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Robert Duncan

Ten Prose Pieces, 1945 to 1978

transcribed and edited by Robert J. Bertholf and James Maynard. © The Literary Estate of Robert Duncan. This piece is 12,000 words or about 16 printed pages long.
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Ten Prose Pieces: Contents

link [1.] What to Do Now (1945)
link [2.] The Epic Concept of James Joyce (1946)
link [3.] Reviewing View, An Attack (1947)
link [4.] A Little Story for Mary Fabilli (1951)
link [5.] From a Notebook (1954)
link [6.] Notes (1955)
link [7.] Black Mountain College (1955)
link [8.] Preface: “Homage to Coleridge” (1955)
link [9.] Notes from Aristotle’s Politics (1962?)
link [10.] David Best (1978)

link [1.] What to Do Now (1945) [1]

How, without compromise of our conscience, are we to continue?

How, without surrender of our freedom, can we carry on the changing daily battle for food and for shelter within the capitalist state structure?

Action must be positive — that is, we must build and strengthen means of meeting our needs based upon voluntary action, guaranteeing individual freedom.

Action must be negative. We must maintain a front against the present society; we must weaken and wreck the authoritarian structure.

This dual building and struggling-against takes place in every conceivable level of life, in every conceivable circumstance, and they are intricately interrelated. The constant gnawing away of the authoritarian structure makes clearings in which the anarchist building can begin; and it is only the constant efforts of constructive anarchism — the growth of communes upon the soil and the building of syndical unions in industry, that can enable the struggle against the overwhelming authoritarian order to continue.

The “Conquest of Bread” is man’s primary struggle. Whereas a farming commune might conceivably isolate itself from the struggle of the industrial worker and build an anarchism upon a primitive island of non-industrial culture, no industrial movement can afford to isolate itself from the land. To conduct a strike, to maintain any vital struggle against capitalist economy, one must have resources of food that are not at the mercy of that economy. One must have — to put it bluntly — a black market of one’s own.

This source lies in the conquest of the land itself, in the wide-spread network of agrarian communes, in the conversion of all possible resources to the control of the producrion of food. It means that anarchist groups in the cities, workers’ and students’ groups, should help maintain each at least one cooperative farm, contributing financial aid and, on their days off and vacations, work there. For those groups in cities that have no such rural commune near, the goal should be to establish such a farm, the buying of land, and the constant aid to those who want to work that land. Too many of the communes that have been started have failed from lack of support, from the load of work and deprivation placed upon the shoulders of willing, inexperienced, young anarchists and socialists.

I must stress that it is more important — immeasurably more important — for the future of anarchism, that these communes succeed, that aid be extended toward their growth and strength, than that money go as it has always flowed to plead the cause of anarchists who face jail or death sentence. If a sum of money and energy had gone to actual construction, equal to the sum that went to the defense, let us say, of Sacco and Vanzetti, we might have now more to stand on. The necessity for aid in a great trial is dramatic and immediate; but it is only by a terrible blindness that we can overlook the dramatic and immediate necessity that faces each group in its own community.

Even the possibilities of growing communes with aid from industrial workers in the cities cannot take care of the needs of the growing groups of anarchists in the urban centers. There remains under the most favorable conditions that I can imagine — and at present the conditions are not only far from that but are actually, it seems to me, such that a collapse of all possibilities of anarchism is threatened — a majority of city workers who will not receive food from the country communes to which they give aid. Food must then be won in battle against the capitalist system. Anarchism must have its own black market. “To each according to his needs” must not be a promise which anarchists hold out for the future — it must be a demand which they make upon the present. We point out as a symptom of the inadequacy of capitalist economics that food must be constantly dumped, literally thrown away, in order to avoid a glutted market — but it remains as serious a symptom of the inadequacy of radical action that the wheat that daily is being destroyed, the meat that rots in the freight cars, the eggs that are dumped into the ocean, have never been “appropriated” by revolutionary workers. That the fruit that rots on trees in order to maintain the market has never been “confiscated” by radical bandits. WHAT WE NEED IS A LITTLE OF THE RESOURCE AND INITIATIVE THAT THRILLED US IN ROBIN HOOD. We point out that enormous profits are made by big capitalist grocers and department stores; we have carried on a constant partial struggle against them to maintain the wages of workers that work for them, but it is only individually, and, even that, somewhat guiltily — believe as we may that food is the property of all — that we take rather than buy what we want in these stores.

I would point out that more is accomplished in such a direct action than the immediate necessity makes dear. The goal of the city worker should be that the minimum of the salary which is paid to him goes back into the upkeep of capitalist institutions; that is, the city worker should seek to evade taxes, evade purchases — for purchases put his money back into chain stores, etc. — and evade rents. Where it is at all feasible, anarchists should “rent-jump.” For the same reason, all the pleasures of the city should be had wherever possible without payment. At the same time, such a goal would make possible the equally important goal that the maximum of the salary paid to him should go toward anarchist control of the means of production — toward the purchase of weapons against the existing economy.

Once we envision a plan of radical banditry, of anarchist Robinhoodism, the problem of shelter presents itself in a new light. Where are those anarchists who are outlawed, as any who are caught or identified as anarchists of such a realistic sort will be, to be sheltered? Where are they to turn? And if we do not envision such a plan it remains that as anarchists opposed to all authority we must offer more than theory to all those who for any reason are hunted down by the state. The city cooperative, the country commune, the individual anarchist home unit should offer an intricate and flexible underground railroad for all fugitives from justice — for escaped prisoners, for “wanted” men, for draft dodgers, for foreign spies, for communists, for fascists — for murderers and thieves as well as for those of the persecuted whom we consider more admirable. Unless, of course, we consider that “to each according to his needs” applies only to an elite who are advanced or good enough for anarchism.

But even for those who feel that, let us say, certain fugitives from justice — those who have actually been guilty of what we conceive as crimes against others, guilty that is of murder, of exploitation, of cruelty, etc. — shelter cannot be given, the role of shelter has other various possibilities. As long as there is in any city an individual anarchist home, certainly as long as there is an anarchist cooperative or commune there should be shelter for the traveler — in that phrase which the late president so fulsomely liked to mouth — “regardless of color, race, or creed.” Specifically, anarchist shelter should make it possible for Negroes, for Japanese — for any persecuted race — to find housing in any new city. That this be actually so demands more than mere intention. It demands a growing knowledge on the part of all anarchists as to where to go in any city. How many of us, for instance, if we knew a Negro family which was making a trip across the continent, could tell them where they could find shelter in St. Louis, in Cheyenne, in San Francisco? How many of us, indeed, know where we, ourselves, could find such shelter? What I suggest then is that anarchists should form a vast society of friends. Surely, if in the Civil War days it could be formed to free the Negro, it can be formed now to free ourselves.

link [2.] The Epic Concept of James Joyce (1946) [2]

“This last book of James Joyce,” Edmund Wilson wrote in a review of the Cambell-Robinson Key, “is a very great poem.” It is a theme which Wilson had struck earlier in The Wound and the Bow and which he develops somewhat in the above mentiond review in which he sees Joyce in the dimension of Dante, Virgil and Milton. As far as I know, certainly in these two essays, he has gone little further in considering just what the epic concept of Joyce is and how it relates to previous epics. The argument is furtherd, however, in a recent essay by Hamilton Tyler (CIRCLE no. 7) upon The Finnegan Epic and it is from this essay that I take my point of departure.

Agreeing with Wilson’s estimation of Finnegans Wake as an epic poem, Tyler makes a definition of a primary and a secondary epic tradition and seeks to place Joyce “squarely, if decadently, at the end of the Virgil-Milton tradition of the secondary epic, using many of the same forms, and serving an identical function.” With the observation that Finnegans Wake is an epic I only too heartily agree; but Tyler’s paper which was, as he writes, “originally intended as introductory to an answer to Stoll who charges Joyce with “barbarism” attempts something more. As I read — tho it seemd at first to rise from mere pinpoints of irritation — I felt a basic disagreement which weighd against my agreement. The attraction and the distraction, the notable accord and the radical discord which I had in reading the paper makes the definition of my own concept, my own picture of the thing, spring forward and determines it as material from which to work. What I shall attempt to do is to give some idea of Tyler’s argument and to show how his point of view falling (to quote his judgment of Joyce) “squarely, if decadently, at the end of the Virgil-Milton tradition” makes for his peculiar division of the epic concept into two traditions and for his estimation of Joyce’s psychological, and in extension his — to use the word in Freud’s sense — metapsychological, structure.

Tyler makes first a distinction between what he calls the primary epic (in the case of The Odyssey) in which “the hero and his story are apart; they exist independently of the reader and for their own sake” and what he calls the secondary epic in which “the reader and the characters must be intimately, tho perhaps distantly, related.” It has the tone of an exciting distinction in context, but it is one whose meaning proves to be somewhat elusive. What leaps to our mind is that Odysseus is certainly intimately related to the Homeric Greek reader — he is so exactly The Greek; and it is this prejudice on our part which brings into action in constant play against Tyler’s own prejudice more than an estimation of Joyce.

Even in development Tyler does not make his distinction explicit. It is so much assumed that we must ourselves read between the lines to extract what is at issue. He avoids it, to be exact; but it lies buried, implicitly but glaringly there, in the logic of the brief explanation which he makes of two epic forms.

“In the secondary epic,” he continues, “the story of the hero must also be some part of the story of Q. Publius, Mr. Smith, or whomsoever. Ulysses may have been an ‘average man,’ but his story is not connected by necessity to the story of the average Greek, whereas Aeneas, Adam or Lucifer were integrally related to the Roman or the Christian.”

Upon the very nub of the words must and more particularly necessity his argument balances itself; to unravel the consequences of the assumption which he makes — that necessity is somehow the only mechanism of integration — is to unravel the consequences of a firmly lodged patriarchical, authoritarian, concept of order, to attempt to expose the very core of the Christian hypotheses which haunt the modern mind, the hypotheses which are so little able to bear the burden of modern experience.

If we make bold to accept this implied distinction, we can make a clearer statement of just what the categories in opposition which Tyler has in mind are. He seems to mean that what distinguishes The Aeneid and Paradise Lost on the one hand from The Odyssey is simply that order in Virgil and in Milton is necessary, that it is absolute, whereas there is no necessary order in The Odyssey. How is it, however, that the relationship between Adam or Lucifer and the average Christian or between Aeneas and the average Roman is more necessary than that between Odysseus and the average Homeric Greek?

“One should keep in mind,” Tyler writes, “that ‘order’ is perhaps the fundamental archetypal pattern which must be satisfied; the mind desires a logical universe, and hence Virgil must make it seem that the foundations of Rome represent the necessary pattern of destiny, and Milton must show that God’s workings are reasonable and the Christian dogma adequate interpretations of them.”

Here again, what Tyler has in mind seems to lie beneath the pattern of his logic which suggests that once we grant that “the mind desires a logical universe” that it was this desire that motivated the epics of Virgil or of Milton. Yet Milton’s order was necessary only in the terms of the Church. It related the Christian to Christianity but it failed to relate man to the universe, to all that he actually experienced. In the concept of necessity which emerges in the 20th century, namely, the necessity which the universe imposes upon the individual and the necessity which is created in return by the operation of the individual upon the universe, Milton’s epic concept of order faild (in any sense, that is, other than as the aesthetic mechanism of the poem) not because it was unreasonable but precisely because it was not necessary.

The role of Milton or of Virgil, to relate an individual to Christianity or to Rome, was not, then, “to satisfy the desire for a logical universe.” It was, for Milton, for instance, that of asserting an order in a world that was so palpably not of that order. The experience of Adam the hero of the epic or of Lucifer the hero of the epic was the necessary experience of everyman only if everyman was a Christian. In reverse, once Christianity was accepted — once, that is, that Milton’s purpose became to justify God’s ways to man — the necessity of the order became absolute. Milton could, then, in theory, in no way create the order of that experience; he could only, if he were to remain Christian, justify or assert his faith in the Order. To deny God was simply not to experience; for the only Christian experience must be that of God — either thru sin — rebellion against God or disobedience — or of the struggle for Grace. What lies behind the towering architecture of Milton’s Paradise Lost, what lies behind the fired steel of his passionate belief, the tested and grounded rock solemnity of his faith is just the fact that if it had been weakend at any point; if the tone, the conviction, had cowered at all; if, for instance, the least lowly element of experience which could not be attested by the absolute Order which he sought to relate man to had been admitted; if Satan had crackd a joke instead of marshalling an army: the edifice would have collapsed. Satan could be guilty of opposition, of rebellion and pride but he could so little be able of denial, of doubt — of — in short — laughter. As I intend to suggest further, within such an epic concept to be damnd, to be Satan, is to be free from fear, free from the uncertainty of doubt — for God’s Love and Order is immanent in Hell itself. To giggle in such a cathedral much less to laugh would be to tap the experienced universe itself, to tap what becomes, in the terms of such an order of phantasy as it is more and more excluded, the sheerest terror.

link [3.] Reviewing View, An Attack (1947) [3]

The poet, Charles Henri Ford, after what seems to me a thoroughly remarkable first book of poetry ( The Garden of Disorder, New Directions 1939) turned to what was probably in the beginning an occupation and what became finally, as I should like to suggest, a new and superseding art — namely, the editing of the magazine VIEW. His poetry had been characterized by what Blackmur described aptly as “this verbalized nexus of the arch look and the thing seen, of voiding poetic responsibility at the moment that you feel it — splendid and fascinating, a very vice.” [4]; by what Blackmur might well have noticed, a concept which lies in back of this of the relation of the individual as a sport to the main stream of evolution:

he will reverence the monster
as well as the paragon blade
of grass that God made: though he will
       make another,
freaks are not mothers, even to freaks [5]

and by, above all, a certain passionate excitement in the variety and abundance of experience itself which Ford was quite conscious of as an artist and which he related, one feels understandably, to Christopher Marlowe. In the “sonnet” to Marlowe, Ford went a step beyond this relation, identified himself with Marlowe and cast a broad hint as to that segment of Ford’s kind of excitement which Ford meant to develop:

you were not more, and who
identified the cruelty of dreams,
assassinated than the victims sent
your words, criminal as the intellect.

What, it seems to me, Ford was caught up by then and became later entirely the victim of was his concept of himself as (first) the sport and (second) the criminal of the intellect. If the concept had its inspiration in Marlowe or Rimbaud, it had its conclusion elsewhere. There was about the preparation of an issue of VIEW such a slashing of shears, such a juxtaposition of anatomies, such a gratuitous titillation of sexual phantasies as became a process in and of itself. One came to see Ford at last negate his original sense of impudence and iconoclasm. He emerged as an editor with VIEW as we see it now, as thorough an iconography as in the National Geographic, styled to dish out (as the National Geographic is styled to dish out the world as retired pensioners want to see it) experience not as it is but as the wealthy dilettante wants to see it: namely, experience not as it forces itself upon one and in turn as it becomes a field in which one struggles to achieve one’s desires, but experience for the sheer expensively bought spectacle of it.

“Barnum,” writes William Carlos Williams in a recent poem, [6] “our one genius (in the arts) on the moral plane: the freak and the athlete.” If there is a moral plane to it at all, the moral impact is too obscure to appeal to my poor imagination at the moment — morality implies, if it implies anything, action and decision — but there is a crude aesthetic to it, and it is to some such a concept of art that Ford as an editor subscribed.

In his second book of poetry Ford had made a decided shift in his poetic form and thought:

Trapeze of the unconscious whim
attracts the derelict acrobat
whose abstractions prove to him
imagination’s This or That. [7]

From that point at which the response of his earlier work had become a performance, poetry as “a trapeze act,” Ford traced his trajectory further in a new medium, his magazine. From reverence of the monster to irrevereace of the monster, from impulse to opportunity, from relation to exhibition, from poet to entrepreneur, Ford beat the path from Marlowe to Barnum and set up what is one of the most tasty and highbrowed wax museums on the boardwalk of the avant-garde.

“A Night With Jupiter” [8] recently edited by Ford is a sort of gala performance; more concise than any issue of the magazine, it furnishes for the reader the full impact of Ford’s shrewd and distinctive appeal to the bored palate. In an atmosphere from the composition and editing room each object appears with a lurid aspect other than its own: sentimental engravings from the 19th century melancholy Gothic school appear to take on connotations of Freudian menace in which they were not composed; more seriously unfair, Sender’s story, “The Buzzard” — his passionate sense of terror in man’s destruction of man in war — is modified by the context to appear as a personal hallucination, to appear, in short, as 20th century melancholy Gothic. Ford seizes upon every possible ambiguity that, whatever the aim of the writer might have been, can in his dissection room be made part and body of the creature VIEW. In the beginning the horror may have been a part of the rejection of war, the rejection of the cruelties of modern social institutions, the rejection of violence; but in the world in which Ford emerges with VIEW, horror becomes an end in itself — not a rejection but an acceptance, more than that, a tremulous embrace of what was horrible, a sensation which may be tasted by the reader for the vicarious thrill of it. As he progresses, Ford commends and appeals to the appetite for vicarious horror in his audience and, finally, directs it with almost a monomania (he, himself, become the victim of this appetite for the vicarious) toward an exploitation of what surely originally occasioned the horror. Rejection becomes by this metamorphosis something more than acceptance. “Incidentally,” a friend of mine wrote me recently, “I hadn’t seen VIEW for a long time, so that I was considerably shocked on a recent perusal of several copies to see how far they were going; have you seen the issues which are illustrated with pictures of deformed people and of wounds? The journeys of VIEW into the sexual aberrations, the macabre, the insane, the deformed, can’t really go much further; their delight with each surely must reach some point of satiation for the readers. Although rumor has it that circulation is booming — !” VIEW becomes by this metamorphosis the organ of a quest for satiation; like the buzzard it draws its profit and substance from the battlefields, the misery and deformity of modern society; and in contemporary America where the populace at large relishes the charnel havoc wrought upon the cities of Europe and Japan, VIEW’s circulation booms.

I want to suggest that whereas Ford began as a revolutionary poet whose declaration “to dig for the root of evil” was made that he might, knowing evil, “send no disease to graze in the meadow of hours,” that he might, knowing evil as any poet must know it — in himself, wrest from the real the world for which he longed, wrest justice and love; there was a fatal degree to which he did not revolt but accepted the judgment of society which considered him “a monster.” To a degree he was conservative. He worshipped society’s “normal human being,” that unit concept in a society hostile to individuation which describes and debases any individual in terms of his deviation. He accepted that judgment. Labelled a freak and accepting that label, suing for little more than that the world allow him his “freakishness” (the very moment of his poetry is the irony of his suit ), he came to a conscious sense of defeat before the overwhelming tide of injustice, ridicule and cruelty. It is a sense of defeat which I think it would be difficult to condemn.

The avant-garde milieu, the old Paris group, which seemed at first the only world in which he could have freedom to realize his art and his life was no protection against the wave of social hatred which opposed him: and no one had a keener sense of that reality than did Ford.

“I, Rainey Betha, 22
from the top-branch of race-hatred look
      at you.
My limbs are bound, though boundless the bright sun
like my bright blood which had to run
into the orchard that excluded me:
now I climb death’s tree.” [9]

There was, more than this, the real menace in the shadow of which we all live — the 20th century State or what is so aptly called the Permanent War Economy. The War was a fairly obvious reminder of how hopeless the individual’s aspirations and ideals might be; it was a force before which few have not faltered and surrendered their individuality in propitiation. Ford did not surrender his conscience to the State. VIEW was, by no means, an organ of support to the war or to the whole supporting structure of bourgeois democratic ballyhoo. But he did contrive to alter his direction, to survive in a cynical use of the society he hated.

That “verbalised nexus of the arch look and the thing seen” which Blackmur remarked bears in The Garden of Disorder for the reader who is willing to see it the weight of a suffering in the injustice of modern society rare even among modern poets. It was this that he shared with Rainey Betha, the humiliation and scorn which the world brings to bear upon its chosen minorities. As I have indicated, in his early work he undertook an open fight to command the reverence that is due any and every human being and he found only too soon — what else was there to find? — that the world had reverence for no human being. It had reverence for power, for violence and will, for success.

Oh, hide, hide, wildflower, tree-tower and bush
you will be crushed by the war-storm’s thumb [10]

Understandably, if not commendably, then, he turned to write for, and to live in the milieu that might accept him and that at the same time had the power to provide a protection of a kind; he moved from the outcast legions of low Bohemia to high Bohemia on the margins of that ever curious and hungry section of society, the money-aristocracy. Here, where the drives for money and social power had been somewhat exhausted in their crude forms, the drive for power continued in a more disguised and beguiling form. In famous huntresses of the twenties like Mabel Dodge Luhan it became a lust for personality, and they gravitated toward sex-power prophets like D. H. Lawrence; in the game hunters of the thirties the appetite for sensation increased. The dilettantes, those who produced nothing, began the charade of producing things: they produced art-bottles dipped in colored wax; they produced scrap-books and poems and diaries; they rediscovered art for the sheer sensation of it, and revolution, too, for the sheer sensation of it. Certain artists and revolutionists, for all the wooing of the upper bourgeoisie remained clearly outside of their milieu. But others — for instance, the romantic painters, Berman and Tchelitchew, and the romantic revolutionists, Breton and Calas, were taken up and taken in by the culture collectors. All the drama of the real political world was played in charade to give excitement to the boredom of the rentiers. Refugees from their million dollar sense of uselessness became Stalinist, Trotskyites, and, in recent years, even anarchists; and there were Stalinists, Trotskyites and anarchists to descend upon them like seagulls in the wake of a ship. Breton and Calas capitalized upon their revolutionary personalities; they turned their eyes full upon the Medusa stare of the Princess Cassamassimas who waited in New York, preached revolution in their parlors and arrived in the O.W.I.

It was in this atmosphere that Ford, the editor, succeeded Ford, the poet. The sense of personal defeat pervades his poetry of this second period, “Whatever life demands, cannot love afford?” he had asked in the poem, “The Passionate Shepherd.” [11] But what society demanded was, ironically, precisely the denial of love, and what was in The Garden of Disorder a challenge in the face of that destructive society became a cynical resignation in The Overturned Lake to these terms.

Let us get in a taxi as if we were going somewhere.
The chocolate eggs of Easter hatch no peace-pigeons;
school girls grow up, breed objects for war-ribbons.
Let us get out of the taxi as if we were there. [12]

The bitterness of his poetry of this period is marked by its sharp turn from the passionate roots of his earlier poetry; but it betrays no weakening in its stony hatred of the social injustice and the coming war. It was as an editor that he went further than this cynicism. He was, when he started VIEW, looking upon the Medusa eye itself. In a world of carnage, of horror and insanity, VIEW preached the aesthetic of the insane and the sadistic, perhaps with much the same utilitrarian intention with which one might preach sadomasochistic aesthetic to inmates in a concentration camp. In a sense what he has done is to present the very picture of the evil thing in his magazine; but it is forced upon one that he has not so much exposed it as exhibited it; and, finally, has he not contributed to it?

Unremittingly hostile toward the State and its war, VIEW is in this extent anarchistic — against the State. But Ford’s rejection of the concept of the individual is implied in his early concept of the freak, implied even more in the tone of irreverence which is the trademark of VIEW. It is an irreverence which comes to what is, for me, its crisis when articles by serious anarchists, Chiaromonte and Goodman, are presented along with the cud of fin-de-siecle diabolism. One can only, most favorably, conclude that Ford is travelling blind. One can conclude, least favorably, that VIEW is hostile not only to the State but to the individual. Certainly if to be an individual means individual responsibility, VIEW with its allegiance to the rentier-aristocracy is hostile to the individual.

If — and in no other direction lies our hope — we see Ford as travelling blind, if his returning radical interest is serious, as an editor he should consider his audience not in the light of the lust for a thrill nor in the light of their superiority to the mores of the modern State but in the light of their potential awakening to productive and creative life.

link [4.] A Little Story for Mary Fabilli (1951) [13]

They are most       

charming who set their steel-toothed traps deliberately and in clear sight; so that we have a delightful time, knowingly stepping into their wicked mouths. Or a little rope can be bought and we can pretend to hang ourselves; or swallow glass: but at such a time put a return address in your pocket or a C.O.D. Or is there any one at home in your house to answer the bell? At mine: a small boy hunts for lost checkers under the dining room rug. Mother is sewing the baby’s fingers together (she says it will alter his character), father lies in his coffin in the back room. His mouth has become a little moldy in the last year, but mother put thimbles under his tongue.

Dear Aunt Harriet have you any wool? Cousin John told me, cousin Ella showed me, little cousin Abagail bought three bags full. Tragedies are like that: like cake eaten or stale coffee.

Have you been dreaming, dreaming of the coffee isles? tragedy is like that, like Gauguin, like Picasso, like my uncle who liked the dregs from the pots, the cold soaked coffee grains, the bitterest cup.

We will go to pieces sitting in the kitchen. The mental procedure has long since broken into crumbs and a little frosting, emotions is like a coating of thick chocolate paste on the roof of the mouth. Something must be done about her really! the things she says when we try to contemplate.

Little Elsie has painted Grandmother bathing.

“Death,” she says, “is a wrinkled cave.”

“Even,” she says, “if one jumps off a train and is crushed by a clock on horseback — that does not make anything unusual. Death is a wrinkled cave.”

When she makes faces like that we stop everything and hurry a looking-glass to show her what she looks like. We are all caught in the mirror. Stop.

link [5.] From a Notebook 11/9/54 (1954)

The false and the true! The false and the true! These are the very veins of poetic stuff; poetry which runs all false and true. And the poet quickens his sense to distinguish the not-false from the precious false, the not-true from the precious true: like a hunter quickening his sense to his prey, or a miner to mock gold or to gold.

It is the heightened sense of the true and the false, the — even confused or confusing — involvement with the qualities of meaning and not meaning, the adherence to the necessities of speech, as a medium, the dwelling in poetry that I love. This is, wherever and however I find it, of my kind.

Of my kind — is all that listens to the counsel that emerges as form, listens for the information of the poem itself. That is used by the structure appearing, as a lover is used by the course of his love — selfless in this and incapable of judging. For he is no judge; but an exploiter of the way of his love. He cannot instruct us nor direct us here, for he must follow: as a man drawing may follow his line, as Cézanne followed faithfully the dictates of his art until what he was waiting for he saw there — what he had never seen before. A vision then. And a poetry.

So we speak of a poetry in painting and of a poetics of music for the verb poein means to make. The mystery of making. The Saxon word for the poet was makaris.

It is from this point that we may see perhaps why all verse is not poetry; why often complete works in prose — Moby Dick and Remembrance of Things Past or then Ulysses of Joyce certainly come to mind — are major works in a poetics. Because these works — whatever they have to do with the world of experiences and emotions — demand, if we are to dwell in them, to love them, that we enter the world of their making. And we realize that this is a world that came into being by the necessities of the work, in the mysteries of the making. Then we say — as for instance of Schönberg’s Serenade or of Matisse’s windows at Venice . . . but there are fields of these events, like flowers . . . that the artist is inspired. We mean then that for all the labors and contemplations of the artist something other than labor and contemplation come into play, for whatever his message, something more beautiful than message — a vitality, a liveliness, an urgency in the work itself — moved toward fulfillment.

link [6.] Notes (1955) [14]


Blake pays no attention to the beautiful. He desires the joyous. Thus he scorns Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt and Correggio — visual richness as beauty does not mean enough to reach him. For, though Blake is beautiful, the beauty is a by-product of his desire, and, at his very best, of his joyousness. Though he does not desire elegance, his intensity renders him distinctive, and his work can become the artifact of an elegant mind. Such are the ironies of our endeavors. In his lifetime and to his consternation, Blake furnishd forth in his inspired works rich men’s collection pieces and objects for the elegant.

Cocteau has no self-pride, so “Humility” does not haunt him as it haunts Blake; on the other hand, Cocteau craving the public eye feels the demands of an “invisible” style.


As I work at the Cocteau ( Journal d’un Inconnu) . . . a period of virulent contagions, fevers of Blake . . . and the closeness of Cocteau’s journal to my own designs, a closeness that is of the design anyway. But to give my vices a world in which to flower, and a universe for my demons to walk by night in is a virtue of writing at all. It is ¿is it not? the great possibility that one may sin here: and the mortal sin in the modern code is to violate one’s originality. So I give in to the violation of a mimesis of Blake, become no more or a medium. It is the great possibility too that one might practice inordinate modern virtues. However, I have abilities at imitation which I do not find in invention. Such is the abhorrence of the second rank in this day that in order to admit what I am doing I find myself fairly flaunting my “I don’t care.” Yet some profession of my inabilities is necessary in order to exploit my abilities. And, given my range — which may well be as Olson notes something always more or less than I pretend — I do not do badly at all.

I learn from the Zohar that, being a confirmd Sodomite, I shall be utterly extinguishd in time: which I see, as I write here late at night by a kerosene lamp, as a guttering candle. This would give, were it, childlike, believed, an enduring pathos to my writing. That is, were it true that my spirit has no lasting claim, my spirit would have just this lasting claim — of its pathetic address to an eternity, to a lasting claim.


(for the dinner party in the Bardo State)

They were drunk by the time dinner was served. Strips of the burning sky — but it was dark now, it was over — were confused with the guttering tears of candles here and there. That cast shadows of light in the red-black room. Out of which or into which the food shone red in the red.

One plump creamy arm lying along the course of the table, patchd with candlelight. That caught the glint of jewels or eyes. The woman with thick coils of black hair laid over fresh ears, these too studded. Leand up with a gesture into the stream of conversation.

The drone that is of his voice, in the center of which his head loomd, from which because there was terror, I shrank, even as I committed it. My head fitting up into his speaking head. — A man writing a story is not making a record, he is exercising a virtue. It may be that it is a weak one and the poor artist must return again and again to play at having this power over a situation made up for his practice; or this virtue may be a monster and the writer comes back to the table of this, his vicious virtue, like an obese maniac stuffing himself with ghostly meat.


Cocteau shows some prejudice against non-figurative painting — both in that he does not perceive that the forces or calms, the clarities or densities, the realizations of muscular movement or of space, the timing of non-objective paintings — all these — are objective correlatives to the painting, so it is not primarily sui generis painting any more than it is sui generis experience of the world. An impenetrable black is as much a model, certainly as much as Goya’s flying men, or as Seurat’s radiant banks of grass, or Cézanne’s mountain. But also in that he can only think of the scandal of success. His thesis is: what, after the scandal of success which non-objective painting has had, will be the future “latest thing”? He perceives shrewdly that the new great art will be subversively unnoticeable, a scandal of undramatic representation.

“Painting now after its great moment must come back to be a minor art,” Gertrude Stein says joyfully in How to Write. What is interesting is that Cocteau, who was prepared for the Academy, could at best picture that the new life of art lay in the academic. It was quite beyond his imagination that the joyous fields might lie in no scandal, no intense morality, but in habitual beautiful unimportance. But then, somehow, that there were joyous fields at all, does not enter his mind.

It is apparent that as the great painting of the day is certainly non-objective, if the new subversive art would be most invisible, it too would be non-objective — a candle flame in the sun.

That Cocteau has some undigested purpose here we suspect from the fact that he is aware only of the snobs or the mobs. Is he actually unacquainted with the objective paintings of René Magritte or of Leger? I am most aware, however it is, of the abundance of beauty as he dwells upon its rarity.


When men talk of “the only valid position,” when old insistences of the true poet, or the genuine feeling, or the right way, the real meaning, arise, my heart shrinks against the assault; and it is unwillingly that I suspend the guarantee they protest and go on to follow their revelation. Altho it does not seem now to have been very heroic, it is perhaps a trace of the cost of my coming to recognize my weaknesses or my contradictions or my unrequited fumblings as quite genuine, that I wince at the efforts of an intense morality to hold out against the evident many other intense moralities however informd in the world. Thus, while I recognize Cocteau’s intense morale, I am not unaware that this same virtue is to be admired where he does not perceive it. There is after all an intense and demanding selflessness, a glittering machine indeed, to keep up for the snob, whom Cocteau scorns. In terms of this higher morality, the pompier and the poet both have invisible existences, both happen upon laborious roads of the future.


Sender’s two books which Creeley lent me were professor’s books. I was prepared, by a story which appeared in VIEW (“The Vulture”?), by Creeley’s admiring them, and by the surrealist sophistication of passages read, for more than I found — for something decisive. In both works, my mind returnd often to Kafka as if the authentic prototype of the larger form lay there — but where the whole structure in Kafka is incorporated — the structure in the derived work splits — and a metaphysic appears, the voice of the author enters to supply meanings which are not containd — “We have minds not primarily to understand but rather not to understand too much,” or, the character, as in The Hangman, reflects upon theology, comes to have ideas. Sender lacks ardor so thoroughly that his characters all of them are left rootless in their feelings — and then this world as he makes it he takes as The World; so that there is a curious inconsequence in his particular concept of the isolation in which one is hero. There are hard and bitter facts in the difference between The Hangman, say, and Kafka’s The Castle, or between Sender’s stoker in The Globes and Kafka’s stoker in The Stoker or in America: differences in involvement. For, where Kafka’s life and total experience revolves about that which is work revolves about (how a man is scrupulously to honor his father, for instance); Mr. Sender’s books are the agency not only of the concerns of Mr. Sender the writer but of Mr. Sender the Spanish man of letters, the professor. Thus we are aware that Saila or the Hangman are déraciné because Professor Sender is déraciné. What I mean is that neither of these books would lead one to believe that Professor Sender had any vocation in his profession as a teacher (as, let us say, Rabelais, or Rousseau, or Paul Goodman, are writers involved in education). Nor does the hubris itself — of professing what one does not have concern for or in — occur to him. He cannot present to us the center which is involvement or the act, because he is intoxicated by the periphery of belief or disbelief. It is to the unbeliever that the alternative seems to be belief; just as the true Believer finds the world populated by unbelievers.

No one in Sender’s novels ever falls in love (anger or rage can be imagined for the teacher as an Apocalyptic aberration; the detachd dignity of person is the paradise — the Hangman’s courtesy to the criminal; marriages are subject to the opinion of the community; affairs must be clandestine; but passionate love, “falling in love” is a socially impossible predicament) . . .

. . . But the professor I find my self accusing is, I am aware, an old lover; and two things motivate my attack, and my response to the novels. In the fevers of the last few days my mind has returnd at times to old scenes with Ned, or to vague expectations of seeming him once again. Ramiro’s-Sender’s regard is not much different from his. At the same time, in this day to day existence, for the first time provided for without struggle, tho just provided for, I am worried by my own character of circumspection, and turn to compare earlier ardor with the ardor proper to the day.


The human communion. Traces. The dead
are the departed therefrom. Whose
leavings.  Reading, we partake of.
A lamp of letters, a ladder of
             divine signs,
a substance of ourselves  lost  lost
in a world lost waste lost that we must gather

    Set like a crying girl to sift cinders
out of old passions.   For a first fire.
¿For a light in old age to burn in the skull
that lit youth’s loins.
              Covetous brain!

     But read further,    read further.
Beloved Shakespeare,    beloved Lao Tse,
                Beloved Virginia Woolf,
     My heart is submerged as I read.

           the swarming radiance.

     These that I never saw I see.

           the boundless waters.

More than that. I commune with these who would not receive me other wise or could not receive me in the world as it is: here custom prepares one to love and to allow that what one so loves is just the love one longd for. That gave the gift of the sign — be it one of anger or of grief or of longing. I can love William Carlos Williams which is utterly incomprehensible to him — but for something which in spite of himself he gave up into the communion.

It is appropriate that the concept of learning which becomes a Splendour — that is abstracted from all distinguishings — a luminosity — should be pictured above a concept of love between reader and writer, who know nothing of each other, a love which takes place in an imagined world, in a “communication,” a rush of waters.

The reader needs the daring to presume — that he shares, as he does, “the heart” of Shakespeare, or of Blake, or of Lawrence, or of Pound. This daring presumption is accompanied by a correspondent fear — ah, that it is all wrong! all wrong! What else was it I meant by love? Tho in the tide of daily affections or where the beloved does not unduly interrupt our course, we lose our daring and are seldom aware of the fear. All right! and all wrong! seem to be joind by an and . . . and rather than an either . . . or, and all — the all of you, like the all of me — as bits, sorts, lines, features, motions disappear, slough off — all is temperd by experience. Whatever you are or whatever I be has taken its place.

And so the constant reader hardly notices after the first ecstasy as he discovers a sign of a beloved maker, after the first thrilling months of discovering, hardly notices the daring or fear, and in company now as he reads . . . I . . . I wish at times I could come afresh upon the Cantos. For another first time!

With paintings, because they are not accessible, a certain freshness is kept. In San Francisco we see so little of Picasso, or of Chagall, or of Mondrian, or Goya, that the immediacy of the canvas was like the presence of a friend long unseen except by reproduction or fotograf. The whole power of the art is that the painting of a canvas leaves the presence of a person with us, a more of the human being than is ever evident in the “creator.” His signature. To be sure he himself is his signature in the flesh and those about him who come to love him do so in whatever way they recognize and love this presence. This whatever he is.

But love, even of or thru paintings, signs, words, glances or gestures, is put to use. We are accustomed to hold ourselves and others by it, to guarantee fucking or companionship by the fact that we love. The cry of joy is the naked disinterested absolute

not in delight but in the being aware
nor can he leave his true likeness otherwhere

; but with it recognitions, distinct from the recognition of love, of uses and opportunities. We stake a claim, however harmlessly, a marriage, or a profession, or a title. We cannot keep secret our secret, but grossly or finely, it must be forced upon the world. And so lovers become immortal! They appear in the daily news. By committing suicide, or murder, or remaining lovers for a hundred years. These are daydreams of opportunities and satisfactions that swarm around the light of love like hungry moths.

As if it were rare, or once lit, or grew weary in time: but life bears constant witness against its rarity. What love, if one is alive at all, excludes or hurts all love? And so Olson writes right in “Love”

There are only
            two ways:
            create the situation
                         (and this is love)
            or avoid it.
                         This also can be

I mean “(and this is love)” and the “This also can be / Love.” To create. Or avoid. A situation. As awareness might create or avoid. Not as determination creates or avoids.

      Cometh he to be
         when the will
From overplus
Twisteth out of natural measure,

Not that I haven’t wreckd the sights of it, spoild or exhausted it in time — but it is a happening not a possession to be handled with or without care. There are no lessons of love. ¿What can we school ourselves to? Skill does not increase it, as it may romance. But any old lady can cry her tired eyes out about it. With the pang of it. Stupid Madam Bovary struck by it, I am convinced contrary to commentary. But she had no regard for it; she found only herself in it.

In the last few days I sank into an indeterminate illness — my bowels dead, my skin feverd, and the sinuses below my eyes, the optic nerves themselves it seemed to me, in acute pain. The light, that is, that “other light” of the intellect, paind me. “It came perhaps from reading in a bad light,” it was suggested. And, indeed, Thucydides whom I had attempted for the first time, and this in Everyman’s miniscule “hurt my eyes.” As the malaise progressed, or as I felt at the time, as I sank into it, the heavy inner shutters were closed and I lay as I wanted to, in the dark, in a mélange of unmomentous pain, misery and slough of self. Various images of sloughings: of skin from a burnd area (two weeks before I had burnd my foot with boiling water), of detritus from a well (but the “crumbling” is everywhere in Mallorca), of layers of an onion (and I rememberd in the midst of the fever “the onion globe world floats” in a meaning I had never countenanced before); and how to let it go! I was sunk in the time of sloughing which was what life was. With islands within islands of skins, or styles, or languages to slough (Spanish appears as a blister on the surface of English, not as an other body — it too will be sloughd). (The essay I have been translating of Cocteau’s mentioned “une fâcheuse tendance de la terre à secouer ses puces.” In a fever dream of the second day, my head was composed like a cluster of lice, a pomegranate of vermin, each crawler a human head. To be sloughd off!

            Set like a crying girl to sift cinders .

But one needs the shock of what is upon the shock of what is, the grey upon the grey, or the red upon the red, to inform of being, or grey or red. In the poem, however it is, the ecstatic aboveness and belowness must be insisted upon in order to justify in the heart the still “other world” of disease which is hidden away in a single line.

link [7.] Black Mountain College (March 1955)

Sometime late in 1954 Jess and I decided to go to Europe. Creeley was interested in publishing a book of mine in his Divers Press series ( Caesar’s Gate) and he wrote urging us to come to Mallorca. And Jonathan Williams who had graduated from Black Mountain College had come to San Francisco in 1954, an active agent of the writing that was to be commonly called the “Black Mountain” school, both with his own highly individual style in poetry and with his Jargon series of publications well under way. He was the first of the generation of Black Mountain College students who had studied with Charles Olson there and who defined a revolution in terms of Olson, Creeley, Denise Levertov, Eigner, Blackburn, and myself, that I met; others of those students, with him, were to be as vivid in my mind as my own contemporaries — Fielding Dawson, Joel Oppenheimer, Edward Dorn, Mike Rumaker, John Wieners.

On the way to Mallorca I would meet Denise Levertov in New York for the first time; I would meet Creeley in Palma for the first time; Blackburn later in Paris for the first time. I would not meet Eigner until 1967 in San Francisco. We were a “group” that had never been together as a group in any place at one time until the Vancouver conference in 1963. First along the way, then, as we set out from San Francisco to take an Italian Line boat from New York, we swung south to visit Black Mountain College where Charles Olson was.

I had not been there since sometime in 1938 when, having written from Berkeley I received an acceptance as a student and, as I remember, a part scholarship, and, precariously, set out, arriving there late one night, only to be turned away after the following day, firmly, with the notification by the instructor who had welcomed me that I was found to be emotionally unfit. Was it after the heated argument I got into the morning of that day concerning the Spanish Civil War? In my anarchist convictions, the Madrid government seemd to me much the enemy as Franco was. Or was it — the question always lingered in my memory of that unhappy time — unstated, back of that term “unfit,” because they had recognized that I was homosexual?

Now, it was not the College but the man Charles Olson I wanted to see before I left for Europe. I had met him first in Berkeley in 1947. He had heard about me through Kenneth Rexroth or through Muriel Rukeyser, I think; but, more importantly, he had seen some poems, and when, in the following years he was to draw up his “team” plan — at once the strategic design of a literary force and at the same time his quick recognition for where historic event was — I was always to be part of his picture of what was happening. Yet in that first meeting we talked more about the relation of city administrations (governments) and the sources of food in the countryside, about ecologies, than we talked about poetry. He was working in the Bancroft Library, along with field trips into the mining country, digging up parts of the story and bringing documents to light towards a study of the early West. Again in 1948 — I was working on “The Venice Poem” — he visited. But then, in the years between 1948 and 1955, Charles Olson had emerged for me as the leader in my own art. “Projective Verse” (1950) and his work in the first issue of Origin (1951) were to be the beginning of a new era in my own work in poetry.

It was already dark by the time we got to Asheville, North Carolina, and phoned Charles at Black Mountain. When at last we made our way to the College, driving over doubtful roads through the derelict grounds of the “old campus,” which had been sold to a Summer Camp, it was nine or so. The place was frozen in, and there were no students there. Wes Huss, the director of the theater, and his family, and the Olsons had stayed on; and, later, I remember the sooty-faced specter of Tony Landreau who tended the furnaces at the “Gropius” building as it was called. Whatever the first pride or the hopes of that building had been by 1955 it was going to pieces. It was a night of high intellectual excitement; we drank and talked after dinner and then, at midnight or one in the morning, under a sky blazing with stars, we were out with Charles on the way to the “Gropius” building, stopping to give Olson’s stranded car a heave-to to get the dead battery to turn over. Then — and this moment was to come forward again as I began work on the Day Book section of my study of H.D. — Charles read O’Ryan to Jess and me as we huddled in the cold of our guest quarters. The next morning we were to drive on to New York.

Spring and Summer of 1956. Teaching and Living at Black Mountain College.

Robert Duncan (left), Robert Creeley, Vancouver, BC, late 1970s, picture by Lawlor

Robert Duncan (left), Robert Creeley, Vancouver, BC, late 1970s, picture by Lawlor


In February of 1956 I accepted a job for the Fall of that year with the Poetry Center in San Francisco and decided we could return home. Creeley had left Mallorca and taken a job at Black Mountain. Now, word came from Charles that Creeley had left the College and: Would I consider, since I was going to return to the States, coming for the Spring and Summer semesters at Black Mountain? I was to go as a teacher, where once long ago I had been turned away as a would-be student. But this Black Mountain College was very different from the College I had seen briefly in 1938. Then the “Gropius” building had been a plan for the future, and the college was housed in a summer resort hotel. The Bauhaus aesthetic with its clean lines (I remember the light and the white curtains; the practiced simplicities in furnishings and objects) dominated the scene. In 1956, Fiore’s students were devotees of late American non-objective expressionism; the deserted litter of John Chamberlain’s junk-metal shop had taken over from the earlier sane and sanitary constructivism.

Was there some nominal pay? There was a food allowance, and I received my quarters — an apartment in the “Gropius” building with rudimentary but adequate furnishings. Whatever the salary was, I was working on half salary and would receive the rest whenever the affairs of the College improved. When the College was sold finally I did receive the remainder due in full. Certainly, I would not have been able to go to Black Mountain College to teach had I not continued to receive the $100 a month which I had arranged with my mother before leaving for Europe.

There were about fifteen students. Of these, the G.I.s were the paying students — most of them painters: Tom Field, Paul Alexander, Jerry Van der Wiele, Ann Simone (who was to play Medea in Medea in Kolchis which I did with the drama class during the Summer semester). There were six in my basic techniques course in poetry, of whom Joe Dunne (first editor of the White Rabbit series), Eloise Mixon, and John Wieners were to become friends.

That summer was a creative period for Olson. He was studying Rimbaud with the Pleiade edition in hand; and in his lectures he was formulating terms of number and energy that sum up the earlier Human Universe period and lead on towards the Proprioception gists. Wes Huss was questioning and doubting the theater; he wanted a way out of it, the end of the stage, I think; in San Francisco, after the end of the College, Huss came to be no longer working in the theater. Wolpe, who was the Music department, was in retreat. He had but one student, but for those of us who visited him he was friendly enough but not part of the scene. Fiore and the painters worked on each day earnestly; but it was Charles Olson who was the center of our thought. In the Spring of 1956, the End of the College was very much with us. Should it go on wheels and travel about the country? Should it go West? Once we searched the map of California and found a Black Mountain there — it seemed appropriate that it should be as it was in the inaccessible wastes of northern wilderness.

link[8.] Preface: “Homage to Coleridge” (1955)


I don’t really understand your ballads, why you are writing that way. It doesn’t seem the right direction for you. It seems wasteful both of yourself and in general (like writing sonnets). Or do you think I’m too narrow-minded? Perhaps it is a way to something for you. But when I remember what else you have written, even long since, as well as of late especially, I can’t quite believe that they aren’t like something you might have written very long ago. But I expect in all these weeks since you sent them you’ve almost forgotten them. So enough.

And so a preface upon a wasteful seriousness which is fantasy that might be imagination. And I have dedicated the whole to Coleridge for his “Cristobel.” Denise Levertov is more than right when she saw that they might have been like something I might have written very long ago: these are poems of solitary adolescence written out some night in 1930 into these evenings of 1955 on the island of Mallorca. Pseudo-romanticism, but not exactly by artful design. I have not now almost a year later almost forgotten them, for these imitations of Romantic forms have roots. Roots first in first hearing poetry: which was story telling, weaving of fairy scenes. This recalld by Helen Adam, extraordinary Nurse of Enchantment, who read her ballads of evil passions and old lore. This was in San Francisco, six months before these poems. Recalld another image of a woman reading, herself the Sorceress of Evil and of Good. Who was not really merely Mother, because Mother proved never to be She.

Roots then in that Guilt which is calld Knowledge of Good and Evil, and maybe of solitary pleasures and displeasures; roots in privacy.

One evening in Bañalbufar, a woman askd me, with a stab of accusation I think: You play around with magic, don’t you?

It is such nonsense words, such accusations of private fantasy: as witchcraft, or devil-playing, or spirit-talking, that can move the heart to gasps of old terrors. The Christians tell us that we are guilty for our private desires; the Hermeticists tell us that all hidden fantasy lives and sits upon the threshold of what we are at last; Freudians tell us that all deeds and things wear, that the World as we see it wears, the enchantment of such a Dweller.

So, long after this passing accusation, I sat writing that ballad and found myself setting out to meet my Accuser and to call upon my Savior. Knowledge of evil like knowledge of good is a phantom that vanishes before the adventure of a poem, as a devil must vanish before the dawn-cock-crow of a Christ-name.


Poems for me are states of being or kinds of being. In the oldest accusation I know there is a real-me and a that’s-not-the-real-me. But Proust and then Bergson brought me to see it another way — however I have understood them — that being might be a waste of “myself”: a sloughing off, if it were thot of as direction. Out of Cocteau’s movies I learnd another thing: that what apparently was a progress of images in time, might be as well the reappearances of an identity — avatars of an event or a person, in a tower falling, in a man moving down a hall, in a mouth in a hand calling for air.

Very long ago seems very long ago indeed. “What is the use of being a little boy if you are growing up to be a man?” Gertrude Stein asks repeatedly in her Geographical History of America. These parts of my Homage are not then direction, right or wrong, at all, but wasteful reappearances of the statement of my history. Not immediate, drawn almost painfully or with strain from my Life; but distant, drawn from my Story Book. Or from a Story Book — so much anyone’s old story book that it seems wasteful in general.

link[9.] Notes from Aristotle’s Politics (1962?) [16]
Robert Duncan at a garden party, Berkeley 1962

Robert Duncan at a garden party, Berkeley 1962

And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is vulgar; wherefor we call those arts vulgar which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind.

— Any occupation, art, or science, being sought except as a practice or exercise of virtue, is vulgar —

. . . for the emotion which they create in the soul is a relaxation, and from the pleasure we obtain rest.

. . . courage is found associated, not with the greatest ferocity, but with a gentle and lion-like temper.

. . . tis not easy to determine the nature of music.

. . . besides, when men hear imitations, even apart from the rhythms and tunes themselves, their feelings move in sympathy. Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions.
Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance . . . and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections, as we know from our own experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change.
. . . not far removed from the same feelings about realities.

. . . Again, figures and colors are not imitations, but signs, of moral habits, indications which the body gives of states of feeling.
      On the other hand, even in mere melodies there is an imitation of character.
      There seems to be in us a sort of affinity to musical modes and rhythms, which makes some philosophers say that the soul is a tuning, others, that it possess tuning.

. . . The rattle is a toy suited to the infant mind, and education is a rattle or toy for children of a larger growth

       — This delights me beyond measure —

. . . we conclude then that they shld. be taught music in such a way as to become not only critics but performers.

link[10.] David Best (1978)

It is essential for the strength of the spirit that it face what it dreads. Hence the art of Poe or of the demonic figures of Gothic cathedrals or of Bosch. For the good of the soul in its exercises. And so I see the good of David Best and his votive figures for the soul’s cult in trouble. He advances in an obsession to draw from an area of what we most fear, all but beyond reality yet found to be most real, these images of mutations, self-replications, and mutilations. There is no way that the realization of beauty the art seeks is not precarious here. But each presentation — it is my sense of it — is so individual that for some individual soul it is sure to stand on the very margin of truth, of the beautiful — a guardian demon — even as for the rest of us in our commonality it goes beyond. Into a marketplace of empty propositions, increasingly limited constructs, mental barriers against any psychic height or depth, David Best is driven to bring forth the more vehemently these bodies over-filled, swelling with meaning, burgeoning with obscure content to lay siege to and to take over from the dominant art of our time which in fear and denial of the repressed has excluded by rule content as such.

Robert Duncan
San Francisco
October 1978

Gallery Paule Anglim
San Francisco, CA 1978


[1] “What to Do Now,” Direct Action (Summer 1945): 35–39.

[2] “The Epic Concept of James Joyce” was delivered as a talk on Bloomsday, 1946. The final pages of the talk have not survived.

[3] “Reviewing View, An Attack,” Ark 1 (Spring 1947): 62-67. The following notes in this article are Duncan’s notes.

[4] “The Expense of Greatness,” Nine Poets Arrow Editions 1940.

[5] “The Garden of Disorder” (the title poem).

[6] “The Phoenix and the Tortoise,” Pacific (November 1945).

[7] “ABC’s,” The Overturned Lake, Little Man Press 1941.

[8] A Night with Jupiter, Vanguard-View 1945.

[9] “Plaint,” The Garden of Disorder.

[10] “The Garden of Disorder” (title poem).

[11] The Garden of Disorder.

[12] “An Afternoon with Andre Breton,” The Overturned Lake.

[13] “A Little Story for Mary Fabilli” is from an unpublished manuscript dated 1951.

[14] Duncan typed out these notes from a notebook in July 1955 when he and Jess were living in Bañalbufar, Majorca.

[15] Duncan collected some early and unpublished poems under the title “Homage to Coleridge,” but the book was never published even though Jess made a cover drawing and several internal drawings.

[16] “Notes from Aristotle’s Politics” is the title of a notebook entry from 1962?

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