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Legacies of Poetics

Robert Duncan, Kabbalah, and “The Dominion of the Poetic Mind”

Robert Duncan, la kabbale et « l’empire de l’esprit poétique »
Norman Finkelstein


Quelles sont les raisons qui attirent les poètes vers le mysticisme, l’hermétisme, l’occulte ? Comment ces traditions informent-elles leurs pratiques poétiques et, à l’inverse, comment leurs poèmes approfondissent-ils notre compréhension du pouvoir intact de tels domaines de pensée, de telles croyances et rituels ? En réponse à ces questions, le présent article est consacré à l’étude de la Kabbale à laquelle s’est livré Robert Duncan, tout particulièrement le mysticisme linguistique propre à la Kabbale, où il lit « la description du processus poétique ». Pour Duncan, le langage magique de la Kabbale constitue un important modèle pour le langage du poète, qu’il conçoit comme magique. « Par association, métaphore, parallélisme, par métonymie structurelle, par les liens étroits entre les parties, par le partage, les correspondances, la raison, le contraste, le jeu de mots ou la rime, par cohérence mélodique », comme l’écrit Duncan dans The H.D. Book, il s’efforce d’amener son lecteur en un lieu « où l’image reçoit sa forme, d’en haut ou d’en bas, pour s’affirmer comme entité propre, messager d’une réalité supérieure ». Après avoir situé Duncan comme l’héritier de sectes occultes du 19ème siècle, ainsi qu’en portant un regard neuf sur les traditions hermétiques d’organisations telles que l’Ordre de l’aube dorée, cet article propose une brève lecture du poème de Duncan, « Roots and Branches », de façon à démontrer comment la vision kabbalistique du poète d’un « arbre imaginaire du vivant dans toutes ses doctrines » éveille « les transports d’une vision intérieure de toutes choses », et confirme le statut particulier de l’imagination poétique comme véhicule suprême de l’expérience mystique.

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1What does it mean to write religious poetry in a secular age? And what does it mean to write literary criticism about religious poetry in a secular age? These are questions that have preoccupied my own criticism for many years, as well the efforts of other scholars who have studied a wide range of modern poets, from among the most canonical figures to those who have written and published in relative obscurity. While literary criticism of this sort has often received a positive reception, it has also generated some doubt and controversy. In discussing modern religious poetry, especially complicated and innovative poetry such as that of Robert Duncan, one may be led to ask where literary analysis ends, and religious commentary begins. The deep study of such poetry calls for the study of the religious, often mystical and hermetic traditions, out of which this poetry often emerges. The uncanny conflation of poem and commentary within what is already an esoteric tradition leads to a scene of writing, which, admittedly, will not necessarily appear as the secular practice of criticism. Rather, it may seem like something more akin to a mystical hermeneutics being written about what most readers take to be a work of literary art rather than a religious text. Such being the case, we need to remind ourselves that it is not the critic or commentator who is confusing the reading of poetry with a spiritual exercise, a mystical exegesis, or even a magical spell. Rather, it is the poet who has come to understand that his or her work entails a challenge to these discursive boundaries. The critic, therefore, follows the poet’s lead.

2According to Peter O’Leary, who, not accidentally, is one of Robert Duncan’s most perceptive critics, poetry may be understood as religious “when it draws its material or its outlook from a religious tradition” or, in what I take as a more complicated situation, “when it performs one or more of the functions or exhibits one or more of the phenomena of religion, even when the poet is not himself or herself expressly religious” (O’Leary 7). The second formulation, I believe, is especially relevant to Robert Duncan’s poetry, and as we shall see, Duncan himself often articulates a very similar perspective. The question that must be posed, therefore, is what sorts of functions does a poem perform which allies it to religion, and what sorts of religious phenomena does it exhibit? In what follows, I will argue that Duncan’s relationship to Kabbalah, including his appropriations of Kabbalistic lore and texts, tells us a great deal about his own poetic stance in regard to various religious and hermetic traditions, but also helps us understand what happens in a poem, what happens to a poem, when the poet enters into and writes out of what we may think of as a sacred space.

Duncan, Modernity, and Kabbalah

3In a provocative essay titled “The Future of Kabbalah,” Eric Jacobson posits a “clandestine affinity” between modernity, especially the experience of dislocation at the heart of modern life, and Kabbalah, especially Kabbalah as an antinomian and anarchistic tendency within Jewish belief and Jewish textuality. According to Jacobson,

The dislocation of modernity parallels the religious anarchism of the kabbalah. It is for this reason that the study of the kabbalah harbors not only historical or descriptive narratives, but normative impulses. Its normative value lies in the fact that it is part of a greater movement within modernity which is engaged with dislocation and relocation. In particular, the dislocation of the canon and the introduction of the margins into the center. It is not ‘counter-history’ which should considered antinomian but rather modernity itself. (Jacobson 71-72)

4Jacobson refers here to David Biale’s groundbreaking book on Gershom Scholem, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, in which Biale elucidates Scholem’s vision of Kabbalah as a radically disruptive force that upends normative Jewish law and normative narratives of Jewish history. To study Kabbalah is to enter into a compact with destabilizing psychic and historical forces surging beneath the surface of works which may appear to be aligned with the hermeneutic practices and religious rituals of Jewish tradition, but are anything but. Studying Kabbalah in this context, therefore, allies the student with the fundamental modernist concerns of dislocation and relocation, centrality and marginality.

5Is it any wonder then that Kabbalah becomes a basic component of the poetics of Robert Duncan? Duncan is the heir to the first breakthrough generation of modernist poets and the adoptive child of secretive occultists whose beliefs and practices were partly derived from Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah is fundamental to Duncan’s understanding of both the poetic vocation and the act of writing poetry. Reflecting on his long engagement with Kabbalah, he says in an interview with Rodger Kamenetz that “It seemed to me that in mystical traditions of Judaism, religion was passing into imagination” (Duncan 2012, 394). The equation of religion, especially in its mystical and hermetic aspects, to the work of the imagination, is central to Duncan’s thought: as he declares in “The Truth and Life of Myth,” “what I speak of here in the terms of a theology is a poetics” (Duncan 2014, 154). As we know, the members of Duncan’s adoptive family in California belonged to a Hermetic group related to the British Order of the Golden Dawn, whose members included W. B. Yeats. Their goal, like that of other initiates in such groups, was occult wisdom; they claimed Hermes as their teacher, which, as Duncan was taught, “meant the same as a god.” As Duncan tells us in The H.D. Book, “the real image of the god was the picture Grandmother showed me in The Book of the Dead. In Egypt was the hidden meaning of things, not only of Greek things but of Hebrew things. The wand of Hermes was the rod of Moses, and my grandmother studied hieroglyphics as she studied Hebrew letters and searched in dictionaries for the meaning of Greek roots, to come into the primal knowledge of the universe that had been lost in the diversity of mankind” (Duncan 2011, 126). Although Duncan will go beyond the Theosophical beliefs of his family, incorporating not only hermetic and occult thought, but Freudian psychoanalysis (which he sees as the continuation of kabbalistic hermeneutics), anthropology, linguistics, and even genetics into his poetic theorizing, he holds to his grandmother’s great goal – “primal knowledge of the universe that had been lost in the diversity of mankind.” (ibid.)

6That diversity is cultural and linguistic: all peoples, all languages, share in this knowledge, which, according to gnostic and kabbalistic myth, is now fallen and scattered, like the body of the primal Adam itself. Poetry, understood in very broad terms, becomes the means to achieve that primal knowledge, as well as its enactment. What Duncan writes of Yeats is true for himself as well: “from the first Yeats had believed that Poetry had itself a secret tradition and doctrine […]. It was to increase the dominion of the poetic mind that Yeats pursued his studies of the occult. The doctrine of correspondences that he found there enlarged the mission of metaphor and simile” (Duncan 2011, 140-141). Kabbalah, as one set of esoteric doctrines and practices, is part of that greater body of primal knowledge, and to study Kabbalah provides one means of understanding the poetic process itself. Throughout his extensive critical prose, Duncan makes frequent reference to kabbalistic texts, especially the Zohar, but also the Sefer Yetsira and The Tree of Life of Hayyim Vital. Additionally, he studies modern scholars of Jewish mysticism, such as Gershom Scholem and R. J. Zvi Werblowsky. But we must always keep in mind that Duncan does not study Jewish mysticism for its own sake. Not only is Kabbalah a part of the universal body of ancient wisdom – which, given its hermetic nature, can be regarded as gnosis – but it is in itself an active mode of poetry, of poesis, or creative making.

7Duncan’s Kabbalah, therefore, is to be understood as part of a universal, cross-cultural set of beliefs and practices which together constitute, as he puts it in “Rites of Participation,” “the coming of all men into one fate” Thinking of the kabbalistic trope of Adam Kadmon, Duncan declares that “Our secret Adam is written in the script of the primal cell” (Duncan 2011, 153). To gather together “a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included.” For Duncan, Jewish learning, as one of these excluded orders, requires inclusion and intense study. Kabbalistic lore and ritual serve as an important instance of Duncan’s “Rites of Participation”: one of the first extended examples he gives in that chapter is taken from the Zohar, specifically the myth of the Hebrew letters, which appear before God prior to Creation and, in effect, compete for the honor of being the first in the alphabet, since in kabbalistic tradition, God speaks (or writes) the world in being. The modesty of the Aleph (which cannot be sounded orally) leads to God rewarding it, as He proclaims “My unity shall not be expressed except through thee, on thee shall be based all calculations and operations of the world, and unity shall not be expressed save by the letter Aleph.” Duncan then comments that “In this primal scene, before the beginning of the world that is also here before the beginning of a writing, the Self contemplates and toys in a rite of play until the letters present themselves and speak” (Duncan 2011, 159). Some pages later, Duncan quotes Gershom Scholem from Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism: “The world of the Sefiroth is the hidden world of language […] the world of divine names” (Duncan 2011, 164). The initiate, mystic or poet, seeks this hidden world, and in gaining knowledge of the divine names, writes the esoteric text or hermetic poem.

8Thus when Duncan unpacks a passage from The Tree of Life, the most important mystical work by the 16th-century Kabbalist Hayyim Vital, he writes of Vital’s concept of the imagination that “We seem to be in the description of the process of the poem, for here too the mind imagines, but then enters a real it had not imagined, where the image becomes informed, from above or below, and takes over as an entity in itself, a messenger from a higher real” (Duncan 2011, 160). Duncan’s description of Vital’s imaginative capacity for transcendental experience of “a higher real” correlates to his own experience of mystical reality, most famously expressed in the opening lines of “Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow.” Duncan’s “made place, created by light” is analogous to Vital’s experience of Ein Sof, the inexpressible concept of infinite deity “without end” which preexists all names and all emanations. Duncan calls this “the unknowable, unimaginable God, from beyond sense, the imaginer, no longer imagining but realizing […], irradiating the imagined with reality, transforming the sense of the divine” (Duncan 2011, 161). What fascinates Duncan about kabbalistic thought is that it reflects a tension between the imagined and the real, an “irradiating” of the individual’s imagination with divine reality, which is also an irradiating of divinity by the human imagination. It is this tension which pervades his thinking about poetry as well.

Poetry as Magic: Roots and Branches

9For Duncan, Kabbalah, especially the language magic of “practical Kabbalah,” is an important model of poetic language – which is in itself magical. As Burton Hatlen explains in his essay on Kabbalah in Root and Branches, “Versed in the lore of Judaism and Christianity and Buddhism and Theosophy, Duncan never became a believer in any of these religions. Rather he cultivated writing itself as a magical act […], a systematic procedure for drawing together opposing forces, with the goal of healing and renewing both the self and the world” (Duncan 2011, 208-209). This takes us back to O’Leary and his notion that a poem may function religiously even when the poet is not a believer per se. Here, I again find Duncan’s consideration of Yeats a revealing proof-text. From “Occult Matters” in The H.D. Book:

Turning to the pseudo-scientific or heretical concerns of the occultist, the evocation of a world in terms of a living language, Yeats was turning too from any purely literary or aesthetic interpretation of the role of poetry. He sought not only theosophy, god-knowledge, but theurgy, god-work; and there was magic too, daemonic experiment. Words were at once agents of personal feeling and composition in a poem and also bearers of knowledge felt, evokers of the real and casters of a spell. (Duncan 2011, 142)

10The functions which Duncan credits to Yeats’ poetry are equally those of his own. Duncan’s poems are bearers of esoteric knowledge; they evoke the real; and they function as spells: theurgical acts indeed, and acts which, I would argue, would be recognized as such by the Kabbalists themselves. But if such is the case, why do we not see more explicitly kabbalistic references in the poetry? Drawing on Gershom Scholem’s essay “Tradition and New Creation in the Ritual of the Kabbalists,” Hatlen wisely observes that “only occasionally is Duncan’s poetry about Kabbalistic doctrines. Rather than presenting ‘ideas’, these poems are themselves magical acts that seek to unite opposites and thereby redeem the world. Duncan’s poetry seeks to achieve the goals sought by all Kabbalistic ritual” (Hatlen 211).

11Let me step back from Duncan as Kabbalist, and reframe our understanding of Kabbalah, especially theurgical or explicitly magical Kabbalah, as it develops starting in the medieval period. According to Moshe Idel,

The focus of the Kabbalistic theurgy is God, not man; the latter is given unimaginable powers, to be used in order to repair the divine glory or the divine image; only his initiative can improve Divinity. An archmagician, the theurgical Kabbalist does not need external help or grace; his way of operating – namely, the Torah – enables him to be independent; he looks not so much for salvation by the intervention of God as for God’s redemption by human intervention. The theurgical Kabbalah articulates a basic feature of Jewish religion in general: because he concentrates more upon action than upon thought, the Jew is responsible for everything, including God, since his activity is crucial for the welfare of the cosmos in general. (Idel 179)

12Keeping this model of the theurgical Kabbalist in mind, we can fast forward to the late nineteenth century, when European and American occultists, most of them non-Jews, have come to appreciate and study Kabbalah as part of their syncretic engagement in esotericism and magic. In some respects, the notion of the Kabbalist as an “archmagician” whose actions can affect divinity and transform the cosmos remains, for these metaphysical explorers, an important inheritance of the Jewish mystical tradition, however much that tradition is revised, synthesized with other systems – and frequently Christianized. Indeed, the archetype of the semi-divine magus is understood to go back to ancient Egypt and Hermes Trismegistus himself. These occultists, including members of Duncan’s family, drew variously from Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Neo-Platonism, alchemy, theosophy, spiritualism, astrology, tarot, and other modes of divination. But according to Liz Greene in Magi and Maggidim, her comprehensive study of Kabbalah and British occultism, the esoteric initiates who serve as Duncan’s immediate precursors see themselves, apropos the various arts which they study as “rejoining doctrines that had become severed and corrupted over the centuries but were once fully unified in the ancient wisdom teaching of which the Kabbalah was the most eloquent testimony” (Greene 172). Furthermore, if we look specifically at the Golden Dawn, the British hermetic order which serves as a model for the group to which Duncan’s family belong, Kabbalah was especially important. Alex Owen, in her book on British occultism and the culture of the modern, notes that various prominent occultists “had deemed the Hermetic doctrine of correspondences vitally important, but as elucidated within the Golden Dawn it was based on the Cabalistic idea that all things in the universe were interconnected and find expression in the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is part of Jewish esoteric tradition and represents a map of the universe as it was understood before the encroachments of modern Western science” (Owen 73). Hence the centrality of Kabbalah to esoteric thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with which Duncan becomes familiar from childhood on.

13But in other respects, the transcendent figure of the supremely powerful and independent “archmagician” performing magic through inspired knowledge of the sefirot of the Etz Chaim, is reconceptualized by the forces of modernity. Owen observes that by the late nineteenth century,

Gone was the sense of the self as a transcendental entity, a single applied consciousness conceived in the tradition of affective individualism but one with an everlasting aspect – the soul. In its place was a variously conceived but invariably fragmented or multiple self, formulated through complex processes of remembering and forgetting […], attention was redirected from a higher, timeless, or divine aspect to the subterranean, temporal, and mundane foundations of human personality (Owen 115).

14The resulting view of the self indicates “a symbiotic relationship between the spiritual and the secular, as exemplified by the occult self at the fin de siècle […] illustrative of the way in which occultism constituted a crucial enactment of the ambiguities of ‘the modern’” (ibid. 116).

15To get a sense of how these concepts may operate in Duncan’s poetry, let us now turn to the beautiful lyric “Roots and Branches,” the title poem of what Hatlen argues is Duncan’s most explicitly Kabbalistic book. This poem, though obviously not as direct as “What Do I Know of the Old Lore?” is in some respects even more kabbalistic, and presents the poet as “occult self,” posed between a unified transcendental entity and a fragmented personality yearning for cosmic wholeness:

     Sail, Monarchs, rising and falling
orange merchants in spring’s flowery market!
messengers of March in warm currents of news floating,
     flitting into areas of aroma,
tracing out of air unseen roots and branches of sense
     I share in thought,
filaments woven and broken where the world might light
     casual certainties of me. There are

      echoes of what I am in what you perform
this morning. How you perfect my spirit!
      almost restore
an imaginary tree of the living in all its doctrines
      by fluttering about,
intent and easy as you are, the profusion of you!
awakening transports of an inner view of things. (Duncan 2014, 101)

16As I read it, the poem is essentially a magical invocation and a call for spiritual and psychic renewal. The butterfly, of course, is a standard symbol for the soul, and it is not an accident that these are “Monarchs” – insects, yes, but also kings or rulers, powers in the supernal realms. “As above, so below” goes the Hermetic doctrine of correspondences: thus the Monarch butterflies of the natural world which perfect the poet’s spirit are also supernatural forces, angelic or divine entities that stir the poet’s soul and lead him to a spiritual awakening. In the Zohar, we read of one of many descriptions of the ascent of the soul after death:

Once they have entered within the site of the righteous, other righteous arise. How much delight upon delight for the righteous?! All the members of the academy rejoice! After three days concealed in known chambers they emerge. Air currents blow and they are all are drawn in their image. From here on they inherit an inheritance as is fitting for each and every one. The sight beheld in the Garden of Eden, from the glorious appearance of the image of all images, the spectrum of all spectrums of the Holy King, is not revealed in the hall and not in any single place. Rather, the embroidered firmament above the garden expands in four directions and is filled with the glorious, holy splendor and all the righteous shine. (quoted in Wolski 71)

17While I would not go so far as to argue that Duncan is alluding to this specific passage, what I would assert is that the encounter presented in “Roots and Branches” is remarkably similar to this kabbalistic vision of the souls moving through currents of air as they are guided back to the Garden and the presence of the Holy King. As Nathan Wolski comments in his book A Journey into the Zohar, “Like a caterpillar in a cocoon undergoing its metamorphosis into a butterfly, the souls spend three days in ‘known chambers’. The air currents of the garden then blow and the souls regain their astral image, the preexistent heavenly garment worn by the soul in its paradisiacal existence prior to entering the body” (Wolski 85). Duncan, in effect, is likewise seeking to regain or reunite with his astral image, a concept that is found in the work of such Kabbalists as Abraham Abulafia. For these Kabbalists, the attainment of one’s astral self activates one’s power of prophecy. Centuries later, this notion is transmitted to and adapted by the magicians of the Golden Dawn. Once again, Alex Owen explains:

a complete second self, conceived as a subtle replica of the original, was created in the mind, and it was this second self that traveled in the Astral Light. The astral self was therefore conceptualized in physical terms and possessed a consciousness of its own, even though it was subject to ultimate control by the magician’s will – the focused intent of the initiated or highest Self” (Owen 128).

18Thus for Duncan, the “unseen roots and branches of sense / I share in thought” produce “casual certainties of me,” psychic projections of the earthly self which draw the poet to a higher state of consciousness.

19As for the roots and branches themselves, they are, of course, the earthly equivalent to the Tree of Life, i.e. the Etz Ḥaim, which is regarded by many occultists as a map of the supernal worlds. The “imaginary tree of the living in all its doctrines,” is revealed to Duncan through his encounter with the Monarchs, and this vision in turn awakens “transports of an inner view of things.” From an esoteric perspective, what is above is as below, but what is outer is also what is inner. It is the imagination of the poet-magus which is the supreme vehicle; psychologically, astral travel to the outermost reaches of cosmic being is also a descent into the innermost depths of the self. To know this and experience it perfects the spirit; hence the “warm currents of news” in which Duncan finds himself immersed.

Exile, Diaspora and the Transformative Power of Poetry

20These mystical currents likewise appear in his late essay on Edmond Jabès: they are “the currents of a Jewish mysticism, in which the spiritual alchemies of absence and exile, the Book and the Shekinah, the hidden Tzaddik and the mute letter” which may effect “a great change,” even as the Zohar itself did when it made its way not only in the Jewish world, but the Christian and Islamic worlds as well (Duncan 2014, 426). Thus Duncan associates the individual’s psychic search for a higher, enlightened astral self, especially the poet’s search through the vehicle of inspired language, with larger cultural and historical transformations. This relates in turn to a concept which Duncan rightly understands to be fundamental to both a Jewish, kabbalistic worldview, and a poetic worldview: that of exile and diaspora, and the way in which textuality takes the place of homeland. Duncan makes this connection repeatedly in his essays and in The H.D. Book. As he writes in the essay on Jabès, “In the Diaspora the lamp, the table, the house, and the Book become the ‘Jerusalem’ of the Jews who, in exile, come home to the inner keep of The Zohar, or mystical Jerusalem” (Duncan 2011, 426). This condition is aligned to that of poetry: “In the matter of the calling to undertake the Jewish conscience/consciousness and in the matter of the calling to undertake the Poetic conscience/consciousness – it is the absence of God upon which the Name calls; the absence of what Poetry is that we know in the commanding need for the Poem or the Covenant” (ibid. 424). I find Duncan to be somewhat obscure here, but I believe that the point he is making is that just as a divine “absence” leads to the binding or covenantal relationship of the Jewish people to God, so too a poetic “absence” leads to the binding of the poet to Poetry. This produces, in each case, a Jewish or a poetic “conscience/consciousness.” This is a condition of diaspora, of having been separated or having lost an original home, an original condition of wholeness, much as Adam Kadmon, the original universal man in the kabbalistic myth, loses his unity of being and falls into pieces. As the angel Samael (who is also the Serpent) says in Duncan’s theosophical play Adam’s Way,

There is no truth in time
that does not fall or split apart
to rime with some fiction of itself,
insincere to its original nature,
but chases after the possibility of a
like sound as if it were a fact
in some transcendent magic He’d call Good.
Thus Poetry most resembles the works of things
and Adam must find himself in Eve. (Duncan 2014, 239)

Addressing this condition of loss and fragmentation, Liz Greene observes in Magi and Maggidim that Jewish Kabbalah may be understood as

an esoteric lore shaped by historical circumstances unique in the history of Western religions, and apparently able to speak across the centuries to particular individuals of varying religious persuasions who have experienced that state of exile which awaits those who cannot abandon their religiosity but who have been wrenched, physically, emotionally, or intellectually, from a secure and stable religion of ‘there’ and impelled into an interiorised and imaginal religion of ‘anywhere’[...]. It is this state of disillusionment, fragmentation, and interior homelessness, generated by the dramatically changing religious, scientific, and social paradigms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which may have contributed so powerfully to the importance of the Kabbalah in the British occult revival. (Greene 452-453)

21This description seems to fit Duncan’s engagement with Kabbalah perfectly, just as it describes his understanding of the Jewish diaspora, and of the cultural fragmentation of early twentieth-century modernism which he knew to be his heritage. Duncan’s “religion” of poetry, his “symposium of the whole,” his faith in poetry as “primal knowledge,” is certainly an instance of an “interiorised and imaginal religion of ‘anywhere.’”

22Occultism, including Kabbalistic study, was always part of his modernist cultural inheritance. Consider the poignant moment in “The Architecture: Passages 9”:

from the bookcases     the glimmering titles arrayd      keys
Hesiod           Heraklitus           The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics
“Take a house planned in this way, with a big living room, its great fire-
place, open staircase, casement windows, built-in seats, cupboards, book-
cases [...] and perhaps French doors opening out upon a porch” [...]

La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste
Plutarch’s Morals: Theosophical Essays
The Zohar
The Aurora

I was reading while the music playd
            curld up among the ornamental cushions
                                          (Duncan 2014, 319-320)

23The prose quotation comes from Craftsman Homes (1909), an architectural treatise by Gustave Stickley. Curled up, reading, listening to music (earlier in the poem Duncan mentions that the music is Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny), the poet places himself in a space that is simultaneously a gracious modernist home, an orderly domestic scene, and an interiorized and imaginal space where the mystical and hermetic volumes on the bookshelves, including The Zohar, serve as “keys” to artistic and spiritual growth. The sense of exile and fragmentation is kept at bay in this highly aestheticized setting, which lends itself to literary production. Yet let us remind ourselves, thinking back to Eric Jacobson’s essay with which we began, that Kabbalistic study always represents order and disorder, dislocation and relocation. The antinomianism and “religious anarchism” of Kabbalah (keeping in mind that Duncan always identified with anarchism as a political stance) actually marks it as “normative” within the broader context of modernity. Thus Duncan’s highly stylized domesticity always enables the possibility of poetic and spiritual disruption.

24Duncan’s conception of the poet as an agent of transformation, of order and disorder, may certainly be understood as a response to modernity, but only insofar as modernity is itself seen from the perspective not merely of tradition but from what Duncan unabashedly calls “eternal life.” In The H.D. Book, he insists that

The power of the poet is to translate experience from daily time where the world and ourselves pass away as we go on 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, like the mechanism of the dream or the intent of the tribal myth or dromena, is a cathexis: to keep present and immediate a variety of times and places, persons and events. In the melody we make, the possibility of eternal life is hidden, and experience we thought lost returns to us. (Duncan 2011, 168)

25Duncan’s appropriation of the mystical and hermetic systems to which he was first exposed as a child, including Kabbalah, is put in the service of the poetic vocation, the fulfillment of poetic responsibility. The poet does indeed perform what could be construed as a religious function, but for Duncan, the truth and life of religion is always to be found in acts of the imagination, which is to say, in poetry itself. Hence his vision of the rabbis in “What Do I Know of the Old Lore,” a vision that unfolds because “A young editor wants me to write on Kabbalah for his magazine”:

Ah! the seed that lies in the sweetness of the Kabbalah
is the thought of those rabbis rejoicing in their common devotions,
of the thousand threads of their threnodies, praises, wisdoms, shared loves
and curses interwoven. (Duncan 2014, 101)

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

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

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

Duncan, Robert. A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan, 1969–1985. Ed. Christopher Wagstaff. Berkeley: North Atlantic Book, 2012.

Greene, Liz. Magi and Maggidim: The Kabbalah and British Occultism 1860-1940. Ceredigion, Wales: Sophia Centre Press, 2012.

Hatlen, Burton. “Duncan’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Kabbalah and Rime in Roots and Branches.” In World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the “Jubilation of Poets.” Ed. Leonard M. Trawick. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990. 207-226.

Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Jacobson, Eric. “The Future of the Kabbalah: On the Dislocation of Past Primacy, the Problem of Evil, and the Future of Illusions.” In Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations. Ed. Boaz Huss, Marco Pasi and Kocku von Stuckrad. Leiden: Brill, 2010. 46-75.

O’Leary, Peter. Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Wolski, Nathan. A Journey Into the Zohar: An Introduction to The Book of Radiance. Albany: SUNY Press, 2010.

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Norman Finkelstein, « Robert Duncan, Kabbalah, and “The Dominion of the Poetic Mind” »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Norman Finkelstein

Xavier University
Norman Finkelstein is a poet, critic, and Professor Emeritus of English, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio. He has written extensively on Robert Duncan in such books as The Utopian Moment in Contemporary American Poetry (1988), On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (2010) and Like a Dark Rabbi: Modern Poetry and the Jewish Literary Imagination (2019). His books of poetry include The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems (2016) and From the Files of the Immanent Foundation (2018).

Norman Finkelstein est poète, critique, et Professeur émérite à l’université Xavier à Cincinnati, Ohio. Il a beaucoup écrit sur Robert Duncan au fil de ses nombreux ouvrages, comme The Utopian Moment in Contemporary American Poetry (1988), On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (2010) et Like a Dark Rabbi: Modern Poetry and the Jewish Literary Imagination (2019). Il a également publié plusieurs recueils de poésie, comme The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems (2016) et From the Files of the Immanent Foundation (2018).

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