Robert Duncan Centennial

“Robert Duncan, elder Poet of San Francisco Renaissance mid-Century, in his front parlor-library, October 12, 1984, then mortally ill, daily dialysis for kidney crystallization.” (caption & photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries/Allen Ginsberg Estate)

On the occasion, today, of the Robert Duncan Centennial

Robert Duncan on Allen Ginsberg

“To the academic it’s quite understandable that if you weren’t teaching at Princeton or Harvard and you weren’t guaranteeing that poetry was an avocation – it should become a vocation, you would actually be a screaming raving degenerate, like Poe, or Whitman, or Emily Dickinson. Think of all the various pictures they have of those very neurotic poets. And immediately the projection is that’s where I’d be if I were a poet of any different order I would be mad, locked away, carted off in a little wagon…”

from David Ossman’s The Sullen Art (1963)

DO: Howl seems to me a disorder which Ginsberg has attempted to order and which has not been ordered with complete success

RD: Well, I don’t know. Howl seems to be very definitely restricted in the things and the attitudes that it includes. Certainly it’s related to classical orders, and it’s highly conventional, which I would hope my work wasn’t. It stems from Christopher Smart and certain Jewish ideas, I think I grasp a little of what you mean in relation to Howl but I don’t call that a disorder. That is the whole Hebrew teaching about poetry – that it shouldn’t be made but spoken from an inspired voice. I think that Ginsberg is trying to recover the Jewish heritage – the spiritual convention – and that means speaking as a God-voice. There is a Jewish teaching that the law is that you shouldn’t make graven images –that you shouldn’t make what we call “poem” – a made thing like the Greeks talked about , but you should speak from inner inspiration and pour forth. If “Howl” is a disorder , then so is the Song of Songs of Solomon or Ecclesiastes. The thing about “Howl” is that there is an exuberance of emotion in back of the poem. That’s why it has such strength in front of Academic poetry, where there’s none at all. But its experience is not ripened, and we can either posit a later poetry of Allen Ginsberg’s with a riper experience, or we might posit Allen Ginsberg continually trying to write “Howl”. But he seems to do all kinds of things. No, I wouldn’t call that disorder. One thing, however, that I work for (and I could contrast my poetry with Ginsberg’s in this) is meaning. Ginsberg is a poet of expression, and the important thing communicated in a poem like “Howl” is the expressionist force. Now, I’m a poet almost entirely of meaning…”

“And “Howl” is a perfect projection of what every good student at Columbia believes would happen to you if you went bohemian.. I mean the best minds of my generation are nuts, and screaming, and buggered by mad motorcyclists – you should have such a chance! (laughter) , I mean, the outside of Columbia is that.  So it was a poem understandable to Columbia, totally understandable to the world that Allen Ginsberg came from. It was the one his father believed you’d be in if your verse wasn’t appearing in the Atlantic Monthly. Think about where it would be appearing – on latrine walls or somewhere.”

“Where the conventional and unconventional are one force (Ginsberg supplying what most English professors believe would happen if you kicked over the traces)”

from the letters,  to Charles Olson,  January 8, 1958

“as far as I see diffuse emotional character is as everlasting as focussd emotional character. The definitive distance between (Allen) Ginsberg and (Edward) Marshall (both having hysterical tone) is that between diffuseness and focus..”

with Rodger Kamenetz, 1985 – “Realms of Being” (interview from the Winter, 1985  Southern Review, reprinted in A Poet’s Mind – Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan 1960-1985)

RD: Allen Ginsberg is Allen Ginsberg by how very little indeed he is anything like Robert Duncan

RK: So he’s still wrestling with you.

RD: He doesn’t have to wrestle with me. I wasn’t on site. He didn’t design the thing to wrestle with me. And if we think of some of the terms that come in the Old Testament like “abomination” and so forth, that’s how I experienced a good deal of Allen Ginsberg; but when I said I wasn’t central, I wasn’t Jehovah so I didn’t have, let’s say, the strength of my abominations. The abomination means: I will not be like this. They should be expressed because they should be out there where you see them at times, once in a while decently, or else we’ll all be little hypocrites. The cost of the abominations when they’re expressed is that it becomes clearer and clearer how infinitesimal we are with equal powers. There is no doubt that Allen Ginsberg is as intensely Allen Ginsberg as I am me, and this is what I see as the one thing each poet has to do. The uniqueness is the poet has only himself to be. He can’t borrow models because the cues are in his own life. His attentions have to be on everything in his own experience….”

“Passages” – the Robert Duncan Centennial Conference takes place at the Sorbonne Université, Paris, June 12-14th

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