Two nibs


Michael Davidson

in conversation with John Tranter
Berkeley, San Francisco, Friday 3 March 1989, with a postscript, 2005

Michael Davidson is professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. You can read an author note at the foot of this file.

This interview is 11,800 words
or about 20 printed pages long

You can read John Tranter’s 1985 interview with Robert Duncan in
this issue of Jacket.

Robert Duncan:
A metaphysical quotient

Michael Davidson: ... See, I’m always a little confused about the dating of Duncan’s late books. I tried to ask him about it but he was too ill at that point to — he said some remarkable things about this book. I had seen the proofs for this volume, Ground Work Part Two. In fact I had seen, I guess, a mock up of the book, and I said, ‘Robert, it’s wonderful, that this book is going to be coming out’. And he said, ‘Oh, no, that’s not going to be published, Ground Work is — I haven’t sent New Directions a manuscript or anything like that’. He was obviously, you know, kind of forgetting anything that had happened. Now this one, called The Santa Cruz Propositions, I was with him in Santa Cruz during the time that this was being written, because he was teaching down there. Norman O. Brown had gotten him this job teaching down there, and when I came to Berkeley from Buffalo in 1970, let’s see, must have been ‘70 or ‘71, he taught down there.

Robert Duncan, San Francisco, 1985, photo by John Tranter

Robert Duncan, San Francisco, 1985, photo by John Tranter

And so all of the incidents in here including some news things about a murder in Santa Cruz and so forth are taken from this. But he dates it October 1968. Now why does he misdate it? I don’t know, unless he wants to link it to the events of ‘68, in a kind of apocalyptic period.

John Tranter: When did that book come out, volume two of Ground Work?

It must have come out in 1987, but I don’t think anyone saw it till ‘88. I’ll tell you when I saw the first copy, it was at the MLA Convention in San Francisco, not this year but last year, and this was ‘88 [the year just passed, that is], so it would be ‘87, Christmas, exactly, when it appeared. Although, some of these poems probably go back a little bit further. ‘Veiled turban-corded bird’ and some other poems in here are from his French trip. He travelled a lot in his very late years, and was in France for a while and went to Australia of course. He went to England, and then of course all of that travelling that he did in Fiji, was it Fiji, yes?

I think that was on the way to Australia.

Yes. It must have been part of that trip.

He got the plane to Fiji and decided to pause there, just to rest a bit, before he went on to Australia, sort of on the way.


And he said to me he had a few days in Fiji, or a week perhaps. There was a poet in Australia that he was very interested in talking to, called Robert Adamson, who is my own age, and of my own generation.

Yes, he knew Robert Adamson from long — from before, I think.

He did. In fact Robert had written a poem in 1968 or 9, called ‘The Rumour’, which is a very long thing. He brought it around to show me, and I suggested a few little things he could do to improve it, and he used one or two of them, which I’m happy about. And he went off and worked on it a bit more, and it turned into a very long poem, nineteen pages long or so. I put that in my anthology [The New Australian Poetry, Makar Press, St Lucia Queensland, 1979] , because I thought it was very important.

Oh, yes.

Even thought I don’t think it quite succeeded. But it’s the kind of poem that’s more interesting in what it does on the way towards its goal, than what it does when it gets there. And most of the things that poem does have to do with appropriating Duncan’s voice and position and role, and then seeing what grows out of that, and then bouncing off Ashbery, and bouncing off Blake, and then back to Duncan again all the time. A very interesting bit of work.

It’s a hard role to assume. The way it’s a voice that — I think the reason why Duncan hasn’t had the kind of attention brought to him that other poets of his generation have, is really the high vatic mode, it’s a very difficult one for people to accept. Everybody’s a little embarrassed about Whitman, glad that he existed, but do we really want that? And Duncan took it to such a Shelleyan extreme.

It’s interested me that so many American poets say that there’s a line that goes from Whitman through Williams and then either through Frank O’Hara or through Ginsberg, depending perhaps. But I think Duncan said ‘no, it doesn’t go anywhere near Williams at all’. It goes off in the other direction. It goes back towards Blake, which is quite the opposite of Williams in many ways.

I don’t think that — this must be a heresy to say it — but I think that Blake was very important at various points, but I don’t think that the full proposition of Blake had nearly the effect that he would like to see it. I think it did on Robert, and I think to some extent it did on maybe one or two other poets. But, most of Blake’s work, and especially the prophetic work, is largely unread. Ginsberg, after all, his epiphanic moments were always short Blake poems, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, and I don’t know many poets who have really dug into Blake except for someone like Duncan. So I think that’s one of Robert’s creative — he was always creating lineages, of which he was the kind of central vehicle, the afflatus, which was always a great thing about being around him. I remember one time compiling what I thought was an accurate biography of Duncan’s life, and I was — it must have been when I was writing my dissertation on him — and I’d taken simply things that he’d said in talks and interviews, and articles, and put them all down on little 3x5 cards, and created a kind of a life. So I phoned him up, and I said that I’d like to come over and show him these cards, and make sure that I got this stuff straight.

And of course when I got there, he started to say ‘oh no, that’s not possible, I couldn’t have read Emerson then, I was reading somebody else’. He just completely contradicted everything that he had said. I said, ‘Robert, you said all of these things’. He said, ‘No, I couldn’t have said them’. So he was always rewriting his life. And it was a great — he had a lot of permission to do that, I think, because the Theosophical background of his parents and so forth really had trained him to think of the life as a kind of a story, which you could endlessly reweave and retell. And he had plenty of other stories that would come and verify things. We would find that his life paralleled the story of — his great example was the Atlantean story. And then the Eros and Psyche story that comes up in Pindar, of course, becomes a kind of parallel story, finding love and then going out in the long dark passages and coming into the light again. And sort of self-mythologising. And I think it’s also very much an American tendency, as I say to my students all the time, that the idea of reading your life as a text really goes back to Puritan orthodoxy. You had to be investigating every single moment of your day, as part of an eschatological scheme which would lead to your own transformation. So it was a conservative impulse to make sure that your life fitted the text that you needed to use, the Old Testament or New Testament text. But it also gave you a kind of textual freedom to interpret the world as you wanted to see it, and when it went too far in that direction, of course you had Emerson and Dickinson and a kind of antinomian tendency, which has always been there, I think, in American poets.

You’re right about American writers, well, American culture. It seems to me there’s always a movement towards authority, and then away from it again, and then back to it, and away from it.

Yes. A very ambivalent relationship. I gather that Duncan’s work has had some effect in Australia, though. I mean, people like Adamson and whatnot were really making him available.

You can read Robert Adamson’s poem
“Eurydice Reads ‘Roots and Branches’”
in this issue of Jacket. J.T.

Yes, that’s true, mainly through Bob Adamson’s work, more than anyone else’s. Duncan’s a difficult influence to come to terms with from Australia. Because we see him as an American, really, whereas he doesn’t see himself as an American particularly, he’s just there, there’s all this other stuff around him. And to an Australian perspective, it looks a little odd, his relationship with Shelley and Blake looks just a little odd, because they’re English, and he’s American. Whereas from America that’s not a difficulty at all. And there was also a period in the late sixties, early seventies, where there was a bit of a battle in Australia as to how much influence from the United States was proper, and how much was too much.


That was connected with the Vietnam War.

I think Canada went through the same thing, too.

Yes, the two cultures are rather alike in that sense. So there was always the resistance to Ashbery, Ginsberg, Duncan, who were seen as all the same gang in a way, which is not the case at all from the American perspective. On the other hand it was great for the younger writers in the sixties and seventies. There was a great interest in what these writers were doing, and Robert Adamson in particular found in Duncan’s attitudes and discoveries and learning as — well, a kind of authorisation to go along his own road.

Yes. One thing Duncan always encouraged was not to have little Duncanites following him around writing poems that sound — and whenever that occurred, he was merciless with them. I mean, he wouldn’t say anything to their face, but outside, he would say, ‘Oh well, they’re just a bunch of little Duncanites’, little Duncan clones, and you know, much serious taking up of myth and delving into the mysteries and so forth, and on the one hand, he courted that, he loved it, on the other hand he was, I think he really believed that Projective Verse and the various kinds of aesthetic theories that he still — Field proposition meant that you went out — you tried to find what was outside the field of what was recognisable. And if the field included Duncan, then you tried to overthrow Duncan, you know. If somebody said, ‘don’t read Finnegans Wake’, you’d read Finnegans Wake. Duncan loved that ability in relation to Olson, because Olson was always laying down the law about what you couldn’t do. So naturally Duncan did all the bad things. He wanted to be a bad boy.

And I think when you read a poem like ‘My Mother would be a Falconress’ which is a kind of Oedipal poem about trying to get beyond the curve of the mother’s will, he means in one sense that you know you can never escape your upbringing, but he also meant — this is the poem about little Robbie Duncan always trying to test the authoritarianism of those who would become my super-ego. So, you know, there’s a lot of playful testing of Olsonic propositions or Creeley propositions, doing the things that you’re not supposed to do. If Black Mountain said you’re not supposed to read the Sitwells, then you read the Sitwells, and things like that.

That’s interesting. He was not really a Black Mountain poet at all, was he? When you look at his actual writing, it had no connection really with that kind of stripped-down vernacular minimalism that you get with people like Olson and Creeley.

Yes, and that was always a bone of contention in Robert’s mind, because when the Don Allen anthology [The New American Poetry] came out in 1960, which was really going to define the map of the alternative poetics, Robert wanted not to be in the section called San Francisco Renaissance, he wanted to be in the Black Mountain section. Because he felt that in a way his poetic precursors in the Williams tradition were there. And I’ve never known whether or not it was a way of distancing himself from the Spicer circle and the Beat scene that was associated with San Francisco, and aligning himself with what he saw as a kind of a more dominant tradition. Or whether, you know, he really did see himself lining up behind Olson’s Projective Verse, and things like that.

I know that there was always an ambivalence about Ginsberg, for example. And a real distance from what he saw as being cocktail party gay context of New York School. And Black Mountain still represented history and ideas, and a rigor, and the San Francisco Renaissance for him represented, and I don’t mean — his San Francisco Renaissance, that early formation that he tried to make in the late forties and fifties, but the Beat Scene, North Beach — as being a throwing over of control, intellect, ideas. He was very hostile to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the do-your-own-thing ethos. And so maybe Black Mountain represented a greater degree of rigor.

Yes, interesting that Black Mountain was centred on an educational institution, too. That’s —

Yes, pedagogy was very central. How to treat poetry as ideas, that theory and practice were linked, and in a way I think that’s the heritage of Black Mountain that lives on in something like ‘Language’ writing, even though they’ve been very critical of the expressive qualities of Black Mountain, still the pedagogical and historical concerns I think have continued to some extent. These lineages are kind of hard to figure out, because they keep getting rewritten every year. That’s my latest thinking, is that —

I was going to ask about how Duncan felt about the ‘Language’ writing, did he have any distinct —

Yes, he was very hostile to a lot of it, and of course it all came to a head in the famous argument that he had with Barrett Watten. Do you know this story? Well, this was really a turf war, and it’s an interesting one to talk about. Watten gave a talk on Zukofsky at something that was arranged by San Francisco State I believe. I think they showed a movie, maybe the PBS movie of Zukofsky, and then Barrett gave a talk. I wasn’t present so you have to get further verification of this from others. But in the midst of Barrett’s talk Robert piped up and said, ‘no, no, you got it all wrong’, and proceeded to deliver his Zukofsky. And it was very offensive to Watten, because he’d been upstaged by Duncan, and depending on whom you talked to, Robert was offensive and bullying and not polite, which he could often be, and if you looked to another side, it was that Barrett was doing a more formal academic critique of Zukofsky that would irritate Duncan. So the representation of this event has become one of these little moments, sort of apocryphal moments in which sides and boundaries are defined. But it was a moment in which I think that Robert’s reaction to Watten was also his reaction to what he saw as being a kind of academicising of someone like Zukofsky in a poetic tradition that he had a lot of stake in.

So he blew up I think not so much at Watten, as he blew up at a tendency he saw in younger writers, that — although he from time to time was very sympathetic to Ron Silliman, who wrote a very moving piece about Robert, certainly he was very close to Michael Palmer towards the end, but these, I think, these were relationships — and then also to Susan Howe and to myself, if I have anything to do with that, people who may not be in the centre core of ‘Language’ writing, but have sympathies. And Charles Bernstein he was very sympathetic to. So on an individual basis he was very keen on ‘Language’ writing and its interest in poetics.

But I think that he was very much afraid of a kind of doctrinaire and academic aspect that he saw reflected in some aspects of ‘Language’ writing. And I don’t think he liked, he obviously didn’t like the sort of implicit criticism of the voice and speech and inspiration and genius and beauty and — all the things he stood for as a romantic were being attacked and critiqued and so forth. On the other hand, he was very intrigued with a lot of the theoretical ideas of textuality that were coming out of France, I remember he was very excited about Roland Barthes, and I think Barthes in particular, less so Derrida and so forth. He didn’t read extensively in French theory, he just saw it as kind of an enemy tradition. But Barthes was the one he really was keen on. And Merleau-Ponty he liked, and as a phenomenologist he — Merleau-Ponty was very sympathetic in ideas I think to Duncan’s focus on perception, and stuff like that.

I was just thinking how you might see the ‘Language’ poets as a kind of contemporary version of the Black Mountain school.

Yes, I think that’s a good way of regarding it. An alternate — I mean it’s a non-academic discipline influenced massively by academic life, and with a certain kind of desire for academic imprimatur, but not wanting to be part of the academy.

It’s an interesting position, isn’t it? You have to edge your way around it, not too far away and not too far in. It’s like circling around a black hole, I suppose. If you get too near, you get pulled in.

Get sucked in, yes. And I think critics of ‘Language’ writing, just as some critics of Black Mountain writing — oh this is probably a bad analogy, like to say that ‘Language’ writing is full of academics, what they mean really is that ‘Language’ writing has appropriated a lot of academic theory as part of its proposition. But if you think about the writers associated with the movement, there’s not a one who is in the academy in any official way. [This has changed dramatically since 1989. M.D., 2005.] They occasionally will teach a course. But when you compare that for example to the great mass of American poets who put forth a kind of natural highly personal anti-institutional ethos and who all are teachers, I mean the whole world of what I would think of as being the workshop poem, the academic writing, creative writing workshop, I think the United States is dominated by an ethos of self-reliant individual unencumbered by institutions and so forth. And they propagate this of course through a massively institutionalised ideology.

I think the listeners would be interested in various perspectives on Duncan. The main one I guess is how his work relates to the writers in America while he was writing. And then there’s another issue, that is how his work appears at the moment and in the future, who is he, if you look back on him from a hundred years, say.

I think he had his greatest moment in 1968. I think the appearance of Bending the Bow was probably when his stock was the highest in this country, and it was a time when that powerful invocatory voice, Whitmanian or Blakean or whatever you want to call it really, was of interest, and I think now Duncan’s stock is quite diminished. His work has been out of print, a good amount of it. And the University of California Press is mounting a huge project to reprint everything. Including interviews, and letters, and long out-of-print early poems, and the H.D. book, for a real contribution. And I think that will probably revive interest in Duncan. [As of this date, 2005, this edition is still not published, M.D.] As Olson when he died had a renascence, of a certain order. Five books appeared on Olson within a few years of his death. But when Robert died, there was a flurry of activity as there often is attending the death of a well-known poet. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of serious work being done on Duncan. Books aren’t being written, dissertations etc., that I know of. The H.D. book is being quoted more and more in feminist scholarship, as H.D. is rediscovered. And the reasons for that are hard to figure, but again I think it’s this very sceptical attitude on the part of poets from the new formalists to the ‘Language’ poets, that somehow this heroic voice, this central, this romantic ego, this ‘I’ who sees all and touches all and so forth, is not exactly the stance of poetry that’s being purveyed. I’d say right now that the qualification of subjectivity is a central issue in poetry, whether it’s coming from this kind of ‘know nothing naturalist’ that I was talking about, or whether it’s coming from ‘Language’ writing. To what extent is the individual an individual? To what extent is the individual a product of a certain kind of, to use the popular cant, ‘discourse formations’ that are part of the culture at large. So you have on the one hand a kind of Ashberyan discursive mode, kind of chatty, tossed off, non-present presence, or you get a deliberate refusal to name oneself as being the present subject in ‘Language’ writing. Or you get various other kinds of strategies, of hiding and various kinds of persona being invented again. So it’s not a good time for the vatic ‘I’.

I’m just wondering how that relates to contemporary American political feeling? It seems to me that America seems to be drifting a little, as though it were feeling the same kind of thing.

Well, in a way it’s lost its ability to say, ‘I celebrate myself’. Because American capitalism has suffered, depending on how you look at it, capitalism has suffered a serious blow, as it realises that it is now part of a world-wide meta-capitalism. We no longer own all the means of production, we are owned by the means of production, in Japan, or Europe, and so forth. And so there is a sense of questioning the degree to which one can be an imperial self. Quite frankly, I think it’s a very good thing, but American capitalists don’t see it that way at all. Or else they’ve reinvested in the world market! So Duncan’s voice is tied to a particular moment in American — and there was also the feeling in the sixties when Duncan’s stock was high, to keep using this economic metaphor, when there was the sense that one could change things. Just as the American capitalist experiment was claiming its biggest authority by marching into Vietnam, so the counterculture and the opposition also had an ‘I’ that it could speak from, which was a community feeling within the youth movement and so forth. And Duncan’s voice and Ginsberg’s voice and Robert Bly’s and Denise Levertov’s, they were there as testamentary voices, saying, I have seen this evil and I’m going to tell you about it. And you needed representative men or women.

And you also had to feel that you could say, this is good, this is evil, and there’s a clear distinction. And I know the difference, and this is what it’s about.

And not only that, it’s not just a matter of this particular historical moment, but it is part of an archetypal eternal pattern of ups and downs, of great upheavals and so forth. And this cataclysm of ‘68 I think was seen at least in Duncan’s terms as an apotheosis that comes as he says from our unacknowledged and unrepented crimes, killing Indians and destroying the landscape. So he saw himself as being part of a kind of forward moving vanguardist criticism, even a Freudian analysis of American culpability in massive exploitation. And that was his great political project, to remind us of the unconscious of America that was always trying to hide its desires for empire, desires for rape and ravishing and so forth.

You said before that Duncan in the Donald Allen anthology took care to align himself with the east coast Black Mountain school rather than the west coast San Francisco Renaissance. I’m wondering whether a division rather like that one, but different perhaps, is operating at the moment in terms of his reputation. That the east coast establishment chooses not to recognize him because they can see him as a west coast poet.

I think that’s right too, yes. I think there’s always been a tendency to marginalise west coast writers anyway, because they’re from the west coast. And I think that continues even today. Especially, in a way that’s probably not voiced as such, but on the part of New Englanders for example, who’ve grown up in the shadow of Hawthorne and Emerson and Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe and whatnot. The idea that the west coast should have a literary culture, an artistic culture, would be like saying — I’m sure it’s the way that Britain felt about America having a culture, or Australia having a culture, I mean we all are in a sense colonial outposts, but in the west we are like Australia in being a real colonial outpost, the last frontier. And so when I was in Massachusetts last week, I was visiting a friend in Cambridge, who’d lived his entire life essentially in the Boston-New York area, and I had been visiting Emily Dickinson’s house, and driving around looking at historical places, because I teach this material but I’m far away from it, so I needed to see these places. And he was very condescending. He said, ‘Oh, isn’t that quaint, you Californians always have to have your history fix’. And I realised instead of my being provincial, it was his provinciality that was showing, because he was once again reinscribing this kind of east-west sense of the sophisticated easterner looking at these rubes from the country coming back here to visit the great monuments. The kind of people that Henry James always satirised in his novels. And the only solution for a west coaster of course is to be benignly tolerant of the provincialism of these people! He had never been to Emily Dickinson’s house, of course. Which I thought was great.

I was talking to a writer in L.A. the other day, she was about to have a book released in San Francisco by City Lights, I think. And she said, ‘those San Francisco people don’t think that poets can be born and exist in L.A., they look down on us’.

Yes, that’s another north-south —

North-South, East-West.

Well, Los Angeles has always had a very sophisticated literary culture in relation to films and fiction. No one’s ever denied that. And of course when the expatriates from Europe came to LA — Adorno, Thomas Mann, Schoenberg, you name it, that of course was a great time. But I must say that in terms of poetry, I don’t think that there’s ever been something like a ‘Los Angeles Renaissance’, and it has something to do with the size of it, the spaciousness of it. It’s hard to find a centre, whereas San Francisco had always had a kind of Bohemian tradition, going way, way back, and it would emerge from time to time. This goes back to the gold rush days. But the one thing that the San Francisco west coast thing doesn’t have is any kind of unanimity. On the one hand in San Francisco you have holdovers from the Beat generation, there’s a whole group of poets that are still writing kind of neo-surrealist verse. There’s a huge Latino population that’s — so you really can’t pin down what is a San Francisco poet at all. There are people who like to live in the city, and it’s a pleasant place to live.

The number of readings is remarkable, and I guess all the audience is divided up into little audiences, each of which goes to one kind of reading.

Yes. And Duncan participated in a way in the fringes of all of those things, and never centrally in any one of them. He was always on the outs with the people he was closely associated with, Jack Spicer, and company, and Spicer’s circle and Duncan’s circle, often overlapped, but there was an enormous amount of conflict between the two of them. Having to do I think with issues of poetics, but having a lot to do with issues of gay lifestyle, attitudes about gayness. I think Robert accepted his homosexuality much more easily that Spicer ever did. And one of the features of the Spicer circle was a kind of tough macho almost anti-gay attitude among a lot of gay writers. It’s funny, and I think, what I say in the book about this is that when you don’t have gay liberation, and you don’t have a gay subculture that’s valorised in the way with Castro in the seventies you had that, how do you deal with your gayness? Well, you can hide in the closet, which is a strategy, you could join the kind of official Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis, you know, older gay more conservative formats, or you can adopt what was the dominant macho culture of the day, and be anti-gay yourself, you know, cultivate a kind of bar scene heavy drinking stuff, which was part of the Spicer ethos. And for Spicer it had a metaphysical dimension in that it was a kind of competition and contention against the world that wanted to enter in and mediate and appropriate your life forces, you had to be in a state of constant contention.

And Duncan wanted — essentially, for all of his own contentiousness, he liked a domestic scene. He lived with Jess from the fifties on, he had a household which very few of the other poets in San Francisco did, a household that was centred around rituals of eating, art making, conversation, book reading. And it was a marvellous little world that he created. He would go out into the city, and often dramatically into the city, and participate. And then would always come back home. And that was part of his poetics, too. The idea, the ethos of the hearth, and the family and the poems and the stories told around the fire. And that was not just a myth, he literally lived in that world. They read to each other, music was played, art was displayed, people came over and sat at table. And for young poets, that was a very exciting thing, to be invited into this world. Because it had something of a family feel to it, without having the authoritarian and oedipal problems of the nuclear family.

Yes, but also without children, and the view of the future that they can give you. I’m wondering how much his poetry was a substitution for not having had kids of his own. Do you think there’s anything in it?

Oh, I think that’s absolutely right. In fact, in his early days, Duncan really cultivated a childhood, and there were a number of people who supported him in that. James Broughton, Madelaine Gleason, and to some extent early Spicer, Robin Blaser, when they were living in Berkeley in the forties, had almost a kind of childhood-centred poetry, a lot of it based on nursery rhymes, a lot of it based on fairy tales telling. And cultivating the child as a kind of value, much in the way that the Lake Poets and Romantic poets did. But I think for many, especially for gay writers, it was a chance to have a family that they couldn’t have had. It was a gay family that could really be gay, and be playful, and be children again. Because I think at least in Duncan’s case he grew up in what he described as being a kind of middle class conservative Theosophical household, so it was already out, it was an odd household, but as Duncan described it, it was always a kind of syncretism of Christianity, Theosophy, Egyptian mysteries, and Kiwanis Club normalcy. And he wanted out of that, and so that being a child again was something he always wanted to be.

The other thing he always wanted to be was of course an old man, and he never got to do that. He was very resentful, I think, of the fact that this illness prevented him from having his great aged period, where he could write his poems of old age, the way that Pound and to some extent Williams and others did. I remember he used to joke all the time when he was well about how much [he wanted that], he said, ‘now I just got a Senior pass, I can now ride the bus for cheap, that means that I’m going to be able to have my poems of old age, I’m going to write my late works’. And he was really excited about being able to do that. And he didn’t quite get there, although there are poems in the last book that have certain qualities of mortality recognition and physical decay and so forth that were very palpable with the illness.

And that book’s called In the Dark, isn’t it. That last book.

In the Dark is the title of the last book, yes, where he was literally in the dark, toward the end. He didn’t really write much in those last few years, I think the last poem may be dated 86, 85, something like that. He was too weak. He was in dialysis every — essentially he was in dialysis all the time, he had a kind of a window in the afternoon when he could sort of meet people from around two to four, but the rest of the time he was either sleeping to recover, or having dialysis, so it was pretty painful. [Pause in the recording.]

Of course Duncan liked to think of himself as a Romantic poet, needless to say, the Romantic tradition for him was the central literary tradition that he wanted to revive. And he thought that Romanticism was Modernism. And he was very critical of this notion that Modernism was what many people think it is, a kind of appeal to the poetic object, of the poetics of impersonality and detachment, that really became a kind of academic reading of Modernism, based largely on neo-Kantian theories that were then pulled out of Eliot’s criticism and deposited firmly in the New Criticism. And Duncan said that was the wrong term, that the focus on the well-made artefact may be a dimension of the creative imagination, but there was so much else about the creative imagination that was linked in his mind to mystery cults, the presence of polytheism, the erotic nature of Christianity that had been suppressed. And so, his whole task as a Romantic poet was not just simply to revive the Lake Poets, it was not that at all, it was to revive tradition of romance that he saw going back to the Hellenistic mysteries, and before.

And so Romanticism and Modernism were linked in Duncan’s mind as this attempt to revive the mysteries. He really saw himself as a kind of priest in the sense that H.D. thought of herself as a priestess of Isis. And so it wasn’t just a matter of poetries, although he gained, you know, much of his impetus I think from reading the Romantic poets. Seldom would he talk about Wordsworth. Shelley came into his writing on occasion. Blake was there as a kind of constant. Coleridge really is a much more powerful influence. I think less for what he said in the Biographia Literaria or in the individual poems, than from a general kind of intellectual poetical ideal. The H.D. book is in a sense Duncan’s Biographia Literaria. The H.D. book is a biography of his own entrance into Modernism through the eyes of women writers. That’s the way I read that book. It was the history of Modernism as if written by women writers, and by extension I think by women-minded male writers, homosexual writers. And the Biographia Literaria is, of course, ‘my life in letters’ for Coleridge. So I think Duncan admired that direction, not so much the kind of attempt to appropriate Kant and German idealism, but much of that feeling is in Duncan’s work.

There wasn’t much room for that sort of thinking when he was developing it, though, was there? If you look at American writing in the fifties, that’s a very isolated voice, isn’t it?

Yes, a very strange kind of voice. And I think the very fact that it was isolated made it much more poignant. You know, to rediscover someone like Blake in the midst of the new critical fifties was a kind of heretical act. And to actually write in that manner, when everybody was trying to manifest a certain kind of detached ironic posture. And here Duncan comes along writing poems like ‘The Venice Poem’ or mediaeval scenes in the fifties as Gertrude Stein imitations. There’s some very weird stuff indeed. But I think if it hadn’t been for the conservative kind of academicised New Criticism, then some of the force of something like Projective Verse wouldn’t have been felt. I mean, everybody reads Projective Verse as if it was a kind of a — oh, you know, it just comes out of Pound, and it comes out of Williams, and it’s a pastiche of this and that, that had already been there. But you have to read it in relationship to the nineteen fifties and what was going on, Randall Jarrell and Berryman and Richard Wilbur and the young Turks of the new criticism. Then when Olson talks about the opposition to closed verse, it is an opposition to a kind of metaphysical lyric that was being promulgated at that period.

Now Duncan had much more attraction in a way to that Metaphysical lyric than Olson ever did. Duncan’s poetry of the forties and fifties is massively influenced by the Metaphysicals. But he read their blank verse cadences as cadences, and as poets writing within a protestant tradition who were trying to also revive a mystical tradition. He really took Metaphysical seriously. He was not interested in a well-made poem. He was interested in the transgression of boundaries in which blank verse is the constant, and the variant is what you can do with blank verse. So it was the breaking of the vessels as opposed to the reconstituting of the vessels that Duncan was inspired by Donne and Herbert, and he wrote many imitations of Herbert and Milton. Milton he reads as a Romantic poet, the vision of Satan as a hero and all of this kind of stuff is very much in Duncan’s reading of Milton.

Also too I guess the idea of darkness against the light which you get in Milton, not only with his blindness, but with Satan in the darkness who was once an angel of light.

Oh yes, that’s right. And I think Duncan would always read that story as being a version of all the Gnostic stories about the deity that had been dispersed, as Eros had been dispersed into light, and it was up to certain Gnostics and Romantic poets to resuscitate this vastly dispersed gnosis or knowledge from its fragmentary appearance. And that’s why Duncan felt that any text was informational. Anything you touched had information, if you but gave it the full kind of theological implication of being a sign of a dispersed God. Then of course the whole world was talking to you, and so he could listen to a line by Pindar, he could listen to lines of George Herbert, he could listen to the poems of Rumi, as he does in later poems, as being voices from out there in the astral realm saying, ‘Robert, I’m coming in’. And he felt, I think, that too many poets had turned away from that inspired voice. Someone like Jack Spicer was very important, I think, in encouraging Robert to listen to the ghost voices that were coming in from outside. And the thing that Robert disagreed with in Spicer was the degree to which the individual inspiration mediated those voices. Spicer’s idea was that they had to come in more or less unmediated from the outside, and he was just an empty receptacle, and Duncan wanted to be a very active interpreter. He really loved Freud from that standpoint. An analysand’s commentary was always going into a mediating filter, which was Freud’s ability to lay out the territory. So that maybe gives Duncan too much of a Freudian valence, but it was very much his model, lots of times. The poem as a ‘talking cure’.

Yes, people see Freud as a Modernist. You have Freud and Eliot and Pound and so forth, but in fact Freud’s a Romantic when you look at him from that angle, isn’t he?

Yes. Duncan would certainly see it that way. And the very fact that Freud had a back room full of Egyptian images and things like that appealed to Duncan, as it did to H.D., who commented on that in her Tribute to Freud.

Freud also pointed out that some words can have two opposite meanings.

Yes. Well I think that’s exactly why Duncan preferred Freud over Jung, was that however much they may have shared a belief in the informational sources coming from the unconscious, the fact that Jung in a sense felt that all stories were essentially the same, in an archetypal sense, and that Freud regarded every story as being a kind of private text with word-play that was very specific to this individual. Duncan naturally had to love the Freudian side, because of its emphasis on the little narrative, the little tale. It was full of word-play and puns. The business about darkness, Duncan would obviously regard that as being a very meaningful slip of the tongue, having to do exactly with where he was at the time, and he would analyse all sorts of slips of the tongue in terms of exactly where he was at any given moment.

But he did mention to me, when I talked to him about his visit to Australia, that the thing he remembers most about it, he said, was the fact that the constellations were upside down in the wrong part of the sky, and he used to go out and look at them at night.

I’ll bet he was fascinated with that. So he would see Sagittarius, for example, which we don’t see here.

That’s right. So the dark side of the astral sphere perhaps from his viewpoint was available to him down there at the bottom of the planet.

Yes, I’m sure that a lot of his favourite metaphors would really come to light. I mean, the idea that I see the underside turning. That he could actually go to the underside and see what it looks like! Well, I think that Australian trip — this is off the subject of poetics — but the relationship that he had there in a way was his last flame, and also his recognition of his bodily age, because the man with whom he had an affair was quite a bit younger than he. And so he came back, and on the one hand he was gleeful, that he still had this attraction and attractiveness, but it also was rather poignant memento mori as well. Let’s see. Other contexts about poetics. We’ve talked a little bit about Romanticism. His relationship to art and painting of course is something that we need to say something about. Have you ever seen his drawings, by the way?

No, I haven’t.

Well, he was a remarkable illustrator. This is a collection — for the purpose of — you can’t see this on tape, of course, but he drew all the time, he had a notebook full of drawings, and Black Sparrow published this collection from his notebooks, which give some sense of his abilities. He illustrated lots of his own books, as did Jess. But you get a sense of these. Very much interested in obviously Victorian illustration. They loved Victorian art, Art Nouveau was kind of the central stylistic feature of the household, and they collected art glass and things like that. But a lot of the sort of mythological figures were so important to him. This figure here, I’ll try and describe it. There’s a woman with a big hat, possibly watering flowers, or reading, in this case reading music, but in many cases she appears reading books. And she’s called the Ideal Reader. And that’s an interesting piece of information, because the ideal reader for Duncan is not necessarily an academically trained graduate student who knows all the references, but it’s a person who reads a book for the sheer pleasure of reading. In this particular image, she’s seen reading in bed, and she’s reading a book called Flowers of the Field, obviously a very sentimental book of the sort. And here she is reading, she looks a bit like Gertrude Stein, and she’s got a very flowered drape over the table and another sort of Victorian art glass Tiffany-type lamp or vase there. So that it’s the combination of this reading sentimentally, reading for the pleasure of the sound of words, and the organic and possibly even erotic textures of Victorian art, organic textures, all combined in this one sort of aesthetic territory that Duncan liked, but anyway, you can see something of this. And being of course close to Jess was very important there. I think when he met Jess in 1950 he saw a kindred spirit. Jess loved the Romantic tradition, and loved word-play and loved visual puns, as Duncan loved verbal puns. And Jess’s work, I think you’ve seen his work before.

Collage pieces.

Collages, that were full of problems of figure and ground, and distorting in a way the ability to read surface and depth, figure and abstraction. And Duncan I think gained a great deal from looking at Jess’s work.

Yes, there seems to be a narrative there, doesn’t there, but you don’t know quite what it is. Things emerging from the darkness into light, and you’re not quite sure what the tale is that they carry.

And just like in Finnegans Wake, where you think you’ve got a handle on what a phrase is getting at, he will twist the meaning of a word or a syntactic element, so you’re often in another direction all together. And although Duncan’s drawings don’t manifest that, certainly his poems do. He liked all forms of visual art. He was particularly attracted I think to the kind of grand Romantic work, the Pindar poem is a good example — he has a painting of Goya’s, it’s in Barcelona, not one of his best known works, which is a very Romantic canvas. Of the moment when Psyche and Eros — when Eros sees that Psyche sees him, so it’s a recognition scene, and it’s when love falls in love with love. And the soul is born. And the soul is born into a kind of alienation. Well, he loved these kinds of canvasses, in which things are kind of blurry and furry. They live in — he says they exist in a landscape, but it’s a landscape in obscurity, it’s not an actual landscape.

And if you think about his poetry, you never get a distinct sense of place. He’s not like Gary Snyder, who can tell you what kind of lichen is on what kind of tree, and how the water is on the tree. Duncan’s landscapes are always a dream landscape. Eternal landscapes. They exist in paintings and things like that. He was very fond for example of California painters, Western painters, Remington, Bierstadt, and people like that, who saw California through the spectacles of a kind of luminous golden mythos of the West. And he was very attracted to paintings that took the risk of beauty at the expense of mimesis, you know. Clarity, sharp edges and forms, he respected a great deal. He loved aspects of Williams’ and Pound’s poetry, but for his own uses, it was always the part of the edge that blurred and became something else. It was the line that couldn’t be heard but two or three ways.

Yes, there’s an ambiguity always there, isn’t there.

Yes, puns, ambiguities, word-plays, were really central to his work. And I think it had something to do with the Theosophical blurring of story, where the story of Christ was really just a late version of the story of Eros. And the story of Eros was a late version of an earlier story that we don’t even know the origins of, but you’re always seeing the kind of palimpsest, the outer surface of many discourses that are kind of feeding into this one tale. How to keep the palimpsest alive, how to keep the glamour of the blurry surface going, was what he liked.

Well, there’s a tension there, I mean, you get energy out of this tension, between whether a thing is one thing or a different thing. And the urge to define a thing has to do with wishing it to be one kind of thing when it really perhaps wants to be another.


Whereas if you just write about, or paint, or construct things that have just their own identity and nothing else, once you’ve absorbed that, there’s nothing more to offer you.

Right. Yes. In fact the whole idea of writing about something never occurred to Duncan. He always had to be visited by something, you know, something took over. He would be reading, and a line would emerge, or a passage would come out which he would write in his notebook, and that would lead to something else, and he felt always that the poem was writing him. He liked that story that Levi-Strauss tells about how myth works. That there may be a teller of the tale, but the teller is always one who is receiving a tale that’s been told before him. And that mythology is always the creation of the teller in the act of telling. So it was inspiration, but you had to be the person who knew the story after all, you had to be acquainted with the stories in order to be hit by the line of Pindar. Other people will read Pindar, and it’s not going to come through, but if you have a certain kind of openness to the experience of reading Pindar, then you’ll see that in fact Pindar’s poem on a hero who has just run a race is really a retelling of a story about the primal separation of light and dark, and the development of love and eroticism. Which people like Goya and Pound and Whitman and others are equivalent receivers of.

And of course if you don’t have the learning there, then you won’t be ready to understand what it is that’s being told to you.

That’s right.

I suppose that’s why the learning becomes so important. Not so that you can say, I know this, that, and the other, but so you’ll be ready when some little thing comes along that’s important.

Yes. It’s like knowing a lot of languages. And being able to hear all the voices that are available. That’s actually a good metaphor. Duncan wanted to keep that open. That was what the ‘open field’ was, was being, not just — it was not automatic writing — I think people have the wrong impression, that it was just letting your pen go where it would. It was actually a very concentrated recognition that the way — that there are things in the field, and in front of you, and not to lose anything. If there’s a little bit of Pindar here, there might also be a bit of Goya here, and there’s a little bit of — and these associations are not to be lost, so that you go onto something else in a kind of free association. But they’re constantly being rewoven. So that his metaphors in Bending the Bow and The Passages are always metaphors of weaving and quilt-making and collage-making, because in those areas, you’re still very conscious of what you’ve said before. And you’re very conscious of what could come next. And surfaces are always there as leading you to a new surface. So it’s quite the contrary of free association. He was attracted to surrealism, because surrealism after all provided a series of strategies for opening up the unconscious, but ideas of free association were never part of Duncan’s arsenal of aesthetic terms.

Well, they don’t provide a potential formal embodiment of what may emerge. Surrealism only lets you write whatever happens to be there, in the order that it is in.


I think he was interested in form, finding a mythic shape for the thing to fall into so it would have a meaning past itself.

Good, yes.

I think though, occasionally you find people who resist the kind of writing Duncan was interested in. It has to do sometimes with the avoidance of the issues of the modern world that it appears to embody. Modernism, on the one hand, says we now exist in the modern world, God is dead, we are surrounded by machinery, let’s take this on at its own value. Duncan appeared to say that that was not the case, in fact that the gods still exist. Well, in literal terms they don’t. How do you justify building a poetic theory on what most people would call a fantasy?

Well, Duncan would love to hear you say that, because of course he would say, well you’re just a prime example of how secular humanism has taken over and has warped your mind. You see, you can’t even think about the gods. In the literal sense it is true that the gods are dead. Well, we may believe this, but Duncan would not have accepted this, and he would use your statement as a prime example of what was wrong. I think that’s exactly why people have trouble reading him, and it’s why I have trouble writing about him, because I don’t share the same cosmological views, but I guess the idea of the numinous was translated in my generation into the idea of the ideological. The ideological was also something that inhabits everything, and produces things. Ideology is something that emerges in the unconscious to create, in a sense, a kind of political unconscious. And so, while the gods may be dead, but the ideology is there, and that is an informing power in poetry. And you can play with that, and you can work with that. That’s the difference, I think, between Duncan’s generation and ours. It’s that extremely conscious sense about immanence, not going back to an otherworldly source, but rather to a source very much made by the world and by individuals in the world in a classic Marxist sense, I suppose, trying to establish relationships to an economy that you can have no control over, yet negotiate with it. But negotiation is another metaphor for a kind of field process poetry, it is your ability to deal with a power that is larger than yourself. And get some kind of voice in there, that’s not a voice that says, I’m helpless, I can’t do anything against it.

But it’s moving from a religious to a political perspective of the world, and both of those views of the world have to do with the power of the individual and the power of the collective. It is the same thing, and yet it’s the opposite. I would think that in a contemporary world the political view would be the one that would triumph in the end, and the religious view will always die back more and more each year. Do you think then that Duncan’s work might come to be more ignored as the years go by, just because he appears to grow out of a religious view of the world?

It’s so hard to say, because of course the reading of poetry is so governed by factors beyond the literary. I mean, why do people have — why are they revived from time to time? Think about (for example) the way feminism is asking us to read a lot of works that a few years ago would have been called sentimental claptrap, written to satisfy the most vulgar tastes of readership. Now all of a sudden we’re reading them very closely, and complexly for the production of a female subject in the nineteenth century, let’s say. And it’s a very valid way of reading, I think it’s essential. Why is it that for example Poe for so many years is completely rejected, now he’s a really central figure. Why Poe — does that have something to do with the fact that French theory has been so interested in Poe? Could be that.

I think that Duncan’s work will come back, not because we’re going to have a return to religion, or that may happen, but it may have something to do with reconsiderations of things like gesture, and physicality, and morality, that once we’ve gotten away from the poststructural critique of voice and presence and so forth, in a way presence will come back as a kind of exotic thing in the way that fifties hair styles and cars come back. So, any poet seems to have the possibility of being revived down the line, and I think Duncan has such interesting material to get into, that once when people do make this move back to Duncan, it’ll be a fun time. It’ll be very interesting.

Because he was a learned poet, and in many ways less doctrinaire than Olson was, in fact far less doctrinaire than Olson was. I think Olson was attractive to people immediately because he had ideas, he had a vision of what went wrong in America, you knew exactly how Olson felt about everything, there were good guys and bad guys, good books and bad books. Duncan didn’t have any of those boundaries, so in a way he was harder for people looking for boundaries to accept. But maybe through the eclecticism that’s being opened up in poetry, multi-voiced qualities in writing, Duncan’s multi-voice qualities will be attractive. I don’t see it right now, but down the line. The Romantics may be rediscovered for all sorts of interesting reasons. But maybe it’ll be the side of the Romantics that was heretical, politically oppositional, and in that case Duncan will come back. He’s had a big following within the gay community because he was early on such a proponent of the idea of coming out of the closet and declaring yourself, and identifying homosexuality with a long tradition of radical political figures. So those will be other contexts in which Duncan will be read.

I was delighted to find Ekbert Fass’s biography of Duncan, Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society, in Dalton’s Bookstore in Greenwich Village in New York, in the Sex Education section!

[laughs] Duncan would love it!

Is there anything else about Duncan that you might want to bring up?

Well, who are the logical sons and daughters of Robert Duncan? I was talking with Michael Palmer about this the other day, and we were trying to think of who would be the people we most associate with Duncan in the younger generation, the younger meaning our generation or younger — and John Taggert comes to mind as a figure. Do you know his work? He’s built on one aspect, kind of a ritualistic and performative quality in Duncan’s work. I think a number of young writers — David Levi Strauss would be one example, and someone on the other hand like Jed Rasula or Charles Stein, to some extent, who studied with Robert Kelly, also are interested in, you know, Duncan the Magus, the learned poet in the study mastering the world cosmological literatures, and theologies, this certainly would be — these would be poets that come from Duncan, as well as from the Olson line of things. Ron Johnson was very close to Duncan, and much of his lyric mode has a Duncan-like quality.

But in a way, unlike Olson or Creeley, where the derivatives are very clearly marked in terms of lineation and subject matter and so forth, the Duncanians (among which I think of myself, as being much influenced by him) there’s no stylistic markers that look like Duncan. Maybe in my own case an absolute interest in what he called the tone leading of vowels, a quality of assonance that vowel music is central to Duncan’s measure. The conscious attempt to find all the patterns of broad and short ‘o’s in a line, that becomes a very central feature. I think many of us have inherited those kinds of interests. But programmatically as an imitation of Duncan, in a way there’s only Duncan, just like there’s only one Emily Dickinson, or only one Paul Celan. One-of-a-kind writers. It’s hard to be like them, without being a horrible parody. So that’s in a way useful to be the last poet of your own tradition. Although his links to Pound — I taught a Pound seminar last quarter, and I found lots of moments, qualities of movement and association in Pound, which I identified with Duncan. And Duncan was a devout reader of Pound.

Yes, I can see the kind of collage way that Pound puts things together, being related to Robert Duncan’s work — the fact that you don’t need to explain the connection between this, then this, then this. You just put them there.

It’s almost as if Duncan is almost what Pound might have become, had Pound been willing to maintain the mediaeval voice of his early poems, into the Cantos, with a greater trust of the high tone, the Browningesque tone, perhaps. Or what would Pound offer as mediaeval. ‘Hang it all! all this our South stinks peace... You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!’ [Ezra Pound, ‘Sestina: Altaforte’] Not that Duncan ever sounded like that. It was the attraction of mediaevalism that Duncan and Pound shared.

That was in the air when Pound was writing that, though, wasn’t it? It’s not that he decided to do it, it’s that it was a fashionable thing to do, to look into Provençal verse at that time, it wasn’t that Duncan —

That’s right. Duncan looked into every kind of literature at some point in his career, so there’s no way in terms of other cultural traditions finding one that was more dominant than another. Although his return to the Hellenistic period and late Greek writers, and also to the pre-Socratics, that’s a very strong kind of impetus. He was always looking for first things. So if you could find the first example of something, then you were touching base with the original mystery. But as much as he liked first things, he also liked their destruction or their transformation or revision, in a period of syncretism. So that the Hellenistic period in the first centuries AD were periods of times when eastern and western religions were mixing, and you had this — and he loved the Renaissance cosmographers and alchemists, you know, John Dee, and people like that. Muddied the waters a great deal. I mean, he was no classicist. Not much interest in the pure straight line of classical Greeks that H.D. liked. Duncan shared H.D.’s interest in hermetic mysteries and things like that, they were one of a kind, but there was that early period, H.D. loved the straight line, you know, the spare quality of classical tragedy and sculpture, but I think that Duncan much more related to H.D.’s syncretic light, as I think he did to Pound. I mean, a work like Spirit of Romance is really a central text for Duncan. These works that identified the phantom dawn of romance, the Spirit of Romance was really that, a spirit kind of... almost a metaphysical quotient that was in the air.

I suppose with his interest in things Greek you’d have to call him Alexandrian rather than anything else.

Exactly. He was an Alexandrian, Hellenistic.

Postscript, February 9, 2005: Reading this interview from 1989 is a bittersweet experience because it brings back the kind of excitement that Duncan’s work inspired in many of us, and it reminds me of a time when his work was the catalyst for conversations among poets on several continents. But in the interim — a period of over fifteen years — we still do not have a standard edition of Robert Duncan’s work, while we have standard editions of practically every member of his generation. The most significant book of Duncan’s to appear in this period has been the Collected Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov from Stanford University Press. This collection chronicles a vital relationship between two major poets of the New American poetry, and it also is one of the best surveys of Cold War poetics through the emergence of the feminist movement. In the absence of an edition of Duncan’s collected poems and, most significantly, The H.D. Book, he has been almost completely erased from serious critical commentary. What I describe as a difficulty of the vatic voice in 1989 now becomes a difficulty of access to Duncan’s voice at all. And this absence is tragic at a moment when “America’s unacknowledged, unrepented crimes” are being revisited in the Iraqi desert. And of course, one wonders what Duncan would have made of the wit and wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld.

— M.D.

Michael Davidson photo

Michael Davidson

Michael Davidson is professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century (Cambridge University Press, 1989), Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (University of California Press, 1997) and Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (University of Chicago, 2003). He is the editor of The New Collected Poems of George Oppen (New Directions, 2002). He is the author of eight books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Arcades (O Books, 1998). With Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, and Ron Silliman, he is the co-author of Leningrad (Mercury House Press, 1991)

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