Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1943
At some as yet unknown point after the beginning of the twentieth century, North American transcendentalism moved from the East to the West Coast. Influenced equally by German and English Romanticism and Chinese and Indian religions, American individualist philosophy flowered in the nineteenth century writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman. While the essays of Emerson found an immediate ear in the international literary world, many other transcendentalist writers waited outside institutional doors for years before receiving their literary canonization. East Coast optimism and idealism eventually paled before the advance of a mercantile realism; as Thoreau once wryly remarked, even in the 1840’s one could determine the true worth of Boston by counting the number of barrels being unloaded at the harbor. The late San Francisco Bay Area poet Robert Duncan, an admitted poetic descendant of the bard of Brooklyn, Walt Whitman, argues for human potentiality and human freedom in the essays found in A Selected Prose, often with the deliberation of a twentieth century Emerson, though occasionally with the circumlocution of a Fuller. Duncan also shares the transcendentalists’ wide interests in science, religion, and cosmology, all the while maintaining the necessary cutting humor of a Thoreau. As Duncan writes in “Pages from a Notebook,” one of the essays included in A Selected Prose, “What I lack in pretension I make up in wit.”
While the majority of the selections included in the text by editor Robert J. Bertholf concern themselves with poetry and the graphic arts, some of the most important deal with Duncan’s views on politics and sexuality. For Duncan, the two issues were related: As (apparently) the first North American writer to present openly his homosexuality in the context of public debate, he knew well the political and practical consequences of honest statements concerning sexuality. The French critic Roland Barthes once remarked that in America, sex is everywhere but in the act itself. Duncan was equally unhappy with American attitudes about sexual identity and activity. His 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society,” which appeared in the journal Politics, was, as he notes, “the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved.” Such an occurrence should have guaranteed Duncan a place in the pantheon of the gay rights movement. Duncan, however, as a good dialectician, places considerable fault on the actions of homosexuals, saying that their adoption of a narrow sexual identity could be just as limiting as a narrow adoption of heterosexuality. The expanded version of the essay presented in the text was finished in 1959; notably, it was not printed during Duncan’s lifetime.
The revised version of the essay begins with a lengthy introduction that constitutes as much a statement on sexual politics as sexuality. Duncan begins, “My view was that minority associations and identifications were an evil wherever they supersede allegiance to and share in the creation of a human community good—the recognition of fellow-manhood.” This statement fits into his poet-persona as a representative man. Notably, Duncan maintains the possibility of minority identification as a means to community, as long as it does not impinge on or exclude the creation of a larger human society. His ideas on the body politic, he writes in 1959, came through, among others, his “Socialist and Anarchist associations.” Duncan sees, in retrospect, that his idealistic political views were about as likely to draw approval as his admission of his homosexuality.
Beginning with this idealistic position, Duncan criticizes the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of both the straight and the gay communities. Both, he argues, base their identity on principles of exclusion rather than inclusion. In particular, he notes the specialized vocabulary of gay circles and the derogatory names given to those who are not among the initiated (just as homosexual “camp” has gained a following among the hip on college campuses and society at large). While once a member of the “camp,” Duncan rejects it as an obstacle to human freedom. He concludes, in a section added in 1959, with an idealistic Blakean statement regarding sexuality: “Love is dishonored where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust.” Sexual identity, according to Duncan, should be a way of creating connections among people and not used as a principle of exclusion.
Duncan’s appeal to a universal sexuality parallels his poetics. He subscribes to the poetic principles of Charles Olson, who wrote in the 1950 polemical essay “Projective Verse” that poems must connect “the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.” By insisting on the importance of the body as well as the mind in the construction of a poem, Olson provided Duncan with a needed antidote to the academic orientation and theories of a poet such as T. S. Eliot. Instead, Duncan became a student of the vernacular, admiring poets as diverse as Dante, Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. The poems of Whitman’sLeaves of Grass (1855-1892) and Williams’ Paterson (1946-1958) became his benchmarks.
Duncan displays his poetic predilections most thoroughly in his 1970 essay on the poetry of Whitman, titled “Changing Perspectives in Reading Whitman.” Just as Duncan was aware of the contradictions implicit in identification with the gay community, he recognized the problems inherent in Whitman’s poetic persona. He begins his examination with a comparison of Whitman’s and Dante’s views on the use of the vernacular. Whitman, like Dante and William Wordsworth, found the spirit of humankind in the language of everyday life, though Whitman democratically extended the idea of pure language to children and illiterates. Whitman, Duncan argues, is best seen as a questioner and unsettler, taking his cue from the writings of Thomas Carlyle and Emerson. This brings about one of the first contradictions that Duncan finds in Whitman’s writing, the belief in the wisdom of the common person versus the grim realities of everyday life in the United States, including slavery and other forms of exploitation.
Duncan attempts to explain the contradiction by reference to one of Whitman’s models in old age, the writer that Duncan finds Whitman closest to, the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. In Whitman’s version of the Hegelian dialectic, explains Duncan, democracy is not the end of a process, a fulfillment of a dialectic, but a continual unfolding that allows human freedom to exist. Whitman finds in all the contradictions of society one eternal purpose, just as Emerson found the “eternal generator” in his otherwise decentering essay “Circles.” Duncan, with the advantage of hindsight, sees the downside of Whitman’s Americanism, imperialism and intolerance. Yet, Duncan argues, Whitman’s consideration of the multiple layers of Democracy gives force to his poetry; his internalization of contradiction brings forth the contradictions within the reader. By recognizing the multivocalic nature of Whitman’s poetry, Duncan anticipates much of the literary criticism of the 1990’s.
Duncan also uses Whitman’s writing, both prose and poetry, to elaborate on two of his favorite topics, sexuality and literary criticism. While the two may not seem related on the surface, Duncan provides a persuasive argument that goes to the root of his theory of poetics. Poetry, argues Duncan, following Olson, is a matter of the body, the line coming from the breath or, as in Whitman’s case, the line coming from the breath of the vernacular. Because of this linkage, the poet needs the freedom to choose his or her particular form to help express individual experience. Whitman’s free verse, Duncan writes, expresses his contradictory experience: individual freedom against the commodification and alienation of capitalism, homosexual desires versus officially puritanical culture. Whitman’s great innovation became his adaptation of a vocal musical form to poetry, translating his love of Italian opera, and even bird song, into verse. His ability to use this new medium allowed Whitman to create a body of words that communicate an experience beyond the self.
Duncan then contrasts Whitman’s practice of poetics with the reigning literary ideas of his own time, the New Criticism of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Duncan, like the New England Transcendentalists, considered himself an outsider when it came to institutional correctness. The New Criticism promoted strict, regular form and irony above other literary values. Duncan lambastes the New Critics as the functionaries of consumer capitalism, reducing the sublime art of poetry to packaging, with literary critics becoming the equivalent of consumer researchers. Having given in to the social realities of the marketplace, Duncan argues, the New Criticism effectively made poetry merely another product in the marketplace of ideas, and a rather marginal one at that. By celebrating Whitman as a model, Duncan hopes to liberate poetry from this stranglehold of form and economy.
In addition to his writing on poetry, some of Duncan’s best writing deals with the graphic arts; here he shows the same anti-institutional and nonconforming spirit exhibited in his other writing. Duncan was personally acquainted with many artists who lived in the Bay Area and writes persuasively and knowledgeably on their behalf. Jess, the artist who happened to be Duncan’s longtime companion, receives the most extended commentary included in the collection, in an essay intended to serve as an introduction to his Translation series. Also included in the text are brief notes on the works of Henry Jacobus and George Herms. A significant piece of cultural history is contained in Duncan’s essay titled “Wallace Berman: The Fashioning Spirit.” Berman’s artistic talents lay in the direction of the collage, or assemblage of images. He was also an advocate and participant of the West Coast and Beat drug culture and was found guilty of displaying pornographic material in 1957. Berman’s belief in the importance of collage was central to his work, argues Duncan, who considers Berman the artist of context. Duncan, who avoided the drug culture, still managed to offer an kind of justification of Berman’s drug use. Following the work of the French writer Antonin Artaud, Berman needed to return to the dark period that functions as the initial stage of individuation. Duncan even dedicated a poem to Wallace and Shirley Berman, celebrating their art as a means of the survival of spirit even as it was being trashed in the modern world. This celebration eventually led to the art of trash and the “found object” among artists in the Bay Area, Berman included. As Duncan writes, “The word ‘junk’ that in the 1950’s would have meant the trashing of the drug heroin, in the 1960’s came to mean the redemption of trash in the recognition of devotional objects, emblems and signs rescued from the bottom in the art of a new context.”
Duncan’s collection of essays as a whole reveals a mind firmly involved in the workings of art and politics. As a firm believer in the unfolding of the thought and the appropriateness of form to content, Duncan occasionally writes in an exceptionally dense and hyperbolic fashion. His strengths also tend to be his weaknesses: The fascination that is created in “[The Matter of the Bees]” is counterbalanced by the ramblings in the overly lengthy selection “Rites of Participation,” where he goes walkabout with Australian mythology.
Duncan’s current place in the canon of poetry and poetics may lie in the hands of his despised university and institutional critics, but his writing also remains a property of the culture at large. In it he has maintained a great idealistic tradition, though, like many of his transcendentalist predecessors, he may have written for an audience of the future.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCI, April 1, 1995, p. 1373.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, January 9, 1995, p. 52.