Skip to content

The God of Robert Duncan.

Robert Duncan: The Collected Early Poems and Plays
Edited by Peter Quartermain.
University of California Press, 2012 | 870pp (hardcover) | £34.95 | $46.15

Robert Duncan: The Collected Later Poems and Plays
Edited by Peter Quartermain.
University of California Press, 2014 | 922pp (hardcover) | £34.95 | $44.96

Robert Duncan: The H.D. Book
Edited by Michael Broughn and Victor Coleman.
University of California Press, 2012 | 692pp (paperback) | £25.95 | $33.26


I FIND MYSELF looking back, across forty years, at an episode of American poetry which at one time seemed to be the answer to everything, and in which three poets in particular, conceived works of immense and unprecedented ambition, whose purpose was to transform human consciousness completely, to re-form and re-think the world from top to bottom: history, society, culture, politics, perception, language, religion… everything was cast into the cauldron to undergo total change. The world was to be set right at last, and through poetry. They were, of course, Ezra Pound (in The Cantos), Charles Olson (in The Maximus Poems), and Robert Duncan.

They were not the only ones and it was not an exclusively American ambition; indeed it remains for some the ultimate purpose of poetry here and now, while to others it transgresses entirely the legitimate bounds of poetry by making it a substitute religion which also happens to be full of politically unacceptable habits of mind. Nothing like the global scope of address would be attempted now except in coded and cryptic forms, and the grandiloquence of manner is unthinkable. The knowledge and learning then seen as integral to the role of the poet have been largely eradicated — what would a creative writing class teach you about economics and Egyptology? Compared with these pseudo-epic performances most contemporary British and American poetry remains small-scale, concerned with the symptoms and paradoxes of existence, including the contradictions and hypocrisies of power.

Another view of these global exercises is that they were the late work of poets who, having written a lot of at least interesting poetry, decided in their seniority that they had a mission to transmit messages and visions of the greatest importance to humanity, at which the interestingness evaporated in a mass of pulpit rhetoric and obfuscation. I don’t necessarily espouse this view but like to bear it in mind. This was certainly a fate which overtook the career of one of their principal precursors, William Blake. The important common factor here is obfuscation, the act of obscuring your own message, because in all cases the new dispensation had to divorce itself from all “official” discourses of revelation, and could not use any of their recognised vocabulary without becoming tainted with their falsity, but must necessarily enunciate an unknown tongue, under the licence of “poetry”.

Reading Duncan makes you realise how important occultism was to the whole of Modernist poetical writing, and a lot of other writing from the 1880s onwards.

Robert Duncan’s way into this kind of Modernism was the occult. He was raised in a theosophical family and cultivated every possible occult, mystical or mythological channel open to him for ever after. This is not actually saying very much, for reading Duncan makes you realise how important occultism was to the whole of Modernist poetical writing, and a lot of other writing from the 1880s onwards, and how its structures have invaded just about the whole of modern and contemporary poetry, whether declared or, more normally nowadays, subsumed in habits of thought and language. From dedicated devotees and practitioners like Yeats, Duncan, Merrill, Plath-Hughes1, etc., through whatever grades of believers and dabblers: Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, H.D., Olson, etc., etc., while the whole of Modernist London was rushing to G.R.S.Mead’s theosophical lectures, and then all the continental occultist authors — Strindberg, Hugo, de Nerval, Surrealism — and Rilke’s exploitation of “mystery”…. Modernism was soaked in it, and long after the days of spirit mediums, poetry still maintains the attitudes and verbal processes of mysticism, which are essentially compounds of hiding and revealing, access to “hidden wisdom”, and the speaking of tongues. Most of the assumed habits and devices of contemporary poetry are involved with both mysticism and the aestheticism brought down from the 1890s, whether experimental word-salad or conventionalist subjectivism — in these matters they are equal. The belief in the reader’s subliminal absorption of poetical quality, or that the power structure is challenged by deformed language in poetry (a kind of spell-casting), the belief that silence and blank space on the page carry significance in themselves, as do irrational metaphorical leaps and homonyms, these and other fond beliefs get tangled with poetry’s legitimate involvement in the verbal notation of shifts in perception, the revitalisation of fixed metaphor, and the “natural obscurity of song”, and anyone who suspects that reality might in fact be evident and that it could be both grasped and registered in the mother tongue is likely to be thought of as pedantic, shallow, conservative or complicit in harm, though in fact such realism is possible in an experimental mode as readily as in any other.

Duncan was familiar with all the species of occultism involved in this, and a lot more. He left no stone unturned. Theosophy, Hermeticism, astrology, Kabala, Platonic mysteries, Rosicrucianism, Pythagorean numbers, gnosticism, Tarot, spirit mediums, the Cambridge ritualists, alchemy, … he was constantly involved with all of these and many more, not to mention the incorporation of Oz and the Alice books, and he rightly attached the “discoveries” of Freudianism as another esoteric cult, another lifting of the veil to reveal the secret substrata, knowable only by codes. It is from this glorious treasury, or this glorious mess, as you like it, that his poetry emerged, but it did emerge, irregularly and obsessively perhaps, but we are left with a true body of it. He differed from Pound and Olson in producing no single, bible-like, work like Maximus or The Cantos (unless it be the prose H.D. Book2); rather a missionary purpose extends though his entire career among various kinds of poetical writing as well as prose and other genres, emerging finally as a governing impetus to the otherwise scattered and haphazard ordering of his last books. He called himself a “heretic” rather than a “revolutionary”.

But there is also a paradox, which could be his saving grace. Through the early work, and intermittently later, there is a sense that poetry itself is a priority, sometimes explicitly in prose statements, and whatever is understood by “poetry” here it involves recognisable human experience and the poem as an artistic construct thereof. This is particularly confirmed by two important disclaimers in The H.D. Book which come as quite a surprise, for that work is the heaviest in the exposition of mystery and magic:

“There is something else about looking behind things. There is the fact that I am not an occultist or a mystic but a poet, a maker-up of things” (p.278)

“I do not believe, for I am a poet; I imagine as I make it up.” (p.500).

This echoes Eliot on Dante, but shortly before the first of these he had been saying that Eliot by rejecting the occult (specifically ritualism and the Tarot) becomes merely “literary”, because in the Four Quartets “even religious matters are literary in character, having the proper artistic distance”. Similarly in a biased attack on Robert McAlmon he equates “mysticism” and “imagination”: if you reject one you reject the other. So in this synthesis the occult does itself serve to free poetry from detachment and convention. This is not, however, always the reader’s experience, since the commitment to the occult as it is manifested in the writing is doctrinal more than motivational, whatever he says. But if this is a problem it lies with the prose more than the poetry.

The Collected Early Poems and Plays of Robert DuncanNow that we have all Duncan’s published poetry before us3  we can follow its long and involved development, which I see as reaching its apogee in mid-career in the late 1950s. It is a quite monumental record of a continual devotion to poetry as such, as he understood it, which was as a universal power. Although his allegiances were from the first with the reticence of Imagism his own work began situated in “Romantic” poetry, a word which he accepted as self-description throughout his career. For he was in no way willing to accept what became a standard American Modernist dismissal of English Literature, but declared his foundation (“seeking a rhetoric” he called it) to stand on the two pillars of Milton and Pound. I think this served him in the long run; the early verse is fairly overwhelmed in a sense of poetical or dramatic echo from Elizabethan to Swinburnian, in a symbolism which makes the world devolve basically upon the first person. He is normally the hero of his own poems. It is a work of unification in which symbolic scenarios enunciate a strongly felt thematic content, a self-drama dressed in the world you might say, with constant acts of attachment or appropriation, casting through mostly literary resources for parallel or identical instances. “Towards an African Elegy” (1942) for instance, inhabits an Africa of the printed page, resolutely read as a property of the self and thereby all the more removed from the actual:

Negroes, negroes, all those princes
holding cups of rhinoceros bone, make
magic with my blood.


I know no other continent of Africa
more dark than this
dark continent of my breast.

(Early, p. 43-4)

The atmosphere can be very different from this: occasionally realist, pastoral, or even surreal-jocular, but there is no doubt about the basic purpose of the poetry, which I think remained with him for ever. It is to bring the known or imaginable world down onto the self, to represent all the self’s passages and experiences whether crises or victories, as participating in a limited repertoire of cosmic events through the “eternal” substance of poetry, endlessly repeated in the whole of human history.

Some version of this could be said to be present in all poetry (or all “Romantic” poetry), but in Duncan’s case it is primary. It lacks calm but it is spacious, meaning it has “breadth of vision” (which is an interior space), but lacks engagement with the exterior, earthly and circumstantial world. There is a continuous development of the craft, and already before 1950 he achieves an abstract-poetical discourse which will make extended passages of serious exposition possible, especially in the long poem Heavenly City, Earthly City.

This process of assimilation is of course the result of the occultist beliefs, for one thing they all seem to agree about is that all is one, but specific occult or religious gestures only arise occasionally, with a sentence like “What against chaos then my Christ avail?” but this kind of pastiche soon becomes rare in such a stark manifestation. This is not of course the historical Christ but the mystic one, and indeed as you grow accustomed to the interweaving of mysticism into Duncan’s writing you begin to recognise that any of the many named persons are likely to be their own mystical emanations, their presence in mind and poem, rather than the physical human being, or represent a point of convergence. The intrusions become less obtrusive, woven into poetical textures which advance from Victoriana towards London 1920:

Great Venus came into the room,
Ishtar, the full-blown rose.
The room became a shell of pearl,
the petals of the shell flung back,
it was so likened to Beauty’s tomb.

(“The Homecoming”, Early, p.152)

There is an increasing desire in the earlier poems to achieve a larger structure, sequences especially, which meant setting up thematic or locational foci — theatres for the poems to act in, notably Medieval Scenes (1947) which has been much admired, though I find the set-up serves to obscure the poet’s individual utterance. It is a coterie work, speaking as we, “the poets”, of Duncan’s circle. It is also a set of ten poems written in ten nightly sessions, and supposed never to be changed after the first inspiration. This was an insistence of Jack Spicer, a friend of Duncan at the time, whose belief in inspiration (which he called “dictation”) and magic seems to have been less inclusive but more severe than Duncan’s, who did not finally obey the rules.

I find, in fact, that in this large body of writing which still only brings us to the early 1950s, the most engaging pieces are mainly among the “uncollected poems” tucked between the books. Some of these show a relaxation from his mission which engage a bright, realist, virtuosic texture and can be quite casual about all the mythologising. The books are more concerned to fulfil a purpose, fuller of importance, whether of utterances or of visiting deities. One of these uncollected sets is “Domestic Scenes” (1947), ten poems which are exactly what the label says, from “Breakfast” onwards, forming a companion piece to the ten Medieval Scenes. Both begin with a poem of awakening, the latter has–

The magic in convolutions of our company
winks its lights. Its touch is slight
and vital.  But we are bearish magickers,
makers of lightnings in half-sleep of furry storm.

“Domestic Scenes” has–

I shall awake to the ennui of breakfast foods,
to teach morning’s bright of commonplace,
redundancies of tasty goodness.


Disorder of dishes, the wisdom of soild spoons,
of discarded forks and knives, exciting litter
excites the domestic dreaming mind
to that brief of wisdom called disgust.

The difference here is not so much the domestic clutter and its bright(ness)4 but the first person, the reduction from plural to singular, bearing the weight of the discourse much more lightly and reaching less elevated conclusions. The contrast is not great and the two sequences make a good pair, but I feel that that lyrical notation of the ordinary and of earthly, gravity-bound perception is what is missing from much of the earlier work.

Another sequence excluded from the books is “Poetic Disturbances” which handles lunar imagery adroitly (with Lorca behind it) and is concerned with the poet as creator of the real, an ambitious theme but the paradoxes are calmly negotiated–

Let us organise a dream
along Freudian lines.

But my moon is a real moon
produced out of myself.

The great moon in his grief
emitting howls of light
that ran from tree branches,
a laughter that mockt him.

(Early, p.302)

“The Venice Poem” (1948) is another substantial sequence which has been singled out, by the author and others, as a major step forward. It is indeed impressive in its ability to sustain an extended discourse. For me it is too much the world wrapped round the self, personal and intimate events projected out into a vast theatre, made wilfully into “myth” as Venice itself is, which he knew only from pictures and art history lectures. There is also some curious allegorisation of the plot of Othello, in which Iago is “The Doge” and Othello is ( I think) the poet.5

The Collected Later Poems and Plays of Robert DuncanThe Opening of the Field (1960) was Duncan’s first book from a commercial publisher and I well remember its first arrival in Britain at about the same time as Olson’s The Distances, O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency and the anthology The New American Poetry, all four Grove Press paperbacks. They were revelations, Duncan’s in a particularly attractive way, and I still think it is his finest work. Perhaps it was that for all the unknown quantities by way of mythic lore, we also encountered a sustained discourse in lines of recognisable weight and balance, a dignified and authoritative verse continuum which didn’t project verbal objects at us whole or broken, but declared its purpose openly, even if the nature of that purpose was strange to the uninitiated. It was, and is, clear that much of the time the self, the individual, represented by the author, is being conducted into experiences far beyond the ordinary or mundane, but that it is done by enhancing rather than transcending or negating, the singular and local.

For Duncan was not doing anything very new or different here. He had continued through the 1950s to work at consolidating and extending his religio-symbolic vision, and had particularly tried to renew his attention to language, its hypnotic power by repetition, through about a hundred imitations of Gertrude Stein. There and through Pound he cultivated a greater awareness of syllabic weight and what Pound called “leading”, the way line endings produce movement and disturbance, and so forth. In The Opening of the Field he is still chasing archetypes all over the place, still uniting personal accounts with ancient stories, indeed still calling all of history and myth onto himself, and still sermonising on the sacred force of poetry through beauty, and the poet as elect. There is no escaping the mysticism, the Platonic transcendence and occulted presence of deity even in the unforgettable first poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow”—

as if it were a scene made up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

(Later, p.3)

But the account here is not of certitude but of longing, and of working through revealed contradictions — mine/not-mine, made by the mind/made by light… This meadow clearly contains no earwigs, but the passion of the account and its classic verse dignity sustain our donation of belief in it as a state of mind, at least. And the craft of the poem is now highly developed, more so later in the book than here; the moving, rhythmic and experiential course of the writing is steadily sustained but also liable to take us by surprise as it twists round corners, back-tracks on itself, leaps over connectives, lurches into the unexpected, and subtly absorbs references, such as the quiet incorporation above of a reminiscence of what I know as the Corpus Christi Carol (“Down in yon forest there stands a hall…”). The central theme itself, about poetry (all poetry has for some time been ars poetica) seems to overspill its bounds, so that while the “meadow” may well stand for poetry further possibilities lie open to the reader’s experience.

In several commentaries he wrote (given in the notes) Duncan made clear his intention that this was meant as a whole work, a poem made up of poems, which he likened to sewing a tapestry or carpet, thread by thread and syllable by syllable, with more in mind than any one motif. Jack Spicer said that it was Duncan’s one true serial poem. But in view of what happened later it is important here that the poems are the completed thing, rather than fragments or atmosphere of the poetic. Studying Jack Spicer’s “serial poems” as he called his dictated sequences, I found that one poem leads on to another poem not because it ends prematurely or with unanswered questions, but by its very completion, and the lesson or closure of the poem forms a new basis, a passionate arrival which is the start of new venturing. It is something like this with The Opening of the Field though in a secular reading one is mainly aware of certain recurrent terms or motifs which succeed each other and return in new light: meadow, dance, children, Law, Lady… So the first poem is followed by “The Dance”, because something needs to happen in the meadow, but both dance and meadow recur through the book as properties not to be let go of, while the elliptical course suggested by those images is avoided.

Duncan began The H.D. Book, his immense prose commentary on Hilda Doolittle which is also a poetical autobiography and compendium of his occult and literary learning, towards the end of writing The Opening of the Field and it runs concurrently with his poetry from then on. But the next two books, Roots and Branches (1964) and Bending the Bow (1968) certainly participate in the pitch of writing he had achieved in The Opening of the Field, making the 1960s the optimum decade for Duncan’s poetry, though I cannot escape the feeling of a very slow sunset. Even in the first of these there is an increase in prosaic writing in the poems, recounting now not only image visions but also accounts of mediumistic returns from the dead by his mother (p.162), with an increasing amount of self commentary, and a mounting sense of poetry as something that attracts study rather than surrender, though there is plenty of that too. Sometimes we are clearly being lectured: “Theosophists teach that primeval man is a vast dispersed being…” (p.130). None of these things are new to the poetry, but the previous book seemed on the whole to be more subtle and circumspect in handling them, and even modest, though modesty was never his forte. There is also increasing reference to Charles Olson, on whom he leans for the insistence that the self is the only “sign” the poet can erect, the central pivot of the whole cosmic structure. Among such vertigo it is good to see the meticulously calm script of a true poet suddenly emerging, every syllable held in the hand–

the boat of bone
so light it turns as if earth
were wind and water.

(“A New Poem (for Jack Spicer)” Later, p.205)

The two bits of alliteration here are not the point so much as the complete lyric integration of sense in the whole sonic and rhythmic ensemble. And perhaps this fragment is, for a moment, not “about poetry”, though the poem in which it occurs absolutely is. And some poems, such as “The Continent”, are very satisfying wholes built of impassioned speech, however much they leap around restlessly from one god to another. One thing that never lapses is writerly confidence and competence.

I feel that it is after this book that there is increasing cause for concern, through Bending the Bow and the immense and continuous Ground Work which occupied the rest of his career, though I’m happy to leave it to other readers to investigate in detail. There was always a tension in the writing between the indolence of the occult (all your thinking done for you because all is one anyway) and the urge to write the poem, the singular created thing, beginning middle and end, with its own raison d’être and its own distinction. Increasingly now it is, among the proliferating wizardry, an urge to write poetry, that is, a poetical substance, a continuum, an atmosphere, an environment inhabited by the imagination, to which every passing thought or experience contributes, so instead of concentrating and shaping, you accumulate. There is also a sense that the reader is free to enter or leave this edifice at any point.

It is said that Duncan viewed the later “Passages” as scriptural6, therefore sacred texts to stand for ever. But there is no consistency. “Envoy / Passages 7” (Later p.316) is a brief prayer, (represented here whole without the complex lineation. The lines are double the normal distance apart and variously indented) — “Good Night,  at last / the light of the sun is gone / under the earth’s rim /and we / can see the dark  interstices / Day’s lord erases.” “Spelling / Passages 15” (Later p.338) has lines like this–

Christos, Chronos, chord are spelld with chi, X, not K (kappa)

Xristos, Xronos, Xord

chi    :   “the first letter of κίλιοι,αι,ι = 1000  —Later
“X was used either simply or with points …

What these are is notes, and when we reach Ground Work (this is from Bending the Bow) the writing frequently has the character of a commonplace book, in which whatever Duncan happens to be reading at the time, periodical articles or a Seventeenth Century poem or an occult treatise, are likely to be copied in, among a mass of original writing of many kinds. The nature of Duncan’s interest in text in “Spelling” would seem to have shifted into unreachable corners, such as one where any word beginning ch may invoke Christ, and yet shortly before this there is that old disclaimer again–

Only passages of a poetry, no more. No matter how many times the cards are handled and laid out to lay out their plan of the future — a fortune — only passages of what is happening. Passages of moonlight upon a floor.

(“Structure of Rime XXIII”, Later, p.317)

and on the very next page after “Spelling” begins “My Mother Would be a Falconress”–

My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when I’d turn my head.

(Later, p.341)

Here we are back in the territory of “Often I am Permitted…” not only in the clarity of image and classic interplay of stress and lineation, but also in the tenuous, wonder-struck, quality which comes from the fact that the poem retails a dream (actually the opening sentence coming to him in the night) which he is trying to understand. But to say that poetry wins out in the end in Ground Work (or Maximus or The Cantos for that matter) is not easy. But it does have the advantage in this respect that many of the pieces in it are still conceived as poems rather than notes towards a world-scheme, even if they turn out to be yet again poems about angelology or the writing of poetry as epiphany, which not all of them do. In the diary-like construction of the work (as of Maximus) so that things are recorded as they happen, dream is one of his most effective ways into a distinctive poem and produces the most arresting moments. There is moreover a constant sense of the poet in the grip of an excitement which never relaxes, registered in text through the Romantic afflatus of the heroic self. Whether this is enough to keep everyone happy I don’t know.

The H.D. Book by Robert DuncanAND THEN THERE is The H.D. Book, and if ever a poet dumped a greater load of headache on the world before departing I don’t know who it was. Deciding about value or making almost any statement true to the whole of this work is virtually impossible. By following H.D.’s work and biography, with immense digressions, at the same time as his own autobiography and all the mysteries, he made this the principal encyclopaedia of his beliefs and practices, held into some kind of order at least, by the constant return to H.D.’s texts and the stories attached to them, in chronological order.

This is the first complete book publication of the work, which previously saw print as nineteen excerpts, one to each chapter, in a variety of American magazines, some of them small-scale. Most interested persons in Britain, such as myself, only saw a few of these, but they nevertheless had a great impact and turned many people’s attention towards what were conceived as large new apertures in thought and experience, avenues towards a new version of the world, and towards the “new American poetry”. But the story told is principally that of the development of Duncan’s own understanding and practice of poetry through his fixation on certain older poets (now thought of as founder Modernists or something), and his detailed narration forms one of the best histories of that so-called movement you are likely to get, mainly because the account is always of direct experience and doesn’t transgress into subsuming theoretics. Duncan’s rather fierce dislike of academic literature is here an asset.

All this is a coherent and helpful account of a second birth into poetry which is pursued intermittently through the book in his entire attachment to Modernism, including the later history of it, especially the comings together and driftings apart of the various poets, which is an authoritative history in passionate terms.

Early in the book there are two accounts of Duncan’s first realisations of the power of poetry. Both were mediated by women, and this became a quite obsessive pattern — however much he worshiped a male poet such as Pound his extended engagements with poetry in study or discussion were mostly through women (H.D., Stein, Denise Levertov). When he was sixteen a young woman teacher in his home town read to a class the poem “Heat” by H.D. which transfixed him, and this seems to have launched his entire career. His account of this and his consequent attachment to what Pound labelled Imagism is comprehensive and intelligent. We see from the start the appeal of a dynamic quality in a verse not shaped by traditional devices, as in H.D.’s lines (addressed to the wind) “Cut the heat / plough through it, / turn it on either side / of your path.” — that it is not passively descriptive but actively evocative, and was also valued for the absence of rhetorical generalities: the moment is all and enough and in it “the reader finds his own life”. Equally important is the conjunction of “soft” (feeling) with hard and cutting imagery, later “poetry as sculpture”, which also by uniting disparate qualities projects the experience into the reader’s perceptive field7.  A similar episode is recounted from when he was a student, reading Joyce’s poems to two young women, whose attention to them is pursued through to their personal and racial identities. They find their own lives in the little poems, as Duncan said he found his own thought in Dante’s thought. All this is a coherent and helpful account of a second birth into poetry which is pursued intermittently through the book in his entire attachment to Modernism, including the later history of it, especially the comings together and driftings apart of the various poets, which is an authoritative history in passionate terms. He has repeatedly to wrestle with aberrations or even betrayals which damage his sense of a unified and unifying poetical force.

One thing he insisted on in this narrative was that the contribution of female writers to Modernism has been as if deliberately suppressed. Here he was a pioneer of explorations which are still taking place, and he was probably right, though to say so involves value judgements which can be difficult. He included at least some account of Mary Butts, Dorothy Richardson, Edith Sitwell, Laura Riding, Marianne Moore and Virginia Woolf in this respect.8

From this history Duncan formed his personal constellation of modern poets, basically H.D., Williams, and Pound, with secondary attention to Lawrence, and Joyce, to which he remained faithful, skilfully steering himself among their lapses and antagonisms. (Some, such as Eliot, Stevens and Marianne Moore, figure at first but deviate and join the enemy). H.D. was of course the principal figure here; she could do no wrong and her entire output is followed through to the end, sharing, of course, in all or most of the occultist issues. Pound was his guide to culture, obviously a very risky commitment, but even at the earliest stage he was not willing to accept such things as the arrogant dismissal of Milton. Yet he was willing to engage in the dismissal of Dryden and the 18th Century. Of Pound’s opinions he said, significantly, “We are lost if we take his uses as having an authority other than the truth of how the world is felt and seen by the poet if he keeps alive in him the defects inherent in a record of struggle” (p.55). This quite sentimental regard for personal authenticity over and above objective truth is even used, on p.510, in what comes close to being an exoneration of Pound’s anti-semitism: “Pound does not pretend to the urbane anti-semitism of Eliot but breaks into the true voice of his feeling — not only what he feels but exactly as he feels it. Because of this we see, as we are never quite sure in Eliot, the nature of Pound’s hatred of the Jews.” Authentic feelings must therefore be considered sacrosanct, whatever feelings they are and whatever harm they may cause. The same idea is used occasionally when Duncan speaks of the focus on the self and especially poems built on his emotional condition at the time. Some might consider this a flaw in the entire structure, which reduces the transfer of substance to the reader to an emotional empathy, and all the vast cosmologies end up as “feelings”. The great enterprise begins to look rather small.

In general terms the enemy is the literary academy, the “makers of curricula” . . . “Roman” rather than “Greek” . . . and terms such as “orthodoxy”, “institutional” and of course “reason”, to which he preferred “madness” as authenticated by Artaud.

His pursuit of his course was obsessive, as is obvious in The H.D. Book from his identification of the enemy. Just as the same three or four poets are deferred to again and again through the 500 pages of the book, so the same enemies are invoked again and again with the same quotations attached, especially those who participated in the 1930s attacks on H.D. — John Crowe Ransom (“small town”), Randell Jarrell (his dismissal of HD’s war trilogy as “more than a little silly” is repeatedly quoted, in variant wordings), Louise Bogan, Richard Wilbur…  — which resulted in the dropping of H.D. from a new edition of a major anthology. In general terms the enemy is the literary academy, the “makers of curricula” (but who was a more eager maker of curricula than Ezra Pound, whose curriculum for British poetry swept almost all of it out of existence?), “Roman” rather than “Greek” (he even seemed uncomfortable with Virgil) and terms such as “orthodoxy”, “institutional” and of course “reason”, to which he preferred “madness” as authenticated by Artaud. But the attack on these critics is as empty of content as their own attacks on H.D. were — they “hooted” at her (and at Freud), “industrious literary businessmen”, “the mercentile skeptic voice”… Duncan was personally hurt and angered by these attacks on H.D. There is no discussion. Olson and other influential American poets shared strongly in this anti-establishment resentment which enforced a sharp division in poetry and culture, loaded with a strong but unargued attack on commerce or commercialism, an elitist claim of independence from the social structure they inhabited. This remains strongly in operation in America, chiefly in the academies it once despised.9

IN THE END it is impossible to know what to do with these mountains of writing of many different kinds all heaped up together and especially with the invasion of poetry by the occult. How should I, or Duncan, or anyone, know whether all of creation is one act, or whether Osiris “is” Christ or Christ “is” H.D.? I think it has to be recognised that Duncan was carving out a quite narrow path for himself, but doing it with such ambition and fervour that it took on the trappings of an entire world catalogue, while periodically insisting himself that they were trappings and that the heart of the matter was the poet “making things up”. It is possible to read a lot of it within that narrowness, and a lot can be gained from this, but the way his assimilative insistences operate with both occult and poetical histories is difficult, I find, to tolerate. The trouble lies principally with the verb “To Be”. Of the work undertaken here, he says on p.79, “It is” the work of creation; “It is” Poetry; “It is” also the opus alchymicum of Hermetic and Rosicrucian alchemy, and further down the page, palaeolithic cave painting and Aristotle are enjoined. The love he felt for that first schoolteacher is immediately identified with Dante’s love of Beatrice. All these entities are typically attached, as many others are throughout, as if they are all the same thing. A suspicion that some of them may be very different things from one another not only threatens the whole structure but arouses the possibility that all these entities, from Orpheus to Troubadors, are understood by Duncan in digest versions. It is a willed and declared insistence: “The drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate”. “The dream of everyone, everywhere”, “there is no isolate experience of anything”, and more cosmically, “To evoke an image is to receive a sign, to bring into human language a word or phrase […] of the great language in which the universe itself is written.” (p.314). The trouble with this being that it is irreversible because we can’t identify the “great language” except as defined by the proposition itself, or why, of all the things with which artists of any kind work, only “image” bears this inflation. A similar impasse arises when he focuses (following Olson) on the syllable as the minimal item which is the basis of articulation and that its handling in poetry is pivotal: “In this minim, in our articulation of vowels, lies the crucial evolutionary fact underlying the word” (p.332), forgetting that the syllable is itself constituted.

Does he not by this insistence on absolute unity falsify the actual nature of the transfer effected in, say, Dante, on whom so much of his thought rests, as if not the slightest trace of irrelevance or period demand could possibly arise? A set of hero-poets so full of poetical wisdom as to entirely transcend history is quite an alarming thought, especially if they are all one. The pandemic dream is surely marred by claims of elitist qualities peculiar to some poets and the rejection of consideration of a massive working population which is deaf to everything and simply irrelevant, unless the poet is a Christ-like figure bringing salvation to humanity at large. And so she is.

Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

  1. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes regularly made attempts to contact the dead, and their beliefs entered their poetry, but the anti-British attitude of the American Modernists was so strong that no cognizance of them was taken at all, nor of any other British poet from the 1940s onwards. Dylan Thomas was in fact one of the early influences on Duncan, later mentioned in passing as a kind of sport permitted by powerful academic critics. (The H.D. Book p.522)
  2. “H.D.” was the monogram by which the American poet Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) was known, and still is, to whose work and person Duncan was singularly devoted and who is the principal subject of the enormous H.D. Book.
  3. These volumes are part of an unannounced complete works, of which there is a fourth volume, of essays, which I chickened out of, and two future volumes, presumably of previously unpublished writings. All are or will be published by University of California Press. Peter Quartermain’s editing of the poetry is expertly professional and includes all necessary textual accessories, save for page references in the notes of the first volume. The editing of The H.D. Book is appropriately uncluttered but very helpful in supplying a bibliography and subject index.
  4. The use of noun as adjective occurs occasionally throughout the early work. It is difficult to know why unless as a simple gesture of defiant modernity.
  5. Shakespeare is referred to as “Saint William Shakespeare”, also as “Beloved”, and (twice) as “simple-minded”. He is said to have written Othello because he was “plagued by flies of jealousy and rage”, as by curious coincidence Duncan was at the time. Am I alone, I wonder, in being irritated by the assumption that Shakespeare’s gift was to be so “inspired” and governed by emotion, that it was not necessary for him to think. Anyone in doubt could look at the book Shakespeare the Thinker by A.D. Nuttall (2007).
  6. Since about 1960 Duncan had used two serial titles for supposedly more expository texts interspersed among the poems, “The Structure of Rime” for poetics, “Passages” for texts or citations of a more religious nature, though it is often difficult to tell the difference or to distinguish in either of these a writing greatly different from many of the poems.
  7. This became a critical polemical issue, in Britain as much as anywhere else, which set up demands on writing, painting and architecture to reject the “rhythmic” and “moulded” in favour of the “carved”, a matter of distinct planes and edges. Pound tried to read this into music but was so ignorant of musical history that he could only pontificate. The same idea is certainly present in Duncan’s praise of Pound’s “clean mindedness” and “healthy mindedness” producing “the clean line” (p.306).
  8. I don’t mention in this review that Duncan was a homosexual, because I can’t think of any reason to. But academic studies of him, especially in U.S.A., have of course raised this as the central issue of his poetry, making all of it a specifically gay issue not fully open to the understanding of the heterosexual mind. I think he would have abhorred this.
  9. This is an unfairly crude account. The idea was to set up alternative places of learning, divorced from the influence of state and commerce. To some extent this happened, pipe-dream as it was. If there was a single reason for its failure it was that the en bloc denial of one perceived  culture fell foul of the en bloc acceptance of another culture, one of alienation, escape, and indulgence. We should remember that Duncan was of California, home of libertarian and alienated “hippie” communities marketed as gentle and benign but some of which became murderous.

One Comment