October 2004  |  Jacket 26  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

Jeff Hamilton

Wrath Moves In the Music:

Robert Duncan, Laura Riding, Craft and Force
in Cold War Poetics

This piece is 13,000 words or about thirty printed pages long.
Notes are given at the end of this file.
Click on the link to be taken to the note; likewise to return to the text.

In a letter dated November 9, 1967 and covering the delivery of manuscripts from his correspondence with John Crowe Ransom, Robert Duncan summarized for the bookseller Henry Wenning the significance of his involvement with the distinguished poet, editor and New Critic:

At last, the conference over (and as it turned out, Ransom did not come after all; he was recovering from an illness),   I am sending the Ransom correspondence. I think the two groups, as they are, 1944 and 1957, make an interesting particular record of the problems my generation faced as writers with the editor of The Kenyon Review. And it was in extension the opposition we faced with Partisan Review, Hudson Review, Southern Review, Sewanee Review...
      But the Black Mountain and Origin correspondence, and the material relating to Book of Resemblances and Letters I reserve to go thru you (I’d like it to round out the material already at Washington U.) In any event, I wld wait until I have to despose of this. [1]

Duncan had known Wenning since the early Sixties, when they struck a deal. Wenning, a collector-publisher with a close connection to the department of rare books and manuscripts at Washington University, would sell Duncan first editions in exchange for certain small press publications Duncan had been bringing out since the late Forties.[2] Under contract with Wenning since the early Sixties to publish A Book of Resemblances (1966), Duncan considered selling him the Ransom letters for several years, and perhaps delayed in hopes that a renewed acquaintance with Ransom would salvage the auspicious occasion of their correspondence. If so, Duncan’s decision to sell Ransom’s letters suggests that one phase of his hopes for a poetic order had come to a rest.

The conference at which Duncan anticipated meeting Ransom was the Seminar on Myth in Literature and Religion, ‘jointly sponsored by the Advanced Program of the National Cathedral (Washington D.C.) and by the Church Society for College Work[,] and held in the College of Preachers at the Cathedral during the weekend of 13-15 October 1967.’ [3] It was the Stop the Draft week leading up to the demonstrations at the Department of Justice and the march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon, October 19–21, protests against, including militant resistance to, the illegal and undeclared war the United States was fighting in Vietnam. On Friday, conscripted young men turned in their draft cards at the Department of Justice; among the arrested at the direct action was the activist-writer Mitchell Goodman, husband to Duncan’s friend Denise Levertov, and an organizer of the event. Asked by Tony Stoneburner to give a paper to the theologians’ seminar — she also gave one — Duncan was encouraged by Levertov to stay over with her and participate in demonstrations with her husband’s direct action group, Resist. Levertov even managed to get Duncan a speaker’s slot at the Saturday march.

I’m not aware that a text of Duncan’s October 21 speech survives — at any rate, the action, at which demonstrators made speeches in the immediate presence of Pentagon security personnel, never reached the point of Duncan’s speaking; nonetheless, the thoughts he had while standing on line at the march he put into his preface for Bending the Bow (1968), and the paper he hoped Ransom would hear at the theologians’ conference was, aside from ‘The H.D. Book,’ his major prose work, The Truth and Life of Myth, An Essay in Essential Autobiography.[4] The week in Washington reflected for Duncan on an unfinished situation in which Ransom played a central role — a conflict to which Duncan puts paid in deciding to archive his correspondence at Washington University upon returning from the trip.[5] Yet in the story these documents tell a ghost slips from the vault: long ago having fled the literary scene, and residing for a quarter century in a small Wabasso, Florida house, former acquaintance of both Ransom and Duncan, Laura Riding antagonizes both of these Washington occasions.

Let’s say Duncan wished to defend poetic wisdom from Ransom — buffered by Levertov and the theologians — in a moment of political crisis. The crisis is the condition of War, but the war at home is among those on the left — ‘a challenge to good-minded people,’ as Riding, thirty years earlier, described the moment Duncan was recuperating. The poem Duncan wrote to close the meeting of theologians and poets begins: ‘Yes, I care deeply...’ and photographs from the event picture the bearded poet in an open-collared shirt (over a white tee-shirt) and corduroy sports coat with a peace-sign pinned to his lapel. This little bit of symbol-making testified to the poem’s defense of the creative will:

Yes, I care deeply and yet
you see in me just
              where I should take care I find
two sticks, a stone, and the wing
              of an ephemeral thing
— make it an orange butterfly with an eye
              of turquoise staring
even as I stare, lost in setting four
              factors of something I am making
              into motion. (FC 58)

These lines figure the creative will as an indolent carefulness of the body. Later in the same poem Duncan refers to ‘my hands counting,’ and would have performed the lines conducting their metre with thumb and forefinger pinching an imaginary baton; the body becomes the source of the speaker’s measure, as the exotic eye of the butterfly stares like a wild-eyed chemist (‘four factors of something’) at his creation. Duncan enacts the alchemy of eye and hand in his composition, which admits lost signs into something he’s making.  

As the anti-war movement became a mass movement in 1967, many ‘good-minded people,’ ‘taking care,’ came into contact with a countercultural style from which they were deeply inured. At a flea market in my academic neighborhood I recently picked up a woman’s Metropolitan Museum calendar (‘Four Victorian Photographers’) from 1968. I keep it because of days like January 15, 1968, when, among the notations of a dinner party invitation and children’s doctor’s appointments, there’s this: ‘Peace vigil after work at 11.’ ‘Yes, I care deeply’ speaks from the center of such days. It’s not a day on which our greatest poems are written, but its defense of a warranting approximation might make the great ones possible. Duncan’s poem defends the approximation of those days when poetry’s ‘so near’ both religious life and politics ‘only my hands counting    and eyes | naming these things || holds at bay       what is     from me’ (FC59). Something ‘lost’ from ‘what is’ — something that remains unrealized — is what Duncan wishes to guard as it collects the cast-off, the near-to-hand (mortmain of the surrealist artist) from the denials that underwrite orthodox humanists and draft-card burners alike in their claim to fight for a just social life.

Counting hands and naming eyes place vision and measure near the origin of a symbolism sprung from indexical relationships and suggest Duncan needs a romance of origins within the tragic account of American speech and Enlightenment political culture his citizenship plays out. In The Truth and Life of Myth, Duncan proposes that the poet keeps myth ‘at bay’ just as the humanist fosters religious faith — i.e., no single orthodoxy — and the democrat serves social reconstruction without ever making persons over into the martyrs of a historical destiny. The approximation of these functions — and in them — which Duncan claims for poetic wisdom radically conserves the foundations of Enlightenment from the escalating cyles of revolution and counter-revolution.

Duncan’s title looks two ways: as a relation that wishes to gain the ear of those orthodox elders (specifically, Ransom) who fashion themselves disabused of myth, ‘An Essay in Essential Autobiography’ emerges from what Duncan would himself refer to as his ‘dark Emersonianism’ and looks to our Puritan tradition of captivity and conversion narratives — a testimony appealing for re-admission; as an account of ‘The Truth and Life of Myth,’ it argues for the common store of both ‘the life of poetry’ and poetic wisdom in the material of language and history.[6]   

Duncan marched behind Dr. Benjamin Spock at the Saturday event.[7] Even as he made an effort to pay attention to what was happening among the Pentagon security as he waited to speak, the wording of his account nonetheless recalls political discussions of an earlier day, among friends committed to a humanitarian response to the Mid-Thirties refugee crisis who wished to stave off American military involvement in the collapse of Europe:

Standing before the advancing line of men on guard, it seemed at first futile to speak to them. They were under a command that meant to overcome or to terrify us, a force aroused in the refusal to give even the beginnings of a hearing... Encircled, it seems as if only we few standing here had life still striving in us. We must begin where we are. Our own configuration entering and belonging to a configuration being born of what ‘we’ means.

The doctor kneeling upon the earth before me bore the full shock of the hostile readers. No...Looking up, I saw the readers themselves bore the shock of what they were to encounter...Out of order, we can no longer move them to consider that our liberties are obediences of another order that moved us. We ourselves are the boundaries they have made against their humanity.
‘Look into their eyes,’ the doctor’s wife tells me. To my right, the onlookers call out, the soldiers are kicking the body of a woman who is everything they despise. (BB ii)

Duncan performs a slippage between the writer as activist and the writer as reader here. At first, ‘the doctor’ refers to Spock, the author-activist. In the revision (‘No...’), however, Duncan’s identification with Spock circulates into sympathy for Spock’s put-upon readers, and those showing their hostility are any reader put-upon by the demands of a modernist, approximate, poet-activism. The hostility is that due both poet and activist when they habilitate one person.

Duncan stipulates his need to be ‘out of order’ — in obedience to ‘another order that moved us.’ The meeting of the two orders — at first, seemingly, that of the State and ‘our own [the activists’] configuration entering and belonging to a configuration being born of what ‘we’ means’ — measures what Duncan calls ‘a force aroused’ in the men and women of those orders who look into each others’ eyes. Less apparently, the orders are those of literal observation and the metaphorical levels contending in the literal that always threaten (given the contingencies of reception) to cast the observer ‘out of order.’ The visionary temper sees within the measure of ‘what is’ a third order — always, that is, a Holy Ghost. Duncan, though no believer, is of such a temperament, so he’s aware that the look recommended by the doctor’s wife abashes the party who has not chosen it — the look, awash in messianic justice, will be rude.

‘To define force,’ Simone Weil argued three decades earlier, ‘it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.’[8] Dwight Macdonald commissioned the English translation of Weil’s essay during World War II for front-page publication in his magazine, Politics. So, when Duncan, a Politics contributor and a member of late-wartime anarchist discussion circles at Macdonald’s summer home in Truro and Provincetown, tells his (Bending the Bow) readers and himself ‘[w]e must begin where we are,’ he’s involved in self-care, and setting two factors in motion, for it is his old involvement with what I’ll call the modernist Left Duncan begins again here. Sects, too, may be born of what ‘we’ means; Duncan writes out this act of witness to limit the redoubled arousal of his own  language in the present crisis.

Macdonald had relished the perception that Weil’s article seemed an unusual choice for his magazine to print.[9]  For the Duncan who witnesses the soldiers kick ‘the body of a woman who is everything they despise,’ however, the language of Weil’s meditation on force and limit in Homer’s poem reflected on the order of poetic craft in Wartime crisis.[10] I can adduce no other evidence that he read it than that he and his friend Pauline Kael read every issue of the magazine, often posting their marked up copies to each other so the other wouldn’t have to purchase it, but the impression Weil’s essay made on Duncan and Macdonald’s company is difficult to miss. The limit of the State’s coercive force, Weil wished to show, was carried out by, as it is carried through, a body — that which ‘subjects’ someone, turns a person into an object or a thing.

The pragmatic genius of non-violence theory, as it emerges from Weil’s, and at about the same time, Gandhi’s, writings, is that direct action subjects, or limits, the State’s seemingly limitless force to its own social body.[11] Only within the messianic arousal of the subjugated look Spock’s wife recommends will excessive force find its limit in self-care. Duncan would have seen this coerciveness from a second point of view, however: Force can also be carried out through, or in, a subject — for instance, the subject of the poem; such force is carried in a craft — a cunning technique, or power. In this context we may entertain Duncan’s reasons for including an account of his own civil disobedience at the Pentagon march in the preface to a book of poems, Bending the Bow.

In the direct action at the Pentagon Duncan finds himself ‘the boundary,’ or limit the State makes of its force, in the person of the soldier. Duncan writes the Bending the Bow preface to gain a vantage point from which to observe his New Left comrades as they ignore and appropriate modernist cultural radicalism in American poetry, and in doing so, he demonstrates the flaws in their cultural program — a program quite different from his own, whatever his solidarity on the day of the March. Duncan’s account registers a kind of shock in his belated standing there as a modernist: observing the hostility of the young soldiers, would-be Spock readers, toward the baby doctor, Duncan’s identification circulates into a subjugation whereby ‘the readers bore the shock’ of the difficult work they make an effort to read, ‘our own configuration entering and belonging to a configuration being born of what ‘we’ means’. Such circulating sympathies should be kept in mind as Duncan uses the ‘we’ in his letter to Henry Wenning, remarking on the ‘interesting particular record of the problems my generation faced as writers with The Kenyon Review...and...in extension we faced [them] with.’

The record Duncan sells to Wenning, as well as the record Duncan makes of the preface, may be partial to ‘a larger configuration,’ yet the hoped-for order, to emerge from self-care, will require the detail only Duncan can offer: I wish to take Duncan at his word here and more responsibly place him in relation to the archive, its documents, and the issues and literary figures whose remains it traces. By ‘ my generation,’ he means neither the New Left activists, nor his (older) friend and mentor Charles Olson. It is Duncan’s 1956 visiting appointment at the Black Mountain College (where Olson was rector) that typically steers historical accounts of Duncan’s place in postwar American poetry. Notwithstanding his friendship with Olson, these accounts are flawed, and not just for their tendency to view Duncan as a part of a company he came to only after his maturity, but more widely, for the aura of sectarian movement-puritanism that befogs their analysis of the modernist cultural Left.[12] Among scholars willing to view his achievement as distinct from, or even opposed to Olson’s, there persists the tendency to psychoanalyze Duncan’s penchant for craft lore and view his politics as compensatory and groundless.[13] Duncan views his archive at Washington University differently; with it he enacts the point where messianic justice operates between two orders, and the answerability between ourselves touches the answerability of life to art, exposing politics to the art-making process. Duncan’s relationship with Ransom and Riding offers a new context for Duncan’s endless-form meditation on craft lore, ‘The Structure of Rime.’ Among poets outside the experimental tradition, Duncan has been typically viewed as (merely) a well-informed commentator on poetics; such a response to his achievement remains serviceable while his poems continue to challenge many readers, and it seems not unlikely that they do because a difficult but major series like ‘The Structure of Rime’ has been inadequately historicized.[14]

1. Modernist Vernaculars

In late 1943, The Kenyon Review, under Ransom’s editorship, accepted Duncan’s poem, ‘An African Elegy.’ After the poem had already been typeset for the Fall, 1944 number, Wallace Stevens submitted ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ to The Kenyon Review; whether or not this was actually as fateful to the inclusion of Duncan’s poem as Ransom suggests it was, Ransom had anyway read an essay Duncan published in the August 1944 Politics, ‘The Homosexual in Society,’ and wrote to Duncan withdrawing the acceptance: I am distressed, and I invite your opinion...Originally I thought your poem very brilliant, and it occurred to me that Africa was a fine symbol for whatever was dark in the mind, and that you explore the symbol well ...But since then you have written the courageous piece in Politics in which you say that the homosexual poets have usually symbolized their abnormality and palmed it off on the innocent ‘little magazines.’ And you propose in the future that they be less furtive....But...why then should not they sublimate their problem, let the delicacy and subtlety of their sensibility come out in the innocent regions of life and literature: In the same sense, that is, in which repressions cause great works of art which have no recognizable relation to the repressed desires...As to the present poem...it seems to me to have obvious homosexual advertisement, and for that reason not to be eligible for publication.[15]

Duncan’s ‘opinion’ was a three-page closely reasoned letter appealing Ransom’s decision, to no avail; this time, in much stronger terms, Ransom made his discrimination plain: ‘I read the poem as a notice or advertisement of overt homosexuality, and we are not in the market for literature of this type.’ To Duncan’s appeal that the poem should be printed, on first amendment grounds, in spite of such a discrimination, Ransom defended himself legalistically: ‘I cannot agree with you that we should publish it in the name of freedom of speech; because I cannot agree with your position that homosexuality is not abnormal. It is biologically abnormal in the most obvious sense. I am not sure whether or not state and federal laws regard it so, but I think they do.’[16]

When Duncan wrote once more asking Ransom to print the record of their correspondence, the editor brushed aside the request, admitting, ‘I’ve got stakes in too many other public topics which have precedence over this one. I don’t want my notes to you to be published; though please don’t take this to mean I didn’t mean them.’[17] Duncan finally abandoned his hopes of printing the correspondence and in 1957 twice sent Ransom poems again (just before Ransom gave up editorship of The Kenyon Review), again without success. These were several poems from The Opening of the Field (1960).[18]

Duncan persisted in his effort to persuade Ransom’s The Kenyon Review to publish his poems because he admired Ransom and wished to make it in the literary forums of his time. Such an inference I accept on the face of it. But as a premise for understanding his persistence with Ransom it’s inadequate — there’s no similar correspondence with Andrew Lytle, Howard Moss or Irving Howe. The danger of stopping at the surface of the impression is that more than one commentator has supposed Duncan’s poetics alienated, or failed in its craft effort.[19]  There’s no use denying that the assumptions Ransom and Duncan share must be regarded in light of their disagreement over the nature of homosexuality. Rather we ask which values persist against the datedness of Ransom’s social bigotry, mitigate the necessity that they remain those of the private individual, and find that Duncan explores in his poetry the messianic rhetoric of a writing community in which he knew Ransom to be involved, if nowhere else, then in Ransom’s mid-Twenties involvement with Riding.

Duncan’s relationship with Ransom was, at the least, a way for him to explore such rhetoric as can be heard in the following: ‘In modernist poetry,’ Riding wrote — it was 1927, and she was, as we will see, responding to her friends Allen Tate, Hart Crane, and Ransom — ‘every increase in originality seems a widening of the breach between criticism and workmanship.’[20]  The need to measure an accelerating originality as it limits the audience that will find it scrutable, and is in turn limited by what Riding terms  ‘workmanship’ and Duncan will call force, ‘setting four factors of something...into motion’ — this need Duncan adequates through the exemplifying poetics, and messianic politics, of his involvement with Ransom. (And Duncan knew all about Riding’s connections with the Ransom and Tate from Marya Zaratunskaya and Horace Gregory’s 1940 history of American poetry, to which Tate had been a crucial informant.)

These ‘factors’ of his correspondence with Ransom involve Duncan in what he called ‘craft lore’ — a phrase that suggests something which falls outside literary criticism yet nonetheless should be intimately familiar. The limits accessible within ‘the widening breach between criticism and workmanship’ — whether these limits include the policeman’s cudgel or the poem’s measure — protect Ransom’s constituency in his personal conflict with Duncan: for Ransom, the citizen-reader earns sanctuary from the social problems of homosexuals within ‘the innocent regions of life and literature.’ The not-so-innocent question for poetic craft in a democracy is, how can force be measured? This question binds Duncan’s work to the criticism and poetry of the Twenties — to Ransom’s and Riding’s generation — which returned like a Nemesis upon the experimental school of World War I modernist poets.

That Duncan’s endless-form meditation on craft, ‘The Structure of Rime,’ asks this question so insistently may clarify his late self-identification as a humanist more than his early one as a homo.[21] Yet in the first section of the original seven-part Structure of Rime sequence, written in the spring of 1956, Duncan stages an allegorical dialogue between the poem’s speaker and its ‘unyielding Sentence’ which, within the allegory, is the poem’s writtenness, with the speaker informing ‘her’:

I will not take the actual world for granted, I said.
              Why not? she replied.
              Do I not withhold the song of birds from you?
              Do I not withhold the penetrations of red from you?
              Do I not withhold the weight of mountains from you?
              Do I not withhold the hearts of men from you?

              I alone long for your demand.
              I alone measure your desire.[22]

The allegory Duncan finds by interviewing a feminine other-voice in encounter with which he is made to admit the long and short, the weights and the degrees of penetration, carries identifications with homo and humanist immanent to a universal world, not yet actualized. Duncan’s speaker struggles agonistically with this ‘unyielding Sentence that shows Itself forth in the language as I make it’ over the authority of the statement. The speaker does not take for granted what the written poem has made actual upon being read, yet that the speaker desired it to be actualized can only be read in ‘living changes’ of the Sentence’s syntax, the measure of his desire.

Duncan claims thematically the lore of materials with which poets of Pound’s generation rationed (and rationalized) their productive, enacted encounters with readers. Yet Duncan’s own agnosticism toward the modernists’ various answers to the craft question of how poetic force is measured among such a disparately educated public urges me to refrain from criticizing Ransom’s wish to keep his ‘stakes in too many other public topics which have precedence over’ the anthropological (or, in Ransom’s mind, religious) one of whether homosexuality is ‘abnormal.’ For Ransom the topic homosexuality may be less relevant to poetic craft than it is for Duncan. Duncan’s business in ‘The Homosexual in Society’ is anyway persuading one the stake was more relevant than it had previously appeared.

The craft issue of how force in a poem is measured engages Duncan in the Politics essay that drew Ransom into a correspondence with him. To a significant extent Ransom and Duncan agree about the craft issue; yet Duncan sees an opening Ransom closes by drawing the line between political conflict in the public sphere and its less ‘innocent’ antagonist, which has come to be called ‘cultural politics.’ By now it is nearly a commonplace of the genteel popular Left to insist that this line be drawn, yet it was a far less persuasive one to Duncan than it is to a recent historian of Politics who, reading Duncan’s Politics articles, has decided that ‘the engagement in Politics with ‘cultural’ radicalism, although a relatively minor motif, nevertheless further establishes the journal as a crucible for the post-Marxist ‘New Left’ of the 1950s and 1960s.’[23]

For this historian, as for the founding elders of the American New Left, ‘“cultural” radicalism’ reflects social justice efforts carried on outside government and public policy institutions.[24] Commentary on such non-governmental efforts, it is claimed, are a ‘relatively minor motif’ in Politics’ engagement with the War and civil rights campaigns — the latter, deservedly, a more frequent agent in post-World War II American historiography. When provoked to revise ‘The Homosexual in Society’ essay fifteen years after he wrote it, Duncan admitted (in an author’s note) that ‘it had at least the pioneering gesture, as far as I know, of being the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved.’[25] Duncan’s remark skirts the issue, however, for the essay was far from a discussion of his homosexuality. The issue involving him, was, as he says, worth noting. Rather the involvement, and surprisingly enough, is over an issue in poetic craft.

That this is the case may be seen by tracing the essay’s genesis. ‘Something in James Agee’s recent approach to the Negro psuedo-folk (Partisan Review, Spring 1944),’ Duncan begins his essay, ‘is the background of the notes which I propose in discussing yet another group whose only salvation is in the struggle of all humanity for freedom and individual integrity.’[26] The struggling group Duncan has in mind — whose ‘cultural’ expression cannot easily be distinguished from an expression bound up with that ‘of all humanity’ — is homosexuals. Yet Duncan makes no more of his own involvement with this group than Agee had for the group on whose behalf he advocated. While for Agee the cultural expression of those to whom he refers as Negroes is one of which he enthusiastically approves, namely jazz, Duncan lashes back at the mode of superior judgment he wants to expose, ‘the cultivation of a secret language, the camp, a tone and vocabulary loaded with contempt for the human’ (HS 209)[27] As Duncan quite readily understood, Ransom, in rejecting ‘An African Elegy,’ appropriates Duncan’s disgust with camp to sponsor a prejudice against the group whose idiom Ransom took to be that of Duncan’s poem. On whether ‘An African Elegy’ uses camp idioms, they agreed, over the course of their correspondence, to part ways, though not before Duncan elaborately justified his practice before the theologians (and their anticipated guest, Ransom), as well as across a wide and distinguished career as a poet-critic.

Something of a generation gap operates here, doubtlessly. Agee’s essay, a dizzyingly impressionistic tour of African American-influenced expression across the arts, from jazz, movies, dance and theatre to the novel and in poetry, was itself a response (by the 33-year-old writer) to a 1943 Partisan Review article by Louise Bogan which complained that ‘the folk tradition has become thoroughly bourgeoizified. At present there is no way for the artist to get at it.’[28]  Bogan (b. 1897) treats vernacular expression as something which the modern artist, like Henry Clay Frick in front of a picketed coal mine, ‘wants to get at.’ Of these essays, however, all three by poet-critics each taking as subject vernacular expression, Duncan’s alone sees corruption within his own vernacular, or folk expression — that is, within the group-culture of modernist poetry. More is at stake here than a generation gap: Duncan could have only achieved this level of self-consciousness through his acquaintance with probably the least genteel poet of Bogan’s generation, Laura Riding.

Let us deliberate through these arguments. Bogan’s essay asks how contemporary ‘formal’ artists might ‘find and use... primitive’ material as artists traditionally have (137). Her premise is that with the exceptions of Yeats and Lorca contemporary poets have failed to ‘get it,’ and her rationale for the failure is that within Irish and Andalusian culture poetry and music remain integral, whereas within the Anglo-American tradition, several phases of economic and social change have intervened since the period when both music and poetry were integral to a ‘folk’ or primitive stage of production. Bogan’s principal example is the American songwriter Stephen Foster (1826-1864), whom she sees as a ‘transitional figure’ still writing gifted songs which however are already ‘nostalgic’ for a past in turn sentimentalized by the ‘modern’ audience of her own period.

It is worth noting, among these several arguable claims, the premise of an urban ‘bourgeoizified’ audience supposed outside folk culture, with the sole exception of that audience’s love for swing music, in which ‘words are attached to music as in all primitive states of poetry and music.’ Swing is a modern popular idiom that in its orchestration and composition has usurped, somewhat to Bogan’s horror, folk material from the ‘formal’ artist (139-140). Bogan would rather the folk material remain ‘primitive’ enough for ‘formal’ artists to raid it, ‘use’ it without feeling guilty for it; she hopes for a ‘formal’ art that can take pride in having brought spiritual depth to the mechanized responses of a pitifully ritualistic folk culture.   

Agee’s breakthrough as a movie critic was that he gained no purchase on what he loved through hierarchical binaries such as folk and formal, urban and pastoral, complex and primitive (each of which in its own way belong to what we might call the modernist anthropological tradition). Rather, he has only one great binary, about which he remained constitutionally ambivalent: He divides the world into the pure (authentic) and the impure (corrupt), and his basic appeal on behalf of art is that when you’ve got it, what you’ve got is new experience — art belongs to the innocence of authenticity, marshaled against all values finding their source in professionalism, expertise and sophistication.[29]  For Agee, a movie critic by trade and a poet and novelist by vocation, jazz and the movies are the 20th century forms that offer, quantitatively, the most new experience, so that if one takes seriously the social process of art, particularly how  production processes avail art to life, these cannot be dismissed. Agee was enormously impressed by the reactions of some black high school students to two versions, cut ten years apart, of  ‘West End Blues’:

Both versions were by Louis Armstrong and both versions, in their very different ways, were good. But the older record was pure, sweet, unforcedly forceful, and great; and the new was adulterated, sugar-and-spiced, forcedly much less forceful, and sadly urbane, saved only by the musicians’ essential innocence of their decline, and by what remained of Armstrong’s great warmth and talent. The children liked both records. But the one they played, over and over again, was the new one. It was in their idiom (406).

Agee points out that even within what Bogan would view — again, arguably — as a ‘folk form,’ i.e., jazz, there’s still corruption, ‘psuedo-folk.’ It’s not enough, Agee’s saying, to go looking for the literature (Steinbeck), the comedy (Will Rogers), or the music of ‘the folk’ in order to find ‘folk art’; rather it’s altogether a matter of being adequately sensitive and astute to hear the authentic idiom among a number of expressive embodiments emerging from within subaltern groups, whether the group is ‘our best group en bloc’ (Negroes, in case you were wondering); or migrant farmers in Alabama (whose beauty was expressed in design Agee hoped to reproduce in his descriptions of the Ricketts household in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men); or Jewish immigrants (Hollywood film moguls); or vaudeville circuit performers (the silent film comedians). The folk is everywhere in what Agee loves about America — a whole terrain of modern life from which the audience (he means the ‘popular’ audience) is cut off.

Duncan borrows from Agee the insight that folk culture is essentially group culture and applies this dumb-bunny idea to a group into whose ranks he (a 24-year old poet) found it all too easy to break — namely, the New York poet-critics associated with Charles Henri Ford’s surrealist journal View.[30] Duncan viewed this group as corrupted, attempting to define within its minority ranks adaptive methods of survival. Camp is one such method, a survivor’s sensibility, yet not like the post-pogrom cosmopolitanism in which Jews sought their re-absorption with ‘the common humanity.’ Rather camp is a sensibility permitted by outside forces to stay within a kind of de-militarized zone of cultural purity and high modernist superiority. Duncan argues that camp is a corrupted folk expression, an idiom developed in isolation from poetry’s widest audience. The idiom relies, moreover, for its development on the occupying supervisory force of modernist high art critics, those — among whose ranks Ransom would be included — who could be relied upon to judge camp a corruption and, given their own apostasy from high modernist experimentation, ignore or overlook the faith of the surviving cult.[31]

To a certain kind of Stalinist intellectual — for the moment I wish to use the modification descriptively, and not in judgment, since during the Second World War many American intellectuals were unapologetic Stalinists — Duncan’s decision to publish such an essay doomed him to the class of the ineffectual, or alienated writer.[32] What could he hope to accomplish from such a gesture? There’s little doubt that by appearing in Politics, where American involvement in Europe was still hotly debated as late as 1944, Duncan intrudes upon enormous forces — those under the ideological signs of democracy and fascism, humanism and nihilism — and begs the observation that such forces dwarf him, make him appear, as his friend Virginia Admiral liked to kid him, ‘a little wet behind the ears.’[33]

If Duncan expropriates the humanism of an elder generation as a kind of historical backdrop — a meta-narrative, as Lyotard calls it — for his own feelings about being a young homosexual poet, then a possible inference of this expropriation must be that he fails — that he wishes to fail — on behalf of humanism. No doubt the messianic excessiveness of the gesture even calls out, in Ransom, its Nemesis. Stranded as the alienated gesture of a poet who a decade and a half later would go on to write several anthologized poems, work which happens to have warranted literary historical attention, Duncan’s expropriation of humanism and the politics of limit in the homosexual essay can seem, from the standpoint of the Politics historian, justifiably judged the ‘relatively minor’ attempt to transform consciousness through a ‘cultural politics.’

Yet what happens to this verdict on cultural radicalism — offered to the present day by, in differing contexts, Charles Simic and Richard Rorty[34] — when we recognize, as we must, that Duncan bans camp to define a limit on the productivity in language that had been a theme in poetry criticism of the humanist persuasion since the mid-Twenties? I suspect that poets in the present moment can ill-afford to cut themselves off from the resources of a politics of limit. The recoverable history avails poets of contemporary debates about limit within science, religion, politics and educational theory — the problems implied by the productivity of poetic language take in all of these — while suggesting again the significance of the parallel gesture in the Bending the Bow preface.[35]

The theme of production is pervasive within poetry criticism of the post-First World War period. It’s visible as a cultural flag, or site of defense, that flies from orthodox Christian efforts to curtail the proliferation of meanings made inevitable in the U.S. by a whole range of social and cultural reforms: Progressive movement-gains in the areas of science-education, profit-sharing among laborers (and the company-town), and the growing recognition, among the young, liberal, New York non-expatriate intellectuals around Broom, Secession and The Little Review, of a post-colonial, vernacular American literature (both of the antebellum Renaissance, and of the then-more-recently observable pre-World War I moment)[36] — all these factors contributed to the pressure within poetry pedagogy to complicate the basic epistemological model for reading a poem.

Writing from Nashville not long after the publication of Robert Frost’s New Hampshire (1923), Ransom responded to a favorable review of Frost’s great collection by Gorham Munson in a diagnostic article, ‘Thoughts on the Poetic Discontent.’[37] Frost’s winsome, not quite tragic, irony at the close of New Hampshire’s (1923) concluding poem — where, as the master’s house burns, ‘One had to be versed in country things | Not to believe the phoebes wept’ (phoebes: small birds: flycatchers) — serves Ransom as an admirable instance of productive curtailment:

Irony may be regarded as the ultimate mode of the great minds — it presupposes the others. It implies first of all an honourable and strenuous period of romantic creation; it implies then a rejection of the romantic forms and formulas; but this rejection is so unwilling, and in its statements there lingers so much of the music and color and romantic mystery which is perhaps the absolute poetry, and this statement is attended by such a disarming rueful comic sense of the poet’s own betrayal, that the fruit of it is wisdom and not bitterness, poetry and not prose, health and not suicide. Irony is the rarest of the states of minds, because it is the most inclusive; the whole mind has been active in arriving at it, both creation and criticism, both poetry and science... Mr. Frost’s poetry...contains plenty of this irony (463).

Irony, for Ransom, is a habit of mind that ‘contains’ what it includes. The mind must not dishonorably create: Poetry, like philosophy, usefully consoles us when ‘defeat humbles the proud spirit of a mortal [who] perceives that the object, which is the world, is too formidable to be controlled altogether by the subject, which is oneself’(461). It was the effort of a number of young American poet-critics from this period — each of whom also enthusiastically debated the cultural implications of T S Eliot’s religious conversion, and the difficulty, entailed by modernism, for an education by poetry — to develop an understanding of reading poems less mechanistic than Ransom’s input-output model, with its empirical human subject attempting to control, or contain, an objective world.[38] 

Perhaps it is no more than caricature to note that Ransom assimilates here, as elsewhere, the New South idiom of ‘defeat’ to translate Frost’s New England irony into a critical context just beginning to rehearse the failures of modernism. Two of Ransom’s Fugitive colleagues, writing from New York, shared his interest in production as well as the cultural protests he recognized as ‘the poetic discontent,’ without, however, trading in Ransom’s cultural pessimism. Writing four months earlier (April 1925), in The Reviewer, the 24-year old Laura Riding summarized the situation for poetic labor this way:

The difficulty is to be settled not by trying to write poetry that the Philistines can understand but by outdistancing them in the very race they have set. For while poets have been the parasites of the spiritual world, sucking up the old essences, these others [the robber baron-Philistines] have suffused the physical world with the breath of creation, they have turned visions into actualities. The artist too must turn producer: and his visions must be begotten... in the steady light of a life he not only confronts but, because he enters upon it fortified by personal faith alone, even creates.[39]

Riding and Allen Tate, along with (Brooklyn resident) Hart Crane, were close friends among the Greenwich Village bohemia in the fall 1925. In late December of that year, Riding sailed for England, to take a position within the family of Robert Graves (whence to initiate a 13-year literary collaboration). At the same time, Crane took up residence for almost four months in the Woodstock, NY home of Tate and Caroline Gordon, until animosity between the three resulted in Crane’s seeking refuge in the Caribbean.[40] Two months later, commissioned by T S Eliot to write (for the Criterion) an essay Eliot ultimately turned down, Tate attempted to reconcile Ransom’s orthodox dualism with his former lover’s ‘personal faith alone.’ ‘Mr. Ransom’s note [on Frost and poetic discontent],’ Tate courteously acknowledged, ‘implies a brief for a sound epistemology of poetry — but only as the specific possibility of poetic knowledge enters into the general possibility of any sort of knowledge. It describes general intelligence, not specific poetic intelligence.’[41]

Tate notices that in Ransom’s aesthetic model, while he considers the poet in relation to his world, he ‘fails to touch the relation between the poet, or the reader, and the poem’(41). Tate asks whether the productivity of poetic language doesn’t ensure that a reader’s experience of a poem will never be analogous to its author’s: ‘There is a particular quality of the poem that makes it wholly unlike the portion of the knowable world for which it stands’(42). Understanding this quality would make for poetic intelligence, yet Riding, taking off from Tate’s essay in the long reply she made to it, adopts Gertrude Stein’s model of composition, with ‘its implicit belief’ in an absolute, ‘a bodily presence of a first principle,’ to counter Tate’s willingness to accept Ransom’s need for a ‘sound epistemology of poetry’ (CS 182; 191–192; PA 41).

Tate finds nostalgic solace in a cultural absolute (at first Southern culture; ultimately, religion), instrumental not in terms of Ransom’s metaphysical dualism but of Eliotic tradition, and for Riding such nostalgias pay too high a price ‘for the sins of romanticism... which in its anarchic enthusiasm developed no unity but a feeble universalization of poetic language’ (CS 182). The plainness in Stein’s ‘most tangible sign of local uniformity,’ her plain words, recouped in ‘solidarity with humanity at large’ the losses in poetic intelligence ensuing from the social-symbolic totalities of a given culture: those ‘various ways in which humanity may be consolidated — by some symbol of individual similarity, whether of religious beliefs or government, or by the observance of common social taboos’ (CS 135). So, Riding argued, what Tate describes as a poem’s ‘particular quality’ must be defended as though it were an unreal — as it was on the fall day in 1967 when Duncan wrote ‘Yes, I Care Deeply’ — that is, not subject to foundationalist epistemologies. For his part, Ransom founders in his effort to establish a ‘sound epistemology’ as the premise for an ethics of difficulty (that is, a basis on which to judge whether a poem is ‘too difficult’) on the productivity of language Riding had already fortified herself to judge ‘by personal faith alone.’

It is a crucial moment in the debate over the New Humanism. This debate followed closely upon the divagations of these (and other) young poet-critics, and expressed a cultural tension inevitable in the exposure of vernacular modernism to progressive politics and the cultural orthodoxies of the late Twenties. One such orthodoxy held that the linguistic strategies of a group culture, such as were the pre-war modernist poets, may not have created a poetry audience, but excluded one. Pulled between these poles, Duncan argues in ‘The Homosexual in Society’ that the camp vernacular is an art language, or code — and on this point Ransom and Duncan do not differ — the productivity of which Duncan wishes to expose; he does this by drawing attention to the reading publics that result from turning poetic language into a terminology, or code:

Although in private conversation, at every table, at every editorial board, one knows that a great body of modern art is perpetuated by what almost amounts to a homosexual cult; although hostile critics have opened fire in a constant attack as rabid as the attack of Southern Senators upon ‘niggers’; critics who might possibly view the homosexual with a more humane eye seem agreed that it is better that nothing be said. Pressed to the point, they may either, as in the case of such an undeniable homosexual as Hart Crane, contend that they are great despite their ‘perversion’ — much as my mother used to say how much better a poet Poe would have been if he had not taken dope; or where it is possible they have attempted to deny the role of the homosexual in modern art, the usual reply to unprincipled critics like [Thomas] Craven and [Thomas] Hart Benton in painting to assert that modern artists have not been homosexual.[42]

Duncan’s purpose here is to feel ‘pressed to the point’; no attack can be leveled at ‘the great body of liberal critics’ because homosexuals have not spoken on their own behalf. Duncan implies not just that someone should speak up but that these very critics, too ‘principled’ to attack the cult (as Craven and Benton did) are themselves, some of them — for principle is all it takes to pass back and forth between fags and men — the cult’s sponsors, the homosexual in society. That Duncan knows this, and could only know it having witnessed it, is the precise extent of what he will later claim as his ‘involvement.’ The need for ‘a secret language, the camp’ — so that we know who we all are — ‘perpetuates’ even as it exposes modern art to the frailty of a cultural politics, or lore of materials which aesthetic judgment always entails. In limiting the number of people who will gain any sense from it, a code actually proliferates sense within the medium — words — on which it relies. It creates an audience at the same time as it excludes one. This was a peril for poetry Duncan saw in camp, quite apart from other folk vernaculars with a more open exposure to human struggle.

Ransom, once he read ‘The Homosexual in Society,’ thought ‘An African Elegy’ was full of code. Yet for Duncan it was far from code. Encountering in Duncan’s essay a putative sign-system vernacular to the modernist one, lines in ‘An African Elegy’ such as the following must have suggested to Ransom a hidden, specialized implication:

In the groves of Africa from their natural wonder
the wildebeest, zebra, the okapi, the elephant,
have entered the marvelous. No greater marvelous
know I than the mind’s
natural jungle.
— — — — — —
Negroes, negroes, all those princes,
holding cups of rhinoceros bone, make
magic with my blood. Where beautiful Marijuana
towers taller than the eucalyptus, turns
within the lips of night and falls,
falls downward, where as giant Kings we gatherd
and devourd her burning hands and feet, O Moonbar
there and Clarinet!             (ll. 1-5; 41-48)[43]

Duncan’s literary birthright, as John Ashbery has remarked, was a linguistic ebullience he heard in poetry of the Thirties, before Europe’s collapse deadened the lively debate among the New Humanists of the post-World War I period.[44] But in correspondence with Ransom, Duncan draws on this debate in terms of how the lines’ occasion (the myriad contingencies of the writer’s situation) and the reader’s encounter with them are to be construed in relation to their productivity — the multiplier of their implication. While Duncan agrees with Ransom that the sexual inferences of the ‘An African Elegy’ are ‘inescapeable,’ he is quite careful in his initial reply to Ransom’s withdrawl of the acceptance never to use the word symbol to refer expressly to the language of his own poem. He admits that ‘Negroes, Africa and the black of love are all symbols of subconscious forces,’ and he admits that his poem traffics in these idioms. But he adds, ‘the theme of the poem...is not homosexuality; nor does the darkness stand for homosexuality. The dark continent in the poem is not what one hides, but what is hidden from one.’[45]

The words themselves have the associations, Duncan argues, but the direction he takes them is away from secrecy — and the only grounds of Duncan’s authority to question (I think, rightly) Ransom’s reading presume the author’s superior awareness of the exigent forces and bounds on criticism and workmanship; so, if Ransom thought he’d caught out Duncan’s shuttling back and forth between one group culture’s fantastic use of such a phrase as ‘O Moonbar | there and Clarinet!’ and what the signs more conventionally refer to, then Duncan’s reply emphasizes that the phrase makes itself available to reading publics quite apart from any specialized purposes which, for Ransom, flatten the phrase into idiom.

Borrowing a term from Cold War science fiction, one might call the line Ransom and the Politics chronicler draw between cultural and public sphere politics a forcefield; Duncan certainly felt it as such, as did his friend, Pauline Kael, who in her later work as a film critic remarks a similar loss. In the midst of arguing that Citizen Kane emerged from the vernacular pattern of Hollywood studio comedies of the thirties, Kael describes how the Second World War exacerbated the institutional drift toward responsibility and seriousness that ruined American movies, and bewails the ‘Show-business Stalinism’ that made what was American in American movies — a certain ‘aristocratic disdain for [articulating] beliefs’ — appear, in the days of East-West Alliance, unpatriotric:

In the forties, a socially conscious film historian said to me, ‘You know, Paramount never made a good movie,’ and I brought up the names of some Paramount movies — Easy Living and Trouble in Paradise and lovely trifles like Midnight — and, of course, I couldn’t make my point, because those movies weren’t what was thought of in the forties as a good movie. [The thirties comedies] entertained you without trying to change your life, and yet didn’t congratulate you for being a slobbering bag of mush, either. But by the forties these were considered ‘escapist entertainment,’ and that was supposed to be bad. Many of the thirties comedies, especially the Paramount ones, weren’t even ‘artistic’ or ‘visual’ movies — which is why they look so good on television now. They also sound good, because what that historian thought of as their irresponsibility is so much more modern than the sentimentalities of the war years. What was believed in was implicit in the styles of the heroes and heroines and in the comedy targets; the writers had an almost aristocratic disdain for putting beliefs into words. In the forties, the writers convinced themselves they believed in everything, and they kept putting it into so many bad words.[46]

Kael pretty clearly doesn’t consider these comedies ‘irresponsible,’ yet she admits that they can appear to be so, and as such, ‘so much more modern than the sentimentalities of the war years’ when much is justified by appeal to God and country — she writes about World War II, a period during which she roomed with Duncan in New York, from a moment just after the Pentagon March. The assumption Duncan and Kael seem to share is that limit, in terms of proliferating minority collectivities, promises a gain in modern sophistication — promises, in fact, ‘an almost aristocratic’ culture — so long as belief itself isn’t rationed along purely secular lines, and the belief-idioms (‘by personal faith alone,’ as Riding had it) of these cultures turned into ‘irresponsible’ codes.

2. American Craft Lore

Several months before he submitted ‘An African Elegy’ to The Kenyon Review, in the spring of 1942, Duncan — then 23 years old — began reading Laura Riding.[47] Kael attests that it was their habit to read authors together — frequently an author’s entire corpus — and exchange letters (when they were on different sides of the country) or have ‘talkfests’ when they were together.[48]  So we may assume he’d read a good deal of Riding’s work when, about a year later, Duncan wrote to her for the first time — perhaps soliciting work for View (to which he was then a contributing editor) and inviting Riding, when next she visited New York, to stay with him and his new wife, Marjorie McKee. Her reply, undated but likely from June 1943, and with a Wabasso, Florida return address, survives:

Dear Mr. Duncan

I hope you will excuse my not answering your letter until now. My husband and I moved here from Pennsylvania two months ago, and getting settled has taken all our time.
     I have not been in Majorca since the fall of 1936. I came to America in April 1939. I have written no poems since then, but have been working with my husband (who is Schuyler Jackson, until recently poetry editor of Time) on a dictionary-thesaurus of English words, which we think will be a contribution to the problem of clear speech and clear poetry.
     Thank you and your wife for your invitation to come see you. I do not know whether or not we shall be going North this year. If we do, and I get to New York, I shall try to get in touch with you.
     Yours sincerely,
                Laura Jackson (Laura Riding)    [49]

Duncan’s side of this correspondence does not survive. Nor did the Jacksons visit New York that year. Duncan’s marriage was floundering, and in early 1944 he found himself floating around the Southern United States — his letters to Pauline Kael record his visit to Wabasso, and the desperate period of identity crisis during which he took money for sex. To his biographer, Ekbert Faas, however, he reported having paid a visit to Riding in February or March, 1944 — a visit to which no record attests other than the oblique one Duncan put down in his daybook, begun on March 10, 1961, and published in the second section of his ‘The H.D. Book’:

In her argumenting Laura Riding could play the Old Sow of Maenawr Pennarrd very well indeed, devouring the world if need be. She liked playing Witch, Mrs. Story, Dame Death, and Poetry Herself, and talking with men who would be poets like an older and naturally superior sister.[50]

By casting Riding in the role of ‘the Old Sow of Maenawr Pennarrd,’ a resuscitated figure from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (1948) who remains independent of the male magician’s rod and eats her young farrow, Duncan at once reckons Riding’s threat to himself while he commits her to Graves’ craft lore, his ‘historical grammar of poetic myth.’ I propose to return her to Duncan’s craft lore — in which she only infrequently appeared — for it’s in this latter role that she contributed to Duncan’s effort to re-think the limits and relations of words and powers that most engaged his historical imagination.[51]

‘The Structure of Rime’ — begun in 1956 — claims for the vernacular poet among Stein and Riding’s company a regulatory role in the law of materials Pound had earlier introduced into the lore of poetic modernism. ‘It is possible, as I have written, or intended to write elsewhere,’ Pound patted his pockets in 1918, ‘to divide poetry into three sorts...melopoeia, to wit, poetry which moves by its music...imagism [later re-dubbed phanopoeia], or poetry wherein the feelings of painting or sculpture are predominant...[and] logopoeia, or poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words.’[52] To which George Oppen replied: ‘Pound’s Melopoeia, etc. — Amazing to have forgotten Noopoeia — revelation. Amazing to have forgotten lucence, translucence.’[53]  The omission is not so surprising, however, when we recall that Pound’s classical training made him deeply skeptical about the prevailing neo-scholasticism in American higher education (better the lies of art than the classics in paraphrase), as well as any craft procedure not premised on the law of form in poetry, the art of poetry considered as techne.

Oppen’s addition to Pound’s lore of materials suggests the ‘four factors of something’ Duncan set in motion with the poem he intended for Ransom’s hearing in 1967. Yet the sincere tone of ‘Yes, I Care Deeply’ is far from the performative, the messianic apprehension of the original ‘Structure’ sequence, which begins: ‘I ask the unyielding Sentence that shows itself forth in the language as I make it, | Speak! For I name myself your master, who come to serve’ (OF 12). The ‘four factors’ of a languaged event, such as the one these opening lines appeal to, reappear in the second ‘Structure of Rime’ as the four lions — three representing each of Pound’s factors of materia poetic and the fourth, ‘The Lion in the Zodiac’ — who answer the speaker’s question: ‘What of the Structure of Rime?’ (OF 13). This question, however, can only be asked after the speaker’s overwhelming encounter with the ‘unyielding Sentence’ at the close of the first section.

Here the speaker apostrophizes the Sentence, compressing Pound’s ‘sorts’ of poetic material into a casuist appeal on behalf of his own manhood; in turn, the Sentence rebukes him, reminding him that his penchant for substituting art for religion consigns her revelation to a role outside the dailiness of life:

O Lasting Sentence,
sentence after sentence I make in your image. In the feet that measure the dance of my pages I hear cosmic intoxications of the man I will be.

              Cheat at this game? she cries?
              The world is what you are.
              Stand then
              so I can see you, a fierce destroyer of images.

              Will you drive me to madness
                        only there to know me?
              Vomiting images into the place of the Law! (OF 12–13)

‘Law’ thereafter figures in ‘Structure’ among what Duncan will later call ‘the persons of the poem,’ and by suggesting that Duncan claimed for the vernacular a regulatory role in Pound’s law of materials I suggest that Duncan’s interest in craft lore goes deeper, and suggests allegiances less conscious, more mechanical, even, than he was always prepared to admit: bluntly put, Riding’s presence in these lines, and Duncan’s reading of her presence — ‘Laura Riding posed herself as Dame Poetry and came to suspect even herself of misrepresenting herself’ — makes Pound’s lore responsible to the call of revelation (FC 125, YC ix).

‘The Structure of Rime’ stages, in other words, Duncan’s own drama of legitimation and warrant within the various strands of the modernist American poetic tradition. At the same time, it meditates on the historical crises responsive to the paralyzing abandonment of poetry as a cultural force on the American left and so clarifies the work of psychological unblocking and spiritual renewal called for in recent challenges — for instance, by the Hölderlin scholar Eric L. Santner — to the humanism project.

For Ransom, we recall, the above lines from Duncan’s ‘Structure’ sequence, when he read them as a submission to The Kenyon Review, showed ‘too much refinement in the fantasy for my taste.’[54] Ransom ignores, in other words, the pressure Duncan felt to refine Pound’s lore of materials into an idiom answerable to the widening breach between originality and workmanship. For Ransom, the accelerating increase of originality in that refinement was too great; nonetheless, I would argue that ‘Structure’s’ rhetorical occasion, based as it is on the Latin dialogue (or exemplum) between master and pupil (‘For I name myself your master, who come to serve’[OF 12]), exemplifies, in the cause of limit, its openness to a revealed language of  craft lore — in this case, to be more explicit about the sequence’s rhetorical situation than perhaps I need to be, Duncan’s apprenticeship (aborted though it was) under Riding.

Duncan was particularly astute to see the danger of partaking in the phenomenon Weil describes in her essay on ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,’ whereby limit, taken generally to be the watchword of a life lived in scale, attenuates, as it does so strongly in Pound, whose own watchword was Paideuma (the phenomenon of barbarian dependency upon the unity of classical culture), to the lexical register of technics. Exemplifications such as Duncan undertook during his Politics period, and again at the Pentagon march, leave themselves open to the charge that they’re poetic techniques; however, I would argue that we serve Duncan more generously to approach his exemplifications not only as the acts of good citizenship that they were, but, more complicatedly, to see them as in some sense clarifying what was at stake in his decision to cast the ‘Structure of Rime’ sequence in the form of prophecy, or visionary fantasy. ‘The Structure of Rime’ shares with Riding’s poetry a reluctance toward formal materializations, the treatment of medium as though an immersion in it could enact a transcendence out of the difficulties entailed by the breach of workmanship and criticism, so typical of modernist exemplification; there is no collage, as appears elsewhere in Duncan’s work, no effort, that is, to gain the reader’s assent through a primitive, or unworkman-like historicist’s delicacy in the handling of the poem’s materials.

Rather, throughout the entire series, and not only in the original sequence, Duncan claims an allegorical dimension to ‘the persons of the poem.’ For instance, the Angel syntax, who first appears in section one as ‘the snake-like beauty in the living changes of syntax,’ compelling the speaker’s obedience to the ‘woman who resembles the sentence,’ returns in ‘Structure’ III in the more traditional guise of a ‘Glare-eyed Challenger’:

Glare-eyed Challenger! serpent-skin-coated
accumulus of my days!
Swung in your arms, I grow old.

              The numbers swing me. The days that count
my dervish-invisible that time is
              up — My time is up?

Period by period the sentences are bound.
Fragments deliverd up
              to what celestial timekeeper?

Twice he saw an orange snake that reard up and
              spread his hood, cobra-wise. (OF 16)

Duncan’s historicist’s othography (‘deliverd,’ ‘reard’) is one sort of modernist materialization, no doubt (the habit runs across the work). Nonetheless, the lines should be read as re-composing the first section’s language (or ‘persons’), which invokes the Sentence, the numbers (‘the feet that measure the dance of my pages’ [SOR I] echoing Pound’s definition of logopoeia), and the snake who, conventionally, demonstrates the phallic prowess of knowing, or having had experience, gained only through an encounter with mystery — here, and again quite conventionally, for Duncan wishes no great refinement, the Sufi whirling dervish he carefully admits is ‘not what one hides, but what is hidden from one’: ‘my dervish-invisible that time is up — My time is up?’ The speaker’s sentences, bound by the logic of the letter (they terminate in periods), dance circles around the speaker’s presumption that he can know ‘my time’. The narrative point of view thus shifts back to the ‘he’ of the first two sections — whose ‘false tongue,’ from the standpoint of the lion without disguise, had been ‘most man’ (in SOR II) — and will shift again before the poem closes.

So, too, the object of the speaker’s address in these lines has shifted — in Sufi tradition these shifts are called a sema of movement — from ‘Glare-eyed challenger!’ (probably his erection) to ‘the days’ that are absolute to the speaker’s body, his mortality: ‘Summer advances | preparing new orange’ (OF 16). This other orange — not of the snake, but prepared by summer — circles the numbers that measure the speaker’s ‘dervish-invisible.’ Duncan makes the language of craft lore open to the uncanny moment when it embodies not just the absolute of his workmanship, but his aging, too:

                After a shower, the mirror
shows the body spreading, orange in time,
              reveals accumulations
of my uses, beyond all earliness,

that I bring up to my time,
               whatever the pretense,
to this
                              rearing up
snake stance                                                (OF 16)

Whereas “Structure III” begins with Duncan unfolding within the dancing tranquility of mind that is  the poem’s allegorical terrain, it closes lyrically, in an Eliotic reflection on mortality (promised by ‘Swung in your arms, I grow old’), in which the speaker’s ‘uses’ have been ‘revealed,’ in all their accumulation, through the instance of their being implication in a language of craft lore.

For the discussion that follows I don’t think it’s necessary to decide, finally, whether Ransom’s expression of ‘taste’ in the present instance — that the ‘Structure’ sequence shows ‘too much refinement of the fantasy’ — is durable. Nor is it necessary for me to decide — what naturally I wish to — whether the exemplary re-doubling of arousal in the allegorical language by both craft lore and Duncan’s own bit of self-care, or body lore, equally satisfy the claims made by the sequence’s visionary rhetoric. In either case Duncan keeps vision and fantasy approximate to revelation, proximate, that is, to the poem’s therapeutic (because in crisis) subject matter: the structure of rime. In order to suggest what such an approximation contributes to the well-being of community I need to compare two recent, brilliant — if quite different — utopian accounts of modernist political and aesthetic radicalism with two older accounts, contemporaneous with the period of ‘The Structure of Rime’ I’ve covered here.

Eric Santner’s project, in his recent book, The Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, is to revive the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig’s aptly-named New Thinking of the post-World War One period, and reconcile it with the theological implications of Freud’s cultural writings. Santner wishes to renew the Judeo-Christian legacy for a democratic humanism that has failed, under the auspices of the New Left, to understand the significant distinction between a global and a universal consciousness as it plays out in the overly politicized conflict between a culturally pluralist, monotheistic West and a culturally radical, inalienable ‘barbarity’ stuck to the fate of modernity. Globalism, within this framework, is the regime wherein conflicts are settled between different societies and cultures based on power relations, ‘whereas universality... signifies the possibility of a shared opening to the agitation and turbulence immanent to any construction of identity.’[55]

Santner proposes that the religions of revelation, which Pound rejected (and I mean, here, both Catholicism and Judaism), were, in Rosenzweig’s thinking, the context against which it remained possible to ‘gain a foothold in... what the Judeo-Christian tradition refers to as the Kingdom... a specific way of opening to the Other’ (S 91). The Kingdom is typically identified in terms of some other time and place, but Judaism, specifically, as a revealed religion, ‘can be understood as a kind of therapy directed precisely against the fantasmatic pressures of the superego and its tendency to keep the subject at a distance from his or her answerability to the world’ (S 104). This answerability Santner sees exemplified in Rosenzweig’s decision, upon finishing his dissertation on Hegel’s political philosophy, to turn his back on an academic career and accept the rule of what he called his ‘dark drive... ’my Judaism’’ (quoted in S 17).

Santner describes Rosenzweig’s cultural radicalism, one that has obvious affinities with the bohemianism more typically associated with modernist poets like Duncan or Riding. What struck Ransom as fantasy in Duncan’s sequence can be read as the revelation of craft lore, especially if, as Walter Ong once remarked, ‘barbarians turn out rather regularly to be the custodians — often the only custodians — of the culture on which they prey.’ Ong’s purpose throughout The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (1962) is to show his readers ‘the vernacular matrix’ in such disparate phenomena as the New Criticism, sound reproduction technology, and San Francisco beatniks; writing at just the moment American youth culture began to take itself seriously (the Port Huron Statement was written in 1962), Father Ong argues that humanist culture is in fact barbarian through and through, as it always owed more to Latin than to Greek culture and so became ‘focused in linguistic behavior’ — Ong means the vernacular. ‘The original barbarian was the man who could not speak Greek.’[56]

On this bold premise, Ong builds his case for the barbarian within each of his readers, quite apart from how different our lives might be from the bohemian who makes us feel like such an square. Santner’s effort to renew a messianic politics of revelatory agitation in which one’s Nemesis is kept in dynamic yet always exemplary relation shares an important line of continuity with Ong’s title-essay, which like Santner’s book makes compelling claims for a post-Nietzschean humanism and takes as its occasion a Life magazine article on the North Beach queer scene — of which Duncan, if Michael Rumaker’s memoir is to be credible, had been a habitué.              

What’s missing from the New Left account of aesthetic modernism, even as this account has been recently clarified and itself complicated in important ways by T J Clark’s Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, is an understanding of modernist cultural radicalism that doesn’t reduce the vernacular to some version of materialization and exposure. Recent accounts of the transition from modernist cultural radicalism to contemporary poetic practice tend to interest themselves in form only long enough to make a cultural or sociological claim for a writer’s difficulty.[57]

It wasn’t always so. During the Vietnam War, when it was customary to remark on the salutary diversity in American poetic practice, as a possibly patriotic antidote for our genocidal drive to destroy Communism, David Antin, in a much-cited essay, rescued from what he considered the impoverished late modernist obsession with psychoanalysis and history (intellectual traditions that sponsored Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz’s praise of Auden) the formal principle of collage:

The Waste Land and The Cantos are based on the principle of collage, the dramatic juxtaposition of disparate elements without commitment to explicit syntactical relations between elements. A ‘historical sense’ and ‘psychoanalysis’ are structurally equivalent to the degree that they are in direct conflict with the collage principle. They are both strategies for combating the apparently chaotic collage landscapes of human experience and turning them into linear narratives with a clearly articulated plot. It is not easy to see what these systems offer a poet unless he was convinced of their truth, which would, I suppose, mean either that it would be relevant to some purpose... or else that these systems conformed more perfectly than any other with a vaster system of representations to which the poet was committed for some valued reasons.[58]

Antin’s first sentence defines collage as an idiom within the group culture of modernist poetics, an idiom, as it happens, I think Duncan goes about appropriating quite differently, but which any reader of his work will recognize.[59] What’s fascinating here is how the lack of ‘commitment to explicit syntactical relations between elements,’ however this may misconstrue what the ‘elements’ actually are, serves Antin as a defense for Eliot and Pound’s cultural radicalism, for the breathtaking ease with which we’ve been ‘structurally’ disabused of history and an inner life, not to speak of any ‘vaster system of representations,’ to which we may be ‘committed for some valued reason’ — a phrase with the rot of The Days of Rage all over it. Pound and Eliot’s radical formalism is held out for; nowhere is it pressed to the point, as Duncan had been by Ransom.

Antin’s situation remains chronically unfinished, and so we may hear some of Duncan’s unfinished business with Ransom buried alive by Antin’s dismissal of Auden’s politics: ‘The difference between the Auden of 1930 and the Auden of 1940 is merely people are saying a few different things at the same cocktail party’ (105). It is the child saying, The crisis you thought so important was not my crisis; my crisis was given to me by you. Or perhaps the child doesn’t say Electra’s line; but sublimates it — says: There’s no crisis. In either case, divisiveness and contempt is now regarded as a healthy situation, and in the devolution of Whitman’s critique of the Second Reconstruction, we are left with our late modernist poetry read out of existence as the price of a radically democratic popular culture.  

Antin’s essay reads modernism by way of New Left cultural politics, specifically pop art, and is a classic sectarian statement that clarifies why, as late as 1967, Robert Duncan would wish to come to some resolution in his situation with John Crowe Ransom, not to mention, why it might be helpful to read Duncan and Riding together within the context of the collapse of internationalist culture. T J Clark, on the other hand, offers a defense of canonical modernism’s contesting, politically-inspiring aesthetic force historically subtle enough to canvas the limits of any approach to the early twentieth century which fails to sound the ‘poetic discontent’ of such an ostensibly conservative thinker as John Crowe Ransom.

While Clark doesn’t deal explicitly with Ransom, it is amusing to reflect that his title comes from the Wallace Stevens poem Ransom accepted at The Kenyon Review as a rationale for cutting Duncan’s ‘An African Elegy.’ Howsoever, Clark’s interest in this context concerns Jackson Pollock. In an interpretation of Pollock’s paintings that does justice to what Clark (not to say, Pollock) learned from Clement Greenberg’s formalism, Clark admits his own formalism takes in ‘even the Leftist claptrap about “art as substitute religion” [that it] might be reworked so as to have some critical purchase.’[60]

Clark’s rhetoric here unearths the tension between religion and science that tilts his cultural politics toward extreme stylists like Pollock; he may see the hooey in counter-cultural claims for the political virtue in turning art-making into social ritual but he’s quite aware his own Marxism partakes of the ‘dissolution and disabusal’ in Enlightenment reason that has no account of spiritual transcendence except ‘by way of absolute immanence and contingency, through a deep and ruthless materialism, by a secularization (a “realization”) of transcendence — an absorption in the logic of form.’[61] Clark has in mind, as it applies to Pollock, Hegel’s phrase historicizing the false consciousness in modern forms of religion — ‘the positive moment of practicing what it does not understand’ — which he uses to link modernist aesthetics to revolutionary, so to say, ‘critical’ practice.[62] Modernist that he is, however, Clark recognizes the trap clapping: Ransom, too, in the context of the New Humanism crisis, had defended ‘the great Hegel’ who predicted the end of the aesthetic in ‘the moment at which contingency [modernity] and selfsame-ness [modernism] confront one another as tragic opposites’(GWT 23; FTAI 323). ‘Our modernism,’ Ransom wrote, ‘will justify itself without any difficulty for the New York Chamber of Commerce, as for anybody who examines it with respect to the practical goods it has produced. But we were talking about religion’ (GWT 25). Ransom’s withering irony — modernist and tragic, you bet — toward aesthetic substitutes can sound pretty cheerful after Clark has stranded his own ‘deep and ruthless materialism,’ his own ‘absorption in the logic of form.’

The messianic rhetoric of Duncan’s Politics essay, the role it subsequently played with regards to Ransom’s humanism, and then again, in the Bending the Bow preface, the role it plays with regard to the New Left, must be seen in this context. ‘The Structure of Rime,’ as it outflanks Pound’s absorption in the logic of materials, and calls past it, in what might be considered American craft lore, toward Riding, is inseparable from these exemplary acts. In the case of both acts — citizenly and writerly — Duncan’s exemplification forces the tragically opposed, because stuck, tendencies toward materialization and transcendence to stop staring each other down, and is  an instance of what Santner, not fussing between aesthetic and religious practice but proposing his psychotheology of everyday life, calls an ‘allegory of a successful analysis, of that passage through the transference that releases the subject from the always idiosyncratic and undeadening drama of legitimation that had framed its destiny’ (S 43).

By American craft lore I hope to be suggestive without being terminological. American craft was Whitman’s phrase, in The Eighteenth Presidency! (1856), for the penchant of antebellum Northern politicians to recruit constituencies from right off the surface of American life — what’s bothering us.[63] Craft lore was Duncan’s phrase for the kind of knowing that’s always just escaping our grammars and prosodies — partly, we surmise, because these are described (and not embodied) knowledges (FC 87). ‘The Structure of Rime’ initiates its reader into Duncan’s American craft lore, in which Whitman’s agitprop broadside haranguing the electorate and Duncan’s process poetics — a revelatory call past Pound’s lore of materials — share a common ground with recent efforts to recover a usable modernism, one Duncan heard in the poems that most moved him: ‘The line of the poem confronts me where I must volunteer my love, and I saw, long before this war, wrath move in the music that troubles me’ (BB iii).

[1] Robert Duncan, letter to Henry Wenning , 9 November 1967, Robert Duncan papers, Washington University libraries, St. Louis, MO.
[2] A Duncan letter dated 21 November, 1962 helps clarify the relationship: RD requests that Wenning be on the alert for books with which he either wanted to fill out his personal collection, or needed for his ‘H. D. Book’ project, begun in early 1961. The books include four Gertrude Stein titles and two Seizin Press (co-owned by Laura Riding and Robert Graves) editions, the categories overlapping in the case of Stein’s An Acquaintance With Description; the other Seizin was Riding and Graves’ Epilogue II. Duncan also requested copies of Pound’s first series of Exile; the editions of the Cantos subsequent to the first; the limited editions club Ulysses; and three early Zukofsky editions. Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, MO.
[3] Tony Stoneburner, ‘Introduction,’ A Meeting of Poets and Theologians to discuss Parable, Myth and Language (Washington D. C.: College of Preachers, 1968), 4.
[4] ‘The H.D. Book’ was published in serial form (in separate magazines) over twenty years. ‘The Truth and Life of Myth,’ originally published in the abbreviated form of Duncan’s talk at the seminar in Stoneburner’s edition of its papers, was subsequently printed as a limited edition (NY: House of Books, 1968), and collected in Robert Duncan, Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985). Bending the Bow (New York: New Directions, 1968). (The former is hereafter cited FC; the latter BB.)
[5] I’ve culled from various accounts in representing Duncan’s 1967 Washington D. C. visit. For Duncan’s participation with Resist, see Denise Levertov, ‘Some Duncan Letters – a Memoir and a Critical Tribute,’ in Robert Duncan — Scales of the Marvelous, edited and with an introduction by Robert J. Bertolf and Ian W. Reid (New York: New Directions, 1979). For an account of the Resist group’s direct action, see Mitchell Goodman, The Movement Toward a New America: The Beginnings of a Long Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1970) and Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night — History as a Novel, The Novel as History (New York: New American Library, 1968). For another, quite different account of the Resist actions, see Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins: Historical and Political Essays (New York: Vintage, 1969).
[6] RD’s comments on Emerson, and ‘reading his Emerson dark,’ can be found in ‘The Self in Postmodern Poetry,’ Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985), 226.
[7] Spock was the baby doctor [and Resist leader] whose book on childcare was a reliable self-help guide for a generation of baby boom parents; nonetheless, by the Sixties he was as well-known for his liberal politics as his book and, with Martin Luther King, Jr., frequently mentioned in the days before the Palmer House debacle as deserving a spot on a possible New Democratic Party 1968 presidential ticket. Such a ticket never eventuated, because of sectarian divisiveness among radical democratic activists meeting at the Forum for New Democratic Politics at the Palmer House (in Chicago) in September 1967. The movement toward an independent ticket later developed into the Eugene McCarthy-Allard Loewenstein campaign in 1968, and somewhat later, the Democratic Leadership Council, from whence Bill Clinton emerged.
    My supposition that Duncan walked behind Spock is based on the descriptions in Mailer and Chomsky of the several phalanxes of the march, one of which was led by Spock, and Duncan’s own description, in the preface to Bending the Bow, of walking behind a ‘doctor,’ one of whose attributes is that he has ‘readers’.
[8] Simone Weil, ‘The Iliad or, The Poem of Force,’ translated by Mary Mc Carthy, Politics (November 1945), 321. The essay was originally published in France in 1940.
[9] In a January 1946 letter to his friend Art Wiser, Macdonald commented: ‘The response to [Weil’s article] surprised me; I thought it was a great political article, dealing with the moral questions implicit in terrible events one reads about in every day’s newspaper, which was why I played it up so prominently in the issue. But I had not expected such an overwhelming reaction from readers. Nothing I’ve yet printed seems to have made so deep an impression. The only people who didn’t understand how such an article had a place in a political journal were – and I think this profoundly significant – all of them Marxists. To a Marxist, an analysis of human behavior from an ethical point of view is just not “serious” – even smacks a little of religion.’ Michael Wrezin, A Moral Temper: The Letters of Dwight Macdonald (Chicago: Ivan R Dee 2001), 129.
[10] Any reading of Homer that the classically-trained Weil offered her contemporaries might well have been characterized as a meditation on poetic craft, but in taking force and limit as her themes, Weil quite explicitly condemns modern Western societies for having consigned craft and limit to the lexical ghetto of aesthetics and studio-process – a technique (merely), something only poets need be concerned with – and warns that the excessive exposure Western military weaponry entails will only rebound against these societies in the form of Nemesis: ‘For they do not see that the force in their possession is only a limited quantity; nor do they see their relations with other human beings as a kind of balance between unequal amounts of force. Since other people do not impose on their movements that halt, that interval of hesitation, wherein lies all our consideration for our brothers in humanity, they conclude that destiny has given complete license to them, and none at all to their inferiors. And at this point they exceed the measure of the force that is actually at their disposal. Inevitably they exceed it, since they are not aware that it is limited. And now we see them committed irretrievably to chance; suddenly things cease to obey them. Sometimes chance is kind to them, sometimes cruel....
‘This retribution, which has a geometrical rigor, which operates automatically to penalize the abuse of force, was the main subject of Greek thought. It is the soul of epic. Under the name of Nemesis, it functions as the mainspring of Aeschylus’s tragedies. To the Pythagoreans, to Socrates and Plato, it is the jumping-off point of speculation upon the nature of man and the universe. Wherever Hellenism has penetrated, we find the idea of it familiar. In Oriental countries which are steeped in Buddhism, it is perhaps this Greek idea that has lived on under the name of Kharma [sic]. The Occident, however, has lost it, and no longer even has a word to express it in any of its languages: conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life are, in the West, restricted to a servile function in the vocabulary of technics [of or pertaining to art, craft]. We are only geometricians of matter; the Greeks were, first of all, geometricians in their apprenticeship to virtue.’ Politics, November 1945 (brackets and italics mine).

[11] Gandhi’s writings on non-violence began to appear here after his trip to England in the early Thirties. See Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (Berkeley, CA: 1965).
[12] The contemporaneous response of Samuel Charters is among the strongest in this line: ‘It is particularly difficult for a poet like Duncan because he is writing at a time when the aesthetic of the poem has already come to terms with the loss of the audience.... Duncan is not responsible for the contemporary aesthetic of the poem and his work often does break through the sour limitings that surround the modern poem.’ (Some Poems/ Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry Since 1945 [Berkeley: Oyez, 1971], 47.) (italics mine) Charters’ is an orthodox New Left critique of modernist-limit, but see also Robert von Hallberg, American Poetry and Culture 1945–1980 (Cambridge: Harvard, 1985). Describing Duncan, along with Olson and Ginsberg, as ‘poets with systems,’ von Hallberg looks askance at Duncan’s political writing in Bending the Bow, suggesting it’s historically opportunistic: ‘Duncan could indict the Democratic administration for falsehood and hypocrisy, and no one would be surprised or moved in any way.... [He was] wheeling out the big guns for fixed targets’ (39, 144).
[13] See Stephen Fredman, The Grounding of American Poetry: Charles Olson and the Emersonian Tradition (Cambridge, U.K.: CUP, 1993). Fredman’s fascinating study, a kind of Jeremiad against American literature, quite self-consciously misappropriates Duncan’s valuation of ‘groundwork’ (which Duncan likely translated from Riding’s use of the German word ‘weg’, characterizing the Expressionist avant garde in Though Gently [Deya, Majorca: Seizin, 1930, 21]), to explore what he sees as repeatedly enacted gestures of ‘grounding’ in the work of Olson, Creeley and Duncan. Fredman stages a kind of rivalry between two tendencies within the transcendentalist tradition: the Thoreau-Olson side, which Fredman sees as responsibly engaging the crisis of subjectivity and linguistic productivity through self-inscription, ‘a method of grounding their writing, which I call “containment”’ (ix), and the Emerson-Duncan side, whose gestures of circling and drawing the line neither contain nor inscribe but are in continual need of historicist criticism to support themselves, and so show themselves to be essentially groundless. Fredman draws on a remark of F O Matthiessen about our 19th century writers’ failure to be great poets: ‘’The writing of poetry becomes inordinately difficult without a living tradition to draw upon and modify’’ (115). I take it that Fredman thinks such a living tradition would provide the ‘ground’ he suggests is an absolute warrant to write – to produce. I approach this question somewhat differently, from Duncan’s ‘ground,’ if that’s the word, in the modernist response to the New Humanism (with its emphasis on production and the politics of limit), and especially his periodic re-engagements with Stein and Riding.
[14] The praise offered Duncan upon the first of the Groundwork volumes being passed over in all the major poetry prizes was solicited by Thomas Parkinson for a special Duncan-issue of Sagetrieb (Fall-Winter 1985), and neatly exemplifies the generosity that seems to have characterized his late reception. Here poets from Mark Strand and Charles Wright to Ishmael Reed to Carolyn Kizer and John Montague greet Duncan with praise, and yet the first generation of his critics, appearing in this volume and a similar one Ironwood put out a year or two later, seem to be students.
[15] John Crowe Ransom letter to Robert Duncan, 26 October 1944, Robert Duncan papers, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, MO. (Ransom’s first letter herafter cited WU.)
[16] John Crowe Ransom letter to Robert Duncan, 6 December 1944, Robert Duncan papers, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, MO.
[17] John Crowe Ransom letter to Robert Duncan, 1 March 1945, Robert Duncan papers, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, MO.
[18] For example, sometime before August 23, 1957 (Duncan’s side of this later end of the Duncan-Ransom correspondence is not included in the Washington University collection), Duncan submitted to Ransom’s The Kenyon Review a batch of poems that may have included at least part of the (then-sequence, and not series) ‘The Structure of Rime.’ Ransom responded (in part): ‘A great innovation will take the new poetry beyond his [the reader’s] experience, so that he feels rather resistant when he meets it and sees what demands it makes on him. At the moment I have that kind of resistance [to your submission]. My feeling about your verse, and the poetic prose work [likely to have been ‘Structure of Rime’ — only one other prose poem from the period survives in published form, ‘Three Pages From a Birthday Book’], is that it has too much refinement in the fantasy for my taste, which probably means for my experience and my expectation of poetry. It requires a great feat of accomodation from your reader. We have had that sort of thing from Joyce, of course, and in a different way from Pound. I am still in the position of liking to go with them a little while, and then turning back.’ John Crowe Ransom letter to Robert Duncan, 23 August 1957, Robert Duncan papers, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, MO. Nothing if not patient, Duncan replied to this letter by submitting to Ransom’s The Kenyon Review several more pieces, this time those he considered to be in ‘closed forms’: ‘The Ballad of the Enamord Mage,’ and ‘The Ballad of Mrs. Noah.’ Ransom replied that he liked the poems but that he was passing the editorship on.
[19] That Duncan could experience self-alienation for not taking a more active role in Vietnam War resistance was, unfortunately, Denise Levertov’s argument in her ‘Critical Tribute’ to Duncan – where she goes so far as to suggest that his inability to participate more fully in group activism was the cause of his high blood pressure. But as I argue, anyone who fails to account for the humanism in Duncan’s critique of modernism also risks viewing him as alienated. That Ransom thought Duncan failed in his craft effort Duncan himself responded to in his 1956 poem ‘Poetry, A Natural Thing,’ which quotes Ransom’s rejection letter: ‘a little heavy, a little contrived’.
[20] Laura Riding, ‘The New Barbarism, and Gertrude Stein,’ transition 3 (June 1927), 159. Subsequent citations from this essay adopt the slightly revised text of the chapter in Contemporaries and Snobs (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928) in which it appears, and will be cited CS.
[21] For Duncan’s sense of himself as a humanist, see the interview he did with Burton Hatlen and Michael Andre Bernstein, SAGETRIEB (Vol. 4, #s2-3) Fall 1985.
[22] Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (New York: Grove, 1960), 12.
[23] Gregory D. Sumner, Dwight Macdonald and the politics Circle (Ithaca: Cornell, 1996), 106. Sumner uses the lower-case orthography for Macdonald’s magazine, which published two Duncan pieces in the waning months (August 1944 and January 1945) of the war.
[24] See, for instance, the recent retrospective glance at the Port Huron Statement by one of its authors, Tom Hayden, and Dick Flacks (‘The Port Huron Statement at 40,’ The Nation [Aug.5/12, 2002], 20). Here the whole legacy of the New Left is perceived not in terms of nonviolent direct action, but in terms of what Hayden and Flacks call ‘democratic humanism,’ a phrase nearly indistinguishable from the one Sumner puts in genteel shock quotes – cultural radicalism. Hayden and Flacks: ‘We were trying to transform the mass society into a civic society.... [P]articipatory democracy flowed from John Dewey’s writings of the 1920s and ‘30s.... He argued that such participation is necessary both for the general welfare and for the fullest development of individuals, and that such a principle should be applied not only in the political sphere as we understand it but in the spheres of family and childraising, in school, in business and religion.’ For Hayden and Flacks the cultural wing of Cold War student activism took its cues from ‘listening to Bob Dylan and rock and roll. SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] represented the first defections from the mainstream’(19). The problem with this account is not that modernist cultural radicalism is consigned to the fine print (though it is); the problem is with a popular culture the radicalism of which is staged in positivist, sociological terms.
[25] See Robert J. Bertolf, editor, Robert Duncan A Selected Prose (New York: New Directions, 1995), 38–39: Here Duncan adds a new preface to a revised version of the essay that erases all trace of its genesis as a response to the Louise Bogan-James Agee discussion of psuedo-folk first published in The Partisan Review.
[26] Robert Duncan, ‘The Homosexual in Society,’ Politics (August 1944), 209. In footnotes and in the body of this essay, I’ll refer to four separate printings (and of one, an addended errata) of this article: 1. The original Politics publication, as well as an errata printed by the magazine several months later; 2. The first reprinting (without correction), in Ekbert Fass, Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Homosexual in Society (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1983); 3. the 1985 first printing of Duncan’s 1959 revision in the little magazine Jimmy and Lucy’s House of K (January 1985); 4. the reprinting of the revision in Robert J. Bertholf, ed. Robert Duncan A Selected Prose (New York: New Directions, 1995). Unless noted, all references are to 1. above, the original version (with errata) in Politics; hereafter cited HS.
[27] Duncan’s discussion of camp as a group-vernacular appears to have been widely overlooked. In her notorious Partisan Review essay on the subject, Susan Sontag informs us that ‘apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel, The World in the Evening (1954) [camp] has hardly broken into print. To talk about camp is therefore to betray it.’ See Against Interpretation and other essays (New York: Farrar, 1966), 275.
[28] James Agee, ‘Psuedo-Folk’ in Agee on Film Volume 1 (New York: Putnam, 1958), 404–410. Louise Bogan, ‘Folk Art’ in A Poet’s Alphabet (New York: McGraw Hill, 1970), 137.
[29] A important source for this group – Agee, Duncan and Pauline Kael – was certainly John Dewey’s 1931 William James Lectures at Harvard, published as Art As Experience (New York: Perigee, 1934). (Page numbers hereafter cited in the text.)
[30] Duncan later wrote a critique of View he published in his friend Sanders Russell’s magazine, The Ark. See ‘Reviewing View, an Attack,’ reprinted in Faas, Young Robert Duncan.
[31] A footnote Duncan added to the 1959 revision of ‘The Homosexual in Society’ clarifies this point. Duncan recounts his attendence at a round table discussion on modern art in San Francisco in 1949, where a conflict emerged between Frank Lloyd Wright and Marcel Duchamp in which – in Duncan’s words: ‘both showed the courage of forthright statement, bringing the issue publicly forward, which I lamented the lack of in 1944: Wright (who had been challenged on his reference to modern art as ‘degenerate’): ‘Would you say homosexuality was degenerate?’ Duchamp: ‘No, it is not degenerate.’ Wright: ‘You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly or is greatly in debt to homosexualism?’ Duchamp: ‘I admit it, but not in your terms... I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual — so it happened, but it does not involve modern art itself.’’ Duncan continues: ‘What makes comment complicated here is that, while I would like to answer as Duchamp does because I believe with him that art itself is an expression of vitality, in part I recognize the justice of Wright’s distaste, for there is a homosexual clique which patronizes certain kinds of modern art and even creates because, like Wright, they believe both homosexuality and the art they patronize to be decadent and even fashionably degenerate’ (SP 40). Duncan’s comment clarifies my point above in that his ‘distaste’ is for the alienation that would rely on Wright’s (or, analogously, Ransom’s) moralism to achieve camp pleasure. The pop appropriation of camp aesthetics in the Sixties thus asserts that pleasure is pleasure is pleasure – and it’s all good. But just so, pop partakes of the disproportion of means to ends that (Wright’s, though by no stretch Ransom’s) functionalism meant to correct.
[32] This is the specific charge of George Elliott’s September 1944 attack (in Politics) on the magazine, which singles out its alienated young cultural critics (here Paul Goodman, as well as Duncan) for particular disdain. Duncan responded to Elliott in the January 1945 issue.
[33] Duncan quotes Admiral’s remark in his 1953 ‘Pages From a Notebook.’ See SP, 20.
[34] See Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1998), 34.
[35] For a contemporary example of the cultural politics of limit, see the recent piece by John Nichols on Stephen J Gould in The Nation (June 17, 2002) discusses the Science For the People movement, a network of study and direct action groups that publishes a magazine attempting to build consensus about sustainable science.
[36] Much of the literary critical debate of this period over the New Humanism was rehearsed by Alfred Kazin’s ambitious study, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature [New York: Harcourt, 1942]. Nonetheless, Kazin does not deal with poetry nor with those poet-critics called by Malcolm Cowley the Younger Generation. As it happens, the problems implied by linguistic productivity were much more salient among the emerging communication theorists of the Thirties, who were observing the results of treating words as though they could function like numbers. Riding, especially, was passionately engaged by the flaws in this line of inquiry; it ultimately results in her astonishing magnum opus on lexicography, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1996).
[37] John Crowe Ransom, The Calendar of Modern Letters (London), August, 1925. The essay has not been reprinted.
[38] See C. Hartley Grattan, editor, The Critique of Humanism: A Symposium (New York: Brewer and Warren, 1930). This volume of original essays by young American poet-critics, including Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Kenneth Burke, Yvor Winters, R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate and others, responded to a volume put out earlier the same year, Norman Foerster, editor, Humanism in America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1930) that included essays by Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, T S Eliot, and others. Ransom’s own contribution to this debate was the book (discussed later in this essay), God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy (New York: Harcourt, 1930).
[39] Laura Riding Gottschalk, ‘A Prophecy or a Plea’ The Reviewer 5(2) April 1925. This essay is reprinted in Elizabeth Friedmann, Alan J Clark, and Robert Nye, editors, First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding (New York: Persea, 1992), 277. Laura Riding Gottschalk changed her name to Laura Riding in late 1926.
[40] This almost-four month period is the subject of Langdon Hammer’s Hart Crane & Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism (Princeton: PUP, 1993). Hammer does not include Riding in his study.
[41] Allen Tate, ‘Poetry and the Absolute,’ Sewanee Review (Jan 1927). The essay [hereafter cited PA] has not been reprinted.
[42] Politics (August 1944), 209. The two reprintings of this essay, in Faas and SP, are both in error with regard to the first sentence above. Where ‘perpetuated’ is used above, Faas and SP incorrectly reprint the original Politics, ‘cheated.’ The original was corrected in the October 1944 Politics (286), and is closer to Duncan’s occasioned sense.
[43] Robert Duncan, The Years as Catches: First Poems (1939-1946) (Berkeley: Oyez, 1966), 33. Hereafter cited YC.
[44] C.f. Ashbery’s introduction to Robert Duncan, [a reading] The Academy of American Poets Audiotape Archive, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 15 April 1969.
[45] Robert Duncan letter to John Crowe Ransom (undated), Robert Duncan papers, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, MO.
[46] Pauline Kael, The Citizen Kane Book (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), 35-36.
[47] Duncan reports this fact in ‘The H.D. Book: Part Two, Chapter 9’ Chicago Review 30 (Fall 1979), 46, and adds that he began by reading The Progress of Stories, ‘and within a year had come so under the spell of her authority or the authority of her spell – she confounded the two – that I could feel her scorn over my poetic fumblings...’
[48] Will Brantly, editor, Conversations With Pauline Kael, (Jackson: Mississippi, 1996), 111.
[49] Laura Riding, letter to Robert Duncan (undated), Robert Duncan papers, Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley. My approximate dating of this letter is based on another Riding wrote at the time, to her step-daughter, Griselda Jackson (cited in Deborah Baker’s In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding [New York: Grove, 1993], 412), describing repairs they were making to a newly purchased home in Wabasso – this letter is dated 27 April 1943. The abrupt segue in the second paragraph of Riding’s letter suggests to me that Duncan’s initial letter was posted to Deya, Majorca and forwarded to Wabasso.
[50] Robert Duncan, ‘The H. D. Book: Part Two: Nights and Days, Chapter 9,’ Chicago Review 30, 3 (Winter 1979), 46. Duncan refers here to various figures from the stories in Progress of Stories.
[51] See Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1948), 311, 372. The book-length project of which this essay is part explores the cultural modernism in the work of Riding, Duncan, Kael, Paul Goodman and other writers working out the legacy of the New Humanism. A reprinting of Riding’s 1930 experimental work responding to the New Humanism, Though Gently, was recently undertaken by my literary magazine, Delmar 8, and is supplemented by essays on Riding’s work by eleven poets, scholars, and critics.
[52] Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909–1965 (New York: New Directions, 1973), p. 24. He was reviewing poems by Mina Loy and Marianne Moore that had been published in an anthology.
[53] ‘An Adequate Vision: A George Oppen Daybook,’ editor, Michael Davidson, Ironwood 26 (1985), 8.
[54] John Crowe Ransom letter to Robert Duncan, 23 August 1957, Robert Duncan papers, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, MO
[55] Eric L. Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (Chicago: UCP, 2001),5. (Hereafter cited in the text S.)
[56] Walter J. Ong, S.J, The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 265. (Hereafter cited BW.)
[57] See Christopher Beach, Poetic Culture: Contemporary American Poetry Between Community and Institution (Evanston: Northwestern, 1999); and Juliana Spahr, Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (Tuscaloosa: Alabama, 2001).
[58] David Antin, ‘Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry,’ Boundary 2 (Vol. 1 Fall 1972). (Hereafter cited in the text.)
[59] This question falls outside the scope of the present essay because although Duncan was deeply interested in collage (and in both surrealism and Pound’s poetics more generally), The Structure of Rime, as I have argued, is not itself a collage, though the way the series is woven into the fabric of the five books through which it appears may suggest certain affinities. The standpoint of my approach, however, will be just apposite.
[60] Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale, 1999), 329. (Hereafter cited FTAI.)
[61] T J Clark, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ (New Left Review 2 Mar/April 2000), 95. Clark responds here, at least partly, to recent work by Fredric Jameson who, long ago dismissing the American New Critics of the Twenties and Thirties from his survey of contemporaneous revolutionary formalisms, had written: ‘[The] familiar split between avant-garde art and left-wing politics was not a universal but merely a local, Anglo-American phenomenon.’ The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: 1972), 45.
[62] Quoted in FTAI (372), from Hegel’s discussion of the Unhappy Consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Arnold Miller (Oxford, 1977).
[63] Walt Whitman, The Eighteenth Presidency! A Critical Text edited by Edward F. Grier (Lawrence: Kansas, 1956). Duncan quotes from this text in ‘The Fire, Passages 13’ (BB 44).

Jeff Hamilton is a poet-scholar teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His poems are presently appearing in Fence, LVNG, and Sou’wester; an article on Robert Duncan’s ‘Letters: Poems 1953–1955’ is forthcoming in The Chicago Review. He is working on a book on Duncan and linguistics, and edits the journal he founded, Delmar.

October 2004  |  Jacket 26  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
about Jacket | style guide | bookstores | literary links | 400+ book reviews |

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be
stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Jeff Hamilton and Jacket magazine 2004
The Internet address of this page is