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“Here at the last minute”

Letters from Robert Duncan to Chris Edwards, 1977–1980 (excerpts)

Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan, San Francisco, 1976.
Photograph by J.V.Byrnes.

On a morning of slow grey drizzle in the southern spring of 1976, at Robert and Cheryl Adamson’s living room table at Lane Cove, Sydney, between bites of a late breakfast and occasional snatches of quiet conversation, Robert Duncan began writing “An Alternate Life”, a poem that evolved from and partly recounts his experiences whilst visiting Australia. He was here on a reading and lecture tour. He’d brought with him the booklets and manuscripts that later became Ground Work: Before the War, his first major collection since Bending the Bow, though it didn’t yet have that title (he referred to its contents generically as “ground work”) and wouldn’t be published until 1984. “An Alternate Life” turned out to be the start of a new book, his last, Ground Work II: In the Dark.

The handwritten draft of the poem written at Lane Cove bore the title “An Alternative Life & My Own Particular Death”, but by the time it was typed up a few days later, that had been changed to “In the South” and there were now further sections projected — three as it turned out (“Homecoming”, “Supplication”, “The Quotidian”) — to make up the larger poetic structure, “An Alternate Life”. Only “In the South”, which RD later commented was “so much meant to be a part of Australia’s New Poetry”, was written in Sydney. The other three sections were written in San Francisco during the subsequent northern winter and spring, and the sequence in its entirety, “the set” as he called it, was published in one of two issues of New Poetry I guest-edited in May 1977 (Vol. 25 No. 1).

My intermittent correspondence with RD, which began shortly after we met, was sometimes conducted on the back of manuscripts, like the carefully marked-up typescript of “An Alternate Life” he sent to me from London, sometimes via aerogrammes or letters. We kept in touch for about four years, and I suspect I imposed rather freely on his patience — by asking lots of questions for example, not only about shared interests like contemporary poetry, but also about my own obsessions, like the French theorists I was then reading. What follows is an anthology of excerpts from his responses, grouped under three main headings: “Dangerously poetic”, “On poetics and ‘the discourse’” and “On Australian poets”.

Two Australian poets referred to enthusiastically by him (Stephen Murray and John Hinton, whose work I included in New Poetry Vol. 25 No. 2) won’t be known to many readers because they stopped publishing poetry, to the best of my knowledge, in the late 1970s, so I’ve added a footnote, “Vanishing Acts”, which gives a brief account of their work.

— Chris Edwards, June 2005

Dangerously poetic

[28 April 1977]

dear Chris,

Here at the last minute, in the midst of a morning’s packing to take off for Paris, Chantilly, and then Belgium, I’ve managed to finish the proof readings and marking the caesuras in An Alternate Life for you. I’ve been reading the set in Colorado at both readings, in Boston at the Radcliff Harvard reading, and at the Cambridge festival, until I know the minute adjustments I want ... The close with its full rimes and its metaphorical current is, as I still feel it, dangerously poetic. Yet, the more so, I know it to be necessary. Not for the feeling alone, but for the projection of further urgencies in my work [that] belong to the project of some spiritual necessity in the realm of the “you” (as the realm of the “He” had been so much the project of Circulations [“Circulations of the Song”, in Ground Work: Before the War]).

London, in this household of the painter Kitaj — who has his own cult of Jess — in the period of a new exhibition’s being mounted, and, moreover with both Creeley and me as houseguests this last week — has been crowded with impressions and speculations and with renewals of personal continuities. In An Alternate Life I at last have a real book for Kitaj to work with, a book long promised him. ... When I return later in May for another two weeks here, Kitaj will be doing a suite of portrait etchings from me and drawing me again for a dual portrait he is doing of Creeley/ Duncan.

Belgium will be formidable I almost fear. The Tel Quel intellectuals will be at the colloquium, it turns out, in force: the poet Denis Roche, and the theorist Derrida (at present a rage in American circles). I have still to write the section of my essay that is to be presented there. And [Serge] Fouchereau [Duncan’s translator] will be training me to present it in French (look the dog is talking! as well as sitting up and begging for a nice petting and a little present!)

On poetics and “the discourse”

The sense to use the plural

[30 May 1978] ... My poetics is deliberately asystematic, that is, it tries to undermine its own system: not the same thing as succeeding in doing so. If the cosmos picture has changed since Galileo, the mind still proceeds by reading the picture. There is one presiding superstition, Whitehead notes in Process and Reality — and that is that the universe is mathematical in its nature. How retrograde from such an insight I am in taking it to be in every turn of our recognitions a turn in our problems of reading. I do know that just as I take hold of experience to read “as a book” (as Marx takes hold of history to read the plot of his poet-Hegelian insights, and verifiably our reading of history changes) (or as Freud takes hold of dream and daily life to read the signs of his fin-de-siècle sexual malaise change over into beginning of the century “liberation”) than the book proves not to contain most patent daily events as language. And extend language to include gesture, body language, visual arrangements, assemblages — experience draws upon non-language. Experience feels more extensive than any consciousness.

The universe at the level of feeling seems continuous. It’s in consciousness, in the intentional, the deliberate, the feeling itself, that contrast, brokenness, the inarticulate appears. If the feeling be appropriate to what is felt, we expect the universe to be discontinuous. Well, I am no Berkleyan to believe or disbelieve the consciousness to determine the nature of mind or of universe. And admitting how much unconscious (i.e. unknowable, and hence not having any such content as Freud or Jung presume, all such content being patently part of our conscious language and figurations) mind beyond the domain of conscious mind, I can’t imagine mind as discontinuous. Our experience of “mind” is our experience of the universe; only when we take each his brain to be a “mind” or to be “Mind” and then design a universe to fit do we take the functions of the brain to be a model of What Is.

My predisposition is toward multiphasic, multivalent operations. Not from philosophy, but from contemporary microbiology do I get the term “multivalent analysis” — Nothing wrong with the extension of analyses that Marx and Freud provide except for their monotheistic one-way insistence that can only give way to splits and heresies, internal crises. It’s the multivalent sense of forces in Heraklitus that draws me toward him.

It would sooner or later be an impossible job to make a case for my being a true Blakean, for the Natural world, which Blake so abhord, is I believe the ground of all spirit and psyche. “Other” worlds are extensions of our physical universe. The DNA and now the vision of the composite nature of our own cells, where we find the genetic pattern is partly viral information, symbiotic coding — essential cellular functions are not “our own” — or, rather, the sense to use the plural first person is accurate indeed.

Fascinating as Freud and Marx are to read, they both fall apart at the one point they thought themselves scientific: as new biological facts and new molecular and subatomic chemistries have come clear their readings of the issues of evolution and environment become antiquated, i.e. can’t contain new information.

But I am hopelessly astray from my possible competence. My interest in Freud and his immediate circle of Jones, Mélanie Klein, Rohem, Ferencsi, Reich (early) up to the, i.e. including The Function of the Orgasm and my frequently hostile interest in Jung must be dated 1936 — 1946. And while I continue to read and re-read the school — I read them as I read gnostics and old grimoires. I would no sooner apply Freud than I would apply St Thomas Aquinas, as a psychology. I assume that Freud presents problems not solutions in reading. So I find my attention astray when I try out the Anti-Oedipe of Deleuze and Guattari or Lacan’s hermeneutics which have to do with being involved with psyche-analysis. They sit there on my shelf yet to be read. I am, after a year, still short of the Intermediate level in thinking and speaking French and it will be, I am sure, two more years before my thought can approach my reading.

Meanwhile I am immersed in Baudelaire — appropriately enough for a bourgeois (in the sense of my owning property in a city, living majorly on my income from products bearing variously won seals of public approval in the establishment — unlike Ginsberg I am not a “people’s” poet — and from a monthly subsistence from a TRUST fund, conforming in my emotional conflicts true to the type drawn by Dickens, Balzac etc., a remnant of nineteenth century mind a hundred years later) poet. And even venturing, if not the cult of insolence, the flair for dress...

Problems of a foreign field

[30 May 1978] ... Althusser I am ignorant of. Lacan I have but dipt into with the prejudice that I disliked Blaser’s use of Lacan as an authority in reading Spicer. No fault of Lacan’s.

But Foucault I had read with some pleasure indeed and the pleasure of agreeing and following his course eagerly — then switching over to reading, as much as I could, only in French, I found myself with An Archaeology of Knowledge I had picked up in English ruled out, and no copy of L’Archéologie du Savoir found along my rummaging courses to date.

But the whole French intellectual world has been in a continuous discours (as if that were even a language) — even poets write into that discourse. Céline and Artaud strive to brutalize the discourse (think what would have happened if Adamson had torn down the Australian barely begun poetic discourse instead of a mere house or a revue!), to drive it up the wall of the cave it came from — only to be submerged Sartre and after and restored to the given Marxian and Freudian debate that has ruled the scene. Artaud is a crisis in the discourse.

But Rimbaud is a crisis in poetry. Baudelaire I take to be the ground in which the trouble is at work. And there I am determined to stay (going no further in reading than I can learn by heart), learn my waters before I take soundings up stream or down stream.

Poetry — making things up to speak or sing — but the made-up is not the same thing as the discourse. Especially in English poets have sought the patronage and approval of the realm of discourse (and even, monstrously, I have suggested possibilities of discourse for discursive readers) even as once they sought the amusement of great queens and beneficent lords: it’s the matter of our living.

When Olson ranted against the realm of discourse, I thought of Weber and Cassirer whose work I continue to love. Yet Charles must have belonged to some part of the Renaissance “mind,” for at the last he insists upon his being, of all things, a humanist. As in the notation to the Dante Études I insist upon my being “a liberal” fully in the Mills sense as far as I can read it. I view the society of my poetry as a pluralistic community, having in no ultimate sense a single goal. I strive for an assemblage of positions, so whatever contra-diction would be only incidental, a local thrust. For a dialectic you have to have a course, not a field of courses.
[31 May 1978] My impulse this morning was to discard last night’s letter — All my effort to connect with the issues of current French intellectual discourse seems so vain. I am, after all, a poet not a responsible philosopher. If I search Heraklitus, Empedocles, Parmenides it is because I sense some revelation of poetry there. Whitehead and Heidegger write like poets. And in the history of ideas — Cassirer and Foucault (tho he does seem glib over against the order of Cassirer’s mind) — it is a romance I am in quest of. A true child of Dewey and James I am a pragmatist and the poem is my practice.

So, evidemment, Althusser and Lacan present problems of a foreign field. Derrida I think hostile to the spirit of poetry as such.

At the colloque

[31 May 1978] ... At the colloque in Belgium there was a young philosopher/ poet (possible, if Nietzsche be taken into the philosopher’s department — certainly his primary concern is the nature, dynamics and telling force of the poetic or creative) — Jacques Sojcher, whose dissertation was on Nietzsche and who publisht last year a work on current French/ Belgian poetics. One centre is the work of Edmond Jabès, a french-jew of Alexandria or Cairo who has written a remarkable series of books [ The Book of Questions] ... in which he brings into the plot the very plot of sentence and phrase, keeping alive thruout the presence as drama of the writer and the reader (with all the jewish trouble with authority in creation as a drama) —

At Cambridge and again in Belgium and in Paris I met and saw a good deal of Michel Deguy and Marc Roubaud of the Change group. But especially I came to know the work of a set of young poets (in their early thirties) Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet-Journoud, Emmanuel Hocquard (who printed by hand a very in-group edition (of 16 copies!) of a poem of mine), Mathieu Bénézet (who has out this year in the 10/ 18 series a new book Le Roman de la langue and in whose own series Premier Livraison my first poem in french to be publisht appeard) and most of all as a poet for me Jean Daive whose work I read in turn as I read Baudelaire.

The colloquium appears in the collection Trace (Payot, Paris 1978) with the title Le Récit et sa représentation: colloque de Saint-Hubert 5 — 8 Mai 1977. And my very brief paper “Le son écrit d’un texte parlé” was translated from my loaded English by Serge Fouchereau at the last minute and sight read in my very embarrassing french.

Did I overstate ... ?

[27 September 1978] ... Did I overstate in order only to affirm what a primary business Poetry is in its own rights? Certainly I too would need and do the challenge of the questions and the propositions of system that philosophy proposes and to “hear” how the matter of what is true and false, what primary and but accompanying, sounds over there. I do after all read and reread James, Whitehead and Heidegger as sources not only of inspiration but of taking measure of concepts and of how I see the world.

On Australian poets

I hear frequently a voice

[In late 1976 or early 1977, I sent RD some cassette tapes of Australian poets reading their work. He wrote back while listening to one of them. — CE]

[3 Feb 1977] ... As I write, [Bruce] Beaver is reading — a background of almost exact William Carlos Williams diction of the poem. A ravishing affinity. And I received David Malouf’s book [ Poems 1975 — 76] — where it seems to me I hear frequently a voice close to my own — more consistent or tempered in a closer, a civilized, scale. Certainly I’ve found already — just in the harmonics — great pleasures ... Stephen Murray reading now the voice — a little too fast perhaps? — but the energy specific enuf to make its mark. “The mind gets out of the head...” But what a unique set of vowel-phones you Australians have! Delicious. This poetry takes over my attentions — its announcements of dancers, architectures, and its inner mind-converse draws me away from the letter.

A kindred strain

[28 April 1977] ... Bob C[reeley] relays to me report that [Robert] Adamson had left, has left, Cheryl [an inaccurate way of stating what was nonetheless true: that their marriage had ended — CE] — not entirely surprising, but saddening indeed. ... He lives so on impulse and feeding into old compulsions. I realize that his music is one of impulse and compulsion (“what compells”), and know that it’s the very kindred strain that draws him to my work. But the art needs too the foundational — to address the “ground” — and the declaration and carrying through of an architecture. Aie! we do not get to know where the right nature must take hold.

Hovering in rushes

[30 May 1978] ... Today the copies of [ New Poetry] vol. 25, nos. 1 & 2 arrived ... Just  looking them over — the Stephen Murray pieces are truly ravishing — I do mean an erotic confounding poetry makes in poets’ mind — and in the sequence the force of John Hinton’s language is clear and strong indeed (I’d love to hear it [Hinton’s poem “Dust”] read). I will take his voice as it is on the cassette recording and that will concur with the deliberation and daring, the throw of the line I hear, but in my head “Dust” is, as it appears on the page, hovering in rushes...

... Bruce Beaver’s work brings back (forward, foreword) to me the rapport I felt immediately for him and his wife [Brenda], and then the moving power of his lines for me. Is “fiersome” in “Flying Text” “fierce-some” or “fearsome” (?) I find, searching the word, “fieri,” “in fieri” — in the process of being made or coming into being —

Term papers

[27 September 1978] ... I’ve got An Alternate Life thru to the most recent sets I did at Boulder this last summer on a cassette for you and have only to fill it in by transcribing some recordings of Jess and of Michael Palmer. And there remains — if friendship mean anything at all — and here the closer fellowship of a shared work — to get off to you some currencies in American writing — You are very close in your “Rites de passage” and “Story” to recent work of Michael Davidson and Michael Palmer.

Meanwhile I am in the midst of a piece for a Zukofsky memorial issue of Paideuma. And I have to write this coming month a Whitman lecture and two lectures on Charles Olson’s ideas of time and his time in practice. Aie! so at 60, I am still facing “term papers.”

A giant immodesty

[28 January 1980] Now in two days first the Brennan Prose and then your packet of New Poetry, Tranters, and Hinton’s Dingo Baiter have arrived ...

What happened to the Ms in Tranter’s anthology [ The New Australian Poetry, Makar, 1979]?* No [David] Malouf, [K. L.] Macrae, [John] Millett, [Stephen] Murray! (*”But this book is not meant as a state-of-the-art review.”) An anthos is, by the way, a flower; and an anthology: a bouquet of logos, I guess.

One Edwards, I guess, hasn’t got a book on the shelf to be pluckt from which. There was something in your letters about my being quoted as saying there was nothing cooking in Australian poetry ... and now I remember I was waiting to hear what the source of that attribution was. There is the fact, of course, that I am liable to “say” any bright shiny or bitey thing that on the moment might upset a hearer if the sport occurs to me along the way. But my ongoing concern here at home is so much the ignorance of Canadian and Australian and even of English [poetry] in a growing, it seems to me, American insularity. Theorists have immediate translation and coinage; but in the flood of competing poetries the idea of “foreign” products in English is rare.

. . . It’s not that I don’t have a sense of things very much needed in the Australian movement. Most you need a giant immodesty. Adamson taking on the American scene and genes and Shelley too in The Rumour and swinging back to where he comes from unadorned has the instinct and flair. But he can’t but hoist the challenge if he’s left alone in the field. Some left over rat of the Australian cringe eats away at Tranter’s refusal of the glorious and leads him to design and fill in a niche in Australian ecology-literaryscape to match Berryman’s self-gnawing sonnet here. A taunt is almost a challenge. But the sincerity is so sophisticated that it cancels out whatever serious response as ultimately sentimental. “In the vast library / the homosexuals are dreaming of love.”

It was missing Stephen Murray that sent me back to find more than one “M” missing. The Dragon Principle ... goes out there where only the imagination goes. Tranter in his introduction commends, I take it, against “the duties of priest, psychotherapist and moral administrator,” “the modernist conception of the poet as ... constructing fictions out of his or her experience in a world qualified by language”: but as that language as such persuasion goes on to the poet as semiotics professor or structuralist, it all comes round in a circle.

The Dragon Principle lets itself be invaded by dream.

One has a sense of something needed in Australian writing only because it is current with our own need.

Tranter’s anthology, the more I look into it, is one of those needs answerd: that a poet in his full force do an anthology that the force of a movement/ generation get abroad.


Vanishing Acts: a footnote

Chris Edwards 2005

Laughing from the cab

Stephen Murray was in his late teens or early twenties in the mid-1970s when his poetry began appearing in New Poetry (ed. Robert Adamson) and Surfers Paradise (ed. John Forbes). His poems were unusual in that they showed the marked influence, not only of Black Mountain poets like Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, but also of New York poets like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. This combination of influences was described by Murray as a “headache ... wherein a handshake between two ends of a magnet / is as possible as a meeting of Wordsworth and Cummings / half-way along my surprising yet harmonious bookshelf.”

“The poem,” he wrote elsewhere, “slides from a rift between spiritual factions.” Others put it differently. John Tranter’s review of Murray’s book The Dragon Principle (Prism Books, Sydney, 1975) bore the title “Poet in a double-yolked egg” when it appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. Tranter identified Adamson and Forbes, rather than Duncan and Ashbery, as the yolks, and suggested that “one Adamson is more than enough, and one Forbes quite adequate.” He did, however, praise Murray’s “mimetic ability and occasional wit” and speculated that “if the contents were arranged chronologically, it would seem that Murray is moving from Adamson’s peculiar brand of quasi-mysticism through Forbes’ cryptic and witty New York-influenced ‘anti-poetry’ to a voice of his own.” “The sooner he gets there the better.”

Murray might have agreed with Tranter that “profound poetry need not sound like the Delphic Oracle in ‘Son of Hercules Meets the Muse’” and that it need not be constructed of rhetorical “cathedrals, colonnades and columns”, but he resisted the implication that it must not do so, or could not. He still maintained, two years later, “that upon waking in the suburbs / Grand Spires Columns & Colonnades / ascend & project beyond all horizons of my room.” It was this, I suspect, that appealed to Duncan — not the colonnades and columns necessarily, but the insistence that in poetry, nothing is out of bounds, especially not the impermissible.

If, as Tranter pointed out, the poems in The Dragon Principle are often about poetry, what they have to say about it often draws on Duncan. Poetry is described in “The Poem in Civil War” (echoing Duncan’s “An Essay at War”) as a “war between war and peace” waged in a field of conflicting forces, but also (quoting Duncan’s introduction to Bending the Bow) as a “a field of ensouling / where this soul / might sit, laughing from the cab / at its allotted duration.” “Where we sit laughing,” Murray explains, “is a place of breathing from the violence.” Maybe that’s why cabs, like other modes of transport (poetry was just one of them), appear so frequently in his poems. In “The Rock”, “trains float beneath the surface of the outback.” In “A Possible Apostle”, “Taxis enclosing blueprints / fight in the rain / of so many months ago, but / all the things I had planned / for this city / plan me into its photograph. / Really, what it’s all doing / is calculating freedom.”

Stephen Murray continued to write for two years after The Dragon Principle appeared, but didn’t publish very widely. Most of the twenty-odd pages of poetry he produced between 1975 and 1977 were collected in New Poetry Vol. 25 No. 2. They’re pervaded by an interest in Australian history and landscape — as in “The Rejuvenation” (“Riding the minor pun, Endeavour”) and “Kurnell Sequence” (“this stomach of sand heaving, / said to contain middens”) — in which allegory and symbolism are never far below the surface. In this respect, they develop themes and interests found sporadically in The Dragon Principle in poems like “The Rock”, with its depiction of Uluru as “the nipple of a singed rose” and its faith, for want of a better word, that “There is fire in the centre just as you expected / and room enough and logs enough for us all.”

Notwithstanding this optimism, Murray’s post- Dragon Principle poems are a farewell to poetry — “a pocket in the air / where it’s inhaled / its own majesty & vanisht.” One of his last poems, “A Game of Chess”, proved to be prophetic, as did another detail I noticed whilst writing this footnote. On the back of my clipping of John Tranter’s review of The Dragon Principle is the chess column for that Saturday’s Herald. By the time New Poetry hit the streets, Stephen Murray had stopped writing, he told me, in order to play chess.

A molten trombeline

John Hinton was a friend of mine from high school who’d been been writing poems and song lyrics for as long as I’d known him; many of them were interesting, but none of them quite prepared me for “Dust”, which he showed me sometime in 1976. He was then working as an oyster farmer. I’d become an Arts undergraduate student at Sydney University.

As it happened, I was collecting material at the time for the issue (which grew to become two issues) of New Poetry I’d been invited to guest-edit. John was a bit annoyed when I asked him to let me include “Dust” — he felt he had much better poems to offer — but I was determined and he finally relented. It appeared in Vol. 25 No. 2 in the company of Stephen Murray’s post- Dragon Principle poems, John Forbes’ “The Chinese Exhibition”, Laurie Duggan’s “Marijuana Christmas” and an excerpt from David Malouf’s work in progress, Letter from Pontus, which later became An Imaginary Life.

My likes don’t seem to have changed greatly. I loved “Dust” and still do. It turns utilitarian words into notes from a “molten / trombeline” — notes, as Robert Duncan wrote, “hovering in rushes”. Here’s its first movement (there are seven):

dish and dishes more dishes more
          more of these and those
  spears                      and those
cordial                  lines serpents
              and and sludge

    moth going away
            shouting bell
blast      trumpet meadow
  coo car        various sunken

      shouting bridge loud and loud
          as loud
                    as loud
                          four times and four

          calling wilting flower bird
                  stalling fox
very quick smells
                  meal sound
                  green ocean graft
      old old
        doctoring decibel
                  pasture brindle
                  death box
                  numeral box number seven
            cow chirp chump chop chump chop
            clip clop and clackety clack
        wood seven flight
                          seven seven
                  and hundred and seventy seven

                      the sleave minx
                                best wood ever

As well as a booklet of hymns that seemed to have no particular title (1975), John Hinton published The Dingo Baiter (fiction, 1978) and The Diaries of Igig (poems, circa 1979).

Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards, Sydney, circa 1981. Photographer unknown.

Chris Edwards is the author of utensils in a landscape (Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2001). A Fluke: a mistranslation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” was published by Monogene in 2005.

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