Saturday, February 19, 2005


Theorizing presents:


Ron Silliman


Plotless Prose:

Robert Duncan & The H.D. Book


Wednesday, February 23

6:00 PM, Kelly Writers House

University of Pennsylvania


Friday, February 18, 2005


Beyond choice of form, how does a magazine that focuses exclusively on the prose poem differ from one that focuses on haiku? Or on the sonnet? I’m not aware of any sonnet-centered magazines in recent years, but the ones devoted to haiku have largely been part of the great broad fringes of poetry where the art becomes, as much as anything else, a form of recreation. For every poet of note who has written seriously in the haiku form – Jonathan Williams & Anselm Hollo come immediately to mind – there are dozens, possibly hundreds of casual writers attracted to that genre because, on the surface, it “looks easy.” The result is that every magazine that I’ve seen devoted to exploring haiku has read like the print equivalent of open mic night down at the coffee house. One has to have almost an anthropological interest in poetry to wade in.¹


But where the haiku has very explicit rules, the prose poem’s history is rather quite the opposite. It was born reveling in its violation of categories, as if that alone might be a reason for existence. If so, then one might imagine that over time the prose poem would become that genre most open to a continual test of genre borders & their impact on texts, reading & meaning. The prose poem – especially if we head Baudelaire’s first claims for it – would thus be close kin (maybe even direct ancestor) of vispo, conceptual poetry & all manner of over-the-border literary projects.


In Europe, and especially in France, this has largely been true. Writers as diverse as Saint-John Perse, Francis Ponge, Victor Segalen & Edmond Jabès have carried the form much farther than even Rimbaud & Lautréamont could have imagined. Bizarrely, tho, the prose poem came to America not in that expansive, exploratory mode – something that might have fit right in with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell – but rather as something quite different, very nearly as closed a mode as the sonnet itself.


The culprit of sorts would appear to be that old mad monk, Max Jacob, whose concept of art as distraction & its corollary that a poem must be “distant” from its object translated, particularly in the hands of Robert Bly & company in The Fifties & The Sixties (and those of Bly’s AAA farm-team, George Hitchcock’s Kayak), into little prose vignettes with a vaguely surreal air. The more erudite recognized an affinity with Kafka but very quickly the defining feature of the School of Quietude prose poem was that it seldom went beyond a single page, was often indistinguishable from the “short short story,” save for a certain improbability in the referential world.


Then in the 1970s, the post-New Americans (not just language poets, but also others who were often quite critical of langpo, such as Leslie Scalapino) simply blew apart the constraints on what was possible using prose within a poem. John Ashbery published Three Poems, which is still his finest book. Creeley’s prose publications of that decade – Mabel and A Day Book – challenged the borders first with fiction & then with the journal or diary.


By the end of that decade, U.S. poets had claimed at least as much freedom & flexibility of form in the prose poem as the French ever had – though you wouldn’t know this just by reading magazines like The Prose Poem, Paragraph or the first few issues of Cue. Morgan Lucas Schuldt, Cue’s editor, tells me that he hopes to expand its horizons in forthcoming issues & I’ve sent along work to help in that effort, but looking at Cue vol. 2, no. 1, reminds me that I heard similar spiels from the editors of those earlier journals as well. Which makes me wonder (a) why all the magazines devoted to the prose poem as a form have come out of the same aesthetic background when the prose poem itself so clearly does not, and (b) what it means to have a journal devoted to a single form.


Another way of asking this, of course, would be why didn’t – for example – the language poets ever devote an issue of any one of their key journals such as Hills or Poetics Journal to the question of prose? This focused on the work and generally avoided “themes” altogether. After Grenier’s famous critical pieces in its first issue in 1971, it generally stayed away from critical writing. Roof likewise. Hills had one famous issue devoted to talks, another to plays. Poetics Journal built most of its issues around specific themes, but the closest it ever got to addressing concerns related to prose in one of those themes was the Non/Narrative fifth issue. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E devoted its special issues to the politics of poetry. Even more recent post-avant journals like Temblor or Chain have steadfastly resisted the temptation. And when you think about it, you realize that Jena Osman & Juliana Spahr are exactly the editors you would want if you were doing something critical not just on the prose poem, but even haiku. They would unearth layers of nuance you hadn’t even imagined before, such as the post-colonial discourse of appropriated forms.


This isn’t to suggest that the latest issue of Cue isn’t interesting. There are a number of worthwhile works in it by writers such as A. Van Jordan, Mark Yakich & especially Matthew Thorburn. But most interesting perhaps is Schuldt’s interview with Karen Volkman². She’s gone well beyond any School of Quietude roots in her reading & thinking, & yet both she & Schuldt both seem to imagine that language poetry didn’t show up until the 1980s, if not later – in fact of that list of langpo magazines two paragraphs above, only Poetics Journal was primarily a creature of the ‘80s. When Karen Volkman, who is currently teaching the likes of Rae Armantrout, Harryette Mullen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge & Elizabeth Willis, says of language poets (she mentions myself & Lyn Hejinian by name here) working in prose that


already by the 80s, there were major works . . . they just weren’t known to a larger poetic community until more recently


what she’s really documenting is the degree of isolation in which she was then working. In retrospect that seems ironic & sad, given that Volkman’s exactly the sort of lively, interesting reader one would want to have, but I suspect that it’s not at all uncommon for somebody who grew up in the School of Quietude framework.


So it’s good to imagine a journal like Cue working to overcome that isolation itself. Given that the journal is physically located in Tucson, one good place to start would be to bring in local writers who already have national reputations for their work – Charles Alexander, Lisa Cooper, Tenney Nathanson all come to mind, Sheila E. Murphy just a few miles west in Phoenix – but it would be good, even better, if they would work a little harder to get the history right.



¹ Which of course I will concede to having.


² The issue however includes none of her work, unfortunately.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


Not long ago, Cameron Bass reposted my little Venn diagram of poetry, prose poetry & the concept of plotless prose under the heading of “why I don’t like to think about poetry too much.” Maybe he meant to write “too clearly” instead, but I don’t think so. He calls my own verbal noodling there “silly, pointless wonk-talk.” This is that old push-pull between folks who a “direct” relationship to poetry & language & those of us who’ve been around the block once or twice who know that the so-called direct relationship is a fool’s errand at best. It’s one reason why there is more than one kind of poetry in the world, so we should celebrate the antagonism even as it makes us cringe.


Happily, I’m not the only practitioner of what Cameron might think of as wonk-talk on the web these days. First, Geof Huth has a fine piece on Fibonacci & daily life, as viewed in the collaborations of Wendy Collins Sorin & Derek White. Meanwhile, Michael Hoerman is contemplating how language & reference transform into comprehension – warning to Cameron Bass, we have diagrams predicated on cognitive linguistics here. The irony is that Hoerman is trying to account for intuition & gestalt, aspects he groups under the term precognitive.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005




I’ve told this story about David Gitin a few times before. So if you already heard it once, indulge me. Back when I was a student at San Francisco State a mere 38 years ago, my linguistics professor, Edward van Aelstyn – a co-founder with Jim Koller & others, of Coyote’s Journal, easily the best little magazine of the mid-1960s – talked me into starting a little magazine of my own. “It’ll give the poets you want to see your work a reason to deal with you,” is either what van Aelstyn said, or the way that I heard it. But hear it I did. I mentioned the idea of this to the late d alexander (no caps & no period on that initial, it being his full first name) who showed up at my door with his rolodex, literally, and I began to send notes out to the likes of Robert Kelly, Clayton Eshleman, Charles Stein, Jerry Rothenberg, Ken Irby, Armand Schwerner & Seymour Faust.


What I didn’t know at the time was how you went from having some groovy manuscripts in hand to having a finished magazine. And given that I spent most of the time between 1964 & 1977 living on something less than $300 per month for everything, including a serious book-buying addiction, the amount of disposable capital at hand to pay for printing & binding was more in my imagination than in a bank somewhere. So my little pile of manuscripts sat. And they sat. I had never heard of the concept of Messerli Time in those days, but before you knew it I was inventing the problem all on my own.


Then one day, literally a couple of years later, I received an envelope from somebody I’d never heard of before – or of whom I was only vaguely aware, is probably more like it – my first unsolicited submission – and the poems bowled me over. Whoever David Gitin was, he was superb & his own self as a writer, nobody else.


At the time, I was living even more close to the edge of economic ruin than usual, getting by on something more like $200 per month in a little interregnum between college and starting my alternative service as a conscientious objector. But I sat down at my trusty typewriter and put together a first issue – using only those older works I’d been holding onto that had not yet come out in book form (as, for example, Schwerner’s contribution already had). I literally hand-drew the title & logo for the publication, then took it down to the local copymat to print up a small run of copies. The first issue certainly wasn’t any more than 100 copies, stapled in the upper left-hand corner. Thus was Tottel’s born.


I included four of Gitin’s poems in the second issue, one of which – in a revised version – appears now in Passing Through, the largest collection of his poetry publicly available since George Mattingly’s Blue Wind Press published This Once back in 1979. Gitin as always is at once the most precise writer imaginable & a very restless imagination, a great combination. These poems push-pull on the reader in ways that are as unpredictable as writing as they are as real-world experiences. Thus, for example, “Kyoto”:


in the company


all night


of a horesefly


Exactly. That’s a word that comes to mind a lot as I read & reread these poems. Gitin’s poetry occupies a territory that suggests his interest in any number of Objectivists & New Americans (Oppen, Rakosi, Whalen, Eigner were the ones that jumped up for me today, but there have been other times when Creeley & Blackburn seemed every bit as powerful), poets for whom the precision of perception seems very often the point of pleasure in it all. Yet there is a second aspect of Gitin’s work that I hear today, one that is largely absent from those older writers (with the one real exception here being Creeley) & which Gitin acknowledges ever so lightly in his choice of an epigram for the book from Clark Coolidge: “of roads to clouds as spoke of dreams.” I hear that as content, of course, & there is an aspect to these poems that suggests if not a Zen poet in the formal sense of a Phil Whalen or Norman Fischer, a poet very much in tune with Zen’s gentle insistence on attention as valuable in itself. But I hear also Coolidge the jazz drummer in the syncopation of that line – and it reminds me just how much Gitin’s work likewise proceeds by ear to thought, or perhaps I should say thinking. This is very much the case in how Gitin works a line break:






a bit










That’s from a poem entitled “Sex” that concludes just six words later with “apples.” Like Creeley or Eigner in particular – especially in this collection where all but two of the 34 poems head out from the left hand margin, working their way not only down but rightward across the page – Gitin’s poems can be deceivingly simple. The whole book can be read in less than an hour. Yet this is also some 30 years of careful attention & I’m reminded just how difficult it is for a poet to stay sharp for that long – there is that way in which being a writer is (not is like) being an athlete. Some of Gitin’s finest poems here are the most recent, which makes me hope not only for the next book but also some day a larger collection of the whole. Looking back at Tottel’s 2, there are not only just three good poems that are not incorporated here, but the second section of the original version of “Related to the Sea.” That section reads:


blue bridge

redeye sun

white waves on sand


a city

automobile fish

in a welter of coral


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.

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Monday, February 14, 2005


Style is an en effort to exorcise or to control the magic or glamour of sound in music, stone in sculpture or evocation in words. The effort in style is to increase our awareness of the rationale of the work. Thinking now of the lure of women’s hair and dress, we see that in periods of style women cut their hair or keep it most in place, and that style in dress means the effortful projection of effect – all aims at increasing our awareness of how the thing is done what is there as a thing in itself. Sorceresses wear their hair wild and loosened, their robes flowing and with scarves and bracelets, pinpoints of jewel-light and beads, for they do and undo their hair and dress weaving their spells. Desire is the opposite of style; the sentence and thought must wander to distraction before the reader becomes hopelessly involved. And hopeless involvement is the underlying psychic need of the magician. Had magic intended power over all things it would have found power, but the deep desire the magician hides from himself is the bewilderment he seeks. Lucifer does not betray, he brings to light our secret wishes to be undone.¹


Reading “Exchanges,” the unpublished third section of Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book, I am reminded just how resistant Duncan is to so many of the received “truths” of writing – there is not only no “make it new” here, the idea of originality is closely aligned with that of control or the rational. Similarly, any preference for writing’s equivalent of Occam’s razor – dichtung = condensare – is countered by the idea that “thought must wander to distraction.” If we return to Duncan’s attack on Cecil Hemley (& thus implicitly the whole Hall-Pack-Simpson crowd with which Hemley was associated) in “Ideas of the Meaning of Form, we recall that Duncan’s objection to the School of Quietude is not that they are tedious or uninteresting, but rather that they are rationalists, they believe only in a universe of verification.


What then of Duncan’s relationship to the Objectivists? What must he have thought of Zukofsky’s prediction that “Someone alive in the years 1951-2000 may attempt a scientific definition of poetry.” It is not, so far as I recall, a line he discusses anywhere. Indeed, outside of The H.D. Book, Duncan appears to have mentioned Zukofsky critically only four times & addressed his writing directly only once, in “As Testimony: Reading Zukofsky These Forty Years,” first published in Paideuma’s Zukofsky memorial issue in 1978. Oppen he appears not to have discussed at all. Nor Reznikoff, Niedecker or Rakosi. Yet of Zukofsky, Duncan writes, speaking of the early years of the 1950s, of his trip to Mallorca & days at Black Mountain College,


He was, now, for me, with Charles Olson, one of two contemporary poets whose work I knew to be clearly directive of my own attentions.


Indeed, Duncan takes credit for making “converts” of Robert Creeley & Jonathan Williams both, two poets who would prove critical in Zukofsky’s move over the next twenty years from profound obscurity to canonic status among the post-avant, a reputation that has only grown in the 27 years since Zukofsky’s death. Duncan’s own next comments in that same Paideuma piece are instructive:


In relation to each I was to be heretical – for in the face of Zukofsky’s process of stripping to essentials, I was working toward a proliferation of meanings; and in the face of Olson’s drive toward the primordial roots, I was working from interpretations of the text. The two could not read each other, but it was my sense early in the 1950s that the test of our sources in Poetry must be in the reading of them both as primaries. (Selected Prose, 138-9)


Zukofsky’s own characterization of science is worth noting here, or at least his characterization of a scientific definition of poetry:


Its value would be in a generalization based on past and present poems and always relevant to the details of their art. All future poems would verify some aspect of this definition and reflect it as an incentive to a process intended to last at least as long as men.


Later in “Poetry,” Zukofsky will write


To think clearly then about poetry it is necessary to point out that its aims and those of science are not opposed or mutually exclusive; and that only the more complicated, if not finer, tolerances of number, measure and weight that define poetry make it seem imprecise as compared to science, to quick readers of instruments. It should be said rather that the most complicated standards of science – including definitions, laws nature and theoretic constructions – are poetic, like the motion of Lorenz’ single electron and the field produced by it that cannot “make itself felt in our experiments, in which we are always concerned with immense numbers of particles, only the resultant effects produced by them are perceptible to our senses.” Aware of like tolerances the poet can realize the standards of scientific definition of poetry. (Prepositions, 7-8)


Contrast this with Duncan’s radically dystopic view of scientific method, which he gives in “The Truth and Life of Myth,” a work tellingly subtitled “An Essay in Essential Autobiography”:


Modern science, my parents believed, would come upon secrets of Nature, as science had come before in Atlantis upon such secrets, and, spiritually arrogant and ignorant, intoxicated by knowledge, destroy America – the New Atlantis – in a series of holocausts, an end of Time in my life time that would come in fireblast, as the end of Atlantean Time had come in earthquake and flood. (Fictive Certainties, 3)


Duncan never distances himself from his parents’ position & certainly this would have resonated as well with the experience of Duncan’s spouse Jess, who had worked on the Manhattan Project not knowing what the larger picture of the project itself entailed until, after Hiroshima & Nagasaki, he quit science altogether in horror & became an artist instead. Duncan in The H.D. Book can cheerfully call Madame Blavatsky a fraud &, in the same gesture, adopt elements of her theosophical worldview into his own. At bottom, Duncan’s position is a difference predicated on a concept of knowledge & the capacity of a human to know. Zukofsky is concerned with thinking clearly about poetry. Duncan, “working toward a proliferation of meanings,” isn’t concerned with thinking clearly at all. Indeed, he distrusts the idea. “Myth,” he writes


is the story of what cannot be told, as mystery is the scene revealed of what cannot be revealed, and the mystic gnosis the thing known that cannot be known.


It is worth noting, in that passage at the head of this piece, just how closely Lucifer of all figures mimes the role that elsewhere Duncan assigns to Freud. And it is Freud – or at least Freud minus The Future of an Illusion – that figures so critically in the theoretical construction he is making in The H.D. Book, linking Freud & the whole of modernist critical discourses to theosophy through Hilda Doolittle’s truncated sessions with the Viennese analyst.


Reading Lance Phillips’ HereComesEverybody interview blog, I am struck by just how many poets admit to an interest in philosophy, but primarily in philosophy as a discourse, as a source for language & on occasion as a source literary devices as well. I am likewise struck by how, for Robert Duncan & for Louis Zukofsky – and for Charles Olson as well – the relationship of philosophy to poetry was far more central. One cannot write for readers without a theory of knowing, which necessarily must entail not just the what but also the how of knowing & the limits of knowledge along both these axes. For our own poetry, we figure it out or else we simply receive it unquestioningly. Understanding this dimension of work of poets like Duncan, LZ or Olson is not just a “nice to have” aspect of reading, but an absolute prerequisite to any possible comprehension. But it does not follow that we need to agree, any more than they agreed with one another, it matters far less whether any one might be right, Duncan or Zukofsky or any third position, than that this dimension of the writing be recognized as active, questing in the language (& world) as it unveils itself before our very eyes.



¹ from “Exchanges,” by Robert Duncan, no pagination. © Estate of Robert Duncan, 2005

Sunday, February 13, 2005


Theorizing presents:


Ron Silliman


Plotless Prose:

Robert Duncan & The H.D. Book


Wednesday, February 23

6:00 PM, Kelly Writers House

University of Pennsylvania


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