This weekend marks the birth dates of two important figures in American poetry – John Wieners (born January 6) and Robert Duncan (born January 7). The two were featured together in 1968 in Robert O Moore’s groundbreaking WNET Poetry USA series.
Here is the video and a transcript of this particular episode (arguably, in the”wrong” order – Robert Duncan today, John Wieners will follow tomorrow)
“This program is dedicate to the work of Robert Duncan and John Wieners
This is the poet Robert Duncan born 1919, Oakland, California. Of his work, Duncan has written, “I make poetry as other men make war or make love or make states or revolutions – to exercise my faculties at large. One of the more influential of modern American poets, Robert Duncan’s major collection of work to date is in the volume Roots and Branches, published by Scribners. With the painter Jess Collins, Duncan lives and works in this house in San Francisco in an environment uniquely his own.
RD: “I think of myself as a householder in the middle of a city, where this household is in San Francisco, and then San Francisco for me is an extension and again a household. Beyond that, I don’t have much picture of the rest, I might say, the rest of the country is almost as naked as living in the rest of history, of all of time. And then what one does in the furnishing of a household is about as far as I understand that role that people make so much about, talking about poems, usually talking about discipline, about the poet’s selectivity. Everywhere, I am selecting, but I wouldn’t view it as an extension of discipline, or an economy. It’s an operation of intuition for me.”
Robert Duncan has written, ”I study what I write, and I study out any mystery.. A poem, mine or others, is an occult document. And concerning metaphor, the concept that to form is to transform is a magic then. And a metaphor is not a literary device but an actual meaning arising from, operating in, and leading us to realize, the co-inherence of being in being, that we perceive forms because there are correspondences.”
“The poem works with not only sounds, and feelings you have in your body, of the dance that’s in a poem, of.. these two together, the sounds that are.. that you’re working with, with and the words and the rhythms in which these words are coming into the form of the poem. The other one, the role of image. I’m fascinated that it is not… that the image is also an endlessly extending field. And one of them that the Renaissance was fascinated by was the emblem, or the picture. As Ben Jonson says “Who knows not picture, knows not poetry”. When images occur in a poem for me, I see those images the way I see these images in the tarot, not as symbols. The woman with the two vases and the great star here, I see, is pouring a water from a pool which then is also the pool of life and she’s pouring souls from life into life returning them.
As I’m working, my preparation for the poem, the thing that comes alive when I come to the poem, is how much I have prepared to see in the immediate parts I’m working, what I’m working with. If I see many things in what I’m working with, then I have a great many areas with which I can build. It’s like having a block of a certain shape and suddenly seeing that it can fit with many other blocks, instead of having set in your mind that it fits only with one, and then you can really start building a kind of architecture. The architecture of the poem fascinates me. I don’t believe in the prediction of the future when you lay out the cards or read a palm but I do believe that you give the script for the future, because we’re all dramatists.
Now it does occur to me that maybe I like so many objects and I like so many books because in the vast dispersion of that field, there’s a much greater freedom of choice.
The other part that does interest me is the furnishing. Then among the furniture, in a poem like this, for instance, in which I really was drawing upon the things that were around the room and attendant, I make a path through it, in which the content of the poem exists, as they come to me, or as I recognize them, as I look at them about the room. I see that path and follow the thought of it and the feeling of it as it goes through.”
[Approximately five minutes in Duncan reads reads (from Passages 9 – “The Architecture”) –
(“…It must have recesses. There is a great charm in a room broken up in plan, where that slight feeling of mystery is given to it which arises when you cannot see the whole room from any on place..when there is always something around the corner” – “from the window-shelter/ the light/the curtains of daffodil-yellow/ light/ beyond/ a little night music/ after noon/ strains of Mahagonny on the phonograph/ distant/ intoxications of brazen crisis, / the (1939 (Konnen einem toten Mann nicht helfen chorus/the procession with drum-roll/in the distance/ recesst/ (the stage becomes dark)/ from the bookcases the glimmering titles arrayd keys”/ Hesiod Herakiltus The Secret Book of Egyptian Gnostics…
“Take a house planned in this way with a big living room, its great fireplace, open staircase, casement windows, built-in seats, cupboards, book-cases…and perhaps French doors opening out upon a porch/ La Revelation d’Hermes Trismegiste/ Plutarch’s Morals: Theosophical Essays/ Avicenna/The Zohar/The Aurora/
I was reading while the music played/ curld up among the ornamental cushions/ “which links the house with the garden/and/ sparkling in the jeweld /highlights given forth by/copper, brass, or embroideries”/
“the staircase, instead of being hidden away in a small hall or created as a necessary evil, made one of the most beautiful and prominent features of the room because it forms a link between the social part of the house and the upper regions”…/
Below the house in the dark of the peppertree/stript to the moonlight embraced/for the mystery’s sake mounting.thru us the garden’s recesses/
“You are to make it, I told you, in the past.I do/not duppose you recognize me.”Owl” is what I am /calld. This is how I am.”/. They saw an owl…/
the lamplight warm upon the page where I /romance in which lost, reading /
“You will often tell the story. If you do that you/will be able to marry those you love/ You will continue to marry but you will fear/ me. If I even see you, you will die/”
“…which belongs to the inner and the individual part of the family life”
RD: [At approximately eight-and-a-half minutes in, Duncan continues] – “Last year when I wrote “The Architecture” and.. I wrote during that year twenty of these “Passages” and numerous other poems. But there are other times when I go for quite a period before I am ready to work again.
At the end, of July I proposed “Passages 26”, and only got two lines – “”They’ve to take their souls in war/as we take soul in the poem” In this same notebook, along with this series of Passages, I have been working on a translation of a long poem by Victor Hugo. The opening line, “O god, whose work goes farther than our dream” drew me for my own purposes. So “Passages 26” now would now go – ““”They take their souls in war/as we take soul in the poem/ O god for whom the work goes farther than our dream”/ Creator mysterious Abyss/ from which there goes out a smoke/of men, of beings, and of suns!”
In order to have an accuracy, I had to occur being responsible for all errors. This is.. sometimes I would compare it to a carpenter.. In other words, view the language as a wood, and if you make a mistake, you cannot correct it. So that you have to face your box work. But then, in language, you were concerned with the meaning of what you were doing, it never becomes a box work. The mistake in itself becomes the element of what you must work with.
[Duncan is seen composing] – “Mao’s ….mountain of murdered men” – but that’s a lot of alliteration….I can’t provide .. you have to have that big mouthful of “Mao’s mountain of murdered men “ – I can, at times, stare, and wonder “My God! what am I going to do with that?”, and have to do something with it. Alright…then…so.. my consciousness of that must enter in here, and we… we’ll have the …..(Duncan is shown writing) – “the alliteration of ems like Viet Nam’s/ burned villages/…irreplaceable/ a hatred a the maimed (and bereft must) hold/against (the) bloody poetry America writes over Asia/ (we must recall) to hold (by) property rights that/ are not private (individual) or public rights (but/given properties of our common humanity)….”
Now, if I lose the track, I will just stop.
“They take their souls in war as we take soul in the poem/, “O god, whose work goes farther than our dream/ Creator mysterious Abyss/ from which there goes out a smoke/of men, of beings, and of suns!”/So deep that its blue is death/ (The extent of) the shadow the fullness…” and then it opens out – “../ parts of the sentence/ light right/Mao’s mountain of murdered men/ the alliteration of ems like Viet Nam’s/ burned villages/…irreplaceable/ a hatred the maimed hold/against the bloody poetry America writes over Asia/ to hold (by) property rights”
This poem, “Passages 26”, as well as the poem “The Architecture”, (which is “Passages 9”), is part of a long open-ended work-in –progress.
I had to develop a poetry where I could shift rapidly because I was not thinking and then writing it down but I was trying to, from many levels and many directions, and upstairs-is and downstairs-is, but, more than any duality, from all sorts of things, the flowing into a form of the things that belong to it.”
“The work of Robert Duncan has returned to contemporary poetry an element that was rejected by many of the experimentalists of the (19)20’s, this element is the spirt of romance, specifically the free play of the imagination among all the phenomenon available to man, the old story of the romance of forms.”
RD: “I create in a poem, with language, in order to participate in what I intuit to be the nature of what’s going on in the world. So in a way I discover the world as I discover what my own processes of being part of it and creating, but creating… Language to me is part of the creativity of man which is completely in his consciousness”
(RD types and composes) – “No man’s land in which everything moving from – Saigon’s viewpoint—was ‘ hostile’ ” They’ve to take their souls in the war as we take soul in the poem/ Dieu dans l’oeuvre va plus loin que notre reve/Creator mysterious Abyss/ from which there goes out a smoke/of men, of beings, and of suns!/ so deep that he is blue as death /the shadow/the form parts of a sentence/ they must make their long march to make/light bright/we take as necessary/Mao’s mountain of murdered men / the alliteration of ems like Viet Nam’s/ burned villages/ irreplaceable irrevocable/ a hatred the maimed hold/against the bloody poetry America writes over Asia/ we must recall/ by properties that are not by property rights/ but given to all”
I always feel the congruity of everything. And when I am baffled, I believe that the congruity is there and I’m unable to find it, because I experience the world, not as a terrible field of contrast and misfittings but of, you know, a continuous flow of things in time and space, and in my art I try to have that aspect of the world.
In the fifteen years I’ve lived with Jess, I’ve seen how his collages and my way of writing have a great clarity. My poems are filled with the passages that make from here and there. One time I referred to myself as a sort of jackdaw. And I certainly think of myself as a derivative poet. Well, I’ve been..I derive from this vase [sic], I derive from these minds. When I gave myself permission to be a derivative poet I found I had my mind full. If I have to be original, I really don’t have anything in my mind at all. I think one of the things I had to battle against, and overthrow in my mind, that is dominant for the generation of Pound and Williams and Stein, that it was very important to them that they invented, that they were original, (although when we turn back, we see them also derivative), but, just as I think of myself as deriving, of my being and soul from a world’s being and soul, then I derive, also, my writing, from a language that I didn’t invent. When we .. (well “cow” is the word on the wall back there), we derive the whole human experience with this entity of what a cow is, when we, from.. as, only the other evening, seeing a tv series on the Maasai in Africa, where they.. where these people, live on milk and blood, and never kill the cow, but live in a perfect biological parasitism in relation to the.. in relation to their herd – where they solve the problems of the herd – where to eat and where to find water, and in turn they never kill them, (as we slaughter what we eat) but they drink their blood and their milk. Now, in a way, I think, no wonder I was attracted to them, because, in the first place, they’re splendid people and their dance is magnificent, and they live in an enclosed world of cow-dung and cows. And the main thing in this tv serial was, how can we bring these people up to date? how can we really relieve them from their.. from their terrible primitive existence? Well, I, in a way, am a terrible primitive existence (an unlikely one, supposedly, in the world we live in). I derive myself from all of these people who are in no way diminished by my derivation, from the milk and blood of other works of art. ”