Ground Work

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1867

Robert Duncan has a unique mythopoetic vision of the world. Not only does he refer to a vast range of mythology, ranging from Assyria through Homeric Greece, the Ionian philosophers and Pindar to the Renaissance, the English Metaphysicals and Arabic poetry to the present, but he also seems to believe in it—or at least he finds its reality more palpable, more solid, than that of the ephemeral present. The only other American poet who has such a single-minded devotion to myth is, perhaps, Jerome Rothenberg. Structuralists, followers of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and folklorists also attribute great value to myths, but unlike them Duncan is not interested in the study of the past. Poetry and myth are almost synonymous for Duncan. Although the myths are ancient, he associates them with creation, with ceremony, dance, and finally the act of writing. He uses myth for present purposes: for transforming the world—or at least, as much of it as possible—into an inspired act of creation and poetry. This procedure is repeated in poem after poem, with the result that the mythopoetic world, by sheer force of repetition and the urgency of invocation, assumes greater force and reality than the world of ordinary, or “normal,” reality. In the process, Duncan’s own language becomes archaic, and the reader becomes accustomed to words such as “reigneth,” “giveth,” “slumb’ring dark,” “twixt,” and “Courts of Love.” Duncan’s syntax becomes deliberately nonconversational; for example, “O Muses, aweful and brilliant in your drawing us toward that grace in which the spine is curved into life to sound its depth in fame,” or: “O mighty worm that in the Cocoon of What is slumbers!” (“The Museum”). In “Santa Cruz Propositions,” mythical beings such as Thetis, Hermes, and Chaos take on a palpable, emotional existence in the present:

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—Worlds, Seas, Tides of the Sun and the Moon,Titanic Storms of Being—Hells, then!(This First Water may have been Fire)enormous predications of the Godsand, afterwards, Divine Powers—godsdaimons, presences of living things,fountains, trees, great stones, hearth flames—Heaven.

The figure who presides over Duncan’s immersion in texts from the past is Ezra Pound. Pound is directly addressed here (sometimes as E. P.) or invoked, becoming himself a near-mythical authority who sanctions the poetic act. In “For Me Too, I, Long Ago Shipping Out with the Cantos,” Duncan explicitly acknowledges this debt: my soul aroused to go forth on the godly sea, Pound then heroic,/ setting keel to breakers, our keel,/ the roar of surfs upon alien shores our boundaries

In an unexpected manner, Duncan’s poetry illustrates the continuity of the modernism of Pound, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot. “Modernism” is a convenient term to package a variety of tendencies coexisting during the period from 1910 to 1940 that assumed protean forms; one of its major aspirations, however, from beginning to end, was literary erudition. As a young graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Pound conceived the ambition to become the most widely read poet writing in English, who knew more works of literature in more languages than anyone else. Eliot, too, wrote what one critic has called “the poetry of learning.” Joyce, also, became a great artificer of myth. The continuity of this aspiration in the present can be clearly seen in Duncan’s poetry. He does not pursue learning for its own sake, or knowledge of literature, but rather the authority inherent in myth. Duncan is acutely aware of this continuity, and he stresses it in “Transmissions”:

Creeley and Ihaving that injunction from Poundto direct into specifying energiesthe thrill of an other waysoverpowering sensation

While improvising a variation on a poem by Ben Jonson, Duncan suddenly exclaims, “Whatever after Ezra Pound would I do with that?” In another poem he suddenly recalls, “’God,’/ E. P. writes, ’the architectural fire,/ pur texnon.’” Duncan helps one to recall that the literal term “modernist” does not strictly apply to Pound because of his archaistic tendency; in “Go, My Songs, Even as You Came to Me,” Duncan approvingly quotes the quaint language of Pound’s “Envoi”:

Go, dumb-born bookHast thou but song Then there were cause in thee that should condoneEven my faults that heavy upon me lie

What for the ordinary reader is archaic, Duncan terms “Language beyond Speech”; it is a paradise of “the Goods of the Intellect” kept alive by “old rituals.” In adopting this “modernist” tradition of Pound—which is, also, an archaistic tradition—Duncan develops it further still by pushing the myths more conspicuously into the foreground. The everyday world of reality, which for Duncan is California and, more specifically, the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1960’s and 1970’s, recedes into the background, at times disappearing completely.

For Duncan, the world of myth is above all a process and a creative act. He does not have “set pieces” but set procedures for writing that involve myths. A poem begins:

“EIDOLON OF THE AION”out of Pindar?*Impersonator of a universeroot-voice of first-dream,who are you? Dark Star,coming back into my life, arrangingweddings thruout ofthemes and incidents,

The invocation is a means for communion, yet it is not by chance that the everyday world tends to disappear in these poems, because Duncan has no love for it. He writes in “Letting the Beat Go”:

all the real life here belowswept up—the glutted cities, choked streams,you think I do not know them all,the “facts” of this world, mostin this mere sweeping-up?

Many of the poems in this collection were written during the Vietnam era of the late 1960’s and 1970’s (the volume covers the period from 1968 to the mid-1980’s), and Duncan often expresses his dislike for the contemporary world in political terms. Ironically, even Duncan’s list of the contemporary “destroyers of cities” has an archaic ring: “Rubin, Hayakawa, Alioto, [Governor] Reagan, Nixon.” Some poems contain a deep-seated anger, and it is difficult to locate its cause. The mythical mode is not apt at maintaining fine distinctions. In an improvisation on an epistle by Dante, Duncan describes “churning factories of war-goods and stacks of commodities” and “the mounting flow of guns, tanks, planes, fires, poisons, gases,/ fragments of metal tearing flesh from flesh, thermonuclear storings,/ outpourings of terror” (“Where the Fox of This Stench Sulks”), and the reader knows, more or less, what Duncan is saying. The anger, however, reaches further. Duncan speaks of “the side-lesions of Congress” and a generalized “abcess.” As for America as a whole, She O where is my beloved Nation?/ She is the sick sheep that infects the flock of her Lord with her contagion

Duncan’s anger is accompanied by self-righteousness; he mobilizes Ate and the Furies: “So does she arouse in us apocalypse/ and in Nature the Furies stir.” In “The Museum,” Duncan speaks portentously about “an earthquake yet to come” without any political or moral context at all, and one of the most troubling features of this theme of destruction—especially when the pretense of self-righteousness is dropped—is that it is mixed with a feeling of ecstasy. In his creative act of writing, the poet, like the Furies, sweeps away all evil, but there are no distinctions of relative justice or unjustness, no real compassion. The fit of inspiration sweeps all before it. Here, the book’s cryptic title, Ground Work: Before the War, becomes relevant. The “war” is a future war, the “apocalypse” referred to above; the “earthquake” is a dimly foreseen kind of World War III. It is not, however, terrible—it is to be a just apocalypse, accompanied by ecstasy. Like the act of writing, like the fit of inspiration that falls upon Duncan, it will be self-generative and derive from its own “stem of remorseless hunger.” The poems of righteous anger and those of ecstasy have a peculiar resemblance to one another; love is invoked in both but in the most general sense: “love/ flinging itself outward.” In both cases, there is a combination of destruction and construction, a thrilled emptying and filling at the same time: “in the rushing [my soul] is given me anew.” By a peculiar process, Duncan’s identity is enlarged by the “creative” act of destruction, which, in “Circulations of the Song,” becomes an extension of his own egocentricity:

every horizon a brink of this emptying,walls of who-I-am falling into me.How enormous to come into this need!Let us not speak then of full filling.In the wide Universeemptying Itself into me, thru me

Extinction, then, is accompanied by pleasure and part of the quest for ever greater egocentricity, for an assumption of cosmic breadth.

How seriously, then, should one take Duncan’s destruction, the “war” he expects like an apocalypse? In part, it might be attributed to his milieu or California subculture. As he writes, this is “An age when hallucinations and rage are in.” Duncan has rapport with an audience that is varied, to be sure, one that is generally youthful, partly Bohemian, and united by its many “anti-s”: antiestablishment, anti-middle class, and to a large extent anti-intellectual. Although Duncan is very different from Charles Bukowski, their audiences are similar. How seriously is one to take Duncan’s quest for “war”—is it simply a harmless rhetorical device, to give pleasure and a euphoric magnification of the ego?

It is instructive to turn to Duncan’s mentor, Pound. He also inveighed against the “stupidities” of the culture which he saw around him, and with the passing of time his stance of opposition became cranky, obsessive, leading to an infatuation with Benito Mussolini and ending in 1945 with Pound inside a cage in Pisa, charged with treason. Duncan is far less flamboyant, but he describes a similar anger—Pound’s ideas are not buried in the past and a subject of strictly academic study, but they have found living continuity. In another volume, Duncan wrote about the free speech movement at the University of California and described Chancellor Strong with “the dragon claw/ biting his bowels.” In commenting on this poem, Louis Simpson wrote: “The subject of these lines is the former Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. Now, I find it impossible to visualize Chancellor Strong in the claws of a dragon. This picturesque writing makes me think only of Disneyland.”

A professor—living and breathing, made of flesh and blood—found himself metamorphosized by Duncan’s anger into a primitive monster such as a dinosaur. With the passage of time, Duncan’s anger and destructive gestures have, if anything, increased, but the political pretexts for expressing them have largely receded. It is remarkable that this rather sensitive and timid man—also of flesh and blood—bookish, and recommending pacifism in a distracted manner, should have such a prodigious appetite for aggressively sweeping the world away and consigning it to oblivion. If taken seriously, it is Duncan’s capacious mythopoetic vision that is monstrous. When one asks why he looks forward to an “earthquake,” an apocalypse, to something like World War III, the answer is disarmingly simple. It is not only his fear but also his wish. Also, it thrills his audience, giving them pleasure and a surreptitious tingle. Vibes.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11

Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1330.

Village Voice Literary Supplement. November, 1984, p. 5.

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