More Robert Duncan – 1

Following on from last week’s posting on Robert Duncan, here’s another one.

From 1976, from that remarkable Bay Area Writers series that took place at Novato, California that we’ve featured  before. (See , for example, here and here, here. here and here)

RD: (I have (currently) three books) print with New Directions. Bending the Bow was published in 1968, and I’ve set the date for my next volume with New Directions as being fifteen years from that publication of Bending The Bow. So that makes it 1983, and I don’t have to worry about whether these things belong to a book. A lot of what I’m going to be reading this evening  has been work that has been written since 1968.  One thing I had observed was that the United States treats everything as if it were an industry. If you can imagine the catastrophe that it would be if a motor car company decided it might have to think-over the design of its motor cars for a few years and didn’t come out with a new model!  It would be announced as defunct!  And American poets behaved much the same way. And my publisher expected a book, also, in three years, and I said ’No, I’m going to take fifteen years before I publish another book. And I won’t even know what belongs in it”, (because I’m not even imagining collecting everything over fifteen years,  I’m not… I won’t even know that for a..  right, at the present time, I have eight years to go before I have to think about what’s in that book), not until I come to compose it.)

These are collections – true collections, that is. They collect everything for that period. So another significant noticing, the thing I knew at the point that I made that decision about fifteen years, was, that, with the publication of Bending the Bow, my work I’m doing now no longer, lo and behold, relates to what is happening in poetry, other than what I’m doing.  In the period when I was writing these three  books (sic) , I was participating in a very exciting period in American poetry, one that is not extinct (I’m a survivor and go on and write), but many other things are  happening, and there should be room for them. Okay, that’s enough of that message. So you’re hearing a poetry who’s poet has full permission not have to be up to any date at all.

and, as I guess, also, appropriately enough, I spent a lot of time, as you will notice doing other things in childhood, as well as every other part of a life

[At approximately two minutes in Robert Duncan begins reading  “Childhood’s Retreat” ] – (“It’s in the perilous branches of the tree….. “…”Look!, I’ve been where you/ most fear to be.””) –  and  And Hell is the Realm of God’s Self-Loathing” (” “It burns me up to see the way He thrives in cheating”….” ….another flower, not of evil,/  shone “)

These three books that go from the beginning of 1956, when I started The Opening of the Field, through to 1968, actually 1967, when I finished Bending The Bow, are three parts of a continuous adventure in poetry.  And the  arrival at the point when that adventure was going to take place, I knew very well. I was in Europe and had put together a book of the work of the preceding years, three years, to 1956, a book called Letters. And when it was.. when I got it all together, I saw it was a book – So I  realized that, then, the poems that I was going to write would belong to a book, and that that book had a plan, and that the first poem that I started with would be the germ out of which that plan would unfold, (and a plan, in the same sense that Joyce’s Ulysses has, or…  there were certain themes, there were certain events and inter-relationships of theme from poem to poem, and I didn’t know what that theme was going to be but I knew that what I took to be the first poem would dictate it). I had a couple of poems arrive in which there were angels, and one even with angels giving instructions, and I knew I did not want.. I knew.. In the first place, I was not prepared for that, and I did not want the intrusion of voice at that level.

Now, a very great German poet wrote a set of Duino Elegies, which is one of the first announcements that angels, who had disappeared from most of religious life (although if we remember the Mormons, they were, rather recently, in American religious life, but for most churches they were successfully… the Roman Catholic church, and then the Protestant church , and the Moslem religion, interestingly enough, all of them banned talking with angels, in the sixteenth-century – Jewish religion continued, they didn’t put a ban on it.)  So, (much earlier).. Joan, for instance, St. Joan will be burned because she talked with angels.  Poets… Dante allowed… he told a simply amazing whopper. he..  If you read his Vita Nuova, it’s quite clear that an angel came to him in a dream and presented his heart to him, burning and smouldering, and told him that he was holding the heart in tribute to amor (love)… and the… and then Dante writes, in Convivio, saving poets from ever being burned – no poet was burned for…  (while, outside of poetry, anyone who talked to angels, or had hallucinations, or whatever you want to call them, of angels, in the Moslem religion, and throughout the Christian religion, were burned). The Mormons were persecuted for having angelic directions. It was stamped out throughout the European world, and also, interestingly enough, in that Near-Eastern world.. Moslems.. among the Moslems. Dante said they were devices, and set about proving that in Virgil the Gods were devices, and that in Dante’s world and the Medieval poetry world that the Heaven/Hell, you know… If the angels are devices in the poem, then what about God when he speaks to you, that must be a device too?  But it made poets fools.  So they weren’t burned. And in that remarkable escape, they.. poets…  angels lasted in poetry as a possible major power, along with, amazingly enough, of course, unicorns, centaurs, and all of the realities of the poetic world,

They didn’t increase in reality. In the Victorian period, it was very hard for a Tennyson. Imagine a poet who cannot believe what he imagines or imagine what he believes. That’s exactly the curious quandry he found himself writing in. But they returned, in the twentieth century, and Rilke and Lorcaand other European poets, began to have thunderous presences of angels. And Rilke explains to us they are angels who have appeared in poetry, (having) been banned by the churches from our spiritual lives (although I was raised and taught that there were angels that guided me – that was permitted in the spiritual life, but not talking with them or seeing them – and probably successfully, I mean, we… It’s a.. If they were around, there were mostly people in madhouses, I think. Madhouses were invented for people who lived where other people used to live in ecstasy and..  oh boy,, or poetry. Okay…

So I had two poems with angels, and I said, “No way”. I even prayed, I prayed ”Please let me go”.  So, the opening line of this poem, a poem came and its first line was “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow..” When that line came to me I realized that by twice praying that I would not have to deal with angels, at last I was permitted to return to a meadow. And I’m writing, (meanwhile I’m writing on in this poem as fast as I can go), and I realize that I’ve been given the start of a book that will get me into plenty of trouble but won’t land angels on top of me. If they come, they come with some courtesy instead of directing the whole thing. So, I’ll read you the opening of this book, because it’s the opening of an adventure that then carries on all the way through to Bending The Bow. And then, of course, it’s still here with me   (I’m still with that one, ok)

{At approximately nine-and-three-quarter minutes in Robert Duncan reads “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.”] – (‘as of it were a scene made up by the mind/ that is not mine, but is a made place…”…..” that is a place of  first permission./everlasting omen of what is”)

The title of the book was given to me, finally, in a series that started… It’s the first of a….. It appeared to me at first as a series but I realized that it had no beginning and consequently had no ending. It means, a form in which you return to the form but the form exists throughout, so you dwell in the form, in writing the poem, you do not make the form. This doctrine in poetry is very old indeed. Again, that German poet, Rilke said there is only one poem and one poet and we participate in that poet, and participate in that poem, when we write what we otherwise would call our poems. We’re aren’t there yet when it’s in that state. And, of course, of that one poem, there are… What we usually mean by great poetry is that, at most, it appears to be that poetry that we write, that we participate in, when we establish currents that our poems appear on.

And this.. this I had long wanted.. since high-school .. Gee, I was a poet, in 1956, I was thirty-seven. So a long time, something like twenty years or so. I had wanted to, at some time, have happen to me in poetry something like what happened to Nietzsche in his writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, because I understood that he had launched a form in which figures came to him and spoke to him (we’re back at these angels that I didn’t want to let in and then let in all around the other way round), come to speak to him and instruct him inside the very thing that he’s creating. And also at a small college, called Black Mountain College, I had been teaching a class in Les Illuminations of Rimbaud, where again Rimbaud writes prose-poems and the same figures come and instruct Rimbaud, and they’re instructing him not only in the mysteries of what is the nature of this poetry, this realm, but they are also instructing him on what his duties are there and what his work is to be.

This is the.. I’ll read the first two of ” (The) Structure of Rime” – So, it was going to be an open series that would be prose-poems, but these prose-poems move in and out of prose and verse – (verse is written in lines , lo and behold, that’s what “verse” means, and prose, you know what it looks like, it’s written like paragraphs and so forth -. And sometimes prose is poetry, and sometimes it isn’t, and many times verse is not poetry, and sometimes it is) . (If it’s not creative of itself, it’s not poetry, in either category). Some people write and when they think that symphonies are poetry, sometimes, and when they think that paintings are poetry, or even sunsets.. (unless you think you do the whole thing when you look at the sunset, instead of the sunset creating it)

[At approximately fourteen minutes in Robert Duncan reads “Structure of Rime – 1″] –   (“I ask the unyielding sentence that shows itself forth in the language as I make it…”…. “vomiting images in the place of the law”.)  – followed by “Structure of Rime – 2″  – (“What of the Structure of Rime?  I said…”…”The actual stars moving are music in the real world.  –   This is the meaning of the music of the spheres“)

The sense of where that poem was coming through to me, I think we all have been, or no,  I’ve read enough about child psychology to realize, no, but maybe in this room, everybody had been..  and that is, when we play a world, when we are children, very little children.. And from almost all children in such play-world, people come, and, as a matter of fact, facts of life appear, and.. so that they. .so that they are in a conversation, a conversation with things, and people, and world, and this is what I was restoring in the body of the poem. Clearly, in one part, the woman who brings language is, what? –  the mother, of course, who is first talking to you, who is first surrounding you with language. And ..of the shores [“from a shore I don’t know to a shore I know“]  “, the mother dead and the mother alive are (its shores) – And, in many ways we can examine it. But I had called up, and had called myself into, that realm in which I was playing, made-up things, as the first poem, one of the very central analogies we have, of made-up things, and that we go through in full confidence and are permitted to go through for just that brief period that our twentieth-century permits childhood to play  (But a longer period, by the way, than mankind has ever been permitted to play before – In the Middle Ages, by the time you were seven, you would have to be about the world’s business. One of the troubles for an historian studying the Middle Ages – you think there’s something wrong, there’s a seven-year-old bishop, or a seven year old…  When you think about the Presidents of our country, they could all  be seven-year-olds!, I mean, It wouldn’t come out any worse! – but the significance of a seven-year-old President is that somebody doesn’t get to be a child, somebody breaks down in all of that, someone doesn’t get to play long enough to get the feel of things..  And the nineteenth-century began to invent the nursery and to extend the period when…     And they began to talk And they started even… So they started “gardening” chlldren, and making children come into existence.

It’s a very solemn world in Dante’s world, it’s hard to find that he was ever a child. And Shakespeare’s children are, observably, very remarkably like Henry James, who’s at the end of the same tradition – they’re solemn little adults, that’s exactly what they are – little Henry James sitting at the table with William James and Papa James already sounding out, could only play one game, and that is, talk as intricately and as solemnly, and so forth, as they did , and enter philosophy by the time he was seven, (or he didn’t get to talk at the table, because there was no nursery for him).. Okay, but when many people in the nineteenth century began to have a nursery, people began reading, writing children’s stories, children’s books. What does it mean to write a children’s book? You go back to when you’re seven and write there. That’s how you can write them. I wrote one and I knew exactly where to go to write and I wrote from everything I knew when I was seven. I found out I was seven! – lo and behold, I was once seven! – how amazing! – and it doesn’t disappear. If you go back there and check it out.

Now this is of course resurrected in a different way, and you must have.. realize..”Gee, I was probably crazy when I was seven. There I was talking to people back and forth, including my sister, who was real, actual.. (now what is all this checking out of the actual and the real, and yes, my sister’s actually there, but she’s really so and so, you know, “You’re a gorilla today!” “Lets play Tarzan and the leader of the gorillas” – Mother’s worried – “What are you going to do with that female gorilla out there, it’s lunch-time?” – “Okay” – (I think you can see that my sister was one year younger than I was –  (We) thought up great games (to play) )…

to be continued…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *