Expansive Poetics – (Robert Duncan)

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Robert Duncan (1919-1988)

Allen’s Expansive Poetics lecture continuing…

AG: Now, the natural next one that I’d like to pick up on, the next text, I’d like to pick up on, is a jump almost a century ahead, but, another theosophist (or someone trained (and) who grew up with Christian Science and studied hermetic philosophy, and theosophy, and tarot,and (Carl Gustav) Jung, and medieval learning), namely Robert Duncan, who has a very beautiful poem, which relates to Walt Whitman again, written in the mid (19)50’s – (“A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar”)– That would be in the American section (of our Expansive Poetics anthology). Born 1919..  Is DM (a Student) here?

Student: Oh, I just ran into him (in the…)

AG: Oh, okay. DM has just read all through Duncan. And, if you’re further interested in Duncan, Joanne Kyger (currently at Naropa) studied with him very early. “ – “A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar” – He’s after Robert Lowell – it’s 1919

Student: So it’d be before (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti and..

AG: After…

Student: ..(Jack) Kerouac

AG: …(Robert) Lowell..

Student: Right after (Charles) Olson

Student (2): Incidentally, Robert Duncan is teaching Whitman – right now, in fact!

AG: At New College?

Student: Yeah

AG: Yeah

Student: It’s an interesting fact that these two courses are going on simultaneously

AG: Yeah. Do you know about New College in San Francisco?

Student: San Francisco?

AG: San Francisco. There’s a thing called New College, which is an older private school that’s been going on ten or twelve years or so, but, I think, partly in response to the challenge of Naropa, out in San Francisco they founded their own school now. And so the directors are Robert Duncan and Diane di Prima, both of whom have taught here. Duncan, I think, disapproved of the basic Buddhist influence here, and so he thought a more secular, American-oriented, extension of the Black Mountain ethos should be founded. And Diane, who is a Buddhist, who comes back and forth (between) here (and there), is also a teacher there. I’ll probably visit New College and teach there this September [1981] at least for a day. I’ll give a reading there. (to Students) – When you get finished with Naropa and you want another variety, (or), if you’re into poetics and want another variety of poetics, New College is probably pretty good.

Student: It’s interesting, because you could get a B.A. here (at Naropa) and then go on and get an M.A. at New College They have a Master’s Program there.

AG: Do we (Naropa) have a Master’s Program in Poetics?

Student: No

AG: We may devise one, if we survive [sic] – or, actually, you could go to New College for two years and then come here for two years and get a B.A, also. Actually, that’s a very interesting shot. I think it may take root, whether or not Naropa (does).. it may take root, whether or not Naropa survives (I’m talking about financially – it’s pretty difficult now – that’s why I’m laying out these little donation vouchers here[Allen digresses at this point into urgent issues of fund-raising]………

So..(Robert) Duncan.. “Poem Beginning With A Line by Pindar” (done in the (19)60’s, late (19)50’s, rather, or mid (19)50’s, I don’t know what year that was done, (19)58?, same year as the big explosion of poetry in San Francisco (got) recognized – maybe a year after On The Road came out – somewhat impelled and pushed into a populist heart thing by the San Francisco Renaissance, by “Howl” coming out, by the appearance of a great phalanx of fellow-poets in competition with them – Gary Snyder and myself and (Jack) Kerouac, whom Duncan admired for his inclusiveness).
So this was one of the climactic pieces of Duncan’s writing. As a young man he’d been all over the joint – amazingly smart, and amazingly connected – with the Surrealists in New York  (the Surrealists that came to New York during the war). And he dressed in green velvet coats, and was a gigolo, and a man-about-town, in New York, and a real handsome kid, and was in and out of everybody’s bed in the (19)40’s, knew almost everybody. I think he knew (Ezra) Pound, and visited (William Carlos)Williams, and had correspondence with Laura Riding (and) with Hilda Doolittle, and all the old Imagists and Objectivists and all the Surrealists and international dandies of literature, (19)40’s, (19)50’s, (19)60’s – And had written a number of very brilliant poems – but more hermetic. And this, (“Poem Beginning With A Line by Pindar”), I found, or thought, was his most open, Whitman-ic, poem – 1958 – And so, in the “San Francisco Renaissance” issue of Evergreen Review (which was a historic issue – I think number two –  of Evergreen Review – gathering together all the new poetry of the (19)50’s – San Francisco, Black Mountain, New York School – which is to say, Duncan, (Robert) Creeley,(John) Ashbery, (Kenneth) Koch, (Frank) O’Hara, and of the Beats, myself, (Jack) Kerouac, (Gregory) Corso  – in one issue, sort of (a) literary explosion) – this was the poem Duncan had in Evergreen.. and also the key piece that he had in the Don Allen anthology, New American Poetry.. – “The light foot hears you and the brightness begins.” – “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar – and so that’s the line by Pindar.

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Allegory of Love – Cupid and Psyche – Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

[Allen begins reading Robert Duncan’s poem] – “god-step at the margins of thought,/quick adulterous tread at the heart/ Who is it that goes there? Where I see your quick face/notes of an old music pace the air,/torso-reverberations of a Grecian lyre./ In Goya’s canvas Cupid and Psyche/have a hurt voluptuous grace” – I must say, I don’t understand half of this poem (though I like a lot of the phrasing) until we get to the political statement and the appeal to Whitman, the address to Whitman – [Allen continues] – “In Goya’s canvas Cupid and Psyche/have a hurt voluptuous grace/bruised by redemption. The copper light/falling upon the brown boy’s slight body/is carnal fate that sends the soul wailing/up from blind innocence, ensnared by dimness/into the deprivations of desiring sight./ But the eyes in Goya’s painting are soft,/diffuse with rapture absorb the flame./ Their bodies  yield out of strength/ Waves of visual pleasure/wrap them in a sorrow previous to their impatience” – I don’t know what that means, actually – “Waves of visual pleasure/wrap them in a sorrow previous to their impatience” – Perhaps I haven’t looked at the canvas that he’s talking about – [Allen continues] – “A bronze of yearning, a rose that burns/the tips of their bodies, lips/ ends of fingers, nipples..”…”..they are not in a landscape/They exist in an obscurity…”…”Jealousy, ignorance, the hurt.. serve them”..”This is magic. It is passionate dispersion//What if they grow old? The gods/would not allow it./Psyche is preserved..”…”It is toward the old poets/we go, to their faltering,/their unfaltering wrongness that has style,/ their variable truth,/the old faces,/words shed like tears from/a plenitude of powers time stores./ A stroke. These little strokes…” – He’s talking about Whitman here.

[tape ends – to be continued]

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