Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Robert Duncan, No Hierarchy of the Lovely:
Ten Uncollected Essays and Other Prose 1939-1981
Edited by James Maynard

Three Count Pour, 2020, $18.00

Review by J. Peter Moore

In 1965, the President of the University of California-Berkeley, Clark Kerr, whom Robert Duncan vilified in “The Multiversity,” the 21st poem in the Passages series, had recently invited him to serve as one of three judges for the Shelley Memorial Award, given every year to a living American poet since 1930. In one of his personal notebooks, Duncan drafts his response to Kerr, declining the invitation, stating that he could not in good faith cooperate with an administration that so strenuously impinged upon the students’ right to free speech. He gives a specific instance. “That a student has been expelled from the university for reading aloud sexual passages from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a tired affront to those writers [such as] Joyce, Lawrence, Pound who have given us the use of the verb fuck in lyric poetry.” Reading the censoring of fuck along Freudian terms, Duncan calls out Kerr for acting upon the “modern authoritarian” impulse to regulate not just language but the very destabilizing vitality of Eros. While the scene never makes its way into print, it speaks to Duncan’s abiding concern for those modes of discourse that fall outside of convention, either because they are too vulgar, as in the case of fuck, or too literary. It was for this reason that I jotted down the passage in a notebook in 2013, when as a research fellow at the Poetry Collection at SUNY Buffalo, I was making my way through the Robert Duncan collection, housed there. The recent outpouring of collected volumes, scholarly monographs, interview projects and international conferences all centered on Duncan have resulted in nothing short of a revival of the poet’s work. The 100-linear feet that make up the store of documents at Buffalo has given the revival an archival tenor, with box and folder numbers filling the footnotes of publications and talks. The recent collection of essays from Three Count Pour, an imprint of selva oscura press, No Hierarchy of the Lovely: Ten Uncollected Essays and Other Prose 1939-1981 is a case in point.

The editor of the new volume is James Maynard, curator of the Poetry Collection, who once again in this volume demonstrates his fluency in all things Duncanian. Maynard was responsible for editing the outsized Collected Prose volume in the six-volume California Press Collected Duncan series. There one finds the landmark works of Duncan’s prodigious output of social commentary and aesthetic theory—"Homosexual in Society,” “Truth and Life of Myth,” “Poetry Before Language” and “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife”—along with lesser known but absolutely vital works like “The Poet and Poetry—A Symposium.” What Three Count Pour has gathered up in this handsomely designed, slim volume are those essays that didn’t quite make the cut for that hardcover tome. These are not drafts. All are complete, either published in small press outlets or privately. They are similar in kind to the essays included in that larger volume, as they range from abstract ruminations on the nature of the psyche to focused investigations into the creative work of others. And yet they stand out, not quite as focused, not as fully rendered as those presented in the California volume. These stand on the margins of the poet’s expansive output. In the introduction, Maynard succinctly puts his finger on the imperative animating much of Duncan’s work, stating “Duncan’s poetics display his characteristic fascination with limits and boundaries for the sake of remaining open to what’s outside” (1). The same astute observation can be applied to the text at hand, as Maynard, the primary steward of the Duncan collection, has without question summonsed the poet’s commitment to the peripheries, by gathering up those elements left outside the revival tent.

This compulsion to attend to the boundaries is directly thematized in several places in the collection, never more powerfully than when Duncan considers those forms of language that fall to the wayside of common practice. In an essay from 1971 that builds upon ideas ventured in his early letter draft to Kerr, “A Prospectus for the Prepublication Issue of Ground Work,” Duncan returns to the question of “fuck.” Here the boundary follows lines of acceptability and decorum. Yet it’s different in the later essay. Now, instead of advocating for it as a contraband intensity, smuggled into poetry by modernists, he suggests that the term, along with other erotically charged vulgarisms, has passed completely into the realm of intellectual discourse. “From being considered ‘bad’ words, restricted to the jargon of ‘lower’ orders or the expression of ‘lower’ instincts, signs of something worse than ‘bad taste,’ or being considered ‘private’ words (as a man’s cock and balls were his ‘privates’), charged with all the force of the sacred, reserved for the initiated—from being, that is unspeakable, they have become signs of being cultured, of belonging to intelligentzia, the educated commonality, for whom these works of Joyce, Lawrence, and Pound, were required reading in ‘higher’ education” (67). The passage is illustrative on many counts. At base the passage reflects Duncan’s hand for a processional rhetoric, wherein he writes on the tip of his conscious mind, searching through clauses and syntax to make the connection that did not exist at the outset of the sentence. It moves with the serpentine rigors of Duncan’s recognizable baroque. But the passage also offers some ground for thinking through what Maynard describes as his persistent concern with that which moves beyond the frame. Yet it’s not that which falls beyond the realm of acceptability that interests Duncan, for such things as he shows are historically determined, proving that culture abides by the cyclonic seizure of cast-out forms. Rather, the name he gives here for the language that sits beyond the mark is the unspeakable, bringing the vulgar into one group with the ineffable, as the curse becomes an emphatic placeholder in many cases for the absent signifier.

The permutations continue, as the unspeakable gives the poet enough fodder for another round of inquiry.

What is it that is truly unspeakable? As a poet I find myself attackt for my being ultimately concerned with the experience of poetry and language. We may have begun to accept that sex is not a mere instrument but a primary ground of experience, but it is still rank heresy to take language, the pleasure and functions of words in their operations as such, as being the ground of primary information. Words are supposed properly to refer and to relate, and all the realm of their actual presence and the powers of language to use every other realm of experience to refer to and to relate its own realities, of the poem to use politics religion, history, biology, love, autobiography, to illustrate itself, is forbidden as the realm of Narcissus, whom the neoPlatonists saw as Creator of the world in his self-fascination, is forbidden. (68)

After shifting from language of the everyday to the language of inexpressible thought, Duncan brings the inexpressible back to that primary ground of the poem. Here the poet extends the ideas he preferred throughout his oeuvre, finding one more way of asserting the radical reality of language, never entirely manifested as soundless reference or asemantic music. The unspeakable then is the audacious proposition that the world can be a reflection of poetic form and not the other way around. The commune of Free Speech protestors does not offer a model for poetic form. Poetic form enables new modes of social life. Writing the poem thought about poetry should be marginal to the act of writing, that thought of poetry is marginal to the poem itself. There is then a foundational unspeakability that drives Duncan’s poetics. It is the feeling that one should not thematize the compositional practice that leads the poet to do just that. Here then we have nestled among the unspoken essays, the uncollected ideas, one statement that calls out in a voice that resonates to the core of the poet’s craft.

At the Robert Duncan Centennial Conference in Paris, the pride of the recent revival, one skeptical critic in attendance, the resident interloper, pondered plaintively during one of the question sessions following a plenary presentation: “I mean really can we say that Duncan is a major poet like Yeats—there is no single work that is definitely canonical, no single work that comes to mind immediately for the uninitiated.” While one could rattle off a host of poems that accomplish just that—"My Mother Would be a Falconress” being the first one that comes to mind—Duncan’s body of work is perhaps as the title of this volume declares all the more lovely for its rejection of hierarchy and consolidation. It is this reason why, as Norma Cole points out in one of the blurbs that opens the collection, that Duncan has become a poet so important to our contemporary moment, with its inquest into “the dynamic state which is not a state but a flux” (i). Duncan manages to achieve in these afterthoughts gathered by Maynard and Three Count Pour a refusal to even come to rest in favor of the margins emphatically. Rather the margins, the unspeakable, they mutate and he never comes down on too sure a foot, always ready to move the next instance into space.

Post by J. Peter Moore on 2/27/2021 at 12:00 PM

J. Peter Moore is a literary critic, poet, and editor. His scholarly project, Other Than a Citizen: Vernacular Poetics in Postwar America, examines the work of avant-garde poets who turned to the anonymous practices of everyday life to find a model for countering the institutional regimentation of the postwar social world. He is the author of two poetry collections, Southern Colortype (Three Count Pour, 2013) and Zippers and Jeans (selva oscura, 2017), and the editor and co-founder of Lute & Drum: An Online Arts Quarterly. He is Clinical Assistant Professor in the Honors College at Purdue University.