More Robert Duncan – 2

Robert Duncan at Novato, California, 1976,  continuing from – here

AG: Well, lets now for… to move onto a few more poems from this book [Bending the Bow]. It’s the first book also in which the contemplation of the meaning of our American experience emerges very strongly and it’s nice in our solemn bicentennial year (1976 (sic) – Duncan is speaking in 1976),   I haven’t got an American flag hanging in the background, But if poets came out roaring when the inequities of America appeared at full blast in that Vietnamese War, it was not because they weren’t American, it was because they were, and because there was so much of it that they had to… that they saw that their nightmare was made evident, I mean, their inner psychic world had finally been revealed, the thing they always felt was there, the thing that we knew… that was thoroughly there in my generation, because many.. most of my generation was running that war, and certainly was there in my parents generation. Ezra Pound, for instance, with his rabid anti-semitism, never exceeded the polite anti-semitism of my WASP parents, who felt Hitler was quite right to be killing Communists, because they should be exterminated, but he was wrong killing nice Jews..those.. there are.. I mean there are Jews that it would be very good if we got rid of, but so many nice people, the ones who own the department store and the bank, were being killed too, They were the right people. And so there were “right” and “wrong” people in America, I heard lots of that, along with the beginnings. And so it’s a grevious experience and yet a very exciting experience

What was the dream and what was the poetry? – the poetry that the Constit(ution)… I see the Constitution, for instance, as a poem, not a law laid down on us at all, but a great dream of what mankind could be like, and an eighteenth-century poem about.. about..  an exact counterpart of the minuet, and the dances – (they were just giving up and going on to a much more rowdy waltzes – I mean soon, in the thirties, the Adams’ were aghast at the way we were.. at the way that  (Andrew) Jackson was dancing, but that was.. They were refined dance masters who wrote the Constitution (and that one was very attractive to me, because I love fine fittings, and the fine carpentry of that period is also haunting to me, in relation to the poem).

And I began, in 1956, to imagine, mostly out of Adams, and out of the debacle (because Pound who was a master of mine, in the master-generation that I stem from, was of course.. had revealed in full, in his own psyche, the nightmare that the United States.. that Americans were quite capable of being as bloody and vicious as Germans (well, they were.. I mean what were we? – we were compounds of all the people of the world and then we are to be amazed that we turn out to be of the same species and do the same things?) – but, at the time of the Second World War, most people I knew felt very superior,  “Those Germans have their Hitler, those Russians have their Stalin, those British had that bloody horrible Empire in the nineteenth century. Isn’t it wonderful that us Americans….”  And, of course, if you checked it out, they’re saying this on top of how many slaughtered Indians and burned forests and the whole rest of it  We didn’t start our… We didn’t get reform, we got to the planning..comment.. That’s what we were looking at in (19)56, we were looking both…  We were feeling, intensely, both the experience (and) the dream. And that’s what poetry is. Again, this is the actual world, the real world, and trying to get them together in a language.

Then I had also from Medieval Studies a strong sense that law… We have a sense of lawlessness..and we can…  of lawfulness and lawlessness, and we can even find that a law is out of order, because we know a law that is more lawful than that… We know when the law is against the law.  That’s the… That is what makes men form, well, revolutions, constitutions, (they don’t come out of the sky (but) they come out of a very intense sense of law that precedes constituted law, as an intense sense of poetry streams forward from the existence of poems.

[At approximately twenty-five minutes in, Robert Duncan reads“ The Law I Love is Major Mover”]  – (“..from which flow destructions of the Constitution/No nation stands unstirred…” – Let me start that again and get it moving right. There’s a little law about how I ought to be reading it straight!  -[Duncan begins again] (“The Law I Love is Major Mover”………. “was the Law,  was Syntax/, Him I love is major mover.”)

The poem… And then at this point I.. well, moving back into mythic movement, and also a feeling that, almost of… a feeling of the last disorder and nightmare, moving forward in our American experience. Now this is, of course, the Pindar Poem, 1957, My feeling, (though, personally, I was out there demonstrating, was against the war in Vietnam and thought it was an atrocity), I felt the most important thing about the war was that it revealed the truth of who we were, and so it’s one of the first, out of this move..  I am still reading and reading and reading to find what is this thing that, what is the immediate thing that, we are involved in, that was, that is our heritage, that we’re to carry forward to a meaningful place in all mankind’s experience? – And it’s not in arrogance, not in arrogance of it being our nation, but trying to make meaningful in terms of the whole world, the..  what we can rescue of the meaning. But also it should be in that message, as it is in fairy tales, the full nightmare that man is capable of, and that can only be acknowledged in ourselves . When we point to somebody else and see the nighmare it doesn’t hit anybody because we’re just saying “That thing over there is scary” , or, “That’s not where it goes”.

This poem began because I was reading a translation of Pindar late at night, and, all of a sudden..  I had read through a couple of Odes, and then now I had..  (at this point I had never.. I had never.. it was only this year that I had begun to read Pindar in Greek). I was reading him in translation and a set of puns appeared, and I’ll take the first line and show you, because I want to also show you something of how I work. I read an opening line of an Ode by Pindar  (it’s “A Poem Beginning With A Line By Pindar”) and the line   went, in the translation, “ The light foot hears you and the brightness begins”,  and I thought,  ‘How does a foot hear you?” – or does this mean…  or is this some strange grammatical thing? – “Hears you the bright foot? “ “the light foot”? – and “light”? – I…   My theology of light-dark, theology (of) chiaroscuro, in which they’re not at war but co-exist. So “light” really..   And then, poetry is written in feet. (I’m a poet who dances, not a poet who speaks.. and.. and everything was going., “(A)nd the brightness begins” – Well, I’m a..  I loved…  (One thing I’d done by the time this book began, I thought . “Gee, there’s such a heavy trip about poetry oughtn’t be intellectual”,  but I knew, I, not only I wanted my hands and feet in there, but I wanted the squadgy organ up in here (sic), this thing called a brain, (to) get in there). I wanted my gonads in there, I wanted my left arm in there, I wanted my sweat glands in there, and I sure wanted my brain in there. And here everybody was saying, ”Well, just keep your brain out of it, and it’ll get natural” – Well, yes, in the way we’re built. (I love to eat brains, so I’m very well acquainted with them, I cook ‘em. I mean I’ve been through the..  I know they’re there, And they’re a piece of my anatomy, they don’t prove to be a mind. And it looks very much like we’re into something quite as fleshy, and depraved, and reductive, as more exalted fellows would say, right down, just proves to be our body, so..  But “brightness”? ah! – I like to be bright – so, “brightness begins” , I thought, “What a promise! – I’ll begin bright, you know , and they’ll say, “What a bright beginning of a poem! “See how bright he is!” – It was all there in this line – and no wonder..

What also came…. (And) this is where the poem begins.. And I stop reading, grab a notebook from the side of my bed, and started writing, and get..  as I remember, I get all the way through to….  (but they’re not in a landscape, they exist in an obscurity) , and then I knew I was starting to rehearse the story of Cupid and Psyche, and that I could let it go and go to sleep, and start working on the poem the next day. Of the poem, I knew one other thing (and this is also – and I’m going to get it because it’s one of the kinds of ways about knowing about the form of a poem) – this poem I knew was also going to be in a form relative to the nineteenth-century symphony, it was going to be in four movements. I had written several poems in this form before. Howl by Allen Ginsberg is written in a sonata form of four movements, analogous to the nineteenth century’s symphony, Beethoven laid on quite a big proposition for longer than the nineteenth century. And, of all people, Allen Ginsberg, who would.. you’d think was giving a prophecy..  The one difference between Allen Ginsberg and Christopher Smart, or Jeremiah, is that he wrote in symphonic form when he wrote Howl, and he did it again when he wrote Kaddish – And T.S Eliot? (you couldn’t think of two people more different than Allen Ginsberg and T.S.Eliot), he wrote in the sonata form when he was writing his…  He recognized they were “quartets” – but what he was back in was a symphonic form.

Well, so this is going to be a symphonic form. I knew then it was going to have four movements. I had a sense of ..how long… of the time that was.. that the poem was going to exist in. Like a painter has a sense of the canvas that he’s going to be working on. So he knows where his painting takes place. He illustrates that space, not some others. I didn’t… A painter does not change the size and shape of the canvas he starts on while he’s painting. He realizes the painting within it.  Now I not only knew about..  that there were four movements – but that doesn’t mean there were four equally-divided areas.   I knew that one movement will feel this way, the next will have contrast, the next… one will be slow, one will be scherzo, all sorts of things that were analogous to the.. my…. you can hear that I’m listening to music all the time. So that was a form I loved to get into. The other thing was that I did know, (I’d been reading for years aloud), I knew how long it was going to take, a feel of how long it was going to take, that was as specific as a canvas. And so I knew… I knew if this movement was that long in that space, I’d already used it up, the next movement better be short, and this one – and so forth.. And that.. it was… Recently, I have not been back in the symphony form, but I wouldn’t mind at all. I love retrograde forms, as you will see, in the.. I will be reading a thorough retrograde poem in the second part of this program – Okay, now we’ll go into it straight on.

[At approximately thirty-four-and-three-quarter minutes in, Robert Duncan reads “A Poem Beginning With A Line by Pindar”]   – (“The light foot hears you and the brightness begins /god-step at the margins of thought,…”….”In the dawn that is nowhere/ I have seen the willful children/ clockwise and counter-clockwise turning”).

I’ll read one of the.. one more.. a poem from this volume, it’s a “Structure of Rime” that’s still very close to me. It goes back to, at this point, went back to .. early experience when I was in.. probably about twenty or so.

.”Structure of Rime – XI  “  (“There are memories everywhere then….”…..” a boat sets out without boatmen, into twenty years of snow, returning”)

Then I’ll do the closing poem from the book (The Opening of the Field) –“Food For Fire, Food For Thought”  (“good wood/ that all fiery youth burst forth from winter…”… “Flickers of unlikely heat/at the edge of our belief bud forth.”)

I’ll read one particular poem from Roots and Branches, and that is to pick up our theme of the law again, because I return to this. A husband and wife are both lawyers in Oregon and had a discussion-group and heard me read there. I’d no sooner got back home, than they telephoned and said – this is the only time this has happened to me – if they paid my air-flight back to Oregon again, would I meet with them for a weekend?  And that was interesting, That was not like… (if it’s an institution you talk about fee, pay, or something).  And they said it was because of what I said about the law. And I went and I met with them. I had a really remarkable weekend. It was, of course, not just the two lawyers, but a group of people who were… in.. all sorts of things that they recognized going through that first book, the one that you’ve just heard (The Opening of the Field)  – it was toward the end of the time that I’d written it that I had the first reading in Portland). And, so, when I returned from that weekend, I wrote a poem, ”The Law” for Toby and Claire McCarroll.

They were questioning the law, as I was questioning the law, and they also knew something about.. that the one thing about the law as it’s laid on us – it’s not the one as the law we know, (and so there’s really quite a difference).

In that poem about John Adams, by the way, {“The Law I Love is Major Mover”], where he’s saying it demands a virtue –it whatever.. he and  (Thomas) Jefferson were corresponding with each other and they were very distressed that they had written the Bill of Rights into the Constitution as a law because they felt that we should be fighting for that Bill of Rights all the time.  I think they were right. They said if we write it down, men will discontinue to fight for it, they will ask it to fight for them. and idle rights that you can write into a law. They said we know this Bill of Rights because that’s what we.. our lives.. because we are political intelligences, are fighting day and night for it. Well, we get what we deserve, when some little youthful team took the Bill of Rights and went around Sacramento from door to door, They thought they were wild Anarchists, or Communists, or something with that Bill of Rights in hand. And so they were.  Because those are not idle rights that you can write into a law. You are either fighting for every right in the Bill of Rights… No man gets to write in by law the spiritual rights that we have to have to come alive. We’ve got to fight for them, and we have to name them over and over and over again. So, (it) wouldn’t be terrible if they were lost, wouldn’t be awful if the Supreme Court didn’t come in and guarantee them. That’s not where they guaranteed. None of those rights mean a thing until you’ve claimed them, and you’ve gone in the space where they mean something, and do something. Otherwise, you’re sitting back underneath the Bill of Rights hoping it’s going to be nice to us and nobody’ll arrest us!  Imagine, coming to the place where we count the margin, will either (Jimmy) Carter or Micky Mouse or (Ronald) Reagan, or somebody, [sic – this is 1976] come in and arrest us, or persecute us, and the Bill of Rights will no longer protect us? They were not a protection. They were a proposition up front of how you’re supposed to live. Okay. On in, with that one…

And, so that’s what “The Law’s” about ,I.. and as you’ll see, I mean, I say so. – The Law and..” Yum yum! Hooray..  And “Law and Order”? – They hadn’t even started.. We hadn’t even begun to hear those lawless and orderless people shouting “law and order” yet, when it was written.and it was already. They were.. (America, I love you, you’re always coming up with some wilder drama than King Lear for us to live around!) –

[Robert Duncan reads  “The Law ” in its entirety] – (“There are no/ final orders but the Law/ constantly destroys the law….” …..   “rise to shed its skin”)

to be continued

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