This interview is
or about 12 printed pages long.
You can read Michael Davidson on Robert Duncan in this issue of Jacket.
¶ John Tranter: How long were you in Australia? [Robert Duncan had visited Australia in the mid 1970s.]
Robert Duncan: Well I was staying — I think that my ticket allowed me 29 days, almost a month, and I was in residence in Western Australia, at the University there.
And I also had four days or so in Adelaide. I had only a couple of days in Melbourne. And the rest of the time I was in Sydney staying with the Adamsons — it was evidently a fairly stable period for the Adamsons [poet Robert Adamson and his wife Cheryl.] But it was not what I’d call stable, but it was stable. They had a — Cheryl had gotten a suburban cottage sort of house — that would be impossible to really be bohemian about — they were about as bohemian as you could move in, they were like squatters, living like squatters in it, but it was — it had like a real bathroom and a real kitchen, and so forth —
¶ I was working in Brisbane [Brisbane, Australia, five hundred miles away] at the time you came through Australia. Did you give readings?
Robert Duncan, San Francisco, 1985.
Photo John Tranter
Yes, I gave readings in Sydney at different galleries, and yes, I gave some talks or readings, a series of three or something like that, at the University. Then in Melbourne I met with poets one night, they have a poetry club, I gave — but in Adelaide that had been planned, and I met with students and had a reading at the University there, and then I was also visiting lecturer at the University in Perth in Western Australia.
¶ So you saw a lot of the place.
It was a wonderful experience, because I really romanticised Australia. The one thing I was sure I was going to see, and then didn’t notice it — I did not, any of the time I was there, did I really look down when the water was running out of the sink to see if it ran in the opposite direction! And I was sure when I left, that that was going to be the most impressive thing.
¶ I can’t even remember which direction it’s supposed to run in anyway.
And I did have a long walk with myself for about three or four hours, on a wonderful clear night, when I was in Adelaide. I got pissed off at a party at about one in the morning, set out — one of those moods where you show everybody that they were just unbearable. And so I did see the Southern sky, which I had been dreaming of, talking about, knew what I was looking for in it, and so forth. So that was exciting. Yet most of the time I didn’t, and not any more that what I am here, was I thinking about what stars am I under. At Stinson Beach, [approximately twenty miles north of San Francisco] when we were on the coast here, we did a lot of — that’s where I learned the constellations. It was on evening walks, and there you’d only have to really be keeping company with one constellation, and you got absolutely familiar with it, you’d then take another one. And they gradually fit the sky together. And that was — when I went, I thought every night I will do this, and by the time I got home I will have seen the Southern sky.
¶ The only constellation I know there is the Southern Cross. The only one that you need to orient yourself.
Yes, that’s the first thing, like the Big Dipper here, the North polar star. Orion you’d see, that’s high in the sky and I think it’s probably seen in both hemispheres. [....] I found Australia very exciting. Sydney’s so much like San Francisco, there’s a great deal of — because when I’m away, mostly I get homesick for hills.
¶ For hills?
Yes. And because, well, so that even in Europe, a city like Lisbon that’s on the banks of a river, the banks of the river, or Sydney has banks going down to the bay — that give just enough of the impression to give me a feel that it could be home. And Sydney doesn’t have any — I wondered whether I was going to miss mountains, because mountains are right on top of us. And I didn’t really. I didn’t — travelling by plane, your most impressive thing about your continent, was that the middle is all that pancake griddle of flatlands.
¶ Empty and dry.
Yes, it was not — that doesn’t really add up. I mean any more than our long space of grain lands add up, if you were passing over kind of monotony for ever, before you got to more interesting detail. But hills and valleys in San Francisco mean that within the city, you have a whole set of different micro-climates, and you have the same thing socially. You’ve got — the North Beach area, when the Beats really took over, and — I used to be an old bohemian, and I saw a lot of it, when it was the bohemian quarter — but as the Beats took it over, bohemia disappeared, and along the Haight-Ashbury — because the new phase was the drug phase, and that doesn’t rhyme with — bohemian living before was how do you live cheap. And that’s not drugs.
¶ Right. I hadn’t added that up.
But there’s a long tradition in San Francisco, bohemian living in the — so it moves to different areas of the city, which you can always do, because there’s always another valley. And that —
¶ That’s right, you can move over the hill into a new valley, and start all over again —
[Interrupting] And I always say, if you’re breaking up with someone, you could live an entirely new life by just moving over the hill to the next valley. But Jess and I are very stable here, we’ve lived in this house for nineteen years now it is, we’ve been here nineteen years, and before we lived on Twentieth Street, up above, when we were renting, we lived for three years or so in addition to that, once we came to Stinson Beach.
¶ How far away is Stinson Beach?
It is about — maybe fifty miles north on the coast [actually twenty], but it is a mountain road instead of a freeway. Once you leave the freeway — it may be that way still — it goes through a park, so they’re not permitted to widen the road, or to do intensive road work on it, and all of a sudden you come over to an area of coast that looks like it did look in the thirties. And that coastal California which is disappearing rapidly (because everything becomes a suburb now) I loved. Although we don’t drive, neither Jess nor I have a car nor drive one, so that we were isolated at Stinson. We could take a bus, there was one bus a day that came into town, and one bus a day that went out to Stinson.
¶ Was that a good thing? You’d be able to write and think.
Yes, in that period it was a good thing. But I think our main — Jess — it wasn’t such a good thing for Jess, because as a collagist he goes around two or three times a week collecting material here, you have to be at it all the time. Because the second hand refuse shops, like St Vincent de Pauls and the Salvation Army are stripped right away of anything that somebody can sell in an antique store. And there’s a lot of difference with what he can find when he’s there all the time, and what he would find if he just goes out and orders them. In a single quest, he’d be usually disappointed. And so, coming in meant that was one of the reasons I think that we came in. It also of course — Jess had been isolated from people seeing his work, and while the dealer that took him over, the New York-Rome dealer, would have driven out to Stinson to see his work at the time, would not have been, I don’t think he would have been as open a show. Here [in San Francisco] he is absolutely available. The main thing of moving into town, the negative thing, was that we all — we knew that once we moved into town then — I was able to be outside of the poetry groups that were going on, and they were as busy as they could be with various — demanding my loyalty, loyalty or opposition or whatever they did — but when we did move into town, we were more isolated here than we were at Stinson. Stinson — everybody would arrive for the weekend, and spend the weekend on the shore. And so Jess and I really had much less — this house, we walk in, and it’s not — there are no droppers-in. Our own dispositions have done that over the years too.
¶ Well I guess if you wanted it you could arrange it.
Oh, sure. Open house!
¶ But on the other hand, you never get any work done then, because —
Well in the era when we first moved into this house, an open house was a pad, I mean, hosts would be here to sleep it out. Or to live it up and then sleep it out. Once we no longer had or maintained any kind of open house, I began to retain a few books, instead of having them all disappear from the shelves.
¶ I suppose you could buy them back again in the second hand book shop, if you wanted to —
Yes, right. I remember one morning in North Beach seeing Wieners and Joe Dunn with a wheelbarrow filled with the last properties of Joe Dunn. They’d just — within two weeks of going on heroin, they had sold everything — every single — stripped themselves to their underwear practically, and they were just thorough schizie [schizophrenic] victims of it, they were both of them in hospital for the criminally insane... half a year.
¶ That’s very quick.
Well they went on, and in the case of Joe Dunn, when I came to see , I mean I had just barely — someone brought news that Joe Dunn was on... hashish — and I — not on hashish, on heroin, and I came in and realised, I remember, I realised I couldn’t do anything, because I was afraid of heroin. I mean I had nothing but my superstitions about it, so I couldn’t be talking from experience.
¶ I think you were right.
And I was really sort of — same with — Wieners used to sort of snap out of his schizophrenia even, when I came to read at Buffalo, because they were used to — days when there were my students, and would — in other words they would go on good behaviour, but... So the next step where I’d see them they wouldn’t even know it was me, so I could give up on that!
¶ You teach at the moment at the New College [of California] ...
Yes. And we’ve really got a wonderful — and I no longer teach anything other — of course it’s poets who turn up for those courses, but they’re — they’re in poetics, and we don’t aim at turning out — have nothing to do with poems at all. First thing they learn when they come to sign up is that they’re not going to have their manuscripts read. Because we’re really concerned with theory, and turning out — I’d like to turn out a generation of critics that would supplant the totally uninformed critics that write about poetry now. And so there are a couple of poets who learned — it’s just about the proportions. Some poets can learn to write criticism, and that’s really the best of all, but others do learn to write — scholars learn to write a good paper, because I insist on — that their research and their scholarliness isn’t enough — I insist on their personal relation to their own writing. And that’s what — to be able to talk about it, talk about a poem and get across your feeling about it, and to be able to write about it, and explicate, show what it is. Always show what it is you are coming from, instead of making a search into and squeezing the poem into, which I call, a critic that makes a shoe, and then complains about the feet that don’t go in it.
How much to go [fly] to Australia now?
¶ Fifteen hundred bucks return, something like that, I think you can get economy. If you do go, though, I strongly advise if you can get a day or two stopover in Honolulu just to break the trip.
I stopped off in Fiji for three days and so when I got to Sydney I wasn’t in jet lag. You know, I looked before I went, I looked at the map, and I saw, and I wrote to the University, I looked at the list of universities and wrote to the University of South Pacific, and got an invitation to be resident there for three days, and that solved my problem of where do I stop off.
¶ Well that’s exactly what I did on the way over here.
I tried Honolulu, but Honolulu’s never bit for me. Fiji was very good. It’s just so expensive for you [Australians] to get anywhere, and so you are literally isolated, can’t go on an impulse.
¶ People often compare Australia with Canada, who have similar backgrounds and so on in some ways. Canada’s right here, next door, and it’s really anxious about the American influence, but in Australia we feel far enough away from everything not to be worried about it too much.
We had our first big conference in Vancouver, and we hadn’t had one in the United States at that point. It was the first time any three of us had been together in the same place, same time. And —
¶ Who was together?
Ginsberg, Creeley, myself, Olson. Was Wieners there? But Denise Levertov, it was great fun.
Robert Creeley has written ‘The landmark 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference (at the University of British Columbia) was almost entirely Warren Tallman’s remarkable invention, bringing together for the first time a decisive company of then disregarded poets such as Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Margaret Avison, Philip Whalen and myself, together with as yet unrecognized younger poets of that time, Michael Palmer, Clark Coolidge and many more.’ — letter to the University of Buffalo Poetics (email discussion) List, Tue, 5 Jul 1994.
The Duncan-Creeley-Olson-Ginsberg discussions at Vancouver in 1963 can be listened to at
Duncan’s and other readings at Vancouver are at
And the generation that are — the new generation now in Australian poetry, they don’t — their first work was put down as being just American influence, and especially — Toronto and Montreal [in the east of Canada ] were phobic toward Vancouver poetry. It was the first time a western poetry arose there. And we of course had the battle that we were the very first time there has been any current poetry in San Francisco. Before that it was hick poetry and, you know, like... George Sterling, who was never a — well, Robinson Jeffers, on the coast was about all, and Rexroth was here, but he was isolated, really, so that some people on the East had a — people who read — well, you can ferret out people who read poetry as such, and pay no attention to east and west, because that was certainly true of the ones who were admiring Rexroth and following — realising what the qualities of his mind were — were not these ones who set over, can immediately detect that the poet has or has not gone to the correct finishing schools — the correct procedures would be the ones that Lowell pursued, that would be the top, you could walk in with your own guarantee from the very beginning.
¶ What were those procedures?
Well, the first place, that the Lowells were a literary family. And the second place, that Lowell went to — did he go to Choate, he went to Kenyon. He went to Kenyon which was also another prestige, small prestige eastern campus. And in that period Kenyon really left a stamp on a poet, because Alan Tate and John Crowe Ransom were there and Kenyon was the place, The Kenyon Review [founded by Ransom], and right close to the Southern Review. And that led — so between them and the Columbia boys at Partisan Review, they were ruling the roost in the thirties.
¶ Lowell went there in the late thirties, early forties?
¶ So when he moved to —
But his poetry was already known by then — his poetry was already known by 1940, ‘41. But then after all he was in prison as a conscientious objector for a period. But it’s when he came out it was the high water mark of Lowell. And then he was around Harvard, so he had the Harvard — Lowells have — the Creeleys also were a Harvard family. And Creeley would have had that, but then he had the hostility of somebody who got kicked out of Harvard, just for climbing the flagpole or something. But he was the first Creeley in five generations who hadn’t graduated from Harvard. And that was spread around, so that his work was paid attention to as — with the general idea that he was a boy really gone wrong!
¶ He was a rebel.
First notice I ever saw of Creeley’s name in any form of print, was in the early Paris Review or the predecessor for Paris Review, where Donald Hall warned that there was a really dangerous apparition appearing by the name of Creeley, and then there was two, he was saying all of a sudden Creeley is Jehovah — Horace, Olson and Creeley — abominates Olson and Creeley.
¶ I think that’s exactly what they needed.
Oh, God, what we went through, and we still can go through, in relation to Creeley. People say that they’re dinky little poems — that they’re funny. I have a very short fuse, so I do very poorly in Creeley arguments, although I’ve written a couple of decent essays, but the arguments I used to go through, I really — but then my only reaction would be to turn red in the face, and realise that I’m too frail to undertake an axe murder, because I’d probably get it myself — and stomp out.
¶ What about your own work, when you have to defend that.
My own work is sort of Loki-like. It thrives on doing what I anticipate the enemy is sure I am going to do. (laughs)
¶ And getting away with it.
Yes, finding out what it is. If you tell me there shouldn’t be rhetoric, I want to do rhetoric and find out — well, although it’s always something that I’ve responded to. But they tried — the main thing I remember is that when I was in college, they tried to shame me for my liking of — for example, the one thing in America I get shamed for, is that I’m an enthusiast for Dame Edith Sitwell. Well, that — if that’s cooled down at all, it’s because I get nothing but cold water poured on it every time I undertake to readdress it. But, it’s the rhetorical in Pound and Sitwell and Stevens that I particularly was drawn toward. And I didn’t see any sense at all, in anything but a kind of puritanical distaste for any form of boisterous behaviour. Although all of us nearly puked Dylan Thomas and our own magazines began with a really snide attack on Roethke. But I never did respond to Roethke anyway, so it must be a mixture of things.
¶ What about Berryman, who had a later development than Lowell, but who was obviously related to what Lowell was doing. How did you feel about his work?
Oh, it was so filled with bathos, so there is that streak, definite streak I’ve got about self pity and I’ve had a few — some of the periods that I’ve not brought into print, of my poetry from around ‘49 to ‘50, the poetry after Caesar’s Gate, I can’t bear to collect it because it’s filled with whimpering — and so I can be embarrassed by my own feelings that I disapprove of. And in the case of Berryman, I really disapprove by the time he was doing — the most intriguing thing of all was the Dream Sonnets that I read. I looked forward to that, and began reading avidly, but soon the Dream Sonnets went off into a very cheapjack self parody, and I thought oh, how easy! — this is sick.
¶ The tone is so distinctive, isn’t it.
Yes. And self-mocking interests me in poetry, but his was the kind of begging-questions self mocking. Anyway, we have one student, finally — in our program [at New College], if a student undertakes a paper on this poet, then I have to read that, and we have to read it seriously, we don’t ask them to develop a particular taste, but to explicate in full what the content of the poetry is. And we did have a session in there where we really got into the Dream Sonnets, everybody reading them carefully, and asking what’s going on in them. Which only reinforced my seeing that I would — . It’s the character of Berryman that is — no stoic character to it at all, it folds up and is what Lawrence used to call ‘Willy Wet-leg’ before it’s gone very far. And yet you can come across all the psychological reasons in the world for why it should be whimpering.
¶ What about a writer like Cavafy, whom I would have thought —
[Interrupting] Oh yes, well Cavafy, it seems to me that Cavafy seems to be, he’s after, I think everybody receives him as classic, but he doesn’t load off on us some kind of self-pity.
¶ It interests me in that his effects work well, for me, when there’s this tension between his wanting to reveal self-pity on the one hand and his refusal to do so on the other, and there’s this interesting [pull back and forth...]
[Interrupting] — well I think that the thing is that I think of a poem as being quite an achievement when it achieves a balance, and it’s very clear that Berryman didn’t. I mean only here and there do we have even a touch of the — he isn’t fierce enough to be an Alexander Pope all the way through. And — ah...
¶ Yes, that’s a hard thing to manage right through. To be a Pope, you have to be born Pope to do that.
He’d like to be cuddled and whipped at the same time. Consoled, wants a consolation prize at the other end of it. Well anyway, there was not, no — The other thing is of course, we were merciless towards the poetry. Nearly — for instance Berryman is I think my contemporary in literal years. Lowell is less than a year older than I am. And I would have been of their generation, except that trying to write in the style that was emerging, that they emerged in, successfully, was so — ahhh... and would never hit anything that was like a voice in it. And so I also blame the whole tide. That’s why I came in late on the scene. Olson comes very late on the scene. But, in relation to Black Mountain, I’m another five years older than Creeley, or Denise, and those are just the difference between the generation of Lowell and Berryman. And of course, most grotesque of all was Anne Sexton [1928 — 1974]. Makes you want to give her a quick double Mickey Finn and have her die before she died. Yet, yet, my feeling with Sylvia Plath was that — because the poems that she was most famous for, like the Daddy-O poem, seemed to me to have the same, very much like Berryman, grotesque — something not in balance. Yet the last poems of the ‘beehives’ are absolutely haunting. Bring up questions that all of us have fought for personal stamina character was (?).
¶ I suppose one of the things that people like about some American poetry is that it’s over-balanced in a particular direction, so you get a spill of energy pouring off the page.
¶ I think they feel that that’s a sign of energy, because it spills out.
Well especially though it can be felt within most of the rest of the English world, where you are more bottled up.
¶ Yes, I think that’s what we liked about the Americans. They let it all out, and that this was exhilarating —
[Interrupting] I love the phrase that is told in the (?), ancient man, journalist, who thought up the term ‘Australian Cringe’ back in the twenties.
Cultural Cringe: A term denoting a characteristically colonial deference towards the cultural achievements of others, was coined by the literary critic and schoolmaster, A.A. Phillips in the Australian literary quarterly Meanjin in 1950.
¶ Cultural cringe.
Cultural cringe. Yes. I more than understood that, because Californians have their own version of the cultural cringe.
¶ It’s a long way to New York. And New York [is where all the publishers are...]
[Interrupting] New York can really make you feel it. It’s the lode (load?) that you got there.
¶ Yes, they certainly burn things up quickly in New York. One of the things I was struck by when I was looking through Ground Work that I think is interesting in an obvious way, the great variety of things that you address, and the variety of tones that you use to address them in.
Yes. I always occupy as wide a — often the lead to a period of poems will be — opening up an entirely different address. Then I know I’m not back in the same — although the wideness of the groove is one that can repeat. But it’s not done because I’m afraid of repetition, it’s done because I’ve still got — I think I have more of an idea of poetry. Olson was — like whoever thought a poetry reading is constantly being improved, and you’ve disposed of literature, well I absolutely think a
poem should be thought of entirely apart from literature. In the literature there still are poems, and when a whole period becomes critically incapable of response, let’s say, to William Morris’s love poetry, then my fighting dander is up, and I take it on.
¶ And the Metaphysicals?
[Interrupting] Usually these are things, most of these — the Metaphysical Suite, that’s it, I usually take on the things that I myself have censored in myself. And in the beginning of reading poetry, for me it was in the thirties, and I — and everybody was reading Metaphysicals, Donne and so forth.
¶ Yes, that was Eliot’s influence to a large extent.
And then I went back and read through the period, but it was really not a selection of mine, I took the Penguin Anthology of Metaphysical Verse, and I can’t remember who it is, and outside of the Johnson (Jonson?) , all the rest of them come from that. That was sort of the rules of the game, and so I was really, once I was in it, I went from the beginning to the very last Metaphysical poem I could find which was — And then it was like a jigsaw puzzle, because when I came to the last one, and there I was, that ‘Hymn to the Night’, and that’s the way the poem itself was going, the other part of the poem, the received part, emerges in this clearer and clearer so that the end of the poem, it really came as a wonderful coda for me, and that picking up and returning to that night theme. And that night theme anticipates the place I’m at in the second volume now, with a poem called — a prose piece that really is not exactly a poem, because it doesn’t have the — that’s one thing that bothers me about it, it doesn’t have a rhythmic base, you can almost see in the proposition why it wouldn’t. It’s called ‘Hecatombs’. And it came in a dream of — for the last four years we were reading the Iliad in Greek and were not studying it, so that it’s only now that we begin to have a vocabulary, so that we [are] actually reading rather than taking our Liddell and Scott [a Greek-English lexicon] and word by word piecing it together.
hecatomb, n.: (in ancient Greece and Rome) a public sacrifice of 100 oxen to the gods. Any great slaughter: ‘the hecatombs of modern wars’. Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.
In the dream, the soldier on my right hand side is shot, and his head shattered, and I turned to the soldier on my left, and said, ‘there’s another one for the hecatombs of Apollo’. And the soldier on my left said ‘yes, in every battle, in the thousands in every battle, there are a hundred that’ll dedicate themselves to Apollo’. And that hecatomb will go to Apollo. And there are a hundred that will dedicate themselves to — ah... — the scary one was the third one, because there are a hundred that will dedicate themselves to Hecate, and Hecate and that hecatomb goes to the outer bounds of the physical universe, to await the total destruction of creation. There’s a lovely charming picture. [Hecate: n. Class. Myth. a goddess of the earth and Hades, associated with sorcery, hounds, and crossroads.]
And then in the aftermath of that, in the dream, I realised that there was a level before any subconscious level of any kind, a level that I could know only by rumour, or be told about it, in the dream, that was absolute darkness, and in that absolute darkness I was black stone. And that’s come over and over again in poems. It’s something that, some people, a couple of people have taken an approach of how much my childhood folklore enters my poetry, and found over and over again, it may be a fantasy of being Merlin, but another guy suggested that it was — in other words, those figures that were turned to stone, and a stone that doesn’t feel, that doesn’t hear, that doesn’t see — and... A voice came and said, ‘I’ve given you a cat in the dark’, and I realised that meant that all along the top of my body, this stone body of mine, was a huge cat, and its electric purring was the only feeling that was entering the stone.
Robert Duncan and cat, 1985. Photo John Tranter
So I don’t know what that means at all, it’s too much to be an incidental — an incident of a poem. But it indicates about where it is. No wonder I’m having a time about what will — because there always is, the other thing that takes place in my volumes is that they have a very funny form of autobiography. They’re like a psychoanalysis that if psychoanalysis weren’t interested in your sex life or your psyche life or something. I tend to respond to psyche life as my parents would have, so it’s an adventure in itself, and very much coloured by Theosophical writings that I never had to get, myself, because I was raised surrounded by this, so that if I revert at all I find myself back into what I was taught before I was reading or writing.
¶ What were those things?
Well, it was very much like — pursuits like Yeats’s, there’s no finality to it. But that was the direction, my grandmother was a very powerful mind, and always a student of — she belonged to a Hermetic brotherhood, that is they also followed, once Mead translated the Hermetica, these little groups would form, and take the Hermetica instead of the Bible for their book. [See George Robert Stowe Mead, Thrice Great Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis, Volume II (London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1906).]
¶ Did you ever feel, like a lot of adolescents do, that you have to rebel against the things that your parents stood for, break away, reject?
Again, I just broke away.
¶ Just broke away.
¶ And you came back to it eventually?
Well, I came, when I came back to it — I said it was isolated, because the level of which things like Hermetic studies takes place in America is about as informed as any fundamentalist church group — in other words, they were, what my parents took literally, I took as the beginning of metaphor, and that’s just the difference.
Fundamentalism is blocked metaphor. The reason there is a fundamentalism is because it is intolerable that there could be any metaphoric readings, and so you become — then you search for a literalism that must be there. There must be just one thing on the page, and that happens in occultism as much as anything else, because if it’s metaphor, then — it’s often a misunderstanding of the metaphorical role in poetry, because poetry — if the poem’s only carrying a single truth, then what is the point of poetry? You can get a stone and chisel the sentence on it. And it still will be immutable, and behaviour that is immutable is — Yeats I think was looking for a stable or immutable principle — and while the quest is very informing, if you feel you’ve got them already, it’s really deforming, no matter what they are.
¶ The Australian poet Martin Johnston said that he didn’t write poems to communicate things to anyone. If you want to communicate, he said, use the telephone.
Yes, right. Well, communion is probably what a poem is. It still has to do with — because a poem, I don’t think a poem thrives either if you have a private language, because you’re actually taking something — the place that limits a poem is the poet’s imagination, not of his own world, but his imagination of the world of readers, since he’s writing. If you weren’t writing, it wouldn’t be important, but writing reading is itself an occupation that is dependent upon the person writing imagining different kinds of readers, not that they’re going to like it, or need it. But you imagine different ways of people not understanding, and you imagine different ways of people objecting, and so forth. Which is the dramatic extension in a lot of contemporary poetry when it’s a place for the poet — when it is taken for granted that the poem is a value in itself and an exceptional one, then, it begins to be — quite a number of people who have no imagination, really write in complete default of whether anybody’s going to be interested.
¶ Yes, you have to have enough imagination —
[Interrupting] It doesn’t have to be some particular person. The imagination can after all imagine — you can imagine a series of circumstances in which this is a message. But if it’s such a patent message as the communication you write, the telephone or anything else —
¶ Telegrams —
Right, yes. Absolutely.
¶ Smoke signals. So, there’s some material in that book too is very collage, contemporary, it deals with [a lot of scenes...]
[Interrupting] Well, a lot of it is I think influenced by how much — even our décor is not décor, it’s collage, things brought from all over. And this way it really reverts to the crowded Victorian room that all the modern period objected to.
¶ Exactly. I was trying to think what it was, it’s Victorian.
In one of those poems, I say for instance, Mondrian and Brancusi are sentiments in this household. And that’s not where they started out to be.
¶ Very good.
A Mondrian would be a good example of fundamentalist art that was immediately apprehended as metaphorical.
¶ Absolutely. And he worked in primary colours [too...]
[Interrupting] And so when we think about modern we think of Mondrian. But he didn’t mean that, he meant that we’re supposed to just be living in those primary colours. Specially — it was sort of a shock to find out what an intolerant picture he had. He believed that poetry and painting — there would no longer be poetry and painting once you had a reasonable — it’s a great guarantee, because it means that we’ll always be there — once you had a reasonable civilisation, then people wouldn’t need them, so he saw them as an — and he saw his
paintings as really the last desperate need in which everything in the contemporary period is so totally awry, that it’s a valiant enough thing to establish the horizontal wherever your painting is hanging, so that they’ll at least know what the horizon line is, and what the vertical through it is! In a period of total disorientation, you paint total orientation.
¶ It’s a kind of Platonism in a way, isn’t it, to say that a society will emerge, in the end [that won’t need poets....]
[Interrupting] This is like philosophy over... and Mondrian was a superb artist, as all of us, unfortunately, for him, if he thinks that he was doing that, saw him as immediately useful and decorative.
¶ He was absorbed instantly.
All the linoleum in Europe and in the United States were in Mondrian and Van Doesberg and so forth designs. [Piet Mondrian (Netherlands, 1972-1944) and Theo van Doesberg (Netherlands, 1883-1931)] All squares and so forth. You see that, before we really saw the canvasses, and the full thing with their buildings, every single aspect of the buildings were built to keep everybody in line, literally in line.
it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be
stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose
This material is copyright © John Tranter and the estate of the late Robert Duncan and Jacket magazine 2004
The Internet address of this page is