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Legacies of Poetics

Robert Duncan and the Vernacular of Preliteracy

Robert Duncan et le vernaculaire pré-linguistique
J. Peter Moore


En 1947, Robert Duncan écrivit à William Carlos Williams une lettre dans laquelle transparaissait sa détermination, nourrie par la poésie de Williams, de « mettre au premier plan toute cette question du nouveau vernaculaire ». Cet article s’interroge sur ce que Duncan entend par « nouveau vernaculaire ». Contrairement aux représentations naturalistes, qui font du vernaculaire un reflet organique du caractère national, reconnaissable à son lexique particulier et son refus de la sophistication, Duncan associe cette catégorie à une qualité abstraite de l’expression que possède toute langue. Il imagine le vernaculaire non pas comme un type de langage, évident et facile à reconnaître, mais comme une étape épistémologique, prélude à la formation du sujet et à l’acquisition du langage. Cette définition du vernaculaire est fondée sur l’image, chez Dante, de l’enfant apprenant à parler au contact de ses nourrices. Duncan reprend les divisions culturelles médiévales entre le latin, langue du père, et une langue maternelle fluide, qui lui permet de penser le vernaculaire comme domaine antinationaliste fait de sons pré-sémantiques, ancré dans ce qu’il perçoit comme un rapport au monde sur un mode féminin. La tâche du poète, dans l’imaginaire de Duncan, consiste à retourner sur les rives du langage afin d’accéder à nouveau à ces mots et à une musique organique, proche du babillage pré-linguistique, afin de transcender les frontières qui séparent les diverses communautés linguistiques.

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1In the discussion that followed Robert Duncan’s 1979 talk “The Adventure of Walt Whitman’s Line,” an audience member posed the following question:

I want to ask the question about language. And specifically the question that comes up in both Whitman and Dante, which is that of the vulgar tongue, and your own relationship to that. Because I know when I was a teenager and I started reading your work, I was really blocked by the amount of language I didn’t know, the words I didn’t know. (Duncan 1979)

2The experience of impediment invoked by the question reinforces the dominant perception of Robert Duncan as a poet of high-style erudition. Unmoved by postwar trends in avant-garde writing that validated contemporary slang and speech-attuned parataxis, Duncan pursued a poetry characterized by grand literary gestures, from archaic nominatives (“thou”) and rhapsodic anaphora to circuitous syntax and maximalist intertextuality. Strong evidence supports Nathaniel Mackey’s assessment that Duncan “is not what we tend to think of as a populist poet” (Mackey 78). And yet, as the 1979 lecture attests, the poet of the high style maintained an avowed interest in the work of writers, who embraced the vernacular.

3The question posed by the audience member makes explicit an incongruity that recent scholarship has sought to explore. Accepting Duncan’s affinity for rhetorical flourish, several contemporary readers see in his writing not an outright rejection of the vernacular but a negotiated embrace, founded upon a critical reconsideration of its conceptual contours. For instance, Jeff Hamilton has prompted reevaluation of Duncan’s landmark essay “The Homosexual in Society,” considering it, along the lines Duncan suggests, as part of an ongoing discussion about the corruption of vernacular language at the hands of popular media. Similarly, Anne Day Dewey breaks ground in her discussion of Black Mountain poets who complicated Charles Olson’s advocacy of popular speech, arguing that Duncan, fearing the “limiting mass mentality,” uses techniques of poetic abstraction to “renovate rather than reproduce colloquial idiom” (Dewey 2007, 76-77). Stephen Fredman offers perhaps the clearest articulation of this trend. He maintains that while “Duncan makes the vernacular a key part of his poetics,” he pursues an overly aestheticized version of the category, one reflective of a subjective distaste for ugliness and abjection (Fredman 166). Rather than conform to common definitions of the vernacular, Duncan, as these readers contend, draws upon his existing aesthetic preoccupations to develop a highly specialized sense of the category. In what follows, I point to one of these preoccupations, arguing that Duncan theorizes the vernacular as a condition of childhood consciousness.

4Duncan’s sense of the vernacular emerges, like many definitions of common speech, out of contestation with dominant narratives. Instead of opposing the conventions of literary or standard language, Duncan arrives at his definition through contesting three prevailing notions about the vernacular. First is the idea that vernacular refers to a general low style of expression, as evidenced in his criticism of the language philosophies of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Second, Duncan opposes the common conception that the vernacular denotes the language of a particular group, thereby maintaining his argument in “The Homosexual in Society,” where he classifies queer campy speech as a pseudo vernacular on the grounds that it rejects the common by projecting a “cult of homosexual superiority” (Duncan 2014, 8). For Duncan, the defining feature of a true vernacular is that it transcends the delimiting categories of social stratification. Yet, Duncan’s contribution to the field of postwar vernacular poetics lies not in his insistence, after Dante Alighieri, that the vernacular was a shared language coterminous with the very bounds of humanity. Rather, he innovates by formalizing the dream of a universal tongue. This means forgoing the search for the single lexicon that best exemplifies common speech and instead searching for an abstracted quality of expression that all speech holds in common. He pursues this quality of commonality by challenging a third assumption about the vernacular—that it refers to a stable lexis, readily observed in diction and easily translated to the page through the practice of orthographic misspelling. The vernacular is not a type of language or a language belonging to a specific social type. For Duncan, it refers to an epistemological threshold previous to language acquisition and subject formation. Consistent with Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic theories, Duncan describes the vernacular as a sensorial protolanguage, which undergirds all acts of expression even as it is inhibited by the dominant cultural demand for semantic meaning.

No Ideas but in Slang

5Duncan’s earliest engagement with the vernacular occurs in “The Homosexual in Society.” Responding to a discussion in The Partisan Review on the inauthenticity of commodified vernacular forms, Duncan applies James Agee’s term “pseudo folk” to the campy gay vernacular of his day, calling attention to the corruption implicit in his own insular speech community (Duncan 1944, 209). While Duncan uses the case of camp as an entry point into a larger discussion condemning both homophobia and what he sees as one counter-effect of homophobia: the development of a reactionary separatist gay community; the essay mounts a philosophical inquiry into particularity and universality, which bears not only on his thinking about the social marginalization of homosexuals but also his conception of common speech. In his reading of the essay, Robert Kaufman argues that Duncan’s discomfort with cultural insularity, homosexual or otherwise, follows from his commitment to balancing the radical particularity of individual experience with the shared ground of collective human involvement. The aim is to deny any group “being made, as a group, the universal under which other related but distinct groups could be subsumed as mere, already determined particulars whose particularity would thus lack significance” (Kaufman 134). In presenting his argument as a response to Agee, Duncan’s critique of camp represents not a denial of the vernacular but a condemnation of a false, or pseudo, vernacular. This distinction will prove central for Duncan. Throughout his writings he distinguishes fake vernaculars from the true, on the grounds that fake vernaculars overinvest in the particularity of insular group affiliation, whereas true vernaculars convey both the irreducible particularity of personal experience and the aspiration for communication across lines of immediate political affiliation. “True vulgar eloquence,” he will come to proclaim, “was speaking one’s own language, beyond class, beyond nationality, without affect, as if it were the common language of all men in their humanity” (Duncan 2011, 395).

6Duncan arrives at his ideas regarding the true meaning of vernacular expression through interrogating the poetic vernaculars of his modernist forebearers. In Chapter 5 of Book 2 of The H.D. Book, Duncan attends to a series of informal letters Ezra Pound sends to William Carlos Williams in September of 1920, published in the 1941 edition of The Letters of Ezra Pound. Pound derides H.D. for what he believes to be her parochial affinity for high eloquence, admonishing all who would “conform to the ideas of that refined, charming, and utterly narrow minded she-bard ‘H.D’” (Duncan 2011, 395). In his discussion of the episode, Duncan brings to light the text that had provoked Pound’s fury. In her 1916 review of Marianne Moore’s poetry published in the British magazine The Egoist, H.D. argues that the literal battles of the ongoing Great War are but an extension of the figurative conflict of the human spirit “against squalor and commercialism” (Duncan 2011, 190). Seeking to foster a sense of Anglophone solidarity between the American poet Moore and The Egoist’s British public, H.D. pleads, “We must strengthen each other in this one absolute bond—our devotion to the beautiful English language” (Duncan 2011, 395). In his letter to Williams, Pound ridicules the sentiment, suggesting that the author had fallen out of touch with the reading public, peddling to the war-torn masses the “bunk” promise of salvation through elevated expression. While acknowledging the “overly sensitive […] private and even unpopular tone of H.D.’s Review,” Duncan insists that her comments represent an important development in vernacular poetics. Challenging the Herderian consensus that the vernacular is the property of the nation, the marker of national particularity, H.D. stresses the common as that which traverses the boundaries of the modern nation state. This for Duncan was the basis of an authentic vernacular, as he insists “this high or beautiful language to which H.D. refers is not the language of the genteel or elite or of grammarians and the literary academy; it is the noble vernacular of Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia” (Duncan 2011, 395).

7While H.D. exemplifies for Duncan vernacular nobility, he derives his sense of a unificatory common speech from Dante Alighieri, specifically the unfinished treatise on common eloquence, De Vulgari Eloquentia. Following the Florentine Revolution of 1301, Dante, as a member of the losing White Guelph faction, was banished from the city of his birth. “Because it was the pleasure of the citizens of that most beautiful and famous daughter of Rome, Florence, to banish me from her sweet breast,” writes Dante, “I have traveled through nearly all the regions where this language reaches” (Dante 2018, 15). Surveying the contours of the linguistic landscape, Dante builds his treatise around a diglossic theory of the medieval language culture, stating that in any region there were two ways of speaking: one that was particular to the region, responsive to the fluid changes of daily utterance and learned without explicit rules through imitation: the vernacular; and another that transcended the boundaries of the region, fixed in its structure and learned by the privileged few through formal schooling: grammatica. In the treatise, he argues, in self-described unprecedented fashion, that the vulgar tongue was superior to grammatica, based on three reasons. The vernacular preceded grammatica in that it was the mother tongue first learned by the speaker in childhood through imitation of caregivers. The vernacular, lacking any standardized a priori rules, represented a more natural or organic mode of communication. And finally, since speakers learned the vernacular at home and not in the halls of exclusive institutions, it offered the writer a broader audience than the formally prohibitive modes. Despite the piece being heralded as “the declaration of independence for modern languages” (Botterill xviii). Dante’s aim was not to revolt against Latin but rather to construct in the name of the vernacular a vulgar form of Latin. In the absence of a noble court or overarching political empire, Italy in Dante’s mind lacked a coherent unifying culture, evident in the disconnected speech communities of the peninsula. In seeking out some linguistic form that might serve as the noble tongue of court, thus unifying the regions, Dante theorizes an illustrious vernacular, an aggregate tongue drawn from various Italian dialects and aspiring to a level of durability and eloquence reserved for formal grammars.

8In Dante’s text, Duncan identifies the source of the modernist turn to the vernacular, arguing that the “main drive of the Imagists, away from the especially ‘poetic’ diction of the nineteenth century toward the syntax and rhythms of common daily speech was that of Dante in his De Vulgari Eloquentia” (Duncan 2011, 367). From Duncan’s perspective, Pound and Williams take Georgian verbiage to be the modern equivalent of the grammatica, on the grounds that it lacked the simplicity and directness they associated with a truly modern vernacular speech. Duncan’s predecessors saw the high style as a rule-based form indicative of abstraction and a general distance from daily speech. According to Duncan, however, the rush to validate demotic speech styles lead Williams and Pound to overlook Dante’s emphasis on inclusive collectivity and thereby hold up a version of the vernacular that in Duncan’s mind bears a closer resemblance to the medieval poet’s conception of grammatica. In allowing “a jazzy and folksy dialect [to] tak[e] the place of common speech,” they had made the vernacular into a “learned grammatical speech of [the] upper classes […] set apart from our common humanity.” Duncan senses in modernist vernaculars an “anti-poetic voice” borne of ironic elitism, which was not “a defense [of excluded language varieties], but an attack,” he writes, “a show of sophistication to the pretension of the cultured” (Duncan 2011, 373). This “jargon of the low,” as Duncan calls it, does not transcend boundaries but rather reinforces division, between the literary mainstream and the exclusionary body of avant-garde anti-literary elites. Duncan’s view, though unique during his time, has proven persuasive, as it prefigures prevailing scholarly narratives of modernist language politics. Robert Crawford has argued that the modernist turn toward the vernacular represented a desire to deform the canon of Western literature by deploying “the materials on the outer edges [of language]—slang, foreign, dialectal—rather than simply rearranging the common pool with the literary and the colloquial” (Crawford 270). Following suit, Michael North and Nathaniel Mackey have both shown how writers like Pound and Williams fomented “linguistic rebellion,” by appropriating the marginalized speech varieties of black and working-class communities. In Duncan’s mind, these strategies fail as interpretations of Dante’s vernacular because instead of pursuing a pluralist model of common speech, capable of acknowledging linguistic particularity, they press for factionalism through instrumentalizing difference.

9As much as Duncan’s comments arise in defense of H.D., they are also informed by previous encounters with his modernist predecessors. After reading in The San Francisco Chronicle that Williams would be traveling west to attend the 1948 Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference in Washington, Duncan invites him to extend his trip with a brief stopover in Berkeley. “[T]he young poets out here,” writes Duncan, “including myself — need to hear and to bring into active concern this whole question of the new vernacular” (Duncan, letter to Williams). Upon receiving word that Williams would not be able to visit, Duncan composed a sheaf of poems, entitled Domestic Scenes, filled with unsanctimonious artifacts of the vernacular world: buses, mailboxes and breakfast foods; which he wrote as an homage to Williams. Much like Pound’s response to H.D.’s review of Moore, Williams promptly condemns the work, “I don’t give a damn about such a statement as ‘The earth has tides of desolation and bliss.’” The problem according to Williams lay in Duncan’s language, particularly the way in which his antiquated diction contradicted the thoroughly modern pragmatic titles. “You speak of BREAKFAST, REAL ESTATE, BUS FARE, MAIL BOXES etc. In such bare words there is a suggestion of a really modern mood but such a mood quickly disappears when the actual text of the poem is read” (Williams, letter to Duncan). Nowhere in his criticism of Duncan does Williams explicitly mention his preferred term for what he calls in the letter “a really modern mood,” and yet, Duncan correctly interprets his comments as part of the poet’s campaign for the American idiom. “I sent [Domestic Scenes] off to Williams,” claims Duncan in an interview, “and oh, what a blast back I got about it. There was no American language in there” (Duncan 2012, 81). Had Williams accepted Duncan’s original invitation, he would not have had to prepare another talk on the topic of the new vernacular, as his presentation in Washington, “The Poem as Field of Action,” culminates squarely on this question. Taking an historical perspective, Williams explains that the Industrial Revolution had prompted poets to shift from traditional depictions of pastoral tranquility to unsentimental representations of machine-age materiality. A correspondent overhaul of poetic structure required a serious consideration of the vernacular: “Where else can what we are seeking arise from but speech. From speech, from American speech as distinct from English speech” (Williams 1969, 289). This was the speech that H. L Mencken catalogued in his lexicographic fantasia The American Language, the speech that Eliot and Pound carried in their ears to England and that speech that Auden came to America in search of but could never capture in its radiance. But, as Duncan insists in his interview—“Of course I have never written in American language, nor did I ever in my whole life”—it was not a style of expression that qualified as a true vernacular (Duncan 2012, 81).

10The American idiom represented to Duncan an affected or fake vernacular for the same reasons he denounced camp. Both promote particularity and group superiority, at the expense of the universal commons laid out in Dante’s De Vulgari. Yet, Williams’s idea of American idiom offers Duncan an especially generative foil. Through his rejection of it, Duncan calls into question an assumption that was integral for not only Williams and Pound, but an entire paradigm of modern vernacular literature. In his essay “The Vernacular Tradition in American Literature,” Leo Marx, focusing on the work of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, provides perhaps the classic articulation of this position. What matters, writes Marx, is that Whitman creates “the illusion that a certain kind of man is speaking” (Marx 6). As conceived, vernacular literature distinguishes itself as a form that points back to the context out of which it emerges. Sociolinguists share a term for this phenomenon, indexicality, which refers to a “structure that is used variably from one situation to another and becomes conventionally associated with particular situational dimensions such that when the structure is used, the form invokes those situational dimensions” (Ochs 411). Indexicality is evident anytime a writer self-consciously uses language to index the political and social reality of some nonliterary type, installing them as the ideal vernacular speaker. It is at the heart of dominant conceptions of vernacularity, which assume that the definitional distinction between the vernacular and the standard lies in the extent to which the former points to the language habits of a specific group, whereas the latter remains unmarked and disembodied. Indexical notions of the vernacular tacitly reinscribe the logic of typification, which phenomenologist Alfred Schutz describes as the process of transforming “the unique individual actions of unique human beings” into recognizable types (Schutz 120). These types derive their stability through the process of exclusion, wherein a certain shared trait becomes the ground for projecting a range of generalizing assumptions, including a presumed distance from other groups. As Schutz points out, “The vocabulary and the syntax of the vernacular of everyday language represent the epitome of the typifications.”

11For Duncan the indexical operation inherent in Williams and Pound’s conception of the vernacular followed from their insistence that the vernacular represented a material condition at odds with general abstraction. In Duncan’s estimation, this predilection for the literal too is part of the modernist debt to Dante. In his published talk “The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Duncan associates Dante’s idea of the vernacular with an insistence on the primacy of the literal.

This doctrine of the literal, the immediate and embodied sense, as the foundation of all others, is striking to the modern poet, for it very much is the meaning of the insistence of the Imagists upon the image in its direct presentation, from which all meanings may flow as the primary in poetry, and of their abhorrence of all abstractions if they be divorced from the primal reality of incarnation. (Duncan 2014, 105)

12In Duncan’s mind, Dante constructs the literal not as the concrete knowable world of the positivist but rather a site of flux and unfolding. The literal world is only able to communicate to the poet, to the artist, because of its intrinsic capacity for allegorical expansion. While Duncan sees the same effort to balance the material and imagined in Williams’s work writ large, on the question of the vernacular, he holds that Williams and Pound both are unable to accept certain forms of speech because they fail to qualify as obstinately literal. The value then of the vernacular lay in its ability to counter the notion of poetic language as a figurative realm of decorative excess and universal abstraction. In the process of countering these expectations, the dominant indexical idea of the vernacular achieves this embrace of materialism through promoting an ideal speaker as the representative of vernacular eloquence. The result is an exclusionary model that draws its meaning through negating all non-vernacular speakers.

13One group in particular draws disproportionate ire. When Marx claimed that the vernacular creates the illusion of a certain kind of man speaking, Duncan recognizes this as the literal case, as he sees in the modernist vernacular not only an emphasis on materiality, but an assumption that materiality implies unmitigated masculinity. “He-man bravado or working-class lingo,” writes Duncan “was [Williams’ and Pound’s] affectation of the vernacular” (Duncan 2011, 373). The emphasis on materiality informing modernist conceptions of the vernacular reinforced a wide-scale dismissal of the feminine as parochial and unserious. Duncan points out that in his letter to Williams, Pound groups H.D. together with other female writers, Moore and Amy Lowell, whom he regards as committed to the “perfumed shit” of “refinement, fastidiousness and sensitivity” (Duncan 2011, 395). In order to “cut thru the genteel affectation of devotion or culture with which the middle-class poetry lover read” Pound and Williams use the vernacular to fashion a sense of materialist poetics inoculated from all things “unmanly” (Duncan 2011, 373). It is no accident that Duncan’s most sustained writing on the vernacular appears in The H.D. Book, as his reconceptualization of the category fits within the larger structure of the book: to call attention to the figure of the feminine which had been excised from dominant narratives of innovative writing. If there was after all an ideal speaker of the vernacular in Dante’s treatise, it was the nurse figure that he places at the center of his definition, calling the vernacular the language we learn first from our nursemaids.

14Duncan’s disagreement with Pound and Williams is multidimensional. He calls into question their interpretation of particularity and materiality, insisting that they reinscribe the exclusionary ethos of literary convention that they proclaim to abhor. They exclude, according to Duncan, through the construction of the vernacular as an indexical operation, wherein certain speakers obtain as representative and others, largely women, figure as unviable. At a purely formal level, however, the disagreement comes down to a discrepancy over the verbal elements that best represent vernacularity. In both Pound’s dismissal of H.D. and Williams’s criticism of Duncan, words are regarded as the basis of vernacular poetics. Certain words are admissible, those from the quotidian ranks like bus fare and mailbox. Certain words or phrases are suspect, like “The earth has tides of desolation and bliss.” The approved words carry the mark of affiliation—shibboleths announcing membership in the fraternal order of deformative modernism. The denounced words either carry no clear contextual index or index a position deemed antithetical to the masculinist poet’s revolution of the word. In making words the basis for adjudicating vernacularity, Williams and Pound, in Duncan’s eyes, reduce the category to a discourse on diction, with its always already formalized stratification of high and low. In contrast to the primacy of the word, Duncan insists “[t]he beauty of sound is for Dante first and last, the essence of his art” (Duncan 2014, 113). Sound precedes the word, the codification of identity and the formation of factions. From Dante, Duncan derives a sense of sound as the basis of the vernacular, capable of traversing the boundaries of the national body—straddling the universal and the particular, the material and the abstract. It is, as Duncan argues in his reading of the Divine Comedy, “so pure a thing of poetry that even in languages we do not understand we recognize when we hear the presence of poetic grace.” Where the word carried the promise of rationality and with it a masculine rejection of the unserious, the undisciplined and the illegible, sound was, according to Duncan, “mother to the word,” and thus capable of redeeming the excised presence of feminine creativity as well as the idea of an incorporative model of common speech.

Nursery Rimes

15In theorizing a vernacular poetics, Duncan consistently appeals to the nursing allegory that figures prominently in Dante’s definition of the vernacular in the first section of De Vulgari Eloquentia. When Duncan invokes the vernacular in his writings, he restates Dante’s definition in full, each time emphasizing the nursing allegory, calling the vernacular “that to which children are accustomed by those who are about them when they first begin to distinguish words [...] that which we acquire without any rule, by imitating our nurses” (Duncan 2014, 233). In his 2010 keynote address at the Robert Duncan Symposium held at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Michael Palmer, under the heading of “Robert Duncan and The Invention of Childhood,” offers three premises for understanding poet’s insistence, after the Romantics, that child language serves the origins of poetic creativity. First, childhood language refers to a universal phase of transition, wherein the child coming into language has yet to take his or her place within a conscribed national language, with its attendant political identity. Second, after the speaker develops competency in a single national tongue, this stateless, pre-semantic relation to language persists as a suppressed element, revealed in the conspicuousness of the musical phrase. “Song survives as a potentiality and a trace, caught in the throat, everywhere present and unheard in our daily speech.” Third, it is the poet’s work to return to this early stage of acquisition, to the material particularity of sound, revealing the chaotic potential of language in order to traverse national and class-based boundaries. All three of these premises inform Duncan’s interest in the Dantean concept of the vernacular. The image of the child, cobbling together language, represents for Duncan that very balance between the universal and particular, abstract and literal. The nursing allegory points to a common stage in human development, a stage that conceivably all speakers experience, which makes the mythic scene of preliteracy vital for Duncan’s reconceptualization of the vernacular. From this perspective, sound is at once the literal materiality of physiological functions and the substrate of speech, with its symbolic expansion into the realm of ideas.

16While Duncan never offers anything like a comprehensive reading of the Dantean image, he engages with it in a series of anecdotes about his own “preliterate age,” where he rehearses his experience of first coming to speech. Taken together, these anecdotes recall a young Duncan hearing the speech of a caretaker, be it the domestic chatter of his grandmother’s house or the reading voice of his adopted parents. In this dispersed network of anecdotes, he works out a theory of vernacular poetics, taking the archetype of the nurse to represent a scene of previousness, and the vernacular as a threshold at once mental and physical, whereby the child begins to construct categories that allow for the distinguishing of words. The speaker can never forget the arduously acquired architecture that supports adult language, yet vernacular poetics, as posited, suggest that aspects of language bear the trace of that earlier preverbal stage, from which all speakers and languages emerge. Paying attention to the sounds of speech offers an approximate return to babbling preliteracy. The vernacular poet, as Duncan states in his unpublished “All speech is poetry” draft, “begs us only to listen / [...] unwilling to hear a music that is everywhere / denied.”

17Before exploring Duncan’s anecdotal theory of the vernacular, it is important to understand its basis in Dante’s figuration of the nurse in the De Vulgari. In both visual and verbal media of Dante’s era, the nurse was depicted as a corporeal force of undisciplined nourishment. Maternal care posed a threat to the rituals of self-fashioning, as the act of suckling a child violated the boundaries separating one body from another. Her presence, according to Gary Cestaro, recalled “that time prior to the inviolate subject, thus placing subjectivity itself in crisis” (Cestaro 69). Dante’s treatise then reprises “the basic cultural opposition between the fluid body (female) and the acorporal rational ego (male)” (Cestaro 48). Cestaro arrives at this reading by applying to historical sources the psychoanalytic frameworks of Julia Kristeva. Referring to the De Vulgari as a “medieval inscription of Kristeva’s chora,” Cestaro argues that the maternal body is the corporeal foundation for Dante’s theory of subjectivity and language acquisition (Cestaro 68). This fluid maternal space in Dante is roughly equivalent to Kristeva’s chora, a gendered scene of radical unknowing, previous to figuration, definition and subject formation. Within this material space, the child, unconscious of the boundaries separating one body from another, dwells in ambiguity, receiving stimulation in the form of intermittent hormonal drives and instinctual energies. These intermittent drives produce the sensation of pattern and rhythm, which introduces the child to a dialectic of presence and absence, “absorption and repulsion, displacement and condensation,” providing the basis for language acquisition (Kristeva 29). As all language arises out of chora, all language can be reduced to two opposing modalities, defined by their respective relationship to the chora. Kristeva refers to the first modality as the semiotic, defining it as a dimension of adult language that bears the trace of chora, and thus seeks a return to the rhythmic contours preceding natality. The second is the symbolic, which rejects the chora in pursuit of legible speech. The symbolic fulfills the demand for communicative meaning and representation, producing a rule-bound language in which the speaker can assert and defend certain ideological positions. The nursing body corresponds to chora; the vernacular resembles the semiotic, as it occurs in moments in which the musical, asemantic quality of language interrupts the standard symbolic, referential speech act.

18Duncan’s thinking about the vernacular reflects both Cestaro’s reading and the conceptualization of the chora that informs it. The parallels begin with the overriding emphasis Duncan places on the feminine. If The H.D. Book, as Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman have suggested in their editors’ introduction to the volume, represents a feminist counter-narrative of modernism, it is in part because Duncan sets himself about the task of narrating his development as a poet in terms consistent with Dante’s allegory of informal language acquisition. Duncan’s nurses include the women of his adopted mother’s family, particularly his maternal grandmother, Mary Cooley Harris, his early high-school English teacher Ms. Keough, and of course, H.D., a poet, who, as Peter O’Leary suggests, Duncan idealized and “wanted […] to act as his spiritual mother” (O’Leary 58). In addition, Duncan makes frequent reference in The H.D. Book to male poets—such as Whitman, the Civil War nurse, and Williams, the obstetrician—who served not only as literal caregivers but also as figurative midwives to his ideas of form. From these historical persons, Duncan constructs an archetypal feminine, against which a transhistorical ideology of masculine regulation emerges. This ideology is manifest in the Platonic Republic, “taking its stand against lower or foreign orders” (Duncan 2011, 154), as well as in the modern nation state. As Duncan argues in The H.D. Book, the “critical contempt that met H.D. […] was in part the contempt of the Protestant ethic for womanish ways” (Duncan 2011, 351). But in defiance of essentializing agenda, Duncan acknowledges the feminine, or “womanly virtues,” as a force within himself, and not strictly as the property of biological females (Dewey 301). In the face of a masculine aesthetic, he invited marginality through a marked pursuit of glamor—decorative excess and ethereal ideation—all evidence of what he would call the “womanish possibility in myself. Dewey has argued persuasively that “Duncan locates the figure of the feminine at the intersection of self and other,” a position that allows him to “achieve the communal ideal he had projected in ‘The Homosexual in Society’” (Dewey 316). In redefining the vernacular, he is not simply seeking a model of common speech that is capable of including feminine modes of discourse. Rather, his driving imperative is to reveal the feminine as the condition of possibility for any inclusive vision of the vernacular.

19Yet, the terms of this inclusivity are as many commentators have pointed out not without their problems. In positing the chora as a universal condition, Duncan envisions the nurse’s body as a space in which the forces of cultural specificity may be present but never to the degree that they reinforce stable identity formation or identity-based social stratification. Duncan’s nurse is a far cry from Williams’s depiction of a “young slatter[n], bathed/in filth/ from Monday to Saturday” in his celebrated poem from Spring and All, “To Elsie” (Williams 1970, 131). Duncan insists on this point. “Our nurses,” he writes in The H.D. Book, “were not, it should be clear in Dante, the hired help of a middle-class well-to-do household, but they were women having a vernacular nobility, the nobility of man’s common core” (Duncan 2011, 395). The nurse for Duncan is an ahistorical figure, self-denying and separate from the stratified world of class and politics. The domestic worker is embedded within the material history of the modern present, conscripted into service through a lack of other options. Where one is directed by a higher purpose, the other is the victim of her circumstances. The distinction is a dubious one. The nurses in Dante’s day were in fact women of peasant stock, employed through patriarchal exchange between husbands, and tasked with the grueling, low-pay work of caring for the offspring of wealthy families (Cestaro 50-51). Historical accuracy is less a priority for Duncan than rampant speculation that will support his vision of the vernacular as an experience common to all speakers and not the property of a single group. The position places him at odds with Marxist feminists that were writing about domestic labor at roughly the same time. Italian scholar and activist Silvia Federici argues that through the structure of wage-based compensation, Domestic workers gained not only legibility as laborers, but also a platform upon which to protest against the inequalities inherent in the social reproduction of capitalism. While depicting the nurse as a figure of anti-capitalist communalism, Duncan reinscribes the naturalization of domestic labor, placing the work of the nurse outside the discourse on political economy and thus rendering it untenable as a class position, from which to advocate for ethical relation.

20If the vernacular means speaking beyond class and nation, and the nurse is not a wage-laborer, then only those who can shed the markings of class and nation, who can avoid the trap of wage-labor, can step into the domain of the commons. What is left after this expulsion of socially constructed forms of difference and their embedded politics but that Enlightenment construct: the sovereignty of the autonomous, individual subject. The depoliticized image of the nurse is but one example of the ways in which Duncan’s ideas about the vernacular pertain to his ideas about the commons, which remain a persistent topic of debate for scholars. A self-described anarchist, Duncan harbored animosity for any form of coercive government that impinged upon the individual freedom of its members, insisting that “political good lies in our imagination of how to extend [individual] volition in a wider and deeper range of the communal goods.” (Duncan 2004, 542). And yet, in the effort to deny class-dominated dogmatism, Duncan, according to Eric Keenaghan, uses the idea of individual volition to cover over the material reality of individual difference similar to the ways in which Western humanists use the universalizing image of “man” to validate, and ultimately naturalize, exclusionary models of democratic belonging. In his critique, Keenaghan offers one of the more persuasive readings in defense of Duncan’s thinking about the commons. According to him, Duncan’s invocation of “man” arises within a larger poetics committed to bringing such foundational elements of the Enlightenment to a point of internal crisis. Thus, it is not simply class and nation that the poet aims to strip away, but also the authority invested in the rational ego, which he holds as the constitutive force, driving factional politics. While advocating for the dignity of man, his vernacular poetics look to the figure of the nurse as a means of identifying a space previous to the formation of the rational ego and the consolidation of a liberal subject. The forces of cultural specificity—class, gender, race and nation—still exert influence on the speaker in Duncan’s vision, but without the sovereign intellect deploying them in the service of self-fashioning and exceptionalism. One’s own capacity for language becomes that which precedes one’s claims of ownership—one’s ability to distinguish mine from yours, one’s consolidation of self.

21In his anecdotes of preliteracy, Duncan imagines this space, previous to subjectivity and symbolic language, where the child possesses no awareness of the borders separating his body from others. In the renowned “Rites of Participation” chapter of The H.D. Book, he writes:

Every baby is surrounded by elders of a mystery. The first words, the “da-da” and “ma-ma,” are keys given in a repeated ritual by parental priest and priestess to a locus for the child in his chaotic babbling, whereby from the oceanic and elemental psychic medium—warmth and cold, calm and storm, the moodiness previous to being—persons, Daddy and Mama, appear. (Duncan 2011, 157)

22From this “oceanic and […] psychic medium,” uncertain dynamics come into play. “Warmth and cold, calm and storm” characterize the choric drives acting upon the child, producing what Duncan calls the “moodiness previous to being.” As in Kristeva, these drives constitute a set of essential contraries, which lead the child into a rhythmic awareness of relative, opposing, negative entities, and from that conception of rhythm emerge sounds that are at once semiotic and symbolic. The fragmented ma-ma and da-da turn the undifferentiated field of elders into a legible body of caretakers. The introduction to symbolic language is an initiation into a private company of speakers, “the elders of a mystery.” Learning the single specific language of one’s elders is tantamount to entering into a cultish community, at odds with the boundless commons of babble.

23This boundless scene previous to language acquisition drives Duncan’s thinking in his essay “Poetry before Language.” Composed in 1955, while Duncan was in Mallorca, struggling with language barriers, the essay originally bore the title “Gift of Tongues or Imagination,” an invocation of the glossolalic miracle of the New Testament. In the style of a fairy tale, the piece imagines a language previous to “the self-assurance of the intellect,” which comprises a non-symbolic set of pre-phonemic sputtering sounds (Duncan 2014, 94). According to Duncan, this stage, analogous to the period of the nurse’s instruction, concludes with subject formation. The brain becomes “the minding brain,” no longer a “mere clearing house” for signals, and begins to separate meaningful sound from nonsense. The meaningful sounds can then be “arranged, sorted in light of the intellect” (Duncan 2014, 94). Here at this threshold moment, the vernacular emerges. Tied to the scene of first distinguishing words, it is a fleeting thing, but one that bears a persistent trace, present whenever the sensual experience of language overthrows the neuro-centric demand for rational sense.

24In the poem “At the End of a Period,” from Letters, Duncan shows that the semiotic vernacular represents at once the basis and the breakdown of symbolic, rule-bound discourse. “When who was small,” he writes, “indeed he slept at his grandma’s house” (Duncan 2011, 657). The nurse figure presides over the scene in which the speaker has yet to come into being. The conspicuous usage of “who,” instead of the personal pronominal I, recalls a time previous to subject formation. Positing itself as an irreducible question, this “who” is a conjuring of fluid liminality. Duncan describes tides crashing in the distance, which muddle with the voices emanating throughout the house, as “incoming waves of talk” (Duncan 2011, 657). This fluid speech of nearby nurses enchants the would-be speaker, luring the child out of anonymous ambiguity and into symbolic confines of difference, signification and subject formation. The symbolic aspect of speech is attractive in its orderliness, presenting an “eternal monotony,” similar to the “metronome of the clock” (Duncan 2011, 657). For Duncan then the nurse represents the sensual experience of musicality, the experience that provides the conditions of possibility for grammatical regularity while undermining its authority. The destabilizing love of language, represented by the vernacular, undermines and underpins the “knowledge of language,” represented as grammar. Duncan recognizes both the symbolic and semiotic currents at work in the poem itself. The piece conveys a relatively comprehensible narrative, yet it also bears the potential for the reader and the writer to return to that abyss previous to the fortification of the individual. The opening of the poem recounts an ideal reader, “listening to the words as I write them; we are there, as the poem comes into existence—she and I—losing ourselves in the otherness of what is written” (Duncan 2011, 657). The otherness of what is written is the phonocentric sound of speech. The reader and the writer become entwined as nurse and child, listening to the sound of the words at the moment in which the poem crosses the threshold of creation.

25In his 1973 revision of his 1961 essay “From Notes on the Structure of Rime,” Duncan foregrounds the musical quality that marks the choric commons:

as children, we, my sister and I, gathering eagerly to attend the telling and retelling of old family tales or the reading aloud of fairy tales, felt every departure from the order of the telling as a departure from the story itself, as telling it “wrong.”  […] Every departure from the set of words in their phrasings, any change in the lilt of the telling, we felt as the story sounding false. It does not sound like what it says, Jess remarks of some poetries. In the preliterate there is essential to the Art a tuning of the sense and sound. (Duncan 2014, 294)

26In this scene, the child has already entered into the symbolic realm, performing linguistic competency, equipped with a stable sense of selfhood. Yet these tales, read aloud by Duncan’s nurse, represent extensions of the choric realm. The children become the authority and with them the semiotic patterning of sounds that first led them to comprehend the symbolic. As in the previous example, the child’s experience with language reveals an insight about poetic language. Duncan’s partner, the visual artist Jess, adds that like the parents, poets too fall victim to the temptation of ignoring the semiotic patterning in favor of symbolic meaning. In the final line, Duncan summarizes the aesthetic imperative informing his vernacular poetics, a tuning of the sense and sound. What Duncan, Dante and Cestaro have in mind for the vernacular then is not a language, not a bounded lexicon, but an aspect of expression. It stands in contrast to the logic of grammar by virtue of its privileging of sound, both rhythm and rhyme, over subject-oriented notions of direct communication. It resists the demand for specularity commonly associated with eye-dialect writing, remaining instead a substrate of language hidden in all forms of language and thus all-encompassing. When it appears, it does so as an enactment of the fluidity of the maternal form, rupturing the representational logic of symbolic discourse. And yet, Duncan, like Kristeva, is not committed to completely overthrowing the symbolic, but rather harnessing the semiotic to displace its centrality. Poetry can only ever aspire to pure music. The nursing allegory grants Duncan an image of the child babbling nonsense, working through the materiality of sound particles. But it also affords an image of the nurse, the caregiver, nearby, always listening, deciphering ceaselessly at every turn, seeking some evidence of first words. Similarly, Duncan may thematize an experience of composition driven by sound and not semantic meaning, but he consistently situates the vernacular in relation to symbolic, seeing it as an epistemological threshold.

27As much as Kristeva’s psychoanalytic theories enable a useful description of Duncan’s vernacular poetics, the controversy surrounding those theories provide a means of coming to terms with the limitation of Duncan’s ideas. One of the prominent critiques of Kristeva’s semiotic comes from Elizabeth Grosz who argues that the semiotic and all of its revolutionary potential depends upon an evasion of woman, and the material reality of the sexed body. “By means of this manoeuvre, she is able, on the one hand, to evacuate women of any privileged access to femininity, and on the other, to position men, the avant-garde, in the best position to represent, to name or speak the feminine” (Grosz 1989, 95). In response, Kelly Oliver maintains that while Kristeva circumvents the sexed body, it is a politically useful evasion, whereby Kristeva presses towards a conception of identity that remains contingent and thus incapable of being coopted to suppress the sui generis particularity of individual women. In evading the sectarian grounds of class and nationality, Duncan’s ideas about vernacularity seem on first impression to neglect the inherent political dimension of vernacular literature. When Leo Marx asserted that the vernacular was a style with a clear politics in view, he was referring to the way in which vernacular texts challenge some aspect of the status-quo by forging a mimetic link between the language on the page and a social-group in the world, considered external, and often antagonistic, to the ruling class. And yet according to Duncan, in arrogating the voice of the people, writers of an indexical vernacular risk reinscribing the centripetal logic of standardization, presenting one type of language as more valuable than the rest. Far from apolitical, Duncan’s poetics reflect a commitment to balancing the relation of part to whole, through denying the supremacy of either.

28When asked about his relationship to the vulgar tongue in 1979, after the talk on Whitman’s Line, Duncan provided an answer consistent with the themes laid out in this writing. He makes no claim to a given speech community, nor does he invoke the discourse of style, with its stratification of linguistic registers. Instead he considers the audience member’s question, specifically the point about comprehension being blocked by certain unknown words. The audience member wants to know how a poet can fill his lines with arcane references from specialized fields of formal knowledge production and still profess an interest in common speech. In response, Duncan tells the story of speaking with a graduate seminar in the University College Santa Cruz History of Consciousness Program. He asks them if anyone could name a work of equal scale and significance as Dante’s Divine Comedy, written during the same century. “They all knew Dante,” Duncan states, “O they were thoroughly ignorant of the Zohar written by Moses of Leon” (Duncan 1979). The reason he explains is that “You went to a system of education that was going to exclude from your mind at all the presence of a Jewish culture, its literature, its revelations.” Without making the case explicit, Duncan implies that for him the vernacular is not a predetermined set of linguistic features, it is an approach to language attuned to the everchanging object of exclusion. “I will fill my poetry with names you will have to get to long before you read me.” The challenge becomes bringing the names back in, redeeming them, without establishing around them new exclusionary bodies of knowledge. To do this, Duncan brings the name back in, but as something more than simply a referential unit—an assemblage of sounds, a pattern of recombinant elements ringing out across the factions, as if they were the common language of all speakers.

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J. Peter Moore

Purdue University
J. Peter Moore teaches and writes on U.S. literature and culture, particularly modern and contemporary poetry and poetics, aesthetic theory and history of criticism, letterpress printmaking and media studies. His book project, Other Than a Citizen: Vernacular Poetics in Postwar America, examines the work of avant-garde poets who turned to the unadorned, anonymous practices of everyday life to find a model for countering the institutional regimentation of the postwar social world. He is the author of two poetry collections, Southern Colortype (Three Count Pour, 2013) and Zippers and Jeans (selva oscura, 2017) and the co-founder of Lute & Drum: An Online Arts Journal. He is Clinical Assistant Professor in the Honors College at Purdue University.

La recherche et l’enseignement de J. Peter Moore portent sur la littérature et la culture américaines, en particulier la poésie moderne et contemporaine, la théorie esthétique, l’histoire de la critique, l’édition et les médias. Il prépare un ouvrage intitulé Other Than a Citizen: Vernacular Poetics in Postwar America, qui explore les œuvres de poètes d’avant-garde qui trouvèrent dans le quotidien et l’anodin les moyens d’un contre-modèle à opposer aux institutions et à la société du monde de l’après-guerre. Il a également publié deux recueils de poésie, Southern Colortype (Three Count Pour, 2013) et Zippers and Jeans (selva oscura, 2017), et est le co-fondateur de Lute & Drum: An Online Arts Journal. He est Clinical Assistant Professor au sein du Honors College à l’université de Purdue.

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