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Robert J. Bertholf

Robert Duncan’s “The Venice Poem” and Symphonic Form

See note [1]

Notes are given at the end of this file. Click on the link to be taken to the note; likewise to return to the text. This piece is 6,500 words or about 10 printed pages long.

Robert Duncan’s “Medieval Scenes” and “The Venice Poem,” written in 1947 and 1948, establish two different models of poetic forms that appear and reappear throughout Duncan’s poetry. “Medieval Scenes,” a sequence of ten separate poems woven together with word play and  connecting themes, illustrates what Jack Spicer called a “serial  poem.”[2]  For ten sequential days in February 1947, Duncan chose a different passage from Emerson’s essays and then wrote a poem following the passage, and in some cases going away from the passage. These ten poems are not joined together by a narrative structure, or recurring rhetorical devices intended to produce a unified group of poems. Duncan began with a common notion of what “Medieval” meant (he had not begun his studies in Medieval civilization with Ernst Kantorowicz at the University of California Berkeley), and imagined a group of people who ate meals together at 2029 Hearst Street in Berkeley as knights around a table. Starting from this domestic scene, he then wrote a series of poems on an imagined theme. Each poem is complete in itself, but then has a larger contextual meaning in the series of ten. Each can be thought of as a fragment, or a version of the idea of being medieval in Berkeley in 1947, because each is not controlled by a structure of the unities with a beginning, middle, and an ending. Each begins and then stops as the strength of the desire to write the poem is exhausted. Duncan advanced the idea of indeterminacy in “The Structure of Rime” and “The Passages Poems,” both serial poems from the late 1950s and 1960s. Serial form suited Duncan’s poetics appropriately.

“The Venice Poem,” on the other hand, sustains “symphonic form,” which means that the poem follows generally the structure of the principal unit of a symphony, the sonata, and develops its image and meaning patterns much like a melody develops  —  through exposition, development and recapitulation. Duncan confirms the importance of that poem: “It was the first time in my writing that I had both known what I had to do — something more in writing than knowing what you want to do — and known as I worked that I was able to do it.”[3] Written between February and September 1948, these poems indicate that Duncan, in the company of Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and others including James Broughton, derived ideas of “open form” independently from Charles Olson’s strong assertion of “composition by field” in his essay “Projective Verse,” 1950. Like “Medieval Scenes,” the sections of “The Venice Poem” achieve their forms of expression not because of the strict predeterminations of the sonata form, but from a poetics that allowed the sounds of words to derive and develop from a particular context as a process conceiving the form of the poem as it is being written.[4] Duncan had already written a long poem, “Heavenly City, Earthly City,” so had some experience in handling long stretches of expression. Influenced by Pound’s The Pisan Cantos, as well as close readings of The Cantos, Duncan was also a serious reader of H.D.’s War Trilogy (thought it was not called by that title in 1947), William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Duncan tells us he became “aware of the possibilities that the locus of form might be in the immediate minim of the work, and that one might concentrate upon the sound and meaning present where one was, and derive melody and story from impulse not from plan.” The underlying processes of symphonic form appear again and again in “An Essay At War,” “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” and later in “The Continents.”

“The Venice Poem” is a centering and radiating poem.[5] Drawing its materials from the scenes of Venice, mainly the square of San Marco, the poem calls into its ambience affairs of love and betrayal, paintings and sculptures, analogies and examples which compose an  imaginary tune of love’s  longing. It enacts in the process of its composition intricate melodies of sounds and ideas. Yet, the poem has a double focus. As it plays out the patterns of exposition, development  and recapitulation — growing out of the blue of “a central sapphire” (81) — it gives instructions about the proper methods of writing the poem; and, in a parallel way, it divide its attention between the consciousness of the poet and the “He” — who “has a heavy head of  dreams” (81) — as the fictive figure of the poet inside the poem. “It was like dreaming,” Duncan tells us, “and in the dream working out the dream.”[6] Behind this double focus stands Stravinsky’s Symphony in  Three Movements, first performed by the New York Philharmonic Society, January 1946. Like its chosen model, Duncan’s poem has three main sections, each presenting variations on the two major themes of jealousy and the joy of love; the poem too has an interlude or bridge between the second and third sections. And like the organization of the first movement of Stravinsky’s symphony, the main sections of Duncan’s  poem, “The Description of Venice,” “Imaginary Instructions,” and “The Venus of Lespuges,” resemble the exposition, development and recapitulation of the sonata form. But unlike its model, the poem adds a “Coda,” in the manner of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, that, in the collect of its reiteration, proclaims the rebirth of the fictive self in the poem.

An immediate, and personal emotional experience reinforces the dualities of the poem. Duncan was having an affair with the poet Gerald Ackerman. Paul Goodman came to Berkeley, met Duncan and Ackerman, and then left town with Ackerman. Duncan was distraught with passions of rage and jealousy, caught between knowing his feelings toward Ackerman were authentic but suffering the inauthentic feeling of betrayal. The scene of San Marco, the references to Shakespeare and the Doge, and the references to works of art all have a local reference. That the poem is grounded in personal experience does not transform it into a symbolic structure. The immediate references add multiply meanings, simultaneous multiple meanings to the poem, charge it up with a passional immediacy that an abstract structure cannot maintain.[7]

The first section, “A Description of Venice,” begins the exposition by setting out the geography and the process of the poem in a description of the square of San Marco with its “wingd heraldic lion” (82) guarding the lions of the square and the “four bronze horses” (82) mounted triumphantly above the main entrance of the cathedral. The cathedral, Duncan notes, has a dual nature of being part of “the carnal world / body” and “the carnal language / poem.” The square itself becomes a “center of that world / like the great sea-shell / coil of Venice” (83), or a primordial source, like that chariot shell in Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Working from the memory of a slide lecture on the city — “lantern-slide visions” (84) — and from color reproductions — “Six-hued colord photographs” (84) — Duncan spreads out the imaginative scene and finds a fictive projection of himself (“He”) in the poem watching a “boy’s eye”:

He has a heavy head of dreams.
Wary tho he seems, his eye
is fixt upon the boy’s eye —
as if he saw all love was frozen there
          in knowing,
forming a central sapphire,
cruel and absolute.

         This jewel,
         from which proceeds,
         as if rays,
         a melody . . . (81)

The “boy’s eye” refers to Landis Everson [see Jacket 26], a poet from Berkeley who has striking blue eyes. In his eye, “He,” fictive Duncan, finds a “central sapphire.” The sapphire and blue reoccur through “The Venice Poem” as “the suspended star-sapphire,” “The sapphire has become extreme and cold,” The sapphire pendant / dangled above the eyes,” “forming a central sapphire, / cruel and absolute,” among others and stands for, Duncan notes, “sapphire of intellect, the passionate intellect, maleness.” So the central passion of male sexual drive is at the center of the poem, and “He” read that out in Landis Everson’s eyes. Both the square and the sapphire are transformed into radiating centers from which the associations of blue, eyes, jewels and sea, as well as the complex associations of the possibilities of love, and the opposite, betrayal of love and jealousy, derive. The poem’s first stanza illustrates the way Duncan introduces an image and then allows it to collect a density of other words and images through the associations of sound:

The lions of Venice crouch

suppliant to the ringing in the air.
The bell tower of San Marco
shakes the gold of sound upon
the slumbering city. Gathering,
the bronze boy burns the blue of sky
with jewel blue eyes. The lions
crouch suppliant to
the ringing, burning blue. (81)

“For me,” Duncan wrote, “the lion is sexual appetite that knows no contradiction within itself.”[8]

So the poem begins with the imaged “He” crouched with sexual passion. As the bell tower, a phallic presence even without Duncan’s note to “penis shakes, Landis.” But on the level of language of the poem, the alliteration on “b,” the repetition of long vowel sounds, and the central word “blue” combine here with golden sounds into the associative mix of sapphire, enacting in miniature the poem’s  technique of shifting images and meanings in the rich accumulation of musical phrases. The process of accumulating sounds of words and elements of sexual passion as if they were notes of a recurring tune informs the sequential movement of the whole poem.

While Venice appears as the city of Venus, with St. Mark as its patron, it also appears as the city of jealous passion, a place with a history of carnal desires. Picking up a reference to Othello from his earlier poem, “An African Elegy,” Duncan introduces Shakespeare and his story of Othello as an example of betrayal and jealousy, the first main theme of the sonata form. Shakespeare worshipped, the poem maintains, in San Marco, and under the “adulterous false domes” conceived or was pushed into a spurious vision of Desdemona by the atmosphere of the place, and the trickery of Iago. He was deceived by the external structures. The architecture of St. Mark’s was modeled after the church of Holy Apostles in Constantinople; but at a later date in the ninth-century Byzantine domes were appointed with the present Venetian coverings, thus obscuring the original silhouette of the church. This reconstruction comes into the poem as the example of the first adulteration of the church, the carnal body and the carnal language of the poem, Jerry Ackerman for whom Duncan had true desire but who was as false as the “pseudo-dome.”

Saint William Shakespeare under the true domes
wept so filld he was with the wonder
of the pseudo-dome, the copper, the splendor,
        saw in a vision
               the virgin Desdemona
               whore of Venice. (82)

At this point, the Doge, or Duke (Jack Spicer by Duncan’s note) who daydreams about “his city’s  yearly repeated / wedding with the adulterous / Adriatic waters” (83), understands better than Shakespeare that the leaping beasts in the flames of the holy-candles are not a perfect vision of love, but display love’s dismal passions, “Desdemona,” as Jerry Ackerman, “whore” of the imaginary place of Venice. The vision counters the message of the annual ceremony known as Sposalizio del Mar  (“The Wedding with the Sea”), performed on Ascension Day, with much pomp and gaiety, as Canaletto shows us in his painting The Feast of the Ascension. In this ceremony the Doge (also Duncan) drops a consecrated ring into the sea from his royal barge (The Bucenataur), declaring the union of the city with the sea. Venus and Venice and the recurring “sapphire” present different faces of the same creative force in the sea: all have the capacity to change countenances. So Duncan as Doge “Upon the blue blue deep I saw in the eyes” (83), saw in Landis’s blue eyes the blue eyes of Jerry Ackerman. And in the description of the city and the plight of Shakespeare (Duncan, the author), praying for a healing between “my lover and myself” (82), the poem labels the city as the yoke of the universal egg, revealed in the blue eyes of the boy “bright with love’s  betrayal of love” (83), and then turns back to pick up from Othello lines which become the Moor’s  song of complaint in this poem:[9]

Alone, I know not where I am.
The world is false as water.
It echoes back the heart’s  desire.
Love burns in changes of the moon. (84)

The poem moves back and forth between the description of the city, the passion of Othello and the poet’s personal torment of jealousy. As the meanings of “blue” grew out of the central sapphire, so the parts of the atmosphere of Venice develop as a melody does, with reiterated notes of meaning in an expanding sequence, the powerful presence of his homosexuality.

Of Desdemona do not say
she was mere spirit but body
in which my virtue lay;
I believed, I had faith.

— In faith, the mind does not weary.
— In faith, the heart knows joy,
leaps up toward its beloved
like a believing hound
lively with dumb piety.(85)

Even Othello knew that through Desdemona he had grasped true love and virtue, and even the imaged “He” (as Duncan) knows that through Jerry Ackerman he also knows true love and virtue, while the taunts of jealousy and betrayal persist. Iago, as Duncan notes, Spicer was also “faithful” and unfaithful at once even though:

He saw my true nature.
He was accurate as an angel. (85)

Spicer knew Duncan’s “true nature” from the beginning.

In an earlier version of “Testimony,” Duncan wrote:

No one has remarked that Proust
was like Shakespeare-Othello or
that he was drawn to Venice
because like Shakespeare
he was jealous and because
Venice is jealousy’s city.[10]

By quoting from Proust”s The Past Remembered at the beginning of “Testimony,” Duncan introduces the second theme of the sonata form — the possibility of grasping the pure image of Venice as the unadulterated emanation of Venus; of recovering from the empire of jealousy the full splendor of love in his personal life.[11] On the personal level of the poem, Duncan frets that in the carnal struggle he may lose the language of the poem, and so pleads that the powerful sexual sources of his jealousy of Jerry and his new lover will continue to “render a rare music” (86). The poem picks up hints from Stravinsky as a point of recovery — “These natural sounds suggest music / . . . It takes / a human being to keep them” (86), and then reaches toward the later brilliant vision of the “Coda”[12]

To savor lust and to create
from lust love’s
immortality —
like Venice
created out of the waters, or Venus
who rides
upon her invented chariot-shell,
fills the poet’s ingenuous machine
with her radiance.
Pure ingenuity could not devise
such a nightingale. (86)

Out of catastrophic betrayal of love’s loyalty, beauty rises, as out of castration Venus rose, for the goddess of love is the prime example of poetic creation in this empire of poetry. Repeated images and themes augment the power of the goddess so fully that the mind itself is taken over into her sway: “as if it were the mind itself / which descends in the poem / and becomes manifest” (86).

The unhappy yet splendid music of the goddess’s presence forces up a retelling of Hesiod’s theogeny of Venus — “Great Jealousy herself is no mere needle” (87). Earlier in this section Duncan made an association between “jealousy” and “a sapphire / or sapphire needle” (87), which has the effect of joining the generative power of his maleness with jealousy and with the Goddess. He is appropriating sections of Hesiod’s story into his personal story. He notes that in this retelling he had the idea that “both Landis and Jerry might be ‘lovers’,” which would then compound his “own failure in love and faith.” Because of this rehearsal, and intense worry, in the invocation Duncan comes to a visionary certainty that despite the “many faces, forms” (86) she takes, out of his attunement with her powers (augmented by his powers) a melody “appears”

as the central portion, the symphonic allegro,
       jeweld perfection of music’s hierarchy. (87)

Here the central sapphire — passionate intellect, maleness — modulates into the “symphonic allegro,” for the intense music of the goddess has claimed the jealousy-riddled poet. After this engagement with the rhythm and the power of the primal genesis, Duncan announces, “There is no pain / that I would not bear for her sake” (87). In his maleness, he becomes a servant of the central, radiating energy, of love, the medium for her generating song.

But the recitative to the powers of love in “Testimony” does not guarantee happiness in love as the next section verifies. “Imaginary Instructions” begins, Duncan notes, with a “letter to Landis in reply to his poem to me,” resembles the development portion of a sonata, and entertains four instructions for writing which derive from the legend that on St. Agnes’ Eve a maiden can look in a mirror and see an image of her future husband. Landis then gets associated with “The young girls” (88). Interacting with the second theme of love’s blooming, the theme of jealousy’s decay leads the second section into a fugal discussion of the procedures of writing poetry (and the sexual frustrations of the poet) in the larger ambience of Venice itself. While he is aware of the many avatars of Venus, Duncan knows that many unlikely faces are likely to appear in the mirror of mystery and poetry. “In the poem as a mirror — the whole world, / an instruction” (88) is the first proposition.

A confession follows with “I no longer know the virgin mirror” (88) which takes the form of a letter to both Jerry Ackerman and to Landis Everson. To both he confesses that he is absurdly unfaithful and even arrogant. To Jerry he says “I am in love with Landis,” and to Landis “I am in love with Jerry.” Homosexual love is a lot more complicated and not as aesthetically beautiful as Bernini’s statue in the “Andrew Mellon museum,” the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. With the virgin view in the mirror lost he declares himself the “cross-eyed king of one thousand lines” (88).[13]  He must, “Duncan notes,” face the sexual fact” or he will end up “naked in a moment’s mirror” (89). As Shakespeare’s Othello focused “A Description of Venice,” and a Venus statue and Rousseau’s painting Le Reve will focus “The Venus of Lespuges,” so Lorenzo Bernni’s  bust of Louis XIV is the artistic center of “Imaginary Instructions.” Bernini’s bust comes into the cadences of the poem as an example of a magnificent view in the mirror which produced an intricate and sensuous form representing in its lines the active energy of the sexual and deific rose unfurling. This monument of delight in stone, however, is not what the poet sees when his excesses are stripped before the telling mirror. “This,” he says, referring to himself, “is not the exalted face/ Bernini saw — / the forlorn cocksucker is not wonderful” (89).

The second proposition, “in the mirror,/ the Part — / consternation of a whole world” (89-90), picks up the image of the unfolding rose used to describe the bust and extends it to the unfolding, “Faithless and painful” (90), of homosexual love, into which he is drawn with the full awareness that “Buggary stirs enmity, unguarded hatred” (90):

Yet here seeks the heart solace.
Nature barely provides for it.
Men fuck men by audacity.
Yet here the heart bounds
       as if only here,
here it might rest. (90)

Duncan notes: “Impossible true — or is it what I am that stirs enmity. Anyway this passages show how thoroughly Catholic and / or orthodox Freudian my concept is.” In this second statement the contrary emotions of grief and joy emerge as the passional, and very personal, basis of the poem. And in this victory won from the consternation of opposing melodies, a necessity declares itself to reconcile the unnatural, naturalness of his sexual drives and motivations of the goddess with the literary directions of Ezra Pound, which guard against the over-straining of the form and technique of the poem itself:

“We must understand what is happening”;
watch “the duration of syllables
      “the melodic coherence,
      “the tone leading of vowels”
“The function of poetry is to debunk by lucidity.” (91)[14]

Transcribed out of the correspondence with Pound, the instructions push the poem into the formal concerns of writing poetry, provide another center for radiating variations, by affirming the musical basis of poetry, and lead directly to the third proposition:

a realistic image
       as if that virgin upon St. Agnes Eve
       had seen
       old Nobody
wearing a face in the mirror. (91)

Duncan notes about this passage, toward knowing what was happening: “That virgin,” Landis, accused me of having ‘no face,’ ‘a meaningless expression’ ‘and Jerry in anger or madness’ did not know me’.” A melody based on personal experiences of difficult relationships develops into a meditation on love, gathering images of sapphires (as before the intellect and maleness), the many faces, forms of the goddess, the rose, and the leaping flames of Shakespeare’s candles, in a radiant complex of association.

       Everywhere, everywhere
she calls her hounds about her
who leap up, joyous,
       dumb beasts of pleasure. (92)

After this demonstration, the poem, with questions to “Ephebe” (92), Landis, Duncan notes — the emerging poet — enters the tedium of the daily enterprise of the Venetians, who, as modern representatives of the commercial empire of their city, are far removed from the life of the musical and poetic mind.[15] “The invented head” (93) occupies a different space than the “princes of money” (92), although both wear corduroy, the native Venetian elegance outshines the speaker, who recognizes in the pun “cord-du-roy” (92) cord-du-roi, or cords of the king another suggestion of the fictive “He” who began the poem, here appearing in the posture of the legendary King Canute as a figure of the “He”: The question, Duncan notes “have I fallen in love with Landis.”

          Has he fallen in love?
          He falls
but never to the depth.
Like Canute he plays sovereign to the sea.
He sits for hours as if he might hold it back,
          eyes fixt upon the tide,
          cross-eyed king of one thousand lines. (93)

The first stirrings of a rebirth of the fictive figure enters the poem; and with a compelling double focus, Duncan speculates about this figure’s fascination with love, and how he waits for “the allegro” (93), that quick and vigorous beat of renewal, as if he were not dealing with himself. And with a final terse statement of the process of poetry — “the mirror as imitation, as poem, / STOPS. changes” (94), the main part of the second movement concludes, and prepares for the Interlude, “Recorso,” where the visionary process unfolds. Duncan notes that based on the “fanatical narcissism” of the inventing “poet’s listening head” (94) in this closing passage, “the loss of real love is forecast.”

Rising out of the rhythm of the “dream of sea-surge, / the tide, the tide of events” (94), “Recorso,” a bridge between the second and third sections, hovers in anticipation of a full immersion in the music of primal creation. The sea as a metaphor of the whole atmosphere of love, jealousy, music and visions becomes the “Quickground of images, rising falling” (94), which contains multiple and shifting movements of thought and feeling. Coming into a vision under the title of Vico’s notions of recurrence is a process of realizing the tempered readiness to receive that vision; and this sacred yet terrifying element counters the traumas of jealousy and despair.

Sometimes, in the mind’s closed eye,
everything springs into flame,
hot as radium, unstable,
death of the touch,
                 the whole sea raging, rising . . . (94)

Duncan and Jerry, on the personal level of the poem, pass through anger “the whole sea raging” and love “we float, touching, alive” (94). “He,” the imagined poet, concludes “I do not know. I Am afraid” (95).

With the literary support of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem which also studies out the emotional relationships between a central “He,” and other people — “the woman climbing / up the stairs, up and up, to and fro — “  (95), the poem reaches forward toward a full definition of love itself. The release into “Love’s  great light” (94) is only momentary; it passes like the sea surge, as the face in the mirror changes. Yet, in the “assembling of repeated forms” (95) and images of the sea, lions, and the splendid motion of the colors “rose, ultimarine” (95), the poem entertains the possibility of a full visionary wholeness. Finding the community of love in the world of the living is still possible.

the dropt cup reappears from its fragments,
        springs to the hand as if from nowhere
                 complete. (95)

Duncan remarks that “The theme of the last year (1950) when I have loved loosely in the unhappy prayer ‘heal’ or that dropd cup might reappear from its fragments.”[16] By picking up the positive movement of “Testimony,” this musical bridge augments the second theme, and leads directly into the rehearsals of “The Venus of Lespuges.”

The third section, “The Venus of Lespuges,” the recapitulation of this sonata poem, reviews in a litany of praise and envy the emergence of the first forms, of the artistic identification of Love herself.[17] The double scheme of descent to the music of generation and the acknowledged affinity with the varieties of first forms align “The Venus of Lespuges” with the design of the first and second themes of the previous sections; but the imperatives of the combining process, which are completed in the “Coda,” assert themselves here. As the poem expands images and ideas that have appeared earlier, it demonstrates the process of writing that the poem itself instructs. The first to come into the lines is the Venus of Lespuges, a paleolithic statue, whose “female musical body” (96) anticipates the later manifestations of Aphrodite, Mother, “The queen of hearts “(96), and Eleanor of Aquitaine.[18]

I return to first things. Her image looms
       wherein lies the universe
       Of felt things; from which
       the spirit is flung outward,
       born out of the fat fruit (96)

The dominant example-image comes from Henri Rousseau’s painting Le Reve, which depicts a woman with “pearl-like lustrous flesh” (97) reclining on a horsehair couch in a jungle scene filled with the searching eyes of animals and the tense anticipation of music.[19] Through the rehearsal of the many faces, forms of the goddess, whose servant the poet is, the processes of first creation are enacted, demonstrated, and the genealogy of love’s forms established. “The weight of her breasts, / the weight of words” (97), the struggle in the carnal world first of San Marco and now of Berkeley leads toward the transfer of the sexual urge to the “star-sapphire,” to the intellectual blue, maleness. The following lines use sexual images from the beginning lines of the poem:

stirring the depths
from which the crest rises
or the touch of the viol string

       the head singing (97)

The penis vibrates at the point of ejaculation, and leads “into the male, like the suspended star-sapphire” (97).[20] The following lines assert the power of maleness, and at the end of it “She (Fanny) was amused” (98), as if Duncan were recounting an actual conversation. But the flood of “first forms” then leads to a change in direction for “He,” the imagined poet of the poem,

hit upon the image when he remarkt
   the poet slept within the statue
   while the war raged. (98)

Then Duncan comments on the lines “but this poet slept inside the nightmare of his poem while the adultery) raged.” “He” is more than a simple  representation of the Poet in the poem, but a fictive person of the poem in the manner Duncan had learned from Browning and then Ezra Pound.

With another invocation to the focusing and radiating power of the blue sapphire, the poem picks up echoes of its first lines before returning to a fuller description of Le Reve. In this description, the analogy between the woman on the couch surrounded by the jungle dense with searching eyes and the poet becomes clearer:

The concrete image moves upward
        into the coherent
        only in sound,
        in the tone leading of vowels,
        in the humming, the hesitating.

       She lies on the horsehair sofa,
       placed in the visual jungle,
       surrounded by plants and animals
                 of the eye.

       This is the painter’s real world.
       She hesitates upon the verge of sound.
       She waits upon a sounding impossibility,
                upon the edge of poetry. (99)

The goddess rising out of the sea and the woman appearing in Rousseau’s painting illustrate the same primordial process; and this process is now metamorphosed into the act of poetry, sustained in the repetition of Pound’s instructions of “tone leading of vowels,” and enacted as an integrated procedure of the poem’s sonata structure. In its repetitions and variations of images and ideas, and its procedure of allowing the music of generation to arouse meaning in the sounds of words, the poem demonstrates the process of poetry that it describes. Even at the end of the rehearsals of the primordial images, and the integration of the poetics with the visionary perception, the poem still questions “He’s” position: “What is happening?” (100)

The “Coda” Duncan notes is “to Jerry, and Jerry alone now I know.” It begins with a polyphonic reiteration that leads to a fusion of the two main themes of the joy and jealousy of love and in the lines below, the impulse to maleness and the sounds of poetry.

Between the sapphire and the sound
unfurls the rose of vision;
             tears from a stone
             unlock the stone. (100)

The intrinsic rhythm of T. S. Eliot’s  lines from “The Hollow Men,”

Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the shadow,

provides a portion of the musical meaning here and contributes to the intellectual and emotional complex that combines the radiating sapphire as love’s passionate source and the “mimic murmer” (100) of the goddess’s music. Between the personal and the eternal rebirth unfolds the rose, which figured in the description of Bernini’s  bust and later appeared as a sexual value, now announces itself as an aspect of Dante’s  divine rose. And the stone, which was first the philosopher’s stone and then the sapphire, unlocks its secrets which turn out to be the keys to the rebirth of the poet. “Yet in the ‘Coda’ of that poem,” Duncan writes, “I had come upon an ecstatic promise: that Hell was the womb of Heaven; that the extreme passion of painful experience of love in conflict was the formation of a passage in feeling in which a new self was to be born.”[21] Again like Beethoven’s Third Symphony, this coda is not simply a conclusion; it is a reiteration which starts another beginning, projects a new life of the mind in the melodies of musical measures.

Here at last is the place of no gods.
Venice has perisht, fallen into disrepair.
The sapphire has become extreme and cold
as if it took all strength to bear. (101)

“He” adds up the images and themes of the poem only to find himself isolated from spirituality, the vision of Venice as the model for beauty, and the power of homosexual desire now gone “cold.” Despair is near. “I am barely able to go on” (101). Duncan notes about the beginning of the poem: “This is at once my agony’ and one’s not-love but hatred wanting the betraying lover to share the agony (and hence the reader to share the agony — had Jerry ever loved me this passage is a monstrous cruelty to him; which he to me never matchd.” Under forms of expression and the pattern of reference remains the traumatic experience of betrayal and intense jealousy. The central scene follows:

When you come to death’s door and he won’t let you in,
you can hear the bed groan and the adulterous sounds
wound and wound but they do not kill. BANG. (102)

Duncan notes at this passage: “This happened a year later Paul Goodman and Jerry.” “Here Jerry left me and was not going to return.” And more specifically, under the forms and patterns at a lower level lies the specific, personal experience that energizes the poem.

With the goddess and her music gone, doggerel takes over as an example of music’s betrayal, corresponding to the betrayal of the lover “in a new lover’s  arms” (102). After descending to the agony of the deep violation of love, the poem turns itself around for another repetition of previous images and themes:

The lion-life sea
caught in the cup
of the particular Red Sea Spider Shell,
coil of Venus, natural ear,
Love’s  avatar was held, perpetually
       to speak . . .

Hear the lion’s roar in the shell. (102-03)

“Driven by the language itself” (102), the poet must follow the lines (lions) of his agony, denying the structures of logic, into the deprivation of human sense, hoping deliverance will arrive.

There is no thought here.
        Logic forbade this.
        All that we value:
        order, remembrance,
        human nature and conduct
        natural coherence —  (103)

“Argument contra,” Duncan notes about these lines, “Spicer’s growing dislike of the poem” then turns to an analysis of He.

has gone further than this art allows,
       losing so many values
just for that sound. (103)

The poem’s second movement begins: “There Then” (104). Duncan notes, “Tommy Langworth’s grandmother inspired the consummation.” A specific person forces the long supplication to Jerry to return, which in actual fact he does not. The poem analyzes the position of “He.” Duncan discusses his own responses, attitudes and passions as if they belonged to another person; and that person is the fictive figure of the poet, who leads him from the point of distraction outside the musical ambience of the territory of Venice, back to a reevaluation of the candles Shakespeare lit to the Holy Mother in “A Description of Venice.” The candles become a center which appears and reappears and directs the poem back into the heart of the lands of Venice, for Shakespeare’s candles contain the mysteries, love and hope of regeneration for the “He.” And then the accumulated music and meaning of the candles are transformed into the sapphire:

The sapphire pendant
dangled above the eyes
catching the light
or the soothing voice
in whose ambience first
faith was full:
these things are earlier
than we know. (106)

And this leads, in another transformation, to the experienced rebirth of “He,” who now occupies the primal, generative center, the shell of  Venus herself:

Baby is charmd by the bells ringing.
Baby is charmd by the towers swaying,
hearing each sound
in the morning din.
Little cross-eyed king held
secure in the center of all things.

Baby blue — all eyes — my eyes
fixt upon the central sapphire. . . (107)

“The Coda of ‘The Venice Poem’,” Duncan writes, “brought me to a baby’s  concentration in delite upon a star-sapphire pendant that was, whatever in memory of some past event it might have been, in the time of the poem a birth of a focus in me.’”[22] And the focus strikes up the melodies of visionary renewal rising out of the terrors of passional isolation. The “He” of the poem experiences spiritual rebirth out of the hellish dwelling of adultery and jealousy. Duncan notes: “I am not yet (October 1950) born out of that form (les marriages des ours); being capable as a poet of more than I can consummate as a man.”

In “The Truth and Life of Myth” Duncan writes: “I compose by the tone-leading of vowels, the vowels are notes of a scale, in which breaths move, but these soundings of spirit upon which the form of the poem depends are not constant.’”[23]In “The Venice Poem” Duncan arrived at his first full notion of the attunement of music and poetry, and projected a kind of poetry which delineates itself most clearly as a moving process, not a statement of predeterminations. Actually, the form of the poem, as it rises out of the impulse of musical association, by-passes coherent arguments. And while this poem has a general analogy with a sonata, its larger achievement comes from the process of projecting itself outward from a point of central generation without adherence to conventional structures. The rhythms of music, as waves of thought and emotion, form line lengths and stanzaic patterns. The poem projects a territory of psychic activity, Venice; and because the painting of Rousseau, the writing of Shakespeare and Proust, the sculpture of Bernini also occupy the same area, they come into the poem as part of the ambience of that territory. But the poem is also based in intense personal and emotional events. “Only that its is true redeems it=poem,” Duncan notes. The “He’ is reborn in the imaginative structure, while Duncan as a person is caught in the turmoil of the event. “But of course: what ‘The Venice Poem’ really says is that my love for Jerry was a conception of myself thru him and in separation from him a painful re-birth, a Vita Nuova.”[24] The poem tells the truth of the occasion and so redeems itself not the poet who wrote it. The visual images change and move as if they were musical notes, creating in their transformations a sense in which many voices sound simultaneously the melody of their involvement in the imagination’s life.

There is no life that does not rise
melodic from scales of the marvelous. —

To which our grief refers.[25]

For when Duncan sought out the life of the imagination motivated by the claims of love, and imagined a fictive figure of himself, he proclaimed a poetry of beginnings. Or, as the recent “Passages Poems” confirm, Duncan’s art of poetry is the process of reaffirming this attunement to cosmic powers of creation, and so the poetry enacts the process of genesis as the most real force at the center of all things. “The Venice Poem” is Duncan’s early execution of the formal design, thematic and referential of the symphonic form. While other later poems, like “The Continents” and “Apprehensions,” use the structures of symphonic form, “The Venice Poem” remains the most complete example of the form in all of Duncan’s poetry.


[1] An earler version of this essay was published as Robert J. Bertholf and Ruth Nurmi, “‘Scales of the Marvelous’: Robert Duncan’s ‘The Venice Poem’,” New Poetry 23.2 (1976): 22–32. Ruth Nurmi is an accomplish harpsicord player whom Duncan met at Kent State University in Ohio. See her book, A Plain and Easy Introduction to the Harpsicord (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974).

[2] Robin Blaser writes: “I’m interested in a particular kind of narrative — what Jack Spicer and I agreed to call in our own work the serial poem — this is a narrative: which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems, if, in fact, a reader insists upon a definition of completion which is separate from the activity of the poems themselves.” [“The Fire,” Caterpillar 12 (1970): 17.]

[3] Robert Duncan, Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-50, with Paste-ups by Jess (San Francisco: Sand Dollar, 1972), x.

[4] Duncan wrote later about the poem: “The imaginary dialectic of the poem proceeds in a development by variations and counterpoint (an idea tone coming in counterpoint to the lingering tone of a previously developed melody — memory itself supplying in its timeless or tuneful inclusion of all that has been heard — the harmonies of many tones) — a counterpoint of themes developing thru a set of objects of our experience in the visual world of art — the Cathedral of St.Marks, the Berinni head, the Rousseau portrait of his mistress, the Venus of Lespuges — the movie Ballet Mechanique of Leger. And thru a set of legends — of Othello, of the birth of Venus, of St. Agnes Eve (Keats); orchestrated by the intellectual devices of the theories of sound and vision or the lapidary alchemical section on the Sapphire, or the “Freudian analysis” and the speculations upon Shakespeare and love. None of these are mere structure; but are devices as the skeleton and organism, cunningly wrought, as the desire of what we feel and know” (Untitled Manuscript, Bancroft Library, Univesity of California, Berkeley).

[5] All reference to “The Venice Poem” will be from Robert Duncan, The First Decade: Selected Poems 1940-1950 (London: Fulcrum Press, 1968) and will be included in the text.

[6] Caesar’s Gate, xii.

[7] In 1950, Robert Duncan annotated one copy of “The Venice Poem” in Poems 1948-49. I will rely on his identifications and notes to clarify the immediate references in the poem. (Duncan Papers, The Poetry Collection, Univeristy at Buffalo, The State University of New York).

[8] “Pages from a Notebook,” in Donald Allen ed., The New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 405.

[9] Relevant passages from Othello are as follows: “Think’st though I’d make a life of jealousy, / To follow still the changes of the moon / With fresh suspicions” (III, iii, 177-79); “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipses of sun and moon that the affrighted globe / Did yawn at alternation” (V, ii, 99-101); “It is the very error of the moon; / She comes more nearer earth than she was wont, / And makes men mad” (V, ii, 109-11).

[10] Cited from Berkeley Miscellany no. 1 (1948): 8.

[11] Robert Duncan, in a letter to the author dated 26 April, 1974, identified the following passage from Le temps retrouvé as the one taken over into the poem: “ — sans doute, au moment où l’inégalite des deux pavés avait prolongé les images desséchées et minces que j’avais de Venise et de Saint-Marc. . . j’avais été tente, sinon, à cause de la saison, d’aller me repromener sur les eaux pour moi surtout printanières de Venise, du moins de retourner à Balbec.” [Marcel Proust, Le temps retrouvé, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 1: 234.

[12] The whole passage runs as follows: “These natural sounds suggest music to us, but are not yet themselves music. If we take pleasure in these sounds by imagining that on being exposed to them we become musicians and even momentarily, creative musicians, we admit that we are fooling ourselves. They are promises of music; it takes a human being to keep them.” [Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music: In the Form of Six Lessons, trans. Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl (1942;. New York: Vintage-Knopf, 1949): 23-24.]

[13] As a result of a childhood accident, Duncan looked as if he were crosseyed, when in fact one eye wandered because of severed muscels.

[14] Duncan notes that the directions for writing by Ezra Pound were sent to him by Dallam Simpson and were called “The Clearners Manifesto.” The “Manifesto” appeared in the publication Simpson edited, Four Pages no. 3 (March 1948): 3.

[15] Wallace Stevens begins “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” with the lines:

Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea
Of this invention, this invented world,
The inconceivable idea of the sun.

Like Stevens, Duncan uses the word “Ephebe” to mean a young and emerging poet. Duncan read Stevens during this period, as the close relationship of the rhythms of Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning” and the closing section of Duncan’s poem “Heavenly City, Earthly City” indicates.

[16] Duncan could be referring to the cup in Mary Butts’s novel Armed with Madness (London: Wishart & Cmpnay, 1928) in which the cup is a central image.

[17] Duncan wrote the name “Fanny Secord” under the section’s tile, but did not specify how this woman whom he knew in Berkeley related to the poem. He does write in an unpublished document about the poem: “five months later the apprehension of something archaic and polymorphously sexual in a fat woman met again and again, sought out after the first meeting; at gatherings or at bars.” Fanny Secord could be this woman. Several lines below next to the line, “In the cards she is the queen of hearts” Duncan wrote: “I actually cut the cards in trying to read Fanny’s fortune” (Duncan Papers, The Poetry/Rare Books Collection, Univeristy at Buffalo, The State University of New York).

[18] For reproductions of the statue of the Venus of Lespuges see Siegfried Giedon, The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1962), 444. Published in Bollingen Series XXXV.

[19] This painting is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City where Duncan woud have seen it many times when he lived in the city in the early 1940s.

[20] Duncan wrote the name “Dennis Dunn” beside this lines.

[21] Caesar’s Gate, ix.

[22] Robert Duncan, “The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography,” in Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985), 32.

[23] Ibid 50.

[24] Robert Duncan “[note]” Notebook 24 (Duncan Papers, The Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York).

[25] “Apprehensions” in Roots and Branches (New York: New Directions, 1969), 43.

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