Dancing with Robert Duncan


As I’ve said so often already, the field that this course covers is such a crowded one that there is no way we can do anything other than the briefest introduction to any one of the areas or movements we survey.[i] Projectivism is perhaps the largest of these areas. We could have multiple seminars on Charles Olson alone. I would, especially, like to give some consideration to what he may have meant, and have touched off in the practices of later poets, by his insistence (in his essay ‘Projective Verse’ [1950]) on the tip of the pen, the word about to lead on to or call forth another word, as a point of maximum energy. We could get a good sense of that through the work of J.S. Harry, who, of all poets in Australia, seems to have most taken to heart this point of Olson’s essay (‘ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION’). But it’s actually something else I want to write about now.

Composition by field. And some ideas of absolute rhythm. And the tone-leading of vowels. Ideas, or, as it is more likely to be, just a little more information. ‘From the moment [the poet] ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION’, Olson writes, ‘—puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware…’. That seems to me to be a very important statement, almost a turning-point. And the idea is very important – suggestive – to Robert Duncan in particular. Duncan, a leader in the ‘San Francisco Renaissance’, was a protégé of Olson’s at Black Mountain College, and taught there in 1956. His 1960 collection The Opening of the Field is pivotal both for him and for the wider understanding of Projectivism.

‘Field composition’ / ‘composition by field’. I will tell you what that means to me. I may be totally incorrect, but who is there to correct me? And if that person emerges – if an essay such as this could ever call them forth – then (a) I’d welcome the correction, and (b) I might be tempted to say that my understanding has just demonstrated itself.

I’ve taken it – I conceive of it – as a matter of the visual arts first and foremost, or at least originally: a sense in which (to borrow from Mallarmé) the desire of the artist to dominate the canvas with their own will sets itself aside, cedes initiative to the canvas itself. A painter might put a mark on a canvas – no real matter, I think, whether a mark he/she has determined  to place there, or whether placed randomly (no discussion of the impossibility of randomness, please) – and then sees/waits for what that mark determines elsewhere on the canvas: another mark, a shape, a colour, a combination of these. And then, yes, waits to see what these marks in their turn determine elsewhere in the canvas. As if there were a force-field/field of force, ‘out there‘, revealing itself, that had not been known before. Created/expressed/making itself known in the vocabulary of that artist, yes, so that it is a kind of compromise, but what else could it be?

I first learned of this through the writing of Robert Adamson. The writing, and through actual encounter. That is, I don’t think I could quite have understood as I do the particular piece of writing that I have in mind had it not been for the actual experience of the poet-in-the-process-of-composition. A flat in Mosman, some time in 1981. I was teaching in Canberra then and Robert, anxious about the next issue of New Poetry, had asked me to come up to Sydney to help him sift through a small mountain (and it did prove to be that) of submissions. A lot of things I could say/recall about that visit (fresh bream from the harbour, the water-taste in its flesh; looking over a bunch of poems by Dorothy Porter that would end up in The Night Parrot [1984]), but for the moment, guided by the opening of ‘The Kingfishers’, I’ll just present myself sliding along a wall at some point – to go to the bathroom? – and seeing, in Bob’s typewriter, a piece of paper with just one line on it, and asking him about it, and his telling me that it was there waiting to see what else would come, what else it would determine, and our talking, then, about some similarities in the way we worked. Some border transactions, here, between my very rudimentary sense at that time of the deep image (it was in fact Adamson who introduced me to the term, in a description he wrote of my work), and his sense of the magnetic line/word/image/phrase, that would either attract others to it, summon them into being, or hook his poem/thought/image into – onto – the wider Poem.

The lines I am thinking about in fact come from a later poem of his, written perhaps at the end of that decade or the beginning of the next – ‘Clear Water Reckoning’, from The Clean Dark (1990):

I have strewn words around the living room,
taken them out from their
sentences, left them unused wherever
they fell; they are the bait

– the clearest and simplest expression I know (forget, if you can, the burleying, the fish-murder) of composition by field.

But I am getting ahead of myself. It is not Robert Adamson I want to remember here, but Robert Duncan. Issues of New Poetry from 1976 or 77 are full of Robert Duncan. New Poetry – i.e. Robert and Cheryl Adamson – had brought Duncan out from the United States as a kind of poet-in-residence. Rumours were that the journal was financially in trouble because it – Robert Adamson – had spent its Australia Council grant money on Duncan’s airfare and hotel bills and fees. I can’t recall how long Duncan was here, in Sydney – a couple of weeks? a month? – but the point is that he was here, and the journal for a time was full of him, just as Adamson’s poetry for some time already (‘The Rumour’) had been full of him. Prism Books, the publishers of New Poetry, or the book arm of the journal (however you liked to look at it [it was all Adamson]) even published an edition of Duncan’s ‘Venice Poem’.

What to say? It wasn’t – my firm belief – graft or corruption on Adamson’s part (which is not to exonerate him entirely [he would not like that]). I have rarely encountered a poet so dedicated to – possessed by – his art (a ‘trick’ [a wisdom?]: take ‘mystical’ poems seriously, force the mind into their spaces). Whether he brought Duncan over because he was deeply convinced it would be to the good of Australian poetry, or merely because he was himself so obsessed by him (as he  was also, say, by Bob Dylan) perhaps doesn’t matter and in some senses might be the same thing. Certainly Adamson’s next collection, Cross the Border (1977, published by Prism), is even more deeply influenced by Duncan (read ‘The Artemis Letters’, in the light of just the first part of Duncan’s ‘Poem Beginning With a Line from Pindar’).

At the time I am recollecting, I am in fact not in Australia myself, but in Canada, where by virtue of my honours thesis on and subsequent dealings with Galway Kinnell and others, I’ve become New Poetry‘s North American editor (Adamson had published an edited version of my thesis). It’s March 1979, the under-edge of the Canadian spring, and Robert Duncan is in town, invited, by Douglas Chambers of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, to talk to students – I can’t really say that it’s to give some seminars, or present lectures; it’s quite other than that – although there is also something else in the air. Ekbert Faas (whose Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews has just been published and will become one of the bibles) is also around. Indeed, he’s probably the real reason Duncan is there: Ekbert is working on a biography of Duncan (Young Robert Duncan, Black Sparrow Press, 1983), and behind the scenes they are having a few days of conversation. And somehow – because of the New Poetry connection (it’s only two or three years since Duncan was in Australia), or perhaps because I’ve been printing broadsheets by people like Thom Gunn (arranged by Douglas) and Galway Kinnell on the handpress at Massey College, just over the road from Trinity, or perhaps because Douglas needs a step-and-fetch-it – I’ve been caught up in the visit. And it might also be, after all, that I have some vague (vaguer, vaguest) sense of what Duncan might be about, having studied Olson’s Maximus Poems and gained some rudimentary understanding of Projectivism and the Black Mountain School in Eric Domville’s marvellous course on the long poem in the twentieth century (a century at this point only three-quarters through), and being in the middle stages of a PhD thesis on the poetics of Pound’s early Cantos….

However it is – my diaries would tell me the order, perhaps, or perhaps not (‘actual’ and intellectual history are enmeshed, influence and direct each other: it’s not as simple as they taught us) – I am there, fresh from what seemed to me a breakthrough (never yet confirmed; never yet disproven) concerning one of the mysteries of Pound’s poetics, his notion of absolute rhythm. Various people have thought they have cracked it. At that point I was one of them. My own sense concerns what Pound called aeolic rhythms. I’d scanned, meticulously, his Canto VII, to show how they worked: breccia where it doesn’t matter; intense concentration where the poem rises to its crescendo, its moments of vision. Point being that my head is full of this, as I shepherd Duncan around. Douglas Chambers is teaching, can’t be with Duncan constantly, needs someone to get his visitor from A to B.

My first experience of Duncan is a seminar/encounter/conversation I’m invited to. I’ve had a class of my own to attend. I am late. When I enter the room the conversation – much better to call it a dramatic monologue – is already under way. I stand on the edges, in what I have to admit is growing awe. The dynamics are a bit strange. He is sitting on a chair at the edge of a large room, and there are perhaps twenty graduate students there, most of them on their knees or sitting at his feet, with a lectern and ranked seats abandoned behind them. It’s as if he has begun to talk before he has properly arrived in the room and there’s been no time to array the event formally. He’s just sat down where he was and they – the students – have been too intrigued to bother with seats. He is deep in an account of the Provençal troubadours, their sexual practices, their sexual abstinence in the interests – this is Remy de Gourmont, I know from my Pound research, but Duncan is citing so many others as well – of channelling the vital energy upward, to intensify their creative power. It’s also deeply suspect, as it happens (the later me speaking), but none of us are saying or perhaps even thinking this at the time. And Duncan is so erudite, so eloquent, so convincing; knows, in this area – and one intuits vast fields beyond it – so much. And, in his tie, his hair slicked back, his suit (is it Armani? It might as well be), he talks, for an hour and a half, two hours. Electric. This is a man who knew Pound. This is a man who knew Olson. We are putting our hands in the stream, as it were. No-one wants him to stop. Such authority. No-one wants to leave.

That night I am invited to a different kind of occasion. I’m led to think it’s a kind of party in Duncan’s honour – as indeed it is – but not told much more. Ekbert will be there – or so I have led myself to believe – and Douglas will be there, etc. We – my wife and I (each twenty-four or twenty-five, so involved in our studies that our Australian naivety has remained untouched, immaculate, might even have intensified) – arrive by subway and bus (it’s quite a trek), to find a door slightly ajar, no-one answering, a darkened hallway in which, since we let ourselves in and begin to grope our way down, we find men standing against walls, groping one another, not exactly welcoming our presence. No sign of Douglas. No sign of Ekbert. Nor of anyone else we know. And then – light at the end of the hallway – a kind of recessed kitchen, absolutely packed – there are perhaps thirty or forty people in it, all male, my wife the only woman in the house – and Duncan, in the centre, leaning against the stove, holding forth, not on Remy de Gourmont and the Troubadours this time but, mystic guru of the San Francisco Renaissance, intimate memories of his time as a gigolo in New York, and of the West Coast gay/drag/queer scene in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. A man who managed a famous nightclub, who took himself to a Swiss sanatorium each year to have his anus repaired. A man, a very rich man, who demanded a diamond from every lover…and so on, an hour or more, until the feeling – encouraged quite strongly by some of those about us – that we were in the wrong place became too much for us, and we left, through the hallway and the movements in the dark.

The next day – I think it was the next day, and I have no recollection as to how this particular errand has come about – I am showing Duncan to the subway. He is going in one direction, and I in another. I’ll wait with him for his train to come, and then take my own. It’s my first chance to talk with him, after all, away from the crowds. And we talk about Sydney. He asks how Adamson is, and I have to say that I barely know him, except through correspondence – have met him only once – and so it is he, Robert Duncan, who tells me about Robert Adamson, about Sydney, about his experience of Australia. He asks me about my thesis, is kind enough to seem interested by what I have been discovering, though I sense that he knows far more about some parts of my subject than I will ever know. A couple of trains come and go. All this takes perhaps no more than twenty minutes or so.

Is it later the same day or some time on the next, that I dance with him? We have been to a reception of some kind, on the eastern side of the campus, and I’m now – for some reason neither Ekbert nor Douglas can do this themselves – taking him back to give a seminar on the western side. The campus is divided by a main road, University Avenue, three lanes in either direction, divided by a narrow median strip, and it’s the afternoon rush hour. We could walk up to the end of the block and use the pedestrian crossing but for some reason we decide to take the plunge. We’re deep in conversation, talking about absolute rhythm. He disagrees with my thesis about the aeolic rhythms, thinks absolute rhythm is something at once deeper and simpler than that. We get across the first lanes, onto the median strip – a kind of dance in itself, getting through the traffic – and then, on the narrow concrete island, cars and buses and trucks passing within inches on either side of us – a stumble and we’re both gone – he takes me in his arms, begins to step out a kind of dance with me, to prove his point about the rhythm. Older man – distinguished, you’d have to say – in Armani, younger man bearded and ponytailed in jeans and denim jacket, twirling precariously on the median strip. Maybe there’s something more – perhaps he’s testing me – but whatever else is happening it’s a lesson in poetic concentration. All he can think about is the rhythm. All I can think about is the traffic. And he’s counting, explaining all the time, not that I can hear much of it for the roar of the buses. It’s not a dance that I recognise. Definitely not a waltz. Weird. Scary. Exhilarating. Heady. As if I am / we are / caught up in something beyond or within the moment. A current. A tow. The Poem, he would doubtless have said, and maybe was saying, if I could have heard him. Something else present. Psyche, masquerading as the roar of engines.

Is it he or Douglas who invites me to a meeting in his hotel room the next morning, with Ekbert, to discuss poetics? A quiet hour over coffee. One senses more of an interlude in his discussions with Ekbert than a meeting per se. Much of the talk is above my head. I struggle to keep up. A lot of names I don’t know. I’m new to this business, at this level anyway. Not that I feel slighted or excluded. In fact it’s a bright morning, the rooms full of light and warmth, high above the city. And at one point Duncan tells me to follow him into the bedroom, that there’s something he wants to show me, something that I need to know. Unmade bed, clothes strewn about, a suitcase half-full of papers, and amongst them a small folder. Correspondence. With Ezra Pound. All fairly worn, by the looks of it – read a hundred times. But no, he doesn’t want me to read it. He takes from it two postcards. I’ve no recollection whatsoever of what was on their picture-faces. But on their message side, yes. One an instruction, in a hand that is by now quite familiar to me – shakey though, his St Elizabeth’s hand – to Robert, not to forget that absolute rhythm – the words are underlined – is the key, and the second, as if an afterthought, bearing almost nothing but the words the tone leading of vowels. I won’t say that Duncan shows it to me with any particular ceremony, but there is something about the moment. He hasn’t brought Ekbert in there (perhaps he’s shown him already); he hasn’t brought Douglas in.

He puts the card in my hands and I hold it awhile staring at the phrase. A cor secretum? A gift for my thesis? Who knows? I ask Duncan what it means, the ‘tone leading of vowels’ – whether Pound talks about it anywhere else – and outside, back in the sitting-room, he explains. No. He’s never been able to find it anywhere else in Pound, and Pound himself didn’t ever explain it. Duncan’s own interpretation, however, after long thought – the understanding that he has come to – is that it entails the voice and its production of words, that the tongue, teeth, palate act in concert to form sounds, and that some sounds flow naturally on from other sounds: that there is a optimum sequence of sounds. Sounds produced out of this sequence are in some way inharmonic, against the natural movement and comfort of the tongue; sounds produced in sequence present and promote a kind of deep harmony. It propels the poem, he tells me (or, rather, is the way the poem propels the mind): whatever else he knows or does not know about a line that he is writing, he knows what the next sound can and should be, and what it can’t be. It’s evidently not the only explanation Duncan ever gives of the phrase. Perhaps his thought develops. While writing this essay I check – I have just checked – the internet for some mention of the tone leading of vowels. There’s not much. But at Jim Rosenberg’s home page (http://www.well.com/user/jer/nonlin_prosody.html) I’ve found this:

Duncan spoke often of ‘tone leading vowels’ in talking about Pound. Not understanding what he meant by this, but wanting to know more, at a reading once I asked him where in Pound’s writings I could find the discussion of tone leading vowels. To my total astonishment, he replied that it wasn’t anywhere; Pound had used the term in letters to Duncan, simply assuming that Duncan would understand what he meant; Duncan was left to figure it out for himself. Hearing this I simply couldn’t resist: ‘Well, what is it??’ Duncan said two things, one of which was quite straightforward, the other of which was extremely obscure. He explained that when a diphthong (a glide from one ‘pure vowel’ to another) occurs, the ‘leading tone’, i.e. the pure vowel at which the glide begins, plays a special role in terms of later reinforcement. So far so good. Then he said: ‘When you hear a sound, it’s reinforced when you hear it again. But it can also be reinforced when you don’t hear it again.’ Just as Duncan was left to figure out on his own what Pound meant by ‘tone leading vowels’, I felt strongly that I should simply accept this remark as a gift and work on my own to figure out what it meant; I didn’t ask anything else.

– a different version of tone-leading, yes, but in other respects close enough to my own experience.[ii] And later, back at my thesis, after some time of my own poring through Pound (the Treatise on Harmony? Cavalcanti?) looking in vain for an encoded note on tone leading, I do pretty much that – come up, as Duncan had done, with an explanation of my own, a far simpler one, along the lines, as I would eventually discover, of Rimbaud’s sonnet on the vowels, and would demonstrate it with lines from the end of Canto II, where the long ‘a‘-sound of ‘wave’ and ‘grey’, in tandem with its shorter (/darker?) cousin (as in ‘glass’, ‘half’), works in concert with the aeolic rhythms (‘runs by the half-dune’, ‘rips against sunlight’, ‘colour of grape’s pulp’, to point up only the adonic [a strong stress, two weak stresses, a strong stress, a weak stress: ´ – – ´ – ][iii]) to create an atmosphere taut with wonder:

In the wave-runs by the half-dune;
Glass-glint of wave in the tide-rips against sunlight,
                  pallor of Hesperus,
Grey peak of the wave,
                  wave, colour of grape’s pulp

And that night, Duncan’s last in town, it is The Reading. In a tiered hall – I can’t remember which, but imagine it was at Trinity College – packed with listeners, the audience dimly lit, the lectern a well of honeyed light. For some reason I am not in the audience but standing in the wings, watching Duncan from the side, as he reads for almost an hour. It would be good to be able to say that I am mesmerised, but I can’t really pretend that. His poetry doesn’t exactly leave me cold, but neither does it heat me. I watch his hand, behind the lectern, not visible to the audience, driving out the rhythm, relentlessly. ‘Poem Beginning With a Line From Pindar’. And I listen for the tone leading of the vowels, imagine it rather than hear it: the machine within, the engine, driving the Poem forward.

[i]          A course taught in the graduate coursework program in the Department of English at the University of Sydney,  entitled ‘Major Movements in Contemporary Poetry’ (2001-  ). This essay was written by way of elaboration after a seminar on Projectivism in September 2010.

[ii]          There’s also a piece by Donald Wellman (‘Seventies Prosody: “the tone leading of vowels”‘) in Jacket 36 (late 2008) which sheds some light on the matter: http://jacketmagazine.com/36/wellman-seventies-prosody.shtm

[iii]          Here’s a shortlist:

‘Aeolic’ Rhythms

The core is the choriamb, a strong, two weak, a strong:  ´ – – ´

there are then

the adonic´ – – ´ –  (‘Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking…’ [Walt Whitman])

the dodrans´ – – ´ – ´

the aristophanean:   ´ – – ´ – ´ ^  (where the ^ signifies an ambivalent stress)

the hemiepes´ – – ´ – – ´

(There are more, and a set of important and characteristic variations.)