest of premises – that H.D.’s brief analysis with Freud makes her an initiate of his – but that the union Duncan seeks between the mystical and critical theory is made ever so much harder by the fact that the latter proves to be a moving target. By the time that Duncan finally finds himself able, or at least imagines himself so, to bring theosophy into the house of theory, theory itself has moved on. Duncan had called his great prose poem sequence The Structure of Rime, not The Post-Structure of Rime.


But by the time that Duncan is coming into the realization of this, the unfinished – indeed, now unfinishable – H.D. Book has already served its other primary purpose, the one that is figured in its early title, The Day Book, a means through which for Robert to test, to formulate, to articulate a critical vision that might then serve as underpinning to his own mature writing, indeed, even the imagined (if never precisely written) elder epic. Which is why, ultimately, The H.D. Book works more – and better – not thought of as the lost or mystery critical masterpiece of the New American Poetry so much as it does as the Ur-blog of its time.



¹ Something I have just changed.


² Something not discussed in “Kopóltuš”


³ I am reminded of George Lakoff’s definition of semiotics as failed linguistics. This passage & indeed Duncan’s focus overall is very much pre-cognitive linguistics. Nowhere is the problem of historical time on Duncan’s thinking more apparent than here.