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Notes on the Ambassador from Venus (Robert Duncan)

The Ambassador from Venus

The Ambassador from Venus

Robert Duncan is one of the most important poets in terms of my own poetry lineage. He was the first poetry teacher of Michael McClure, my main influence. His poetics clarified the notion of Field Poetry, which I have found fascinating and very useful in explaining my own practice, having developed a spontaneous mode before reading Duncan and his essays. And the long-awaited Duncan biography by the fine poet Lisa Jarnot (Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus) sheds additional light on what I think made Duncan so important; on his stance toward poem-making and how to live the life of a poet.

For the uninitiated, Duncan was born in Oakland, California in 1919, orphaned, adopted by a Theosophist family and was one of the leading figures in the vibrant Bay Area poetry scene from the 40s up to his death in 1988. An openly gay man since the 1940s, his knowledge of the history of poetry, linguistics and other arts forms (especially painting and music) continues to be an inspiration for many poets around the world. The bulk of his work remains very fresh and innovative, eternal. His notion of the serial poem, (for which he took credit) and the dual threads of it (Passages, The Structure of Rime) intertwining, is fascinating. Poems such as My Mother Would Be a Falconress and Structure of Rime XXV (The Fire Master) are among the best examples of projective verse.

The Fire Master waits always for me to recall him from a
place in my heart that is burnd or is burning. He comes to my
mind where, immediate to the thought of him, his rimes flicker
and would blaze forth and take over.

You too are a flame then and my soul quickening in your
gaze a draft upward carrying the flame of you. From this bed
of a language in compression, life now is fuel, anthracite from
whose hardness the years spring…

Reading the book then, for me, would be a glimpse at the man behind the poems and the poetics and hopefully give me more clues for my own search. I look for confirmations, clarifications and corrections to help my own practice move forward. I have found that by focusing on innovative poets like Duncan, their messages never go out of style. Projective or Organic composition (as Duncan called it in his correspondence with Denise Levertov) may have gone out of fashion with the advent of deconstructionism and the LANGUAGE poetry movement, so I can imagine folks reading this and disagreeing with my notions of the innovative, but it’s what I am betting my life on and is the stance that informs this essay. Not so much an essay but a listing of some of the more notable points from the book based on my first reading.

The first note comes from Michael Davidson’s capable introduction:

Duncan was not much interested in transcendence but, rather, in the intensification of the moment (xix).

To me this stance suggests many things. Duncan was an avid reader of Alfred North Whitehead, whose philosophy suggests that the basic elements of the universe are occasions of experience. It suggests a Buddhist sense of mindfulness, though Duncan was not a Buddhist and went out of his way to point that out during visits to to teach  at that first Buddhist institution of higher learning in the west, Naropa University. It also explains in part why his praxis had soul-building properties.

On that subject comes the early childhood memory for Duncan that the soul:

was like a swarm of bees, and, at night, certain entities of that swarm left the body-hive and went to feed on fields of helium – was it in the upper atmosphere of the Earth or in the fire-clouds of the sun…(6)?

It is well-known that Duncan’s adoptive parents were Theosophists, an obscure, hermetic, spiritual movement, that could very well have advocated such a notion. That he started off quite on the fringe of USAmerican spirituality could explain how he would have been open to alternative modes of poem-making, even though he suggested later in life that his spirituality was different from his family’s and he was never initiated into that brotherhood. His astrological chart was said to have indicated that, in a past life, he was an inventor on the mythological continent of Atlantis and was, in part, responsible for the destruction of that world. His parents used astrology to find the right children to adopt, and Duncan had an adopted sister who was “sent” to the Symmes family via astrology, or so they believed. This upbringing opened Duncan up to magic, but he rejected the seances, astrology and assistance from “spirit guides” in favor of what Jarnot calls “a bibliomancy of his own design” (23).

It’s hard to believe that Duncan was considered suitable military material, but was drafted, inducted and soon declared his homosexuality in a successful effort to be released. Given a dishonorable discharge in 1941, he was deemed a “sexual psychopath,” in his own words. While in the psych unit of Fort Knox he displayed his anarchist tendencies by describing authority as:

The eternal politicos, they are always here in the Paris commune, in the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, in Hitler’s home town troops, in the armies and the governments and the industries of the world: this race sitting smugly, having its stupid virtue, an inward joy in ordering others in being president, or vice-president or head-sheriff … at every chance showing that they have the sacred right and duty to shove the others around: in the name of Democracy, in the name of Lenin, in the name of Liberté, in the name of God (78).

His friendship with Denise Levertov, which has been chronicled extensively by myself and others, was (as a testament to the pre-Internet times) conducted mainly via letters sent via the U.S.P.S. One nugget I noted in the Jarnot book came from late November 1955 and was apparently inspired by his readings of Charles Darwin:

What if poetry were not some realm of personal accomplishment, open field day race for critics to judge, or animal breeding show – … but a record of what we are, like the record of what the earth is is left in the rocks, left in the language? Then what do we know of poetry … compared to this geology? and how silly we must look criticizing … as if geologists were to criticize rather than read their remains (144).

In 1958, after editing Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow (understood as one of Duncan’s best poems as well as a statement on Field Poetics), he decided to stop revising poems, but instead would compose a kind of poetry that would “demand a wholehearted attentiveness” (179). This is one of the least understood notions of Organic form. Michael McClure has called it the most difficult way to compose poetry, yet it excuses less skillful practitioners from doing the hard work of immersing one’s self in salient source texts, the difficult work of letting experience incubate, the difficult work of comprehensive attention to the needs of the moment, of developing a system to harvest or re-channel the high energy of those occasions and recognizing the non-linear leaps offered by a true partnership with language itself. It is all in there for the reader to see, feel, experience. Is a tracking of that path toward individuation. A sort of geological record, as Duncan said to Levertov. As a soul-building experience, this kind of tracking becomes quite helpful to the poet composing in such a manner. And I find that poets composing this way are quite interested in their own psycho-spiritual development. Intelligent, but not captive to their intellect or to purely intellectual approaches, they understand the body as a feedback system, especially when illness or pain arrives. They recognize pain as the great teacher, the gift disguised as hardship. How freeing it is to take responsibility for everything that happens to yourself: accidents, illnesses, seemingly chance events. When one, in a balanced way – in a way that treats one’s own self with compassion – begins to act in this way, seeking out the mythic in every charged experience, a lot of things become quite clear and Duncan was on to this, to a degree greater than the vast majority of North American poets.

Much of what Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser would call The Practice of Outside is usually misunderstood. Duncan composed an introductory note for his reading on December 11, 1963 at the Poetry Center at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which may get us closer to an understanding of this concept, especially the last line:

What I call the Divine is what I begin to divine in the poem… The dream, the dance, the falling-in-love, and the poem seem to me to be of one kind. A seizure, given to us, overcoming the pose of the ego, commanding us to attend the need, enthralling us in the spell of a form we must achieve. To be a poet is to be prepared for that seizure, to have learned in the hand all the command one has of language, to have a tongue that is ready and true to the heart so that speech may come when the mind is not yours (229, emphasis mine).

This may be difficult to reconcile for poets limited to the intellect no matter how muscular that force in any individual. But for those who have taken even the slightest peak at quantum physics and the notion of non-locality, this can begin to make sense and open a window to their own possibilities; the possibilities of re-calibrating to that divine within us all that strengthens the more often it is accessed. When Duncan talks about “writing as human beings, which is the hardest thing to do.” This is a quote I’ll cite in a moment in one of the other huge jewels I found in the book.

While Duncan claimed responsibility for the notion of the serial poem, as noted above, an aspect of what makes up seriality and his commitment to creative work as process is detailed in a notebook entry from June 11, 1973:

As is evident in the actual composition of my poetry also – where a Structure of Rime may appear embedded in the structure of “Apprehensions” of “Passages” may come into the sequence of the Seventeenth Century Suite – and in the very increasingly composite development of my sentences, my thought and feeling  – and it would follow, my sense of what Reality is – is not only unbound, so that all jointures must be conceived of as multiphasic, but populated with wild nests and transitory developments (317).

Nate Mackey elaborated on his own use of the serial poem, influenced by Duncan, in an interview I conducted this past summer (August 2012) and to be published in the near future by Amerarcana. I have found my own projects tend to blur in this manner as well. But as the notion of occasions of experience more closely parallels how reality happens, so too the multiphasic nature of reality was astutely recognized by Duncan and not the simple divisions instilled in us by capitalism, colonialism and McWorld culture from which Duncan was quite distant.

In a recent conference at the University of Washington at Bothell, I was listening to a presentation on Transformational Poetics. What started off very promising veered into the realm of identity poetics and had a fair share of agreeable audience members, tellingly one racial and one sexual “minority.” My reaction was UGH. In an effort to see if I was the crazy one, I asked one friend and faculty member about her feelings and she said she wished people “would go deeper than that.” If only I had read the Ambassador from Venus before the conference, as Duncan was quite clear on a couple of different occasions, about his feelings regarding such a stance toward composition. This is evident from a March 23, 1976 reading at UC San Diego:

I would have questions about any of the new minority movements simply because it seems to me that the whole issue of our time is that we barely… hold on to … writing as human beings, which is the hardest thing of all to do. To write as a woman or to write as a man or to write as a black or to write as a gay poet is absolutely minor compared with ‘how do we hold this new human consciousness’ (329).

This from the man who wrote The Homosexual in Society, published in the August 1944 issue of Politics. Upon reading that, the editor of the Kenyon Review, John Crowe Ransom, pulled a poem Duncan wrote that had been accepted for publication. Ransom believed that homosexuals should be “altered … to prevent breeding of that type.” Duncan’s response was that he would “willingly take a pledge that I’m not really going to breed this year, but just leave me with my equipment, could you? (90). The essay itself denounced “the cult of the homosexual” and described gay subculture as a clique that intentionally and unnecessarily alienated others. Of course many academics have made their careers on identity poetics, so you’ll get a fight if you espouse beliefs similar to Duncan. My reticence is along the lines of the friend’s notion of “going deeper.” A pity people want to move in the opposite direction of the independent origination of the universe and the essential interconnection of all living things. Duncan did not to my knowledge use language like this, but resonated with the stance toward reality on some level.

On June 10th of 1976, Duncan was at that Buddhist institution of higher learning, what was called the Naropa Institute then and is now known as Naropa University. In the institution’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics he would go to great lengths to separate himself from Buddhism and would admit later that he was trying to bait “various Buddhist prejudices.” (Isn’t it an odd fact of human nature that we are often brought together out of our own prejudices more than anything else?) Duncan put space between his work and that of another San Francisco poet who had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and, for me, continued to delineate the facets of a practice of outside:

Our actual art is to attend where we are. Now that means precision. What do I do in a poem? … The only time my art comes forward is when I am actually attentive and immediately recognizing what those words are saying and bringing forward, and I work with them. I do not use language, I cooperate with language and that is a great distinction… Gary Snyder uses language to give you a message, a good one, but that’s what he uses it for. Rexroth preached the use of language, and at that point I was no longer related to Rexroth … I have my own orders … I knew that I was not to use language but cooperate with it (332).

If we are to try to apply the notion of fields to what Duncan was saying here, language itself has a field and, with practice and humility, we can become privy to what it wants, what its tendencies are, and can begin to distinguish those needs from our own wants and preferences. We tap into a certain field and find, perhaps, that the tone does lead from the vowels. As Spicer pointed out, if we’re using English the fields outside the poet are likely to be English, but sourcing in such a practice would not likely be possible. Having had that experience it is one you would wish for other people, but it takes an unusual commitment, one that Duncan clearly had. He would also say that “My only possible mysticism is the experience I have of language, which to me is pure spirit and to me is something more than eternal. … In language I encounter God (398).

Duncan would speak on at least one occasion, in collaboration with poet Michael Palmer, on the subject of Field Theory as a Poetics, a talk that exists at this time only in audio form, housed at the Special Collections Library at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In a 1980 brochure for the New College of California, his statement on poetics was published:

Why poetics? It’s at the level of basic elements: in oral and in written poetry alike the sounds and silences of language, telling patterning and depatternings of consonants and vowels, the articulations of syllables in measures and utterances toward and from sentences, lines, stanzas – where rime, rhythm and ratio originate – that creativity in language works. And it’s here that poetics must begin. The realized poem will be the vehicle of the poet’s emotions, psychological ventures, social urgencies, political and religious vision, philosophical dispositions, and it will be the vehicle of the poet’s literary taste and learning – as a work of art it may be judged, admired or rejected, for the artist’s craft (390).

I loved these paragraphs and the other little tidbits in the book, that he found the Pacific Northwest a second home and visited Vancouver annually for many years, that he wrote a short unpublished prose poem inspired by Haida and Tlingit art and that “overweight middle-aged woman” were his favorite audience. I loved reading that Kenneth Rexroth would read the encyclopedia cover to cover each year. Of course there is the gossip of how many men Duncan slept with and how Levertov had an unrequited love for Robert Creeley. Some of the details of his dust-up with Barrett Watten are relayed as is his general disdain for Language Poets, likening them to mosquitoes. How he felt that the Ekbert Faas book on his early life was horrible, getting so much wrong. I loved that he had an excellent experience at what is now Central Washington University in Ellensburg, feeling that there is probably work to be done on communicating what he tried to get across there.

You know how all biographies end. This one is no different and the general consensus is that Lisa Jarnot has done a remarkable job on presenting the dates and facts without getting into too much speculation. Tom Clark should have been so smart. I do find, as I think is evident here, that Jarnot has done a good job in creating an accurate document of Duncan’s life, strengths and weaknesses, but has also created a huge window for others seeking a similar kind of experience with language. That of something mystical.

At a reading in Buffalo, NY, near the end of his life at Westminster Presbyterian Church he would explain that he did not believe in the soul, but felt that he was an event in the soul of the world. The same may be said of all humans, but few inspire such investigation decades after their death. Robert Duncan may have called himself a derivative poet, but for many tuned into the New American Poetry, he was an original and it is unlikely there will ever be anyone quite like him.



11:45A – 10.10.12

Rainforest Hostel

Forks, WA