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Legacies of Form

Robert Duncan’s Long Poem Debates and his Poetics of Grand Collage

Robert Duncan, de la question du poème long à celle du grand collage
Rachel Blau DuPlessis


Cet article analyse les tensions, au sein de la poétique de Duncan, qui séparent son œuvre de celle de Charles Olson, en particulier The Maximus Poems, de façon à mieux comprendre la fonction des poèmes intitulés « Passages » dans la poésie de Duncan à partir de 1968. À travers les notions de collage et de Grand Collage, apparaît tout le détail de la résistance de Duncan au poème long.

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“We see in every part signs of the formlessness of the whole; the formlessness of the work then is a significant form” (Duncan 1985,106).

1Robert Duncan had many prerequisites and contexts for writing a very long poem. He maintained a challenging friendship with Charles Olson, a central long poem writer in the canto-like multi-genre arc out of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and through Louis Zukofsky. He was close friends with Jack Spicer, arguably one of the several “inventers” of the serial poem along with Mina Loy, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker and Robin Blaser. He was greatly fascinated by Dante, the writer of the consummate long poem in one of our several collective cultures. Given Duncan’s powerful, even magnetic relationships to other long poem creators, why did he consciously and explicitly refuse to write one? Why did he refuse the one he’d apparently written? I’d like to posit his self-declared non-long poem as a case study for debates on long poem poetics, the fundamental questions of form and purpose. Given that long and very long poems are a characteristic undertaking of major writers in the modern era, it is notable that Duncan escaped that responsibility and ambition. Yet – did he? What did he do and why did he do it? Perhaps he actually embraced that responsibility by an alternative route, a route interesting to consider in its implications for poetics and poetic originality in our time.

Did Robert Duncan write a long poem?

2As will be seen here in detail, from the early 1960s, Duncan deliberately resists the long poem as a project. It is also clear that when he thinks of his own non-long poem, he is often thinking of Olson’s project in the long poem, for Duncan’s debates about this mode of practice often allude to and reference Charles Olson. A teasing 1981 note to himself suggests that long poems or the ambition to write them were overly masculinist enterprises. Duncan describes Olson’s long poem ambition sympathetically, but in his own queer anti-hierarchical and anti-masculinist terms: “Maximus, the Mask or Impersonation gives Olson title to sing (the Heavyweight title, world title, title to its property – of singing)” (Duncan 2014b, 800). In contrast, Duncan’s “title” occurs by virtue precisely of the idea of passages in which things “become in passage: a poetic field of what is in passage” (Duncan 2014b, 800). This mysterious reiteration of a title of poems (Passages) and the activities of being “in passage” declaring “a poetic field of what is in passage” put an exorbitant stress on that single word, one that indicates motion and no rest. This word indicates the motor of a grand collage: “a series having no beginning and no end as its condition of form” (cited Duncan 2014b, 800, from an essay in Maps 6 [1974]). When the term Grand Collage gets used – a good deal, as we will see and sometimes in capital letters, it also may appear too much like the declaration of a large object, a thing in the world (like a collage). What Duncan comes to (in 1981) is a declaration of his work defined by motion, by passage, by, to cite Paul Jaussen, continuous “emergence” of form without terminus (Jaussen 1-38).

3To examine the existence or non-existence of Duncan’s long poem, this paper is located in a zone where poetics and biographical choices around oeuvre meet and connect. This would fall within late-Barthean discussion of “biographical nebulae” (Barthes 208). His notable exfoliation of authorship and its choices, theories and practices, occurs because Roland Barthes decided to write a significant novel and hence studied how various eminent writers themselves prepared for a major work. In this phase, Barthes reinstated a concern with authorship that he had (apparently) resisted in earlier critical papers, then by an emphasis on multiple discourses coming through the “medium” of a scriptor figure.

4Duncan’s poetry itself and his colleagues in the practice of poetry and poetics seem to call for or call forth some long poem document in his career. He made remarkable statements that acknowledge his wide-ranging claim for and in a poetics that would permanently propel his vastness of purpose, his cosmic claims of scope – all of which usually accompany long poems. Every reader of Duncan has some favorites among these sublime articulations. For instance, his desire to make “large spatial architectures at the edge of chaos” may inspire (Duncan 2014b, xxxii). Or the prospectus in “The Poet and Poetry” symposium (published a year before Charles Olson’s 1950 “Projective Verse”) that could constitute a program for the long poem as well as for his oeuvre. “How to increase the complexity of interpenetration of parts; how to make the poem go on as long as possible – that is to contain the maximum quantity of moving parts so that the final performance of choreography and design will keep me intrigued intellectually and emotionally…” (Duncan 2014a, 33). The only word out of place there, for Duncan’s eventual poetics, is the word “final.” These dramatic and powerful suggestions that poesis, and only such continual endless making was his goal could surely have issued in a long poem, named as such. The statements mesh with the projective verse claims named by Olson’s essay as “composition by field” (Olson 1997, 239).

5Briefly to define this concept, “composition by field” is a phrase by Charles Olson coined in his own seminal essay “Projective Verse” (1950). The phrase evokes at once a poetics (or a philosophy of writing), a mode of practice (a heuristic activity that discovers its own order), and a kind of poem that is recognizable both visually and aurally. In the latter sense, the page space features loosely configured lines, white space in integral relation to the text, intra-line caesural gaps, and phrasal fragments following the pulse of thinking and feeling as they occur. The net cast by such a poem can be large in allusion, association, and sense of scope. This writing practice, for Olson, rests on engagement with one’s compositional and ontological energies (physical being, breath) in the absolute present of writing. In the poetics of projective verse, form in any particular work emerges from the multiple pressures of content and its articulation. Form is not pre-constructed (as in saying, I will write a sestina); it is free-form thought on the page, although shaped in a general way by a poet’s sense of poetic tropes, goals, and literary historical traditions. Composition by field produced open form and, therefore, resisted conventional poetic markers (such as rhyme and metrical or numerical repetition), and it featured paratactic organization in syntax. This poetics is notably influential in U.S. experimental poetries and is engaged and defended by many poets, Duncan being one.

6Projective verse (the poetics of “composition by field”) posits writing as made of existential choices defined by desire and act, and as seeing, feeling, and understanding in the present – a kind of phenomenology drawing on, but not slavish to traditional or free-verse prosodies. In this lightning-strike poetics, the page (called here the field) becomes a zone of “energy transfer,” defined, let’s say, as the excitements generated by such bold mental association and leaps of surmise.

7While a new phrase in 1950, composition by field as a concept has analogues with prior modernist poetic practice, such as the syntactic lobes and white spaces of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés (1897), a breakthrough challenge to poetry and to its normative pages. Further, it might resemble the erasure of syntactic connection as a way of freeing words from pre-organized usage, described in F. T. Marinetti’s 1914 manifesto Parole in libertà (words in freedom – freed-up words). Certainly influential was the productive misunderstanding of the ideogram in Ezra Pound’s manifesto-compilation from the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (1919) allowing fundamental concepts to be apprehended without any meditating abstraction (or such was the claim). “Composition by field” as a key term in mid-century American poetry is related to several artistic modes of the time, including action painting (Jackson Pollock), gestural dance performances using casual movement (Merce Cunningham), and improvisatory modes of jazz (Charlie Parker) (DuPlessis, cited verbatim with additions, 287). Composition by field is a highly influential poetics for contemporary long poems, since it did not demand a particular shape or product, but a commitment to practice (praxis) – the act of writing as the vocation of the poet.

8Olson’s statement in poetics (1950) had been just preceded by the 1949 “The Poet and Poetry – a Symposium” of Robert Duncan; the two statements are congruent, but Duncan had other sources for the kinds of open form poetries to which he was committed. The discussion of American philosopher William James on which James Maynard embarks in discussing Duncan is one of those sources. A key chapter concerns “The Many Worlds” (in The Principles of Psychology), and Maynard shows its serious impact on Duncan (Maynard 105-106). James argues that there are “many worlds” to represent in art, as to discuss in psychology: verifiable reality, of course, but also “two sub-universes at least,” various categories of illusion and reality, “the fancies and illusions,” “collective error,” “individual error,” “abstract reality.” So the full world is “realities plus the fancies and illusions,” which the philosopher must pursue understanding the relations “of each sub-world to the others in the total world which is.” Maynard, emphasizes the totality “which is” as a key summary of Robert Duncan’s poetics – its plurality, its “sense of plenitude,” its absorption of and confrontation with myth, fantasy, dreams, in which perpetual representation is crucial. This “sense of plenitude […] always exceeds its individual representations and, thus, must be continually sought after” (Maynard 106).

9This position on endless plenitude led to Duncan’s position on a perpetual practice of writing, similar to the practices occurring under the rubric “Projective Verse.” In the cases of both Duncan and Olson, then, their poetics led to skepticism of any closed form or bounded poem. The logic of such a poetics in turn led to the long poem. Hence it is surprising that Duncan did not claim that a long poem was his task; while in contrast by 1950 Olson was embarked on his work The Maximus Poems.

10A writer can, of course, want a long incorporative book without its being a long poem. Duncan accomplished this perpetually accumulative – and perpetually unfinished – work in prose with The H.D. Book. This text was settled by the editors in the published edition (2011) in order to make an effective reading copy, but it was never finished in one definitive draft by Duncan. However, the poet’s desire for such an endless book of continuous thinking parallels the longing for the long poem. It would have every characteristic: an assemblage kind of text-building; the claim of “everything” going into this book – an encyclopedic or polyphonic criterion; a sense of incorporative on-going writing – the book is always open to further elaboration and association; and finally, the claim that a such a book is a life’s work and perhaps also a culture-changing document. With his ambitious panache, Robert Duncan’s explanations forwarding this goal postulate something above and beyond even the long poem. His whole oeuvre was to stand as a meta-book.

11Duncan wanted more even than an incorporative, continuously postulated writing that had a terminus, as Olson’s The Maximus Poems did. Duncan wanted to declare an indeterminate, always metamorphic life-and-work structure, a “life-work,” sometimes called Grand Collage and sometimes called the “world-poem” (Duncan 2014a, 215). These two designations are not easily defined.

Duncan on Collage and Grand Collage

12To begin understanding what is involved, we could look at some uses of the notion of “collage” in Duncan, which he formulates in two ways – social and aesthetic. Both draw on his interest in the Semina group in California in the early to mid-fifties (Fredman), and his remarks in “Wallace Berman: The Fashioning Spirit” (1978). Duncan is sympathetic to that beleaguered group of artists, whose ins and outs of run-ins with a punitive police for what was called pornography (some images in their journal), Stephen Fredman discusses in his keen social history of the artistic group. Although Duncan (with Jess [Collins] ) disagreed totally with Semina’s quite liberal ingestive use of drugs (particularly peyote) to alter consciousness (see Duncan 2014a, 351), and of course deplored the harassment and censorship to which Wallace Berman, for one, was subjected, he praises their attempt at “the fashioning of a context” (Duncan 2014a, 347) – meaning an experimental group in which a “new life way” was emerging (prefigurating many such experiments in the sixties). The relevant part of their poetics comes in attacking the established relation of how things – such as images – go together, a derangement or disordering of the accepted real for which drug derangements were a tool (Duncan 2014a, 347).

13This becomes far more specific and pertinent to collage when Duncan discusses what they shared as practitioners (he and Jess with Berman and George Herms): the urge to invent assemblages (i.e. sculptural collage) from objects, salvaging materials from the trash, from discards, “‘working the dumps,’” working with the “redemption of trash” to create “household votive objects” or “devotional objects, emblems and signs rescued from the bottom [of society, imagined ultimately as hyle – unformed matter] in the art of a new context” (Duncan 2014a, 351). This specificity of collage, its metamorphic nature, transforms the everyday dregs of the real into a means of conscious illumination. That is the force of collage for Duncan. It is not a technique of juxtaposition, say, or an exercise to create abstract design, or play with representation (woodgrain shelf paper in an artwork representing a table), but an illumination via incongruity and displacement into a vision beyond limits achieved by placing materials in unexpected contexts, creating “transvaluation” (Duncan 2014a, 289). It is a tactic involving accumulation of the disparate (oddities and junk) and then its transformation by the power of decontextualization and recontextualization. Collage as a tactic in visual art does not guarantee this defamiliarized impact, of course, but for Duncan, this impact is enabled and encouraged by such intentional assemblage.

14Incidentally, I don’t believe, except loosely, that Duncan was a collagist in the textual or stylistic sense, since collage implies selection, and the creation or recognition of intentional fragments, clear enough edges of the materials set in combination, or juxtaposed. This is not the main feeling of Duncan’s proto-romantic odic sublime with its enfolded syntax, although he can also move to a variety of discourses and tones (like imprecation) that, necessarily, enact some edges and jumps in his poems. He is a collagist, however, in the conceptual or intellectual sense, in juxtaposing cultural allusions – even if these are often treated as stylistically and syntactically melded in his work.

15Even after understanding this sense of collage, and even after acknowledging what Duncan also admired in this intrepid artistic group – its willingness to experiment with social forms (like communal living), it is still notably difficult to define Grand Collage – an idea on other scales – aesthetic and spiritual. There does not seem to be one single source (in one short essay, say, like Olson’s “Projective Verse”) for this mobile and suggestive term – and its ambition.

16Grand Collage is a coinage with multiple functions and usages, as Stephen Fredman elaborates throughout his book Contextual Practice where it is, variously, a recognition of artists on the same path; those joined by a non-exclusionary politics (Fredman’s reading of a “symposium of the whole”); it is a “libidinal grouping of materials” (Fredman 23) leaping among fields and associations; it is a “contextual practice” among elements demanding boundless continuation not mastery; “resolutely incomplete” (ibid. 84) but continuously “in process” (ibid. 84).

17To continue this summary, I will begin with Duncan’s 1961 “Ideas of the Meaning of Form.” Here Duncan cited Ernst Cassirer on the limits of deracinating and decontextualizing thought (Duncan 2014a, 81-82). So contextual thought, integrative thought, tries to identify things in process and always to visualize the metamorphic aspects of “contextualizing practice.” It is still difficult to understand (except in general and somewhat vatic generalizations) what “contextual” means to Duncan’s long poems, but it is likely similar to Olson’s one perception immediately leading to the next because the universe is ultimately joined. For Olson, this plays into the associations brought to in the building of a single work. Formally, I would also imagine that it means no separation of separate items – meaning, no single poems, but all the poems together as offering a context for each; an acknowledgement that all of the elements in Duncan’s oeuvre are part of the “creative process” – there is not a separate item that would be its “goal” (Duncan 2014a, 80) – a summary work in a hierarchy, say, a finished poem. As is clear from his 1981 term “passages,” all elements are seen as part of each, passages between each other, making together one grand [large] collage [items joined to each other variously] – but not joined by a declared goal, ending or rationale.

18Grand Collage is a worldview more than only a poetics, liberatory, universalizing, and perpetually creative. That is why the paragraphs in The H.D. Book on the “symposium of the whole” were so influential when first published in Caterpillar in 1967-68 – Duncan offered an ecologically and anthropologically even-handed (and anti-hierarchical) view of our human experience – if phrased in a somewhat high-handed fashion:

The very form of man has no longer the isolation of a superior paradigm but it involved in its morphology in the cooperative design of all living things, in the life of everything, everywhere. We go now to the bushman, the child, or the ape, who were once considered primitive, not to read there what we once were but to read what we are [...]. To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the lumpen-proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond in our consideration of the figure of Man – must return to be admitted in the creation of what we are” (Duncan 2011, 153, 154).

This passage, for all its rhetorical imperialism, is central to the social ethics of Duncan’s imagination.

19Duncan proposes that the universality of human experience takes many cultural forms, but the most enriching reject formalist thinking or formalisms as limiting, overly intellectualized, not committed to exploratory thinking or to the tolerant creative uncertainties of Keats’s “Negative Capability” – explicitly mentioned in “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” [1961] (Duncan 2014a, 79). Formalist and categorizing thinking de-contextualizes and deracinates an item (say, any natural specimen from its field), refusing to see how this thing is dialectically shaped by, and shaping of its context. In contrast, Duncan always wants to affirm widening contexts, affiliations and networks among everything he perceives – thus the “symposium of the whole” as a grand idea must, for the sake of an aesthetic ethics, infuse poetry.

20One of the other central places for Duncan’s affirmation of Grand Collage not as a kind of form or one mode of artistic practice but as the total mode of exploration occurs in the “Preface” dated 1967 to Bending the Bow (1968). This specific statement about grand collage is easily read but harder to parse and contextualize in its implications and power for Duncan (Duncan 2014b, 298). The whole preface is both allegory and fable for the necessity of the artist holding firm against the constant historical drift toward and enthusiasm for war. It was a motivation for his social resistance from even his college days. War, with killing and militarism, setting one group against the other, breaks that massive sense of life in its wholeness with destruction. Against this, Duncan poses a sense of “Life itself” (Duncan 2014b, 295) where the poet is (wittily) an unalienated “escapist” who wants “every part of the actual world involved in my escape” (Duncan 2014b, 296). Evidently, the stakes of the poem are enormously larger than an aesthetic-only idea of form, or a named poetics but are on a world-wide scale.

Duncan’s Serial Poem “Passages” in the Context of Grand Collage

21Bending the Bow is, not incidentally, the book in which the serial work Passages first emerges with the first thirty works so titled and numbered amid other poems. “Passages” – whose justification will be a topic throughout – are lineated poems, all titled and numbered as if in some order, that recur in work published from 1968 forward. They are joined by another set of short prose poems, also sporadically occurring in Duncan’s books from 1960 on named and numbered as “Structure of Rime.” Sometime after 1984, the numbering system drops off from “Passages,” but interesting titles are inscribed on many of the poems. After “Structure of Rime XXVIII: In Memoriam Wallace Stevens” in Duncan’s 1984 book Ground Work, this series does not appear again until one unnumbered poem published in the 1987 Ground Work II: In the Dark. However, “Passages” go on. One of the two uncollected last poems (from 1983-1988) is called “In Passage” and could be numbered poem fifty-four under that title.

22This essay does not undertake any in-depth reading of these poems (their content and relationships) nor their meanings, except perhaps some bibliographic materials. This might necessitate a book-length study. Still, the stakes of these two arguably serial poems are high. Here I focus on the question of the authorial subjectivity that chose this massive structure (“half textual and half in biography” [Barthes 208]). Duncan’s choices embody a formal innovation not only as two long serial poems, but as those long serial works inside and not separable from his whole œuvre. He chooses this way to exemplify a projective poetics of his grand collage.

23Here I will focus only on beginning to understand the choices around “Passages” (and remaining silent about “Structure of Rime”). What does the word passages mean? Here are some definitions, all of which are of interest: A movement from one place to another, a transit. Transit includes transitions from one state to another, life stages. Death is called a passage. Passages may be a journey – and the right to travel, by free passage, booking passage. It is the structure of a corridor or a channel or duct inside a structure. And it is a selection or segment for focus – the passage of a musical or literary work. As in the passage of legislation, it is the enactment of a measure, a definition that has a curious resonance in poetry. The enactment of a measure in these passages is not a law but precisely the enactment of an irregular measure (these passages are not spaced in any predictable periodicity), the perpetual availability of an organic pulse, a channel to define the “inside” space of something.

24Grand Collage is not to be imagined as a “unified field theory” or an economic theory or any theorizing practice that explains the known and unknown world by “one principle” fundamental to everything. Instead Duncan imagines a continuous mutual creation of both connections and understanding (Duncan 2011, 173). Grand Collage is not so much specific juxtapositions (as in a visual collage) as the making of one gigantic metonymic linkage of everything in continuous creation. To return to Maynard on William James’s relevance for Duncan: it is the endless presentation of “what is” on many scales. A collage (as one visual item) is simply one object. Grand Collage is as if a hovering system of metamorphic inclusions, almost like a moving collage, but really something like a system – perhaps the constantly “emerging system” based on its own self-feedback that Paul Jaussen perspicaciously identifies as a characteristic of the contemporary long poem (Duncan 2011, 173; Jaussen 22-27). Duncan’s note on the nature of history provides yet another visualization of “Grand Collage”: it “appears as a mobile structure in which events may move in time in ever-changing constellations” (Duncan 2011, 173).

25This Grand Collage entity (this changing system) is characterized by a mix of times, places and nations (ibid. 187), acknowledging not the “oneness” of everything (that would be unified field thinking) but its relatedness. This mix of times is proposed both towards highlighting a larger humanity and joining those who are spiritual kin with each other across times and nations, rather like H.D.’s “companions of the flame” (Duncan 2011, 192; H.D. Trilogy, Book I, sec. 13). So work under the rubric of Grand Collage becomes like Dante’s poem (calling up and examining a number of world figures over time) – but secular, poems of a world-mind in process (Duncan 2011, 196). Further most of the modernists Duncan includes in The H.D. Book will write a major long poem, yet another reason it is worth examining why Duncan did not – in name.

26His reasons have to do with a stance toward conclusions, endings, terminus, or any kind of closure. Given the ethos of the Grand Collage, with an idea of form as ever-evolving (and its frustrations to people who want exact definitions of this absorptive, metamorphic, shifting assemblage), Duncan will write poems that “belong to a series that extends in an area larger than my work in them. I enter the poem as I entered my own life, moving between an initiation and a terminus I cannot name” (Duncan 2014, 296). This citation is from his Preface to the book Bending the Bow (1968), where not only is “grand collage” mentioned but, as already noted, the first group of poems all called “Passages” emerged. And “Passages” become a key piece of evidence concerning Duncan’s “long poem” that does not exist. To say things directly, that long serial poem does not exist because it has been surrounded and absorbed, swallowed into the idea of his whole oeuvre as a Grand Collage. So then why then name and distinguish these “passages”?

27The goal here is to articulate what (non-formalist) “form” means in this system of thinking. It indicates “the complexities of the field” ; “a design that is larger than the poem”; a “great story that […] will never be completed” – how many ways can Duncan say an endless additive totality infused with the force of another ineffable concept: Eros itself with its light and dark (Duncan 2014b, 296). It is at this dramatic juncture that his goal is announced as all things coming into existence through the “poetry of all poetries, grand collage” (ibid. 298). This then is no small concept of form as in the physical collages in the Semina group or Jess’s assemblages, but these are mini-versions of what this idea has become. Duncan foresees a collective of meanings and a collective “building of form” (ibid. 299). Such a poem surpasses the boundaries of an individual author, is in part the responsibility of the reader (ibid. 299), extends beyond individual language, or beyond any specific poetic career, where any named individual is only one entity responsible for what can no longer be called an individual “work of art” but is a joining of poetries as a force in a global sense.

28Duncan’s “moving between an initiation and a terminus I cannot name” is literally a description of “passages” as a mode or motif – a formal experience that is also described as the ongoing practice of making (ibid. 296). The work is always “an area of composition in which I work with whatever comes into it” (ibid. 297). We can use a literary name for this” – “œuvre”; we can call it praxis – or work. His term Grand Collage will also serve. There is no separate long poem.

29My view of this idea of form is congruent with Joseph Conte’s careful and eloquent study defining the nature of Duncan’s serial work. That is, Conte treats “Passages” almost as if it were a separate serial poem. My addition to his work offers further qualification about Duncan and the serial as a separable item within Duncan’s oeuvre coming to the unstable conclusion that this work (and its similar serial work “Structure of Rime”) set within Duncan’s total oeuvre are a significant contribution to the question of form in the long poem. In Conte’s categories, “Passages” is the epitome of an “infinite serial” form: “for Duncan the full extension of a poetics of process is the infinite form capable of encompassing portions that are open as well as closed and having neither an initial given nor an endpoint” (Conte 47-48).

30To explore this, Conte presents many analogue thinkers among philosophers and other poets. Particularly apt is his discussion of Heraclitus and Pythagoras which concludes with Duncan’s notion of a “provisional and expansive” boundary to any finding, so that there is never closure (ibid. 51) and continues with a pleasure in Heraclitean “discord and disequilibrium” (ibid. 53). The way the “infinite series” occurs is “each poem is complete in itself, an event enacted, but in the context of the series, each is but a part of the ongoing process, and thus incomplete” (ibid. 53). In the particular case of “Passages,” both a protest against “commercial publishing” (ibid. 50) but more deeply so that these poems remain “unbound” ” – both serial (to be read sequentially) and freed from that serial claims of “telos” and “trajectory” by the metaphoric enfolding of oeuvre itself (ibid. 50, 69). Beginning from the clear findings of Conte, the rest of the paper will try to examine how that purpose of disequilibrium functions in contest with the magnetic long poem practice of Charles Olson.

The Long Poem Debates between Charles Olson and Robert Duncan

“I number the first to come one, but they belong to a series that extends in an area larger than my work in them” (Duncan 2014b, 296).

31A bizarre justification that Duncan gave (in 1963) for not writing a long poem was simply the historical moment of any poet’s birth. This is an overelaborate, non-, or semi-explanation, but one that shows Duncan was indeed thinking about the long poem question for himself almost from the beginning of his career – and also thinking about Charles Olson’s choices in contrast with his own. Duncan proposes that the generation of poets born in the 1880s (that is, the Anglo-American modernists) lived within the “world-mind” or “world-poem” (Duncan 2017, 187) and were “partisans of world-thought.” (ibid. 175). He is hardly wrong – the socio-spiritual thinking of the 1880s onward affected many zones of artistic and syncretic religious-scientistic research of the Theosophical/Golden Dawn variety in which Duncan himself was saturated from his childhood. Duncan then goes on to hypothesize that this generation of poets “organize[s] time and space to ‘include history’” with a synoptic inclusivity (ibid. 188). These poets (Pound, H.D., Williams, Eliot, for instance) thus invent a fluid poetic discourse around epic, and/or a collaged long poem-including-history. And then, despite Olson’s birthdate (1910), and despite his own family’s theosophical speculations, Duncan makes Olson an honorary member of this 1880’s generation.

32Duncan’s gracious homage of doubly positioning Olson in this mass (mess) of surmise seems to have had the secret if comic effect of releasing Duncan himself from any obligation whatsoever to synoptic long poems. Duncan’s birthdate (1919) is simply wrong (in this secularly astrological sense) for him to attempt the world-historical poem. The stars simply do not align. Olson is doubly positioned in Duncan’s long-poem interpretive scheme as a pivot between epic Maximus on one hand (in the Jargon 24 publication in 1960) and on the other hand, lyric The Distances (1960, same date as this Maximus). It is a very peculiar argument depending on this birth date and the “world tone” at the child’s conception and during his/her language acquisition (Duncan 2017, 187). This is proposed although, of course, Duncan’s birth date is only nine years later than Olson’s while Olson’s is twenty-two years later than 1888 (T.S. Eliot’s).

33This is one way of “reading evidence” (and it does honor Maximus as a bridge or pivot), but as argument, it is oriented to an ill-defined Zeitgeist. People’s preferences for writing long or shorter poems come about not from choice or drive or emulation or considerations in poetics but because of their birth year, an accidental position in world-time (if prone to general socio-historical forces). However specious, willful or circular the claim, it is here and for these reasons that Duncan first declares that he is not a long poem writer. He abjures any hint of long poem vocation and supports his refusal by this deterministic – and even inconsistently applied – claim about poetic generations.

34The more useful moment of clarity about Duncan’s non-long poem vocation occurs in response to an Olson query about the poems “Passages,” as they began to be published in journals – the exact poems that appear in Bending the Bow in 1968. Olson had assumed that this work constitutes one serial poem in these numbered sections, a work called Passages. Tersely (in May 1964) Duncan tells Olson: “Correction: Passages are, not is (Bertholf 199) [my emphasis]. That is, they take a plural verb because they consist of many poems, and do not require a singular verb because they are not one serial poem. “A number of passages; not parts of a thing calld [sic] passages” (Bertholf 199). Each is “an instance of itself,” and even if revisited by the poet, they “do not have to do with sequence” (ibid. 199, 200). In a further consideration, he notes (in June 1964) that these are “now numbered as if in a sequence” [my emphasis], but might better be titled “individually, to lift them as free as I can from the idea of consequence, the consecutive, that numbering gives” (Bertholf 204).

35Duncan declares himself for writing itself; this term after Williams in U.S. poetries becomes a near-technical term for a post-generic free exploration in language as thinking and prefigures “composition by field.” In this case, relevant to the question of an apparently long serial poem, all the poems called “Passages” are positioned as instances of being “in passage,” a heighted form of continuous transition: “Rites of passage, hence initiatory and transformational everywhere; birds of passage, hence transitory and translating” (Duncan 2014b, 800). That is why passages are – a claim of perpetual traveling into the problematic of endlessness – rather than being the title of a singular bounded serial poem. It is “a series having no beginning and no end as its condition of form” (ibid.). This is as close to “life itself” as a form as one might hope to declare. It fulfills the stipulations (set forth in “Structure of Rime XXIII”): “Only passages of a poetry, no more […] only passages of what is happening” (ibid. 317).

36Hence at the time when Olson solidified his long poem vocation and had published some completed sections of Maximus, Duncan rejected (in correspondence with Olson) two of the most characteristic and dynamic modes in which contemporary poets claim length: on the one hand, field composition – inclusive, ranging, and speaking of historical meaning, and, on the other hand, any version of the serial poem. He abjures both the citation and discourse-rich collage-based work (one way of characterizing Maximus) and the serial sequenced work, linear, but vectoring. Could he be clearer on his total rejection? Yet he has, in some way, put these long poem modes together, both in play. But how?

37To now use the term “serial,” I am still agreeing with the key description and subtle application of Joseph Conte’s “infinite serial form,” but I am insisting that there is something quite uncanny in Duncan’s use. Such linear but enfolded and re-enfolded poems are implicitly discussed when Steve McCaffery outlines “Blaser’s Deleuzian Folds” (1998). This is another theoretical study in poetics with an eye on questions of long poem form. For inside Robin Blaser’s Holy Forest also emerge two serial works (“Image-Nations” and “The Truth is Laughter”) that “come and go throughout” in Blaser’s oeuvre (Blaser xxv) in the same way that Duncan’s “Passages” and “Structure of Rime” do in his. The very fact of this similar structure of serial inside whole oeuvre (even if Blaser is “simply” indebted to Duncan) needs further understanding. This has to do with the point at which the formal thinking characteristic of the serial work transforms or transposes into the non-teleological field – or fold.

38The need to enter this sense of form might be defined by Duncan’s allusion (in “Passages” called “The Missionaries” [48th in the set]) with its citing of a title by Jackson Mac Low. The title is “‘A Collection of 40 Dances’ – not a series,” notes Duncan, editorializing (Duncan 2014b, 581). Even the anodyne word series puts too much pressure on the term “passages.” Just above this instructional moment, the following

Passages I chanced upon no serious intent

means the series does not signify
beyond the incident of a numeration

or momentary alphabet.

“A” is not “Alpha” the lead vowel as yet

unnamed---- (Duncan 2014b, 581)

39Not to travel too far afield, we see simply from this complex thought (w. 1974) that series is almost parallel to chance, the accident or “incident” of any individual seeking resonances and understanding. As well the two most indexical kinds of series (numbers and the alphabet as a particular cultural enumeration) have no extra value or meaning, Duncan says. An alphabet is “momentary” and “Alpha” as any cultural wake-up call, sounding out a metaphoric beginning, has no particular extra value; the “lead vowel” of this finding has not been claimed or “named,” and it is still beyond any naming of it. Even the title “the missionaries / meant only to disperse a single statement, / ‘A Collection of 40 Dances’ – not a series” (Duncan 2014b, 581). One does see, however, a conviction rejecting teleology (“not a series” but just a “collection”) that is interesting provoked (and somewhat problematized) by such authoritative words as “Alpha,” “alphabet” and “missionaries.”

40A serial poem (think of George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” or Langston Hughes’s “Montage of a Dream Deferred”) has the consequence that Duncan denies – and is not simply one incident or another of enumeration; there is some kind of achieved linking, even with oblique argument and, in Oppen’s case, an ambiguous ending. In Oppen’s, one of the more vectored serial poems that I know, the meditation always veers and leaps, but it is set under one named rubric in its forty sections, not distributed under one recurring title among the poems in Oppen’s whole œuvre. In contrast, Duncan’s term “collection” does not suggest meaningful accumulation. For more to the point about series or seriality, at all times “Passages” is inside another structure and is produced only intermittently with no repeatable pulse or periodicity in that structure. Evoking Blaser’s named serial work enfolded in a larger set of poems is a kind of proof that this intermittent recurrent mode of serial-like poems is a repeatable, if almost unique, instance of a form “inside” an overarching set of poems comprising an oeuvre.

41So, as Duncan says in “Preface to a reading of Passages 1-22,” “Passages” while it might be “serial” in look is not a normal serial work both because it doesn’t end, and because it claims no extra meanings from its place or sequencing ordered by the poet. (That is, why this section comes before or after that section is always a very interesting question in seriality). And it is not a normal serial work because it is embedded inside another work – the one called Duncan’s total oeuvre – “all its parts [being] present in one fabric” (Duncan 2014a, 303).

Duncan’s stand on the long poem

42We have seen that Duncan could not be clearer on his total rejection of long poems in any guise – heading always to the oeuvre or Grand Collage, nor clearer in his rejection of that long poem called “Passages” in its arguably serial mode. However, we are not finished yet in parsing Duncan’s rejection; as with any putative long poem, the issues around ending must be elaborated. For this, I am drawing on an essay on Olson and Maximus that Duncan delivered in 1979, nine years after Olson had died, discussing (among other things) Olson’s ending to Maximus. This essay exists as a transcribed audiotape and as the apparent final version; although they are not that different, I will use both. The lecture is a little more talky and casual with a few alternative formulations.

43The essay first postulates that a sense of place is central to Maximus and is not only historical but sacred. Duncan tells that Olson used the Greek term “temenos” –a temple enclosure, the site of particular divinity that infuses us. He takes this as a metaphor through which Olson “heard the space in which he could take place [as a poet]” (Duncan 2011, 35). The echo of Mallarmé shows we are in long poem territory again. In the Mallarmé, butchered here to emphasize this moment toward the end of the poem: “RIEN… N’AURA EU LIEU… QUE LE LIEU” (Mallarmé 1994, 143). Nothing will have taken place here except place itself – a poem’s zone of poesis. “It’s the place where suddenly Maximus is fully out of bounds” (Duncan 2017, 149). The admiration here is patent. For Duncan terminus has been mooted.

44Duncan’s presentation has transposed temenos until for Duncan this is emphatically not or no longer the zone of the US as a triumphalist polis (Olson’s tendency in the poem to teleological history with that as a point) or a polis in the urgencies of its near failure (Olson’s fear). Duncan’s temenos (and what Olson arrived at, in Duncan’s view) is the whole earth, the larger everything of everything, a “world mind” or “world-mind-image” (Duncan 2011, 31). Or, in an alternative metaphor: “the incomparable Book or Vision” (Duncan 1995, 97). Sometimes dubbed Grand Collage (Duncan 2014b, 301, 298); sometimes “symposium of the whole” (Duncan 1995, 98) as its poetics, always plural, polysemous, inclusive, excessive and endless: a meta-book of all his writing – this is the Duncan-ian fulfillment of the Mallarmean prophecy: that everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book (“que tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre”) (Mallarmé 1965,189).

45That is, something that began as a sacred enclosure ends, with Olson in Duncan’s hands, as something completely without enclosure or boundary. This multiphasic endless entity is not only the goal of scope for Duncan, it is a central goal in the modern and contemporary eras for many long poems by other poets, generally the extreme long ones, but also the long ones. Within the discussion of a debate about ending a long poem that unrolled between Duncan and – in these texts – the dead Olson, the unapologetic and sometimes startling move toward claiming these poems are “everything” and “endless” is foregrounded. This observation of boundarilessness instantly raises the question of Olson’s “ending,” given that Olson assured Duncan that The Maximus Poems did end. I cannot here say whether Olson meant “end,” in the sense of “finish,” “close up,” and “complete” or simply “end” as “come to a stopping point.” Or even finish up because he was, as he knew, dying. These questions haunt Olson scholarship.

46If there is an ending to a long poem or perhaps to any poem, according to Duncan, there will be nothing left over to accomplish. “You can’t have that business, coming to the end” (Duncan 2011, 23) or “coming in and finding that there’s a leftover” (Duncan 2017, 144). So ending is a space in which there is no more event or experience, no more “continuous process” of picking things up – no more themes added, no more movement into thinking more and more thinking (ibid., 144). It is a picture of the death of the poet, in fact; ending is the equivalent of death. With anything at all left over (still to write, still to explore), you have entered instead into a positive space – the ultimate paradoxical unenclosed enclosure [temenos], a perpetual passage to passages.

47Duncan makes clear: “Of my own poems, ‘Passages’ and ‘The Structure of Rime,’ it’s impossible to have a leftover” (ibid., 144). That is, they are endless passages – it’s just a poetry of continuation, continuance, going on and on. This proposal is made much clearer almost immediately (still talking about “Passages”). If the poems “belong in a volume” (ibid., 144), this “already tells you you’re not in a long poem” because a long poem is not any finished poem that you can “measure from one end to another.”

  • 1 Thanks to Peter Middleton for this information, offered during the Duncan conference itself; two ra (...)

48Hence his refusal to Peter Quartermain’s inquiry of publishing these serial works in a separate volume, despite the fact that several chapbooks of a few “Passages” had once been published in the 1970s by Black Sparrow Press1. However, when Quartermain suggested to Duncan that “Passages” be published as a long serial poem work in a single book, he got a non-negotiable and absolute refusal from Duncan (Duncan, 2014b, xliii). Duncan even refused the option of allowing these works to appear in a course-pack for classroom use, as Quartermain also proposed. Given that Quartermain was a trusted friend, Duncan’s choice not to do so had great symbolic weight. For Duncan, apparently, this would not have been a harmless act of distribution, but a total undermining of his poetics (and this despite his having published them a tiny bit in the early seventies – and stopped) (Duncan 2014b, 799-800).

49Not only Quartermain was “wrong” about the possible autonomy of these works as a long “serial poem.” Robert Creeley was so certain that “Passages” belonged among American long poems that, in a blurb for ARK, he insisted that Ronald Johnson’s work join others of its ilk, listing among Pound’s, Zukofsky’s, and Olson’s long poems, “Robert Duncan’s PASSAGES” (Back cover of the Living Batch Press edition of ARK, 1996). The ambiguity concerning the status of “Passages” even to a poetry community that knew Duncan well is a challenge to consider.

50In both the lecture on Olson (text in the Alcalay pamphlet) and the finalizing of the essay (the text used in Duncan 2017, 144), Duncan tried to obfuscate what Olson felt he had achieved – an ending for Maximus. That is, the difference between his own ideas about the never-ending poem, and Olson’s testimony about Maximus is so fraught that Duncan at first blurs Olson’s stated position. In the pamphlet, he says that he and Olson discussed the ending of Maximus as an ending, but that Duncan is sure that “the end declared proves not to be the intent,” double guessing the now-dead Olson (Duncan 2011, 24; Duncan 2017, 144). Why? Duncan stated that Olson (at his life’s end in 1970) said to Duncan “he has finished his work,” (Duncan 2017, 144), but the ending of Maximus (“my wife my car my color and myself” [“a splendid close”]) does not, Duncan assures us, “go back” – that is, does not circle round, like an ouroboros and like Finnegans Wake) (Olson 1983, 635). Yet Duncan knows – and immediately tells his listeners – that his finding is incorrect; he is willfully not honoring what Olson wanted to think about his major work. Duncan knows that he is misstating for – the “underlying figure here is exactly the circular one that I said it was not going to turn out to be” (Duncan 2017, 144).

51The willfulness is instructive. This episode of opposing interpretive positions tells us something revealing about Duncan’s own non-long poem “Passages” within his whole non-long poem oeuvre and the question of long poems in general. Duncan knows well that Olson felt he had ended Maximus with a circular “world returning into itself” image and that Olson said to him explicitly that he had ended this poem. Yet this is something Duncan wants badly to resist because it is not the ending without end that he (Duncan) would have sought and thought Olson should have more forcefully declared. So Duncan will (posthumously) declare it for him. The very twistiness of all this shows that a lot is at stake for Duncan in defining Olson’s stated closure to his long poem as a non-closure only declared as ending by a mistake in poetics or judgment.

52The more interesting, if still mysterious Duncan declaration about the ending of Maximus is that Olson makes this ending “so the close is both close and not close” (Duncan 2017, 144). I want to enter there – for the statement (whether true or not about Maximus – endless debates might ensue) is completely revealing about the poetics of Duncan’s (ghostly, haunting, non-existent) long poem, made “so the close [ending] is both close and not-close” (ibid.).

53How does one achieve a structure that is simultaneously “close and not-close”? The intermittent modular works called “Passages” (and perhaps “Structure of Rime”) taken as through-lines within his oeuvre– and overlapping through-lines at that – actually created a structure for the œuvre, not developmental or teleological, but of activity vibrating around recurrences (the word and concept “passages” and the physical presence of both these works in the wholeness of an ongoing collected writing). This is a structure Duncan used during his whole career. By through lines, I do not necessarily mean thematic lines, but rather just the existence of a named entity, snaking, if intermittently, through his poetry, appearing and disappearing through the collected work. The recurrence of these two titles, no matter how varied these titled works are, structures the otherwise expansive and formless enterprise of simply writing poems. We have not only Grand Collage as an expanse, but a couple of separate entities defining the extent by interior, intermittent in-folded poems and prose poems, linked only by name, a passage through a larger text. One may apply Steve McCaffery’s hermetic but accurate description: passages may be said to appear “as textual nomads in serial plications upon a plenum” (McCaffery 108). The plenum is the whole of Duncan’s poetry, the plications are in-folded recurrences; their nomadism suggests the unpredictability of their appearance throughout.

54If every poem that Duncan wrote is part of that Grand Collage, I would further posit that having one or two cross book threads of serial poems snaking through or enfolded during are what help make this long entity a formal departure, negotiating two solutions thought to be opposite (closure, no-closure) where both are plausible within the absorptive and metamorphic “grandeur” of such a “collage.” That is the two serial poems, distinct, named but also overlapping are crucial to Duncan’s teasing simulacrum of a long poem, one that is not a long poem at all but an entity in which “the formlessness of the work then is a significant form” (Duncan 1985, 106). It is a structure that doesn’t either close or not close.

55Thus having “Passages” and another apparently separate serial work, with a title a bit ironic, after all, the “Structure [sic] of Rime” are what allow the poem to be always in process. The two serial poems, distinct, named but also overlapping and never-ending –and not separable as separate serial poems, provide a structure that doesn’t either close or not close, making Duncan’s oeuvre in multiple poems exist as pure “middle” (no beginning, nor any ending to what has been set in process). That is, Duncan inhabited for his lifework a structure and specific traits characteristic of the long poem (sheer scale, an absorption of “everything” magnetically into the poem, an infinity of networks and correspondences, themes and allusions woven, recurrent), using this mode without naming it “long poem” as such. Everything he did was played out on the cosmic scale of metamorphosis, process and affirming of creation. To give this energy or drive to make the genre name of “long poem” and to posit any even conjectural boundary and terminus was inadequate to the over-weening sense of poesis that motivated Duncan. His poesis is, therefore, dangerous, unstoppable. It is close to cosmic drama. Scale itself demands excess. And excess has no limits.

56Hence the gigantic, endless – often that means quasi-endless, aspirationally endless, endless until you die (etc.) long poems of modernism, these lifeworks by Pound and Olson, are too small for Duncan, and yet he never ceased to flirt with long poem allure, an “accretion of disregarded splendors” (Duncan 2014b, 119); a structure of totality (without totalization) and everything potentially included without stopping. But being “beyond” the name of “long poem,” he is still able to articulate what its terms are.

57How to make a “close” that is also “not-close”? He achieved a simulacrum of the long poem by refusing both an encirclement of even that voracious genre (the encyclopedic poem) and even the penetrating arrow of a notational genre (the serial poem) by an even larger and more extreme or outlandish vision of the meta-genre in which he worked: a poem of pure middle: “a further becoming” or “a further, a further, a further nature” (Duncan 2011, 39), a triumphant and noble organicism of letting writing continue happening from and inside of the nature of physical, mythic and literary life, but defining this by a recurrence of a motif in time. Duncan wanted to declare an indeterminate, perpetually metamorphic long poem life-work structure – beyond the beyond, a grand collage.

58One test of this space of poesis for Duncan is that the poem cannot end. It can have no external boundary. But – and this is a fantastic sleight of hand – it could close and not-close by putting the defining boundary inside the work, not outside it. And he marked this as a structure by sending a pipeline or two through the work, not a boundary outside or closure, but a mark within, an intermittent recurrence as a structure of named extras, maybe meditations, maybe glosses, maybe notes, maybe elaborations, maybe parallels (they are not going to conform to one mode, certainly): in short, by passages and examinations of poetry itself – “rime.” The “form” or mode within which Duncan mimics the moves of a long poem is not an endless oeuvre with an external boundary, because there will always be “something left over” for Duncan, so you can never achieve this external boundary (aka an ending). But an oeuvre with an internal mark of making, a set of works with the same title (“Passages,” and another with another title, “Structure of Rime”) that thread or snake within the oeuvrecould establish a “close” that is simultaneously “not-close.” These works are all within and do not define an external line (boundary) but an internal string or act of interior marking, an inside-out shape. There is no exterior boundary – but there is an intestinal, invaginated or organic tubing moving within this space that defines it from the inside, as a mark of form or a mark of shape within a boundless shapelessness. It is the tubular carrier of pure permission.

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1 Thanks to Peter Middleton for this information, offered during the Duncan conference itself; two rare pamphlets from Black Sparrow Press comprised six Passages, 30-35, dated 1970 and 1971 can be found in WorldCat.

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Rachel Blau DuPlessis, « Robert Duncan’s Long Poem Debates and his Poetics of Grand Collage »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Temple University
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, poet, critic, collagist, is the author of the multi-volume long poem Drafts, (1986-2012). Post-Drafts books, some including poetry and collage, are Graphic Novella (2015), Days and Works (2017), Around the Day in 80 Worlds (BlazeVOX, 2018), NUMBERS (2018) and the two most recent, Late Work (2020) and Poetic Realism (2021). She has written a trilogy of critical essays on gender and poetics: The Pink GuitarBlue Studios and Purple Passages, along with several other critical books on gender and fiction, and on modernist Anglophone poetry. DuPlessis edited the Selected Letters of George Oppen, coedited The Objectivist Nexus, and has written on extensively on Oppen, Zukofsky, and Niedecker. Her poetry has been translated into French and Italian.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, poète, critique et auteur de collages, a publié le long poème Drafts (1986-2012). Parmi ses écrits ultérieurs figurent Graphic Novella (2015), Days and Works (2017), Around the Day in 80 Worlds (BlazeVOX, 2018), NUMBERS (2018) et plus récemment Late Work (2020) et Poetic Realism (2021). Elle a rédigé trois monographies critiques sur la notion de genre en poésie, The Pink Guitar, Blue Studios et Purple Passages, ainsi que plusieurs ouvrages sur le genre dans la fiction, le modernisme et la poésie anglophone. DuPlessis a également édité The Selected Letters of George Oppen, et co-édité The Objectivist Nexus. Elle a enfin consacré de nombreux articles à George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky et Lorine Niedecker. Ses poèmes ont été traduits en français et en italien.

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