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Coda: Reading Duncan Reading Stein

Coda : Lire Duncan lisant Stein
Steve McCaffery


À partir d’une étude des carnets de Robert Duncan conservés au centre d’archive de l’université de Buffalo (NY), cet essai explore la manière dont Duncan lisait Gertrude Stein, en mettant notamment en lumière ses prédilections, pour confronter ensuite les deux auteurs. Ce qui émerge avec force de l’analyse participe de ce qu’on pourrait nommer une poétique de l’incohérence et de la désintégration, fondée sur une offensive virulente contre l’ordre grammatical, ce qui place à la fois Stein et Duncan du côté de trajectoires d’avant-garde telles que celle de Hugo Ball et sa « poésie sans mots » ou encore de Marinetti et ses « mots en liberté ».

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  • 1 The work had previously appeared in 1976 in an issue of 100 copies for a class distribution at the (...)

1This article is occasioned by the celebration of Robert Duncan’s centenary. Last year, of course, marked the 30th anniversary of his death a few months before the death of another great poet, the Canadian bpNichol. Nichol died on Sunday, September 25, 1988 and I recall phoning Charles Bernstein informing him of Nichol’s passing. Charles announced the death at the New York memorial event for Duncan’s own passing earlier that year. I mention this intimate preamble as an autobiographical framing of a confluence without which this paper probably would not have seen the light of day. On Duncan’s many visits to Toronto he always met with Nichol and a lasting appreciation of each other’s works transpired. Nichol told me of their informal conversations on Stein and it was Nichol who introduced me to Duncan’s Stein imitations by way of a presentation copy of the 1964 Writing Writing inscribed “bpNichol gives this book to Steve McCaffery on the occasion of his publication of NORTH OF INTENTION Dec. 23 1986 with much love bp.” It was probably the least inimical meeting of Duncan and Language Writing that ever transpired and was in part contributory to my own homolinguistic translations of Stein’s Tender Buttons (McCaffery 2008).1 I first heard Duncan himself read from his Stein imitations when Duncan and I were coparticipants at the First West Coast International Sound Poetry Festival held in November 1977 at La Mamelle Gallery in San Francisco. Among the other participants were the Four Horsemen, Laurie Anderson, Bill Gaglione and the Bay Area Dadaists. The immediate question this poses is why Duncan was invited to an International Sound Poetry Festival in the first place and why did he choose to read from his Stein imitations? I pose this question rhetorically as I cannot adduce sufficient information to answer it with any degree of competence, but it does serve to draw attention in their reading to the acoustic and repetitive aspects of the Stein imitations. Peter Quartermain assists here, indicating that “the inclusion of a composer like Satie along with poets like Basil Bunting, Sitwell and Zukofsky suggest something of the importance Duncan attached to the fleeting impermanence of sound” (Quartermain xxix). This paper has no pretensions to being an academic presentation, and largely contains material pertinent to Duncan’s reading of Stein. It is best considered as a field report on ongoing research into the Robert Duncan Notebooks held in the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo. Much of what you will read herewith will be Duncan’s own words, and some read by many for the first time.

2Duncan claims to have discovered Stein when he was 18 and began reading Portraits and Prayers through which he eventually discovered the possibility of a “writing back to the writing” (Duncan 2014, 341). “In Stein,” he asserts, “along with Pound, Cocteau, and Louis Zukofsky’s ‘Mantis’ [he saw] “a belonging to the challenge of ‘experimental’ writing, of making writing do things, of writing as a process of engaged consciousness. There was an idea of the writing back to the writing” (Duncan 2014, 341). I will return to the latter phrase shortly in discussing Duncan’s Stein imitations. Duncan catasterizes Stein among a constellation of women writers whom he is “ambitious only to emulate, imitate, reconstrue, approximate, duplicate” and names Stein along with Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Edith Sitwell, Laura Riding, Mary Butts and H.D. (Duncan 1995, 18-19). To this list should also be added Marianne Moore.

  • 2 See the frontispiece by Jess, from Emblems for Robert Duncan, 1989 (Duncan 2012, iv).

3Both Stein and Sitwell figure as the only women represented in the oval collage created by Jess especially for the 2012 Collected Early Poems and Plays.2 In the assemblage Sitwell’s face peers out between those of Charles Olson and André Breton, while Stein occupies a prominent position in profile in the foreground staring en face at Ezra Pound. Whether Jess intended to construct a hierarchy of influences is a point of nugatory conjecture but Duncan’s admiration for Stein is indisputable. He would have been attracted naturally to Stein’s eccentricity in both life-style and writing. The latter offers an enduring iteration of extreme modernism’s desiderata for words in freedom and a radical decanting of the paradigms of representation and egoism. In his “Imagining in Writing” Duncan states, “In writing I am not but in writing,” a sentiment close to Stein’s own famous tautological talisman “The time of composition is the time of composition” (quoted. in Rasula and McCaffery 6). The dedication to his 1964 book Writing Writing: A Composition Book For Madison 1953 Stein Imitations reads “For the love of Gertrude Stein in which I labord to write in whose mode” (Duncan 2012, 445). This amatory dedication apart, Duncan published comparatively little on Stein’s work and the evidence found in the notebooks suggests he never wrote extensively about it.

4Apart from his published review of Stein’s Four in America, the most substantial comments on her work are found in Duncan’s important, polymathic essay “Rites of Participation”. First published in 1967 in Clayton Eshelman’s Caterpillar and reprinted in Duncan’s Selected Prose, the essay also forms Chapter 6 of Part 1 of the HD Book. Like Wyndham Lewis, Duncan pays close attention to the temporal dimension in Stein. He quotes “The time in composing is a thing that is very troublesome. If the time in the composition is very troublesome it is because there must be even if there is no time at all in the composition there must be time in the composition which is in its quality of distribution and equilibrium” (Duncan 1995, 111). Duncan also notes a connection between Pound’s sense of the contemporary and Stein’s concept of the “continuous present.” He further quotes from her important essay “Composition as Explanation.”

The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living
they are doing, they are the composing of the composition of the time in which they are living. (Duncan 1995, 99)

5Significantly, Duncan frequently articulates a passage of Stein onto an anthropological point or instance. Hence, the following short passage from “Composition as Explanation:” “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything” gets noted for its connection to “The endless repetitions of rituals and wanderings and hunting in the pattern of life for the Australian is a living inside the Composition” (Ducan 1995, 108). Likewise, Duncan reads Stein’s concept of “repetition as insistence” not only as an intimate evocation of both “the pulse of living egg-cell itself” and the rhythmic, pulsating substrate of living being, (a sentiment near identical to Mina Loy’s comment that the “tenuous and vibrational” nature of Stein’s “continuous present” attempts “to track intellection back to the embryo,” Loy 297) but also of the anthropological, negentropic insertion of rhythmic rupture into the regular flow of life by means of art, ritual and ceremony (quoted in Rasula and McCaffery 5-6). For Duncan, in this essay at least, the value of Stein’s writing is both centrifugal and exemplary. A few preliminary words on the Stein holdings in Duncan and Jess’s library (now housed at Buffalo). The fact that Duncan did not annotate his books is as much an irritant to scholars as it is a relief to bibliophiles. Of the books themselves, each carries a bookplate designed by Jess containing both their names, a number and date of acquisition. The number of Stein items is substantial, at least, sixteen titles predating Duncan’s first sorties into the Stein imitations. Toward the end of Notebook 13 on Laboratory Record No 99 Duncan has made a list of Books and Records Wanted and dated 3/23/53 that includes three Stein titles: Operas and Plays (1932), How to Write (1931) and The Making of Americans (1925). Of these, the first two are struck through and the respective dates of acquisition added: “5/53 or so” and “8/53 or so” (Duncan Notebook 13). Duncan owned neither the Dial edition containing “Composition as Explanation,” from which he quotes extensively, nor the first separate edition published by Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1929. It was available to him however in two titles in his library: the 1946 Selected Works edited by Carl Van Vechten that Duncan acquired in its year of publication, and in the 1940 collection What are Masterpieces? acquired in 1952.

6Let me turn now to the Stein imitations and the Duncan archives at Buffalo. Slipped into Notebook 10 is a lined pink index card containing a quote from Stein’s “Normal Motor Automatism” (printed in the Psychological Review for 1896): “We would not, the hysterique can not, attend to these sensations (of automatic activity). Whatever else hysteria may be then, this, at least, seems most probable. It is a disease of the attention” (Stein 511). It seems the note did not generate further critical writings towards a theory of hysteria as a “disease of the attention.” In Notebook 11 we find an entry marked “Later Reflection (May 1952)” which describes Duncan’s concept of poetry as “a thing done” in contrast to Maddie’s concept “as a higher flight,” qualifying the claim however with the confession that he “often actually thinks of himself as ‘priest-like among lay men.’” We find also the assertion that “all speech is poetry” and “all words are poetry.”

7A further entry:

My imitations of Stein. They are not original. They are comfortable old hay. They are easy to do. They are not literature. They are chic. They are a chic old hat that is the latest thing. They are impersonally personal. They are coy. They are very witty. They are everyday cult talk. Quite literally, they are not worth this printing (which comes to fifteen dollars a page). They are unfunny nonsense. A serious dumb show in words. (Duncan Notebook 11)

8How do we parse this repetitive, seemingly abnegatory passage? It is clear that Duncan did not lionize the imitations or claim them to have any substantial value. However, the diachronic injection “a chic old hat that is the latest thing” helps frame the imitations as an updating, a commitment via imitation to “making new” what Stein herself “made new.” It suggests further a particular valence in the phrase “writing back to the writing,” a hint of a return to a source text as the entire subject of a new text. Imitation as a reverberation rather than a translation.

9Duncan’s hedonistic investment in reading Stein becomes apparent in a later passage in the notebook:

Gertrude Stein at her best is the best. Words and phrases and paragraphs. Providing the pleasures of reading without the distractions of meaning. These imitations at their best are not that best. They lapse from being something into being about something. (Duncan Notebook 11)

Clearly, Duncan relishes a non-semantic reading of “words and phrases and paragraphs.”

10Further on we find Duncan’s reflections on Stein’s group portrait, composed between 1910 and 1912:

Reading Stein’s JENNY, HELLEN, HANNAH, PAUL AND PETER is all the pleasure of grammatical constructions, of an amazing persistence. Sometimes ‘she was giving in being one giving what she was asking anything to be needing’ sharp, amused, sentences of in-sight; sometimes ‘the older was coming, the older was going, the older was staying, the older was leaving …’ (there are in this passage fifty-six repetitions of ‘the older’ in short verbal phrases) repetition that becomes amazing. Sometimes way out on the limb of the language ‘The piece of the place where they had the time was not the last of the whole that they were to have.’ And then an apotheosis of rare strange poetry – in 1912 a parallel for what Joyce achieves at his best in the dithyrambs of Finnegans Wake:
‘The power that was not to be scattered fell upon the floor. This made the use of that privilege which brought more there than was to be used by the same. There was no laughs then.’
Of a poetry, a nonsense –too sublime not to be more than laughable, or laughing a sad humor. (Duncan Notebook 11)

Do these two passages offer an explanation for Duncan’s presence at the La Mamelle festival: a festive indulgence in nonsense and the nonsemantic, a veritable poetry without meaning if not without words?

11In Duncan’s Notebook 11 occurs the following:

I read poisoner for prisoner. The poetry of misreadings (shakes the world). A grammar of misreading to correct consciousness. Just beneath the surface of the sentence there are unseen words lingering. Counter currents disturb the paragraph. (Duncan Notebook 11)

12It is my judgment that this brief note on a poetics of misreading offers an aperture to enter Duncan’s Stein imitations as calculated misreadings of their source texts. To read “poisoner as prisoner” is to enact a clinamen on the sub-sentential level of the word that unleashes, to Duncan’s mind, “a grammar of misreading to correct consciousness.” This is not to be confused with some Bloomian misreading of a “strong artist (Stein) by a “weak” practitioner (Duncan) but the passage quoted from the notebook seems to open up to Bloom’s logic.

13Perhaps the most interesting of the many portraits in the notebook is the following one of Duncan’s mentor Ezra Pound which I believe remains unpublished:

EZRA POUND 3/1/53 3/17/53

is it a lonely or an angry place in literature?
one. all cars before 1932 have become beautiful
one. is it lonely to be the only one or to be
only one in history?
progress. If it is new it has not been allowed for.
money. They will not make an allowance for that.
Picture. Develop the negative. This makes.
Make it beautiful only as beautifully new.
Beautifully unheard of. Break it up.
Make it. Break the form loose from it.
Break the whole into necessary parts.
This is an intrusion of structure.
the phonograph is running down.
the ringing up is on the telephone
      or the cash register
money. Is the money bloody.
No one needs taxis or taxes. Thanks      (Duncan Notebook 11)

14The general absence of repetition does not suggest the influence of Stein’s portraits per se, but isolated non sequiturs certainly capture the flavor of her Tender Buttons as does the brevity of the poem’s shifting subjects. We find too an instance of Duncan’s poetics of misreading as also one of mishearing in “taxis or taxes.”

15In Peter Quartermain’s estimate, “The Stein imitations loosened [Duncan’s] writing by extending his permissions: installing a disturbance at the heart of the writing process, they freed the syntax from habitual constraints, opened up language as source–not, then, as medium of expression, but as agency” (xxxi-xxxii). This remarked disturbance at the heart of the writing process gains an uncanny elaboration in another notebook entry. In Notebook 13, a large volume of repurposed Laboratory Records we find as Laboratory Records No. 49: “Incoherence and Disintegration. The fetish of our time is integration.” And on the next report as No. 50:

The Search for an Incoherent Art. It is impossible to create the “unintelligible”. And I do not conceive that language (in painting, writing, or music) can be divorced from its creative aspects. But in the decisive shift from “creating” in art to “imitating” in art a mere verbal turn of allegiance which allows at this point for our keeping in mind the imaginary totality which is the uncreated, extra-formal that may include all forms and systems, as intelligible real parts of an unintelligible totality. [...] So: a search for an incoherent art – a created thing, to stand in place, to act out in its conception, not its integration. That the poem, the drama or the painting or music go beyond or point beyond its nature as a created thing toward reality (as imitation – that it resemble the meaningless. The un-considered, the extra-harmonious. […] art as it is imitation (conceived even as an imitation of itself) may acknowledge all the-more-than-it is and address itself to at least its enigmatic thingness, at most its meaningless immortality. (Duncan Notebook 13)

16It is in this sense that Duncan sees ritual as an “imitation of celestial order” and in a wider inflexion returns poetics to mimesis with an odd vengeance. The note further elucidates Duncan’s concept of imitation as “enigmatic thingness” conceived from incoherence, a created thing, not an integrated representation. This section of the Laboratory Records Notebook was read and noted by Jane L. Walker who quotes it in her essay “Exercises in Disorder: Duncan’s Imitations of Gertrude Stein.” Walker concludes that Duncan saw in Stein far more than emancipations in form and style but rather a “radical assault on the structures and function of language” (Walker 28). Here then is a germinal Poetics of Incoherence and Disintegration, a wholesale attack on grammatical order that would align both Stein and Duncan himself with the avant-garde trajectories of Hugo Ball’s “poetry without words” and Marinetti’s “words in freedom.”

17The notebooks also contain a few isolated reflections on Stein and her writings. For instance, No 54 contains, “From Things as They Are to Mrs. Reynolds.” This is a note that Duncan writes on Stein’s self-fashioning. Comparing Mrs Reynolds with Wars I have Seen Duncan can claim that Stein moves from character construction to self-character construction in an analogous way to James Boswell.

As Boswell created a Johnson, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,
Everybody’s Autobiography and Wars I have Seen Stein has with Boswellian love for her Johnsonian self created a great personality of our time. […] there is the wisdom of Mrs. Reynolds.
In Stein’s work The signature of the personality is exclusive, yes: what one likes and/or dislikes her particular nonsense, sense, tone, plainness ruthlessness – in fin. Her qualities – are particular indeed. But the GENIUS, the potentiality is large. It is my sense of Stein’s work I attempt to define. And as I have come to contemn literature and to search out writing itself – it is here that I have found wisdom in writing. (Duncan Notebook 54)

18Laboratory Record No 57 reads as follows: “When poetry has a sense of play – as it asks an active participation it asks the poet (writer), the poet (reader) to be in form. To be in practice, alert and sensitive to all the movement in the game” (Duncan Notebook 57). Noting the dates of the entries and the notebooks we can see how for Duncan his Stein imitations and his search for a distintegrative poetics of incoherence are convergent projects, a confluence, I believe, worthy of further investigation.

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Duncan, Robert. Notebook 10. The Robert Duncan Collection. The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Duncan, Robert. Notebook 11. The Robert Duncan Collection. The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Duncan, Robert. Notebook 13. The Robert Duncan Collection. The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Duncan, Robert. Notebook 54. The Robert Duncan Collection. The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Duncan, Robert. Collected Early Poems and Plays. Peter Quartermain, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Duncan, Robert. Collected Essays and other Prose. James Maynard ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 2014.

Duncan, Robert. A Selected Prose. Robert J. Bertholf and Ian W. Reid, eds. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Duncan, Robert. Writing Writing: A Composition Book For Madison 1953 Stein Imitations. Albuquerque, NM: Sumbooks, 1964.

Loy, Mina. The Last Lunar Baedeker. Ed. Roger L. Conover. Highlands, NC: Jargon Society, 1982.

McCaffery, Steve. Every Way Oakly. Toronto: Bookthug, 2008.

Quartemain, Peter. “Introduction.” In Duncan, Robert. Collected Early Poems and Plays. Peter Quartermain, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Rasula, Jed and Steve McCaffery, eds. Imagining Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Stein, Gertrude and Leon M. Solomons. “Normal Motor Automatism.” Psychological Review 3.5 (1896): 492-512.

Walker, Jane L. “Exercises in Disorder: Duncan’s Imitations of Gertrude Stein.” Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. Robert J. Bertholf and Ian Reid, eds. New York: New Directions, 1979, 22-35.

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1 The work had previously appeared in 1976 in an issue of 100 copies for a class distribution at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.

2 See the frontispiece by Jess, from Emblems for Robert Duncan, 1989 (Duncan 2012, iv).

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Steve McCaffery, « Coda: Reading Duncan Reading Stein »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Steve McCaffery

University at Buffalo
Born in Sheffield, England, Steve McCaffery is the author or co-author of more than 45 critical and creative books, Cds and chapbooks. He was a founding member of the sound-performance ensemble The Four Horsemen, TRG (Toronto Research Group) and the Canadian College of Pataphysics. A long-time resident of Toronto, Canada, since 2004 he has been David Gray Endowed Professor of Poetry and Letters at the University at Buffalo.

Né à Sheffield, en Angleterre, Steve McCaffery est l’auteur ou le co-auteur de plus de 45 ouvrages de critique et de poésie, enregistrements sur CD et autres chapbooks. C’est l’un des membres fondateurs de l’ensemble de performers de poésie sonore The Four Horsemen, du TRG (Toronto Research Group) et du Canadian College of Pataphysics. Après avoir longuement vécu à Toronto, il est depuis 2004 David Gray Endowed Professor of Poetry and Letters à l’université de Buffalo.

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