More Robert Duncan – 4

Robert Duncan at Novato, California,in 1976, continues.      

RD: I want to take you through a… oh, there’s one more poem I’ll read from Bending the Bow, that was requested, and that’s the poem, “My Mother Would Be A Falconress” – People keep asking me why don’t I write good poems like that all the time? Well, this one landed on top of me, so I…. I’d never be able to do it myself is the only answer to it! I’ll read you the little Preface [“A Lammas Tiding”]  that goes with it, which is sort of a description about, sort of, how the poem landed on top of me.

I practice the Celtic.. (well, it sounds like I belong to a witch cult, but the witches were not the only ones that practiced the Celtic holidays). And one of the strange practices of that is that I have usually had a Lammas poem, always. by…of course, as I practice Christmas and Easter  and the Christian, the major Christian, holidays, the ones that have to do with Christ’s Passion I also practice. Lammas is always a surprise. .what I do is…  because it is a fearful night for (me) …  And I have a number of Lammas occasions, but this is the one that really landed on top of the shelf.

“I wakened in the night with the lines “My mother would be A Falconress – And I a falcon at her wrist” being repeated in my mind Was the word “falconress” or “falconess” ? – the troubled insistence of the lines would not let go of me, and I got up and took my notebook into the kitchen to write it out at the kitchen table. Turning to the calendar to write the date, I saw it was Lammas: 2 AM, August 1, 1964.  I remembered then that George Stanley had told me that Saturn, my birth planet, was particularly brilliant in the early morning sky. “But that’s between one-thirty and two “ he said, when you were fast asleep, keeping the hours that you do.

And searching out the poetic lore of what America is I had been reading Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion these last few nights just before going to sleep

With what sense is it that the chicken shuns the ravenous hawk?” I had read, and said to myself, yes, there are bloody men, and I am not one of them but of chicken-kind, for I would never draw blood. Which goes to show one should be careful of vain self-delusions entertained at bedtime. For now my dream would have me a hawk. And, hearing my account, Jess comments, “Especially since chickens do draw blood”. Whereupon, I recall those horrible cannabalistic hens I tended at Treesbank, that needed only the first sight of blood that might be left after egg-laying to tear at each other, bloody not from hunger but from malice, like so many poets furious in their pecking order – “Do I draw blood then chicken-wise/And hide myself in a hawk’s disguise?” – But dreams ever betray our minds, and in the poem there is another curious displacement upward, for the bell which is actually attacht to a falcon’s leg by a bewit just above the jess, in the dream becomes a set of bells sewn round the hood, a ringing of sound in the childhood of the poet’s head.

[At approximately thirty-one-and-a-half minutes in – here – Robert Duncan reads  “My Mother Would Be a Falconress”] – (“My mother would be a falconress/And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist..”…“….I tread her wrist and wear the hood,/talking to myself, and would draw blood.”)

To ease the…  That leaves us in rather a beautiful little place.  And, by the way, imagine writing as fast as you can write, getting to the end of that thing, and then being able to go back and go to sleep because you haven’t slept. And then, in the morning, you go to find out what you’ve written, (because I had no.. I wrote that so fast I had no idea of what I’m writing, I knew I had to write it or I couldn’t go to sleep, that was all. I mean, if I didn’t get that thing done in the…).  Going there in the morning… I woke up in the morning still with an Oedipal worry that I said my mother would be a falcon (and soon I would be a falcon, and) no, it said “falconress”, it was alright, I had it straight – And I saw the poem as saying something else, and I hadn’t said.. I hadn’t reverted, in one of those awful Freudian turns where..

Okay, I’m going to sing a song, and, lo and behold, it’s a song, and it had its own surprise when I wrote this song first. (Although I’d had some songs in plays, but I’d never thought of songs happening as a poem). And I was.. We were living in an apartment at the time that.. when..  (At the present time, we have a big house so I could go away in a corner of it and sing a song if I wanted and not be embarrassed by the fact that I have to sing it when it’s going on, and so I don’t write ’em  But this place. I look around, and Jess is working in the other room, and I think “Oh my god”.  I mean, I write the first line. See, I can’t write it, I’ve got to sing it. So I try it, sort of,  “Sing fair lady the…”, (mutters), and I see, I say, “no, you’ve got to sing it out”, oh god!  And I start in. And, as always, with stanzas, they’re irregular with me, they’ve got a kind of… My songs are not very adventurous, in that they refer to a brief period at high school where everybody at high school that I liked was going to a Methodist Sunday School, so I went to a Methodist Sunday School.. And, as you will hear, of the voice, at family sings, long before that, they said “Robert, if you’d just make like you were singing, it will all come out much better”.  And at Sunday school the same message seemed to carry across, in a way. I went to sing out like this (dramatic gesture).  And there was a little hint that if you..if you started.. take.. get that…somehow.. that voice that was…  But I’m all singing all alone, I’m not in a family sing and..our friendly musical illiterate!  (at least I knew, when I was sitting in that room, that nobody expects a poet really to have a voice like Joan Baez, you know. I mean you don’t really expect that – or Bob Dylan who is a poet and sings, you know. I mean, you don’t ask that of them, certainly not of an august poet like myself. So, I’ve got my own kind of crazy kind of voice , okay?

[At appoximately thirty-seven minutes inhereRobert Duncan readsA Song of the Old Order]– (“Sing fair the Lady and her knight…”….” who give green to the earth/and by their love/raise the day’s light!”)

Well, let’s see, my strategy shifts a bit. I’m going to read two recent “Passages”. “Passages” were numbered up through thirty-seven. And then I began to wonder – why are you numbering them? – there’s not a beginning one. Doesn’t it suggest, that if you went from one to thirty-seven. the ordinations.. they don’t…. Since they’re really coming back into a realm, why should I number the time-cycle back in – the first time I went back in, I saw so-and-so, the second time I saw so-and-so…  (in fairy-tales you do that, so there must be something about thirty-seven) – Now, actually, since I‘ve given up ordinations of the “Passages” , now the numbers become significant (they’re a line in ordination) and in back of that was, if I can open up to you this business of about a realm again..

One of the propositions about the change that was taking place in the concept of the poem was made by Charles Olson, who proposed that we were going to have composition by field. Now he had gotten the idea of field composition out of gestalt psychology. It had proposed, in the  (nineteen) twenties, that, when we look at a work of art. we actually see it as a field, and when you read all the way through a novel, you’re not going from the beginning to end, you’re raising the whole thing in your mind. So, when you re-read it, you’re not in the same place you were. We wouldn’t re-read novels if we were going from the beginning to the end, would we?  But a perfect example of fields… the difference between Aristotle’s proposition of beginning, middle and end, and field composition, is the difference between going between… going between San Francisco and New York, where there’s nothing in-between, and.. exploring the country!  (you’d start somewhere, anywhere, but if..  you would certainly not be going from beginning to end if you were exploring the country), you’d wander around, you’d look around (you move in a field in a very different way). Well, gestalt had found out that, when you look at a canvas, you can’t name where the painter began painting, and even if you named where he began painting, you can’t name where a man begins looking on a canvas. And he continously re-assembles a canvas.

Then they found when they examined how  people read a page – and were (had) real trouble reading if they start from the beginning of a sentence and read through to the end,. Because the ones that were at home reading, scanned the whole page, and in scanning the whole page, read through it. So they knew the whole page, and kept rehearsing the whole page over and over again, and the whole thing took place in their minds. They got (people) behind pieces of paper, watched them, and the eyes scanned the whole thing, and it would go ahead and back and over. And meanwhile, actually being… the mind was going through sentences, but it was knowing how to do the sentences because it had scanned the whole field.

Well, this is coming .. It took a long time. 1920, they started talking about this, and it was way ahead in the 50’s before we started talking “(why) aren’t we writing that way? – And so this “field” occurred. Now this was, like the problem of physics about our time. Physics has been puzzling, in our century, about how come we have uni-directional time? how come our experience is uni-directional? (actually our experience isn’t – the psychologists were out worrying about the opposite, how come. they said, when we start out young and we end up old, we’re always ourselves and it’s all there, wherever we are?) – I mean, do you think you’re half-way through something, or anything, or that.. ? I mean, the only child, you know, right at the moment, is the one that’s here. You don’t know anything about a child that is somewhere else. I mean…I mean the child that was you? – It has to be the one who is you, right now, That’s the only one you’re in contact with. And the old man? – that must be the old man you’re gonna be? – no, it has to be the one that’s right here,.You’re the old man you know about, or old woman, or whatever, because the imagination is the character. Imagination was exactly like that. Okay, The physicist said, at one point…(one wonderful book on the contemporary mathematics, or whatever), said,  “I guess the time that we have that seems to go from past to future must be a kind of a hare, swimming in a sea (you know).  The hare has only one dimension – The only thing that can possibly be going from past to future is (a) single-dimensional  the edge of a single line on a piece of paper, (but even that. if you took a microscope and saw.. saw it enlarged.. it would cease to have a beginning and end.. it would be a…)  That table (sic -points to table) has no beginning and end. There’s no sense that that table has a beginning or end, the surface..once it’s a plain, it’s not a line, it has no beginning and end. And certainly, if it has three-dimensional (properties)… You try and find the beginning of a cube, or a globe. You couldn’t (except arbitrarily). And that’s the realm that we’re talking about.  So, okay, my first thirty-seven “Passages” are just an arbitrary impression of mine when venturing into a realm that’s actually three-dimensional, (that) because I’ve entered into there, it must be the beginning. It can’t be the beginning of the realm, I knew, and now I’m more responsible to the realm than  I am than t the mere fact that I had a beginning of supposedly my first entry. Yet I don’t believe I have my first entry when I started “Passages” because the actual domain of “Passages” is the language itself, not a poem. That’s where it has its form. And, of course, I didn’t enter the language. I entered the language when.. I was surrounded by the language when I first came to consciousness, They were talking all over the room. Soon I was going to get to talk all over the room. People would be quiet and listen. Wonderful! – Okay…

to be continued

Leave a Reply

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