Robert Duncan, c. 1984
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)
Robert Duncan, out of a Black Mountain notebook (c. 1956), quoted in Lisa Jarnot’s biography Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus (University of California Press, 2012):
Dante in De Vulgare Eloquentia writes: “what we call the vernacular speech is that which children are accustomed by those who are about them when they first begin to distinguish words . . .”* In search of the makings of poetry we are going to turn back to the very seeds of language, back to that first beginning to distinguish words which is a beginning of newly distinguishing the world.Speech indomitably poised at the fons et origo of poetry. Stories of working with “the materials of poetry”—“vowel sounds . . . consonant clusters . . . syllables.” “We will be detectives not judges . . . Elements of movement, what is often calld ‘metrics.’ The syllable, the word the phrase, the line, the paragraph, and the sentence.” Sense of a glottal workout, a tangibility of voice. How odd, in retrospect, that there’d be any commerce between Duncan and the dumb (“naturally incapable of speech”) cerebral upstarts of the “I HATE SPEECH” juggernaut. Upshot of the difference: Duncan’s interrupting Barrett Watten’s 1978 (apparently somewhat “labored”**) talk about Zukofsky at the San Francisco Art Institute. One measure of the difference between the two poetics: Watten’s baffled (or obtuse) comment (drawing Duncan’s anger) in talking about Zukofsky’s statement concerning “A”—“In a sense the poem is an autobiography: the words are my life”—: “This was an incredibly difficult thing for me to understand—how are the words your life? Your words are one thing. Your life is another.” As if one’s own particular lingo were but a shabbily constructed backlot movie set, erected and struck at will at the director’s behest . . . or refusal.
O’Hara’s Duncan. Jarnot:
Intrigued by Frank O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings,” published in the autumn 1958 issue of the Evergreen Review, Duncan wrote to the New York poet suggesting that he and O’Hara might share some common ground. Irritated with Duncan’s affected tone, O’Hara returned the letter via Donald Allen without a response. Duncan’s miscommunications with the writers of the New York school—tempered by a friendship with John Ashbery—were never to be resolved. O’Hara expressed his view of Duncan to Jasper Johns in 1959: “Among those poets of the West Coast Robert Duncan seems to have the esthetic position that Kenneth Rexroth occupies in the press and there are several books of his poetry around which might be interesting to go into—I can’t stand him myself, but he is their Charles Olson—to me his is quite flabby by comparison, but maybe because I’m on the East Coast.”Dated 15 July 1959. Recall O’Hara’s deft assessment of Olson in the interview with Edward Lucie-Smith (Standing Still and Walking in New York). Replying to a query about the “usual dichotomy . . . between the raw and the cooked or between the academic and the Black Mountain, or between Lowell and Olson,” O’Hara refuses both***:
Actually I don’t really see what my relation is to them one way or the other except that we all live in the same time. I think that Olson is—a great spirit. I don’t think he is willing to be as delicate as his sensibility may be emotionally and he’s extremely conscious of the Pound heritage and of saying the important utterance, which one cannot always summon up and indeed is not particularly desirable most of the time.I love the casually perfect weightedness of that “great spirit”—“spirit” summoning up Olson’s insistently breath-determined poetic (“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination”) with a slight vengeance (almost as if O’Hara might’ve rather sassily said “a great blowhard”).