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Coda: The War of Poetry: Duncan’s Heresies

Coda : La poésie en guerre : les hérésies de Duncan
Michael Heller


Cet article s’attache au recueil de Robert Duncan intitulé Tribunals: Passages 31-35, publié séparément en 1970, ainsi qu’aux textes en prose qui l’accompagnent, comme « The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy », paru en 1964, fenêtres ouvertes sur la guerre que mène Duncan avec la forme du poème, et au nom de celle-ci. Lieu dangereux, où la défaite et la résolution des conflits traversés ne font qu’un, cette « guerre » dans laquelle s’engage Duncan, s’affrontant souvent lui-même, il la mène aussi contre son propre environnement politique et culturel, à des fins de libération formelle. Ainsi, il compte amener l’artiste créateur à suivre « les lois qu’il décrète », à « libérer entièrement » la poésie, sur le chemin d’une humanité délivrée. Duncan se qualifie souvent de « poète dérivatif ». Le présent article démontre que ces dérivations constituèrent une stratégie allant au-delà d’une simple forme d’ouverture, destinée à enrichir considérablement la notion de poésie, sa définition du sujet, et son propre champ des possibles.

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“In relation to each [Zukofsky and Olson] I was to be heretical – for in the face of Zukofsky’s stripping to the essentials, I was working toward a proliferation of meanings; and in the face of Olson’s drive toward the primordial roots, I was working from interpretations of the text.” (Duncan 1995, 138)

1This declaration by Robert Duncan is only one of the ways that the poet sought to express the nature of his heresy, one that takes numerous shapes and is staged in the light of the condition we find ourselves in, as he puts it in his Preface to Bending the Bow (1968), amidst the “last days of our history,” in our need “to defend a form that our very defense corrupts. We cannot rid ourselves of the form to which we now belong.”

2The collective “we” of Duncan’s statement implicates the poet in the very condition he would ameliorate, or at least would see in the making of poetry, the one act that might offer some redemption to the “war of all against all” in which the last days of history has found us. The heretical aspects of Duncan’s thought, as laid out in the epigraph to this talk, represent only a later statement of a deeper heresy whose origin lies in the poet’s engagement with poetry itself. For Duncan, such thinking can be sensed in his earlier “The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy” of 1965 that begins with a discussion of Dante’s four-fold interpretation in which the doctrine of the literal, where “the literal sense should always come first as the one in the meaning whereof the others are included, and without which it were impossible and irrational to attend to the others.” “The doctrine of the literal,” Duncan asserts, “the immediate and embodied sense, as the foundation of all others, is striking to the modern poet.” The literal, however, “is the hardest ground for us to know, for we are of it – not outside, not observing, but inside, experiencing. It is, finally, I believe, the only ground to know” (Duncan 1965, unpaginated 4).

3For Duncan, the literal is a check on language (or Language with a capital L, as he sometimes writes). For “Not only in Theology but in Poetry too, something goes awry if in our adoration of the Logos we lose sense of, or would cut loose from, the living body and passion of Man in the actual universe.” “Words,” he warns, “can float away in a light of their own, taking the light for their own, as if the universe of actual things, that we might rightly call Creation, were, as the gnostics believe, a material antagonistic to meaning.”

4So the primal heresy for Duncan, stemming from his reading of Dante, is that poetry qua poetry is not a freedom. Musing on the role of myth, as deployed by the philosophers and historians of ancient Greece, he speaks of “Canto-recanto, the very genius, the creative will of the poem, alters what it would conserve.” “The mythological poet […] struggles to keep the original, and to relegate all invention to the adversary of the poem: he struggles against the invention that moves him.”

5This is the struggle, the “war” that Duncan chooses (“I make poetry as other men make war”), in which he is a protagonist most often wrestling with himself, to liberate form – not to choose one form over another – but to bring form to possibility, to express form as the creative artist’s fulfillment of “the law that he creates,” to see poetry’s “every freedom,” as leading toward human liberation. But, in the most complex sense, also to see poetry as the liberation of the poem from the poet. It is also a re-enactment of what Duncan sees as Dante’s movement from the realm of the Inferno to Purgatorio, the releasing of poetry from the dead, bringing it into the realm of his masters who, like Virgil, were for the most part pre-Christian, hence unaligned with both the Christian vision of redemption and with the doctrinal structures of the Christian theology. This thematics is hinted at in all of Duncan’s major poetry, but especially prominent in the Tribunals as they weave the personal, political and cultural worlds and in a sense transform the “literal” into a language, a poetry and poetics that would resist the tendency of poetry to “go awry” in its love of language.

6Duncan’s Tribunals: Passages 31-35, originally published as a separate book in 1970, and the prose surrounding it, form a central focus of the struggle of Duncan’s war with and for form, the site of risk, undoing, and resolution. As World War Two haunted H.D. and haunts Duncan’s The H.D. Book, it is well to remember that these Passages are, in the most obvious sense, actual war poems, written during and deeply shaded by Vietnam and the battle skirmishes, the demonstrations and reactionary violences in the homeland, the United States, and by the collisions between its citizens and its government. Tribunals, then, can be seen as a conceit, a series of poems launched before a prosecutorial poet and reader, an arc of poetic activity leading to a verdict (Passages 35, the last in the series, denominates this specifically with its subtitle “Before the Judgement”).

7The arc has its beginning in Passages 31, The Concert in which the poet has already moved from the complex pastiches of Roots and Branches, with their alchemical and gnostic references toward a goal he sets forth in “Structures of Rime XXIII,” to make “Only passages of a poetry, no more . […] only passages of what is happening” (Duncan 1968, 23). Happenings that are ruled by Mnemosyne, “Memory” ((Duncan 1968, 11), as he says in Passages 2, as presider over a new and deeper alteration of the poet’s consciousness, a “weaver’s shuttle” crossing and re-crossing image, idea and music replete with their attachments and consolations, the stuff which

vanishes upon the air
line after line thrown down (Duncan 1968, 12)

yet which can no longer quiet the poet’s uncertainty, for what is recognized here is the moral problem of poetic artifice, here Homer’s poesis, his very making coming under critique

Yet it is all, we know, a melee
a medley of mistaken themes
grown dreadful and surmounting dread,
so that Achilles may have his wrath
and throw down
the heroic Hector who raised
that reflection of the heroic
in his shield (Duncan 1968, 12)

8This critique is, in its way, a critique of Duncan’s own practice. It is “heretical” in the sense of its being a self-heresy, one which deeply inflects the first of the Tribunals, “The Concert,” which I consider to be one of the greatest of Duncan’s poems, to be put alongside “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” and the Pindar poem, coming much early in Duncan’s oeuvre, but with which the entire Tribunals series has much resonance. A rich catenation links the Pindar poem with the later Tribunals; one such link is established toward the conclusion of the poem where Duncan makes reference to the “old stories.” He mentions “Mount St. Victoire,” as an almost sacred object, with which Cézanne was obsessed, making it the subject of many of his paintings. Another link can be discerned in Cézanne’s appearance in The H.D. Book where “his vision of Mount-St. Victoire” along with Salvatore Dali “not only draw but are drawn by what they draw. From body and world toward another body and world, man derives meaning in a third element, the created – the rite, the dance, the narrative, the painting, the poem […]” (Duncan 2011, 168). In the next paragraph Duncan writes: “The power of the poet is to translate experience from daily time where the world and ourselves pass away as we go into the future, from the journalistic record into a melodic coherence in which words – sounds, meanings, images voices – do not pass away or exist by themselves but are kept by rhyme to exist everywhere in the consciousness of the poem. The art of the poem [...] is a cathexis: to keep present and immediate a variety of times and places, persons and events [...] the experience we thought lost returns to us. [my italics] (Duncan 2011, 168).

9“The Concert” can be read as a “melodic coherence” of the thoughts embodied in these citations, the poet instantiating his own existence as “severd distinct thing” (Duncan 2014, 442) but rhymed to the cosmos by the music and words of poetry. This distinctness, the enabling rhyme of language and hence poetry, its “resonances of meaning exceeding what we/understand,” (Duncan 1984, 16) is what enables the poet “to release full my man’s share of the star’s/majesty thwarted” (Duncan 1984, 13). “Thwarted” returns us to the Dante of Duncan’s earlier meditation on the literal and the cautions by Dante to the poet, warning that the poet’s view is not the theologian’s. As a recent critic wrote of Cézanne’s relationship with his subjects, all the art is in the distancing; “disparity,” he writes, “as totality.”

10The thematics of “The Concert” are perspectival, partially transforming sections of the Tribunals into documents of witness and prosecution – possibly there is a Zukofskian-to-Reznikoffian connection that I am unaware of – that mimes the Dantean progression from the dead language of the Inferno to its release in the Purgatorio. As with Prospero’s speech at the end of The Tempest, the poem is an admonition and a measure – but is also a restoration, to use Olson’s words that Duncan cites, “a restoration of man as force.” It is in that restoration that the prosecutorial power of the poet lies.

11Many volumes of sympathetic critique would be needed to unpack the range of references and the functions of their juxtapositions in Tribunals. One way, however, of looking at the references is to note a strange harmony in the discordant and interruptive character of their nature. The opening of “Passage 32” contains lines from John Adams’s diary contrasting monarchical and American politics, ending with his plea to “let the mind loose” (Duncan 2014, 445). This is immediately followed by a passage on the sound of the name, the Spanish name/sound of “Jesus, Jesús (HAY-SOOS)” (ibid.). “Say no more,” writes Duncan, “than [that] the sound of the rime leads back from the American cry ‘Let the American mind loose!’ to the Jesús.” Loose/Jesús [HAY SOOS] invoked to “take on the trouble as if time had a center/and spread out its story from Bethlehem.” (ibid. 447). This passage is immediately followed by references to the Vietnam war and the desolations of the Conquistadores, who we recall were bringing Christ to the New World. Duncan finds himself

Child of a century more skeptic than
unbelieving adrift
between two contrary educations
that of the Revolution, which disowns
and that of Reaction
which pretends to bring back the ensemble
of Christian beliefs (Duncan 2014, 450-451).

12Heresy is here knowledge of the record of history made music through the offices of poetry, it’s disjunctiveness a cautionary warning which Duncan has already laid out in the The Sweetness and Greatness, in which he describes the “pseudo-romantic mirage” (Duncan 2014a, 120) of the Siren in the slothful circle of Purgatorio, the seductions of the poet by fantasy rather than truth. As he writes “In this figure of the Siren we see what poetry is in the absence of the moral or theological virtues, in the denial of the good of the intellect.” In Dante’s and, by transmission, in Duncan’s thoughts, the poet may lay claim to judgement by beginning in the literal, but, as he exclaims in Olson-like bold caps, “LET THE LINE SURPASS YOUR USES!” (Duncan 2014b, 455).

13“Passage 35 Before the Judgement” centers around the identification with Dante’s thoughts where “the forces of Speech give way to the Language beyond Speech” (Duncan 2014b, 461) The force of poesis, the mystical dramas surrounding Duncan’s poetry, “the Master of Rime,” “the Overwhelming,” who “sends her own priestess of the Boundless to the councils of our boundaries” (Duncan 2014b, 463), on and on in the great weaves of participation that spring from the literal, including the great doubt, the “grasp faltering” of the poet’s understanding, all these are the enablers of judgement. Duncan’s rhetoric is now one of accusation in which he decries the “Dream in which America sleeps, the New World floundering” (Duncan 2014b, 465), in which he names names, their public faces, “Rubin, Hayakawa, Alioto, Reagan, Nixon” (Duncan 2014b, 466), “The Hydra[s]” (Duncan 2014b, 467) of corruption and deceit. And yet, like the drama enacted by Virgil and Dante (continually referred to in this Passage), in poetry’s movement from Inferno to Purgatorio – with Paradise’s “secret of a Life beyond our lives” (Duncan 2014b, 469) ahead up the path – the poem offers a vision of possibility and redemption, as he puts it in the last line of Tribunals “against the works of unworthy men, unfeeling judgments and cruel deeds” (Duncan 2014b, 469).

14What seems to have made this journey possible lies, I believe, in the realizations of “Passages 31 The Concert” in which the poet is suddenly at his most vulnerable, that induction into “objectness” where

now he sings or it is
the light singing, the voice
shaking in the throes of the coming melody,
resonances of meaning exceeding what we understand […]. (Duncan 2014b, 442)

15There are many kinds of hierarchies, as there have always been. In a sense, they are constitutive; that is, we are the hierarchies we construct and either resist or assent and/or accede to. Duncan’s Tribunals are “judicial,” “adjudicative” (I borrow this word’s relation to poetry from Allen Grossman) – they propel their readers toward hierarchies of liberation, that condition of “objectness” Duncan so powerfully sings to. These poems seem more pertinent today than when I first read them over thirty years ago.

16I end with a kind of postscript: on the evening of April 16th, 1979, I introduced a poetry reading by Robert Duncan and Carl Rakosi at the 92nd Street YMWHA in Manhattan. I cannot find the text of that long-ago evening, but I do remember a number of points I made. I recall most clearly that I referred to that old comparison of Isaiah Berlin’s that there were two types of thinkers, hedgehogs and foxes; the hedgehogs rooted around and sunk their teeth into something and hung on to the subject or compact group of issues while the fox ran all over the landscape collecting information from and referencing all types of sources in making their arguments. For me on that night, Rakosi was clearly the hedgehog, wedded to the Objectivist principles of clear-seeing and (following Hugh Kenner, as I have written of that group) committed to “no myths.” Duncan, of course, was the fox, roaming voraciously across the open field of other poets and poetries, spiritual traditions, myths, the occult, history, you name it. And my observations about Duncan were completely reinforced when, after the reading, a small group of poets and interested writers and readers gathered at Robert Wilson’s apartment above the old Phoenix Bookstore on Jones Street in the West Village. Wilson was the owner of the bookshop, which, along with Ted Wilentz’s 8th Street Bookstore and the Gotham, were almost the only places in New York where one could find an abundance of poetry not published by the mainstream publishers. Duncan was the guest of honor. Carl, already in his late 70s, had retired for the evening and did not attend. About 11 PM, Duncan started talking, and with very few interruptions, roamed like Berlin’s fox across a landscape of discourses on anything and everything, continuing a monologue into early morning, by which time sunrise light was beginning to show at the windows before he finally stopped. Throughout, however, at the center of the great Ferris wheel of Duncan’s readings, lores and imaginings was his own attempt to confront the limitations of the human condition, to judge man’s fate as man, to occupy that heretical space between the literal, as exemplified in Zukofsky’s stripping to essentials and Olson’s plunge into primordial roots. Duncan’s heresy was that he too while being a fox was indeed a hedgehog, grasping tightly to whatever in poetry seemed to be an instance of human openness and flowering freedom.

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Duncan, Robert. Roots and Branches. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1964.

Duncan, Robert. The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1265-1965: lecture given October 27th, 1965, at the Dominican College of San Rafael. San Francisco: Open Space, 1965.

Duncan, Robert. Bending the Bow. 1963; New York: New Directions, 1968.

Duncan, Robert. Tribunals Passages 31-35. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow P, 1970.

Duncan, Robert. Ground Work I: Before the War. 1968; New York: New Directions, 1984.

Duncan, Robert. A Selected Prose. Robert J. Bertholf, ed. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Duncan, Robert. The H.D. Book. Eds. Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Duncan, Robert. Collected Essays and Other Prose. James Maynard, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Duncan, Robert. The Collected Later Poems and Plays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

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Michael Heller, « Coda: The War of Poetry: Duncan’s Heresies »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael Heller

Michael Heller has published over twenty-five volumes of poetry, essays, memoir and fiction. His most recent publications are Telescope: Selected Poems (2019) and Constellations of Waking (2019), a libretto-poem based on the life of Walter Benjamin. Dianoia (2016), This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (2012), Beckmann Variations & other poems (2010) and Eschaton (2009). A Selected Poems in French translation, Dans le signe, appeared in 2016. His collection of essays on George Oppen, Speaking the Estranged (2008), was republished in 2012 in an expanded edition. Uncertain Poetries: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics, was reissued in 2012. A critical study of his work, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory appeared in 2015 from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Michael Heller est l’auteur de plus de vingt-cinq volumes de poésie, d’essais, de mémoires et de textes de fiction. Il a récemment publié Telescope: Selected Poems (2019) et Constellations of Waking (2019), un poème-livret d’après la vie de Walter Benjamin. Parmi ses œuvres, on compte ainsi Dianoia (2016), This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (2012), Beckmann Variations & other poems (2010) et Eschaton (2009), sans oublier une sélection de poèmes traduits en français, Dans le signe, parue en 2016. Une nouvelle édition augmentée de ses essais critiques sur la poésie de George Oppen, Speaking the Estranged (2008), a paru en 2012. Uncertain Poetries: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics, a également été réédité en 2012. Une monographie portant sur l’œuvre de Heller, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory, a été publiée en 2015 chez Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

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