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Jerome Rothenberg: Robert Duncan - A Memorial

Robert Duncan - Es ist Magie. Spontane Passagen
Jerome Rothenberg

ROBERT DUNCAN: A MEMORIAL


I first met Robert Duncan in 1959. San Francisco was and remained his city, but he was then living in Stinson Beach, a short ways up the coast. We had been corresponding for maybe a year before that, although I was a dozen years younger and very little published. Ferlinghetti’s City Lights was bringing out my first book, New Young German Poets (a book of translations), and that summer Diane and I had come to San Francisco for the first time.  We ran into him at the City Lights Bookstore – there was a kind of photo session going on – and a few days later Diane and I drove to Stinson Beach, picking up Robert, who was hitchhiking, somewhere along the way.  He was at that rare moment bearded, as was Jess, and looked to my naive eye a little like the forty-year-old Whitman. (Jess then looked oddly like a youthful D.H. Lawrence.)  There was a feeling of enchantment about it all: themselves, their house and garden, the books they read, the paintings and collages Jess was making, the grunion running that night along the shore, the meteorites that flashed across the night sky, and a meal (Diane reminds me) replete with sorrel and lemons and nasturtiums from their garden.  I felt myself led, by a kind of magic, into a world suggested by his poems.

It was, I now realize, a moment of change for me, even in some sense of transformation, to which those two were among the singular contributors.  I had like others been wavering about my location as a person and a poet, and Robert showed me in his own terms the possibility of relating to a vast and uncharted domain of poetry – and something more.  With an incredible lightness and cheerfulness he announced himself as “bookish” and “derivative,” freeing those words suddenly from the academic bounds in which I had then placed them. He spoke impassionedly, for he was then most into it, of Williams and of a poetic line determined by the breath. More singularly, he brought “romance” and “gnosis” back into a world of common things – a merging, in David Antin’s later, clearly too flippant terms, of Anaheim and Disneyland.  In exchange for Paul Celan, whom I first gave him then, he led me into Gershom Scholem’s vision of kabbala and the lore of the “old Jews,” and he sensed, before anyone else and least of all myself, that I would move in that direction.
What he offered then and later – in spite of any shifting moods and weathers – was a generosity of spirit or, more immediately, a poetics of the spirit, even where the generosity might seem to falter. It was an acknowledgement of, and an insistence on, the spiritual-in-art, as Kandinsky might have known it: an inspired reminder of what art and poetry still could be and a vision – through Whitman and/or Dante and/or others — of a totalizing universality that included and surpassed all separate individuals and species,
All of this he spoke in what sometimes seemed like a language of pure parataxis. a leapfrogging speech that was constantly on the lookout for connections – like a rare form of collage brought into the world of conversation.  If his rap included camp, as Jonathan Williams has elsewhere pointed out, that was good also and an essential part of who he was. But the language of the poems and essays was, above all, a noble and ennobling language – a stance that he was willing to project as few others among us:

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

An ennobling language and one striving at the same time (through what he called “courage in daily act”) toward the creation of a new and “natural” measure.
    Robert Duncan was in the end a poet of enormous means and complexity – one of the last to assay a cosmological poetics, to be “the model of the poet,” as Michael Davidson described him, “for whom all of reality can enter the poem.”  As such he was (he made himself) a man and poet open to multiple influences, accepting and announcing a sense of his own derivations that freed others to do the same.  One has only to think of the remarkable lists of predecessors – and contemporaries – that filled his essays or, by collage and paraphrase, came into his poems.  “Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein,  James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Wallace Stevens, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Sitwell, Cocteau, Mallarmé, Marlowe, St. John of the Cross, Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Jack Spicer, Celine, Charles Henri Ford, Rilke, Lorca, Kafka, Arp, Max Ernst, St. John Perse, Prevert, Laura Riding, Apollinaire, Brecht, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Joyce Cary, Mary Butts, Freud, Dalí, Spenser, Stravinsky, William Carlos Williams, John Gay … [and] Higglety-pigglety: Euripides and Gilbert. The Strawhat Reviewers, Goethe (of the Autobiography.  I have never read Faust) and H.D.”
    So goes one list in his 1953 essay, “Pages from a Notebook,” the same piece in which he also tells us, memorably:  “I make poetry as other men make war or make love or make states or revolutions: to exercise my faculties at large.”  It is the kind of statement by which one knew and loved him – the kind of statement that placed him, by its bravado and because the poetry itself had also proved it, among that visionary company of which he knew he was a part. And that company could then be extended in every direction – noble and lowly – toward the greater symposium of the whole that he prophesied in his later “Rites of Participation” and that he saw already forming in our time.
    He was, then, a poet (even a great poet), who created – like Whitman before him – his own life as a poet. Toward that creation he was aware, and he made us aware, of the stages (the grand design) by which a life like his might grow.  His retreat from publication, a fifteen-year hiatus that he announced in 1969, was an aspect of that, as was the prophecy for his later years, which he foretold as a delirious and creative senility and in which he was (alas) to be thwarted by several years of debilitating illness.  The relative lack of critical response to Ground Work I: Before the War was also, I suppose, unforeseen – to place him among those great poets whose own lifetimes were not sufficient  to receive the acclaim that  a posterity  would give them.  Yet that non-recognition itself became the occasion for an outpouring of devotion by dozens of outstanding contemporaries who joined together in creating for him a national poetry award for Ground Work I and for a lifetime of achievement.  
    For one who thinks in terms of patterned lives, of grand designs, an artist’s later work takes on a special meaning.  With Robert Duncan the final book of his lifetime – Ground Work II: In the Dark – is, we now can see, one of those culminating works: his creation of an altenstil marked not by a mere quiescence but by ominous premonitions/confrontations with sickness and pain – he who had once thought himself the master of a charmed life, for whom a mighty hand was always ready to appear (he told me once), to pluck him from disaster.  So, in a great dark section of the “passages” sequence, “In Blood’s Domain,” he contemplates the death by illness of poets before him:

           The Angel Syphilis in the circle of Signators    looses its hosts     to swarm
               mounting the stem of being    to the head
                                                                                       Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Swift
               are not eased into Death
                                                             the undoing of mind’s rule in the brain.

That same poem ends:

           What Angel     what Gift of the Poem,     has brought into my body       
                    this sickness of living?      Into the very Gloria of Life’s theme and variations
                         my own counterpart of Baudelaire’s terrible Ennuie?

Ground Work II ends – for he lived to achieve it – with the single poem written after the final illness struck his body and with the contemplation also of the devastation it had already carried to his mind and spirit.  He read it to us shortly after it was written – the hope implicit in it that he would be spared to write still more.  He never did, as if Death‘s angel had to rebuke the beautiful optimism of his life and his desire to leave it intact.  But the last time I saw him – a month before his death – with my wife Diane, and Jess, and Michael Palmer, the two hours at the bedside were mostly spent in laughing, joking, as if to show us that he had entered the outrageous and hilarious “senility” of his earlier prediction. And I thought (for my own part and likely not for his) that that was right – that on this occasion we could laugh Death and God to scorn. That God and that Death who are the same.


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In American Poetry, Fall, 1988.

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