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La notion d’ouvert possède une longue histoire en poésie. Cet article s’attache aussi à son présent, comme à son avenir, le temps d’une patiente remémoration, d’un réassemblage continu de la poésie et de la poétique de Robert Duncan. En explorant des lieux méconnus de la poésie américaine, telle qu’on les rencontre au fil de l’anthologie de 1973, Open Poetry, publiée par Ronald Gross et George Quasha, mais aussi le projet de vers projectif décrit par Charles Olson, c’est toute l’ampleur de L’Ouverture du champ de Duncan qui apparaît, tentative décisive d’écrire une poésie qui s’appréhenderait en tant que réalité topographique, où les choix de composition découlent des nécessités ad hoc rencontrées au cours d’une écoute réflexive du texte par lui-même. Ce voyage à travers les contrecultures qui formèrent une part des pratiques poétiques de la seconde moitié du 20ème siècle se veut exemplaire. Il est ouvert au lecteur, libre de son parcours.

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Texte intégral

The artist, after Dante’s poetics, works with all parts of the poem as polysemous, taking each thing of the composition as generative of meaning, a response to and a contribution to the building form. […]

So the artist of abundancies delites in puns, interlocking and separating figures, plays of things missing or things appearing “out of order” that remind us that all orders have their justification in an order of orders only our faith as we work addresses […]. (Duncan 1963, ix)

But I have digressed and lost my thread. (Rovelli 123)

I have nowhere to go and I’m going there. (Michael Palmer)

1As I began to assemble my notes for this essay, it occurred to me that, for a number of reasons, after citing Duncan and Carlo Rovelli, I should begin with this modification of the famous declaration in John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it” (Cage 1961, 109). It came to me “out of the blue”, as the phrase goes, though not entirely I guess, since I had been thinking about the fact that this is also the centennial year of Merce Cunningham, who was Cage’s life partner and artistic collaborator, and who shared a form of “composition by field” with Duncan, if not in so many words, as his writings and interviews and our conversations over the years confirmed to me. As has occasionally been noted, by me among others, “nowhere” contains within it “now-here,” and this doubling sounds what I have always thought of as the essential, and essentially paradoxical and uncanny, locus of the poem. Thus the eternal play of presence and absence, and the suggestion of unboundedness. Yet this unboundedness itself is complicated since, as the King said to the White Rabbit, one must begin at the beginning and go on until the end, then stop. Regarding the open then, I might ask Alice and the King and the White Rabbit, and others assembled at Alice’s Kafkaesque trial in Wonderland: finite but unbounded? And in the face of such apparent counter-logic, we might also quote Cage’s Lewis Carroll-like statement, “What we require is silence, but what silence requires is that I go on talking” (Cage 1961, 109-110). Finally, Cage again, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it” (Cage 1961, 109).

2“Out of the blue,” “out of thin air,” common phrases that describe the random arrival of a thought or a phrase or a fragment of melody that may be the start of something. “The light foot hears you and the brightness begins,” so Duncan “translating” after his fashion a phrase as the opening of “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” (Duncan 1960, 62). “God step at the margins of thought” – Duncan himself has testified that this line or this “misreading” of a line from Pindar’s First Pythian Ode came to him late one night as a series of puns beyond his conscious control, producing the arresting and memorable, but enigmatic opening as quoted. (It serves as an important reminder of the role that paronomasia, mishearing and, as above, misreading play from earliest times in Duncan’s compositional process.) Here he felt the need, indeed the obligation, to trust this poetic, perhaps preconscious arrival as generator or instigator of the work. It “opens” that which is to come from a place beyond intent. It “opens” the poem, that is, to the unforeseeable. The poet agrees, agrees with the unfolding poem that is, to abandon a certain degree of authorial control. The poet agrees to listen, and to accept errors and errancy, all the while attending closely to the particular logic of the music, its arriving harmonies and disharmonies, melopoeia governing or accompanying the dance of the intellect among words.

A poem of nothing let’s go home… (Coolidge 109)

3Over the winter holidays, while staying in the guest room of Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster in Brooklyn, I lay in bed one morning and spotted, by chance, on a bookshelf to my left, at eye level, Open Poetry, an anthology edited by Ronald Gross and George Quasha, with other contributing editors, and published in New York in 1973 by Simon and Schuster. (Paul Auster, I should add here: author of The Music of Chance, among his many other novels.) Having already committed myself to quasi-randomness for this talk, I took this chance spotting as a sign that chance, by chance, was willing to play its role. (Quasha later informed me that the book had received virtually no distribution, explaining perhaps how I’d managed to miss it upon publication.) It is internationalist in reach, emphasizing formal innovation, vanguardism, event- or performance-oriented texts, concretism, found poetry, “language happenings,” and current exploratory or avant-garde African-American verse. It is in itself, therefore, philosophically, an instance of the open, the open within the limits of course of editorial vision and the hardcover bindings of a single, though large, volume. The usual suspects of the institutional, Anglo-American canon are strikingly absent. Quasha’s introduction to one section is larded with citations from Cage and others. “Art’s obscured the difference between art and life. Now let life obscure the difference between life and art.” (Gross, Quasha, 3); “Chance frees us from the net of meaninglessness.” (Gross, Quasha, 6). “Complaint: you open doors; what we want to know is which ones you close. Doors I open close automatically after I go through.)” (Gross, Quasha, 8).

4As well as a valuable repository of a very wide range of counter-traditional writings, the volume serves as a reminder of how a certain stance toward the open had become a common ideological position of much of the new poetry, as well as of the counterculture itself. A generation was emerging from the stifling and repressive dominant culture of the Eisenhower years, the McCarthy and Roy Cohn red-scare years, the House Unamerican Activities years, the “duck and cover” years, the years of lynchings, the years of Bombingham, as Birmingham, Alabama, was known in the black community, the suburban dream, the Lawrence Welk years, the years of the vanilla crooners dominating the airwaves, the years of The Well Wrought Urn, the years of “Whites Only,” the years of The Fugitives and Agrarians in verse, and so on. I say “emerging from,” yet politically and culturally the present period of overt racism reborn, contempt for or indifference toward the arts, and fear and hatred of The Other announce with an unforeseen vengeance that such malign forces never came even close to disappearing, that the emergence, while full of vitality, would quite soon confront a pseudo-populist reaction from the (fictitious) Nixonian Silent Majority and later, that is, now, well let’s leave now alone for the moment, only noting that the words “open” and “closed” have taken on new and menacing overtones.

5Returning to the anthology, several things immediately stand out. The page has become a field of performance, even of all-over composition; words dissolve and reform; graphemes, phonemes and letters take on the character of fully performing poetic elements; linearity and grammatical hierarchy both come under assault; the field itself is no longer merely background to the unfolding tale but active in the telling; above and below come into active exchange. I am reminded here of Charles Olson’s allusions to Carl Sauer’s “readings” of landscape, readings of the field itself, the history that it conceals and reveals in potentially infinite variety and infinitely minute detail. (Of course the phrase, “composition by field” first appears in Olson’s essay, “Projective Verse.”) I am reminded of Zukofsky’s poems “The” and “Of,” and of his punning textual layering, such that a poem in English sounds as Latin, or as Yiddish or as a music in American English never quite heard before, perhaps echoing Cavalcanti, perhaps mimicking Catullus, perhaps Marx, compressing, even for a moment annihilating time, as poetry or music, making time and bending time through their respective measures can for a mortal moment do. For one heresy of the open is to refuse to acknowledge closure, refuse to acknowledge death. I remember a late-night conversation with the great Hungarian novelist and screen writer László Krasnahorkai at our house in San Francisco some years ago. Discussion inevitably came around to his dauntingly endless sentences. László volunteered that closure meant death, the period meant death, so he was keeping his sentences open as long as humanly possible. Article, preposition, comma, period, et al, all as coequal figures of the dance in the open field, the mortal dance, the reinvocation of childhood ritual and song. The dance is a seam in time joined to song. Incantation calls to another time within this one, another language within this one, at once present and hidden at the margins of thought, where the light and the dark cast their sorts. And, as Cunningham has remarked, dance crucially includes and evolves from stillness, as poetry at base honors silence, the wind-swept and solitary desert of thought or contemplation beyond the walls of the garden, to which one must repair.

6Or is it that the dance lies within, lives within the song, as the field singer’s song fills the meadow? Here, somewhat randomly selected from the anthology, is a poem by Diter Rot (or Dieter Roth), Swiss sculptor, writer, visual artist, creator of artist’s books, who died in 1998:

she greened
she greened
she greened so green
she blued
and blued
and blued so blue
and came
and came
and came from afar
and went
and went
and went far away (Gross, Quasha 397)

A second heresy is to invoke or aspire to the limitless, the unbounded.

Off with his head! so the Red Queen said. […]
It is in the open too that sense and non-sense commingle. (Nonsense! said the Queen.) (Carroll 2009, 64, 72)

7Open Poetry, the anthology, is still vital, though now part of history rather than an outcropping of the present. It has at points a sort of quaintness as well, like a happening filmed at a more exuberant moment than our own (even with the hell, the killing fields, of Vietnam then in play). And there is work, as is inevitable, that has faded quite badly, a reminder that even, or maybe especially, in the open one can easily get lost, can lose one’s bearings. In my and my wife’s San Francisco garden many years ago, Duncan remarked that one of the glories of the enclosed garden is that one can so easily orient oneself to the cardinal points, that is, find one’s bearings, and perhaps find the measure. So the enclosed too can be generative (“a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos […]” Duncan 1960, 7). I should add that much of the vitality of Open Poetry derives from its deliberate lack of a single editorial voice or viewpoint. The “open” thereby remains open and various, a kind of loose conversation rather than an insistent instrument of pedagogy.

8Of course, the notion of the “single voice” must be addressed with a certain skepticism. I mentioned the figure of the “field singer” above. It was in reference to a work-in-progress titled “Shadows and Embers,” a dance and performance piece created by the choreographer Margaret Jenkins and her company of dancers, in collaboration with our sometime co-conspirator of many years, the musician, playwright, singer, actor and multi-instrumentalist, Rinde Eckert. (Meister Eckert as I sometimes call him.) Margy began the process of constructing the work many months ago by giving the following poem of mine from 2018 to the dancers, and asking them to select passages to interpret (not illustrate) as movement, i.e., by dispersing its parts among them:

Thinking of Distant Wars

Thinking of distant wars
we walked along a country path
heavy with dust.

We walked and we bathed in the dust.
It slowly coated us.
as we talked of distant wars.

Only so many words left, you know, she
said, only so many words left.
We’ve used up so many, you know.

Where’d they go, I sometimes wonder?
Where’d they all go, she asked,
shredded like old cloth perhaps,

swept off by wind or flood
or tossed onto a pyre
of what once must have been story

or once have been song,
a fire around which
good citizens gleefully

danced, excited by the light
such words cast perhaps?
Only so many, you know,

she said, for now and for then,
words for now and for again, for
when. Only so many wars left,

how many wars left, she asked,
words left, she asked,
as we walked along a twisting path

heavy with dust.
The sentinel crows watched over us,
took stock of us,

did they laugh at us,
at our ridiculous
earthbound gait

on a path dissolving beneath us,
a path of black glass – no –
a path of bruised flesh

melting beneath us?
Crow of Infinite Sorrows,
Crow of the Eighth Day,

Crow of The Other Voice,
Crow of the Art of War,
of Solitude, of Slaughter.

Only so many, she said,
only the infinite steps.
Surely you must know, Old Crow.

We passed the dreaming chimneys,
the burned stubble fields,
the herms and the scorched

and sundered alphabets.
Only so many letters left,
I thought she said

speaking as if
she were the wind itself,
the war itself, the dust. (Shadows and Embers)

9As the work evolved, Rinde began to participate in rehearsals, trying a number of ways to find his role in it as speaker/singer/musician-vagabond. Eventually, the figure of the field singer appeared, and began to secure his place among the dancers in the field of movement. I had been conscious in my poem of a somewhat ballad-like, distant echo of Duncan, the characteristic heuristic journey his work often would take, and of course I had also been conscious of Dantean echoes in this peripatetic movement. Movement toward what? Dissolution? Comprehension? Confusion at what appears before the wanderers, travelers through time, but also caught in time, considering the remnants of violence on the path and in the fields? Things at once far away and near, the journey, as in Duncan, somewhat oneiric, the destination, if any, unclear, perhaps simply an elsewhere. So this journey, I came to see, represents a mirror of the making itself, the errancy of making, the grief we come to as we navigate the ruins, overseen by the sentinel crows. Grief perhaps at what our democratic republic has devolved to in this almost unimaginable period of demagoguery, uncontrolled corporatism, contempt for culture, hate-filled division and contaminated speech. And so perhaps the ruined field, the culture of its once ploughed fields, its “verses” as Duncan never failed to note, now lying in neglect with marks of ruin and past violence serving as silent sentinels themselves. At the age of sixteen, I toured the ruined World War One villages and fields of France and Belgium. Even with the passage of decades, the evidence of unspeakable destruction was everywhere, made only more shocking by the poppies and greenery partly obscuring the remnants of violence, unexploded ordinance, fragments of clothing, ration tins, buttons. And even many decades since, I cannot forget how simply unimaginable it all was to me. Where do words come in, when the only possible reaction is stunned silence? So this too, this scene from adolescence, was in the forefront of my consciousness as I thought of distant wars.

10At this point Rinde, Meister Eckert, appears with his texts and his rudimental instruments, to find his place among the dancers in the field. He opens my poem, intones phrases from it, and responds to it along with the movement before him. He enters the field, “as if it were a scene made up by the mind, / that is not mine, but a made place […]” (Duncan 1960, 9). He enters as if at once part of it and apart, to discover what permission resides there. He opens the text to other words and to an unfolding landscape, a landscape coming into form and into sight by means of Margaret Jenkins and her collaborators, her dancers. His own words, that is those of his persona, the field singer, arrive at various points in the piece. As I heard them for the first time, I thought for just a moment that they were mine, so seamlessly did they mesh with my own sense of scene and tone and underlying sources while amplifying those questions of the field and the open, both in space and time. “That is mine and not mine.” First text:

Opening Monologue

Once they used to bring in what they called a “field singer.”
He or she would stand in the field and sing, sometimes as a consecration, sometimes as a healing.  If the field was felt to be disordered, confused by, say, the affects of a distant war, not, you understand where the battle took place, not where the blood was spilled, or where the bullets flew, nothing like that.  Those fields are beyond the power of any singer.
But a small field, a village field, a walled field, might be easily confused, a wife or mother having lost a husband or son walking across the field, some ash from the torched houses falling here, or a wounded soldier stopping to sit on the wall, catch his breath, quietly dying.  Or simply the weight of the accumulation of casual conversations, shared secrets, news of the distant wars, a crossing and re-crossing of stories in the walled field, far enough from town and still close enough to be heard, or felt. All that earnest whispering:
             “Stop.  Did you hear?  Sorry.  Go on.  What? Here?”
It’s this sort of confusion for which the field singer was supposed to be useful.
And so the field singer is called, carrying his metal harp, his goat bells, his crude pipe, a stranger to the town, always a stranger, never anyone who owned or worked the field.  Only a stranger could restore the field, remind it what it had been, listen to it without prejudice, to clear the air, so to speak, to smooth the lines again, so the field is once again open to new crossings, fresh news:
It was just yesterday.  I was crossing the field.  My hands were still cold from having broken the ice in the pan so the chickens could drink.  I heard this backfire and turned.  There was A with his helmet on trying to start that old Indian of his, and as I was turning back my eye caught something in the grass, a crumpled note, probably tossed from a passing car.  It was in a language I didn’t understand, a completely strange language. (Shadows and Embers)

And the three brief ones, also from Rinde, that follow, with the second sampling my poem:

Always the singer knows there would have been something in the distance: a siren, a heated exchange, the blaring radio there and gone, the sound of distant war.

And so the field singer is called, not to bury the dead, but to reassure the field: they stop, they go on, they are full of sorrow, they go on, they stop, they laugh, they go on, they remember, they forget, they fall, they go on.

Here and here and here.



And the field singer, with his crude metal harp, his goat bells, remembers all the fallen here, the little girl in the paper crown dizzy with joy, the young man on his knees, weeping. And here a famous poet tripped up by the uneven ground, the singer sees, even surrounded as he was by admirers, had to be helped up. The field singer can still hear his apologetic laughter, even remembers a fragment of a poem:

We passed the dreaming chimneys,
the burned stubble fields,
the herms and the scorched

and sundered alphabets.
Only so many letters left,
I thought she said

speaking as if
she were the wind itself,
the war itself, the dust.


Here is where the flood waters came to. Here a dancer accosted by a fool held her breath against outrage. Here a blindfolded girl got turned around. Here a fierceness in the eyes told a story. Here the surprising return of a friend. Here the skater spinning on a puddle of ice. Here and here. (Shadows and Embers)

11Qui parle? as one perhaps unanswerable question in post-structuralist theory puts it. Or even in this company, in this at once diverse and unified entity, qui écrit, who writes? Or is it all only a dream of the grass blowing, as the stage lights come down?

12I have always thought of the open text as one that was “opening toward” without fully knowing toward what. We think reasonably of Whitman as the source of the projective (his term) in American poetry, yet at the same moment Dickinson is making work that opens, one might say, inward, at times almost infinitely inward, opening a space of polysemy at the edge of rational thought, a chamber echoing with the unsayable, ever open, as Cage would put it, to the possible, and ever inflected by the impossible. How many voices constitute the company of makers, how many intentions and half-formed desires must come together, how must chance and design find their common language? In what ways must speaking or writing become listening? In what ways must we disappear for the work to come forward, to become itself, its multiphasic and multi-dimensional self? Ancient questions, of course, but as urgent as ever in a world of misrule, demagogic rant and cyber-assault. I should add that the shared understanding is that such shared work is “in progress,” given the problematics of that word, since there is no progress per se. Perhaps even no fixed “process.” The work does not achieve resolution in the traditional, narrative sense, but calls out to what may follow. It is fluid, open to what may (or may not) come. Who among us has not been dismayed by the concept of the factory “finish line,” the gleaming product arriving at its terminus, four wheels, four doors, dual exhausts, custom paint, supercharger, with price tag attached? (Although, now that I think about it, a poem with all of that stuff might be pretty sexy. No price tag attached, of course, most unfortunately.)

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice […].” Now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!” (Carroll 2009, 16)

13New Directions recently published a book of selected essays by the brilliant, I’m tempted to say the unaffectedly, even the quietly brilliant Danish poet Inger Christensen, titled The Condition of Secrecy. So much of interest there for all of us concerned with poetic process and poetic sensibility, that is, alertness to what is before us, simply stated, but I will limit myself to what most pertains to what I am trying to tentatively encircle for this occasion. (I do envy Alice, above.) Spurred by the essays, I’ve also returned to the poetry, in particular it, which was first published as det in Danish in 1969, and which in its own singular fashion serves as a primary instance of open form, however, an open form with its own particular formal constraints. This was nine years after Duncan published The Opening of the Field, containing the first pieces of his perhaps most radically open series, “The Structure of Rime.” And then of course Inger’s Alphabet, first published in Danish in 1981, an almost incantatory work employing as its formal grid the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. As the title states, it is an alphabet poem, though of necessity, given the form, it only reaches as far as the letter n. Yet, given the ever-expanding form, it implies a work of almost infinite length, deriving from the golden section of its origins. The rest, it seems to say, must be left in silence, endlessly open and unvoiced. There is a certain ek-stasis to its ritualistic vitality that reminds me of that movement toward the open and celebration of the open we find at points throughout Duncan’s work, that odd mix of the personal and the impersonal in its voicings and in its celebration of ratio in the midst of the chaos of the materials, the flux of being and the attendant alternation of darkness with light, randomness with order. Here, for those unfamiliar with her work, are the opening sections in Susanna Nied’s brilliant translation:

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist

bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen

cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum

doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death

early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every
detail exists; memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists; oaks, elms,
junipers, sameness, loneliness exist;
eider ducks, spiders, and vinegar
exist, and the future, the future         (Christensen 2001, 15)

14A universe of language infinitely expanding? The Word, in the beginning, naming things into being? The dance of the (poetic) intellect among words and among things? Our dream of a paradise amidst our poisoned rivers and lakes? A paradise, or first childhood garden that never was?

I have nowhere to go and I’m going there. (Palmer)

15I remember many years ago Merce Cunningham, our fellow centenarian and sometime Black Mountain College resident, discussing how he used chance procedures to decide the order of various sections of a new work, of their disposition in the field, thereby subverting linearity and any covert impulse toward narrative. I wondered about this order that was created randomly. Order that was random? Can there be random order? And once this order is in place per aleatory procedure, has it entered the realm of necessity? A poetics of composition rooted in paradox? Certainly no problem for Merce. Is Wonderland then the site of paradox, even defined by paradox? Is wonder created by the suspension of reason? Is poetry? And what arrives, in Lyn Hejinian’s words, via the resistance to closure? Perhaps related, in his edition of The Collected Poems and Plays for the University of California Press, Peter Quartermain writes of Duncan’s “disordered devotion to the uncertainty of the real,” echoing Duncan’s 1951 work, Fragments of A Disordered Devotion. Is Cunningham defying the King’s pronouncement to the White Rabbit, that one must begin at the beginning and go on until the end? Are we experiencing the death of hypotaxis, that is, of structures of subordination? Is parataxis the new creeping socialism, sort of like Medicare for all? Might a White Rabbit gain entry to the White House, or is that reserved for the Mad Hatter? Questions, questions. Maybe the full title of this talk should have been: The Open: Chance, Disegno, Spontaneity, and Experience-as-Experiment. In fact, this thought and these questions bring us to a number of the issues Inger Christensen explores in her book of selected essays, issues which I hope will offer some insight into the (lower case) opening of the field. In The Condition of Secrecy, she states, “Maybe poetry can’t tell any truths at all. But it can be true, because the reality that accompanies the words is true. This secret-filled correlation between language and reality is how poetry becomes insight” (Christensen 2018, 77). The creative and the true merge in what feels like a possible Nietzschean echo, even though as I write this I find it otherwise very difficult to juxtapose the two, philosopher and poet. She goes on to cite Novalis on the dance between the inner and the outer world, and those aspects of “random chance” in experience that arise to offer “pathways of thought” in the effort to fuse words and phenomena, always “starting from scratch” (Christensen 2018, 76), that is, from nothing, not from the beginning but from nothing, while choosing the random word that can be made necessary. We begin by stepping out into empty space and (like the field singer) finding our way to that music that is to be lured out and sounded. We are lost in a landscape and must find our way through, or across, to those words and to that opening perhaps never before experienced or considered possible, and thereby to find that something has come to be, and a way of knowing things has been momently discovered, along with a path of self-overcoming or derealization (which I read in Christensen’s work as the escape from solipsistic, Cartesian consciousness into the world of matter and other beings and other minds, perhaps including the mind of language itself). So then “the open” might be taken as the site where inner and outer arrive to converse and where measure and ratio must coexist in their dance with the unbounded. It is not for nothing that the Fibonacci sequence in itself signals toward or designates the inconceivably infinite, while simultaneously representing a certain harmony, proportion, or rested perfection. Little wonder that it has entranced poets, composers, and visual artists, to say nothing of mathematicians, over time, with its intimations of the spiraling of thought and the actual spirals of matter.

16In “The Regulating Effect of Chance,” Christensen further extends her thoughts on composition and “the motions of the mind” (Christensen 2018, 74), that is, the poem’s mind where writer’s mind and reader’s meet and converse, and where the poem’s design extends well beyond the writer’s limited “own way of experiencing things” (Christensen 2018, 74). (I need hardly emphasize the resonance with Duncan’s poetics here, with its stress on the poem’s intent and the poet as architect of that intent. As space permits, I will go into that a little further on.) The key for both Duncan and Christensen is the overcoming, by whatever means, of the limits of all-encompassing self-imposed purpose and signification, which means bringing the poem “into the open” of the dialogical. It is there, in the poem’s mind, that dioxin and dolphins, the dark and the light, can coexist, however ironically. The poet of course, is implicated in both. Light and dark come equally to the field we inhabit, and self-righteousness has no place, as Duncan struggled somewhat inconsistently to argue in his epistolary exchanges with Denise Levertov regarding Vietnam and poetic practice. As Duncan writes in “The Propositions,” section 3 (though I can only approximate its shifting orthography and spacing):

This is the sending out.

I see the tree.     It changes.     Mineral
         vegetable     animal.      Of generations.
It exceeds me.
And a little further along:
In the field of the poem the unexpected
         must come.
                  We wait.
                  It does not come.

There is a disturbance in the House.
I had forgotten its orders. The plants
         ask to be watered.

If we have not set things to rights,
         the indwelling
is not with us, there are no instructions. (Duncan 1960, 30)

17For Christensen, the key to opening the door, the key to the unexpected at the heart of poetry, is chance: the overheard phrase, the sudden glimpse along the path, the triggering scent, what buffets us, et al. Attention prior to intention. One must be open to chance, the unexpected, for the poem to open. Thus the paradox she embraces, of the regulating effect of chance and the necessity of chance, where in our daily rituals and habits we often try to suppress that very thing, just as some poems suppress what they do not want to hear, what they didn’t mean to say, what is not of a prescribed, or pre-inscribed, order. It is perhaps a further paradox that in Alphabet, it is the very imposition of the Fibonacci sequence upon the abecedarium that allows chance to become activated and allows the poet to sing beyond herself, to open outward, to enter the field. It is an instance of active, or generative, form, that which activates what Duncan calls “the dance before words.”

18That dance, that entryway to form and to utterance, stands directly opposed, for Duncan, to the following observation in Duncan’s “Ideas of the Meaning of Form”: “Form, to the mind obsessed by convention, is significant in so far as it shows control. What has nor rime nor reason is a bogie that must be dismissed from the horizons of the mind. It is a matter of rules and conformities, taste, rationalization, and sense. Beyond, as beyond the newly crowded Paris or London of the Age of Reason, lies the stink of shit and pestilence. Wherever the feeling of control is lost, the feeling of form is lost. The reality of men’s habits must be constricted to a realm – a court or a salon or a rationale – excluding whatever is feared.” (Duncan 1995, 23)

19In “Robert Duncan and the Invention of Childhood,” I have written at some length of Duncan’s efforts to access what Giorgio Agamben refers to as the infans, that “prior” state that remains present and undisclosed, that sea of potentialities that awaits the poet who travels freely in the simultaneous company, or along the fluid boundary, of sense and nonsense, meaning and meaninglessness. As we are swept up in the work, as Christensen notes, and as it acquires its own “rules, proportion and order,” “it comes to seem more and more necessary,” yet when it’s done, we see that it could have been different, “and to the degree that it could have been different to that degree it is random” (Christensen 2018, 147). (And here, if I hear correctly, we enter the ever-expanding, and open, Mallarméan field of the persistence, the enduring authority, and authorization or permission, of the aleatory.) For Duncan, the arriving melos offers a path toward the unheard. It is one of the spurs he employs to find the opening, to find that space in the field where beings and things become visible, and where they may be sung. There the arbitrary and the necessary converse and, if it all works out, and if the elements hold together, they find their place side by side, in harmony and contention. The irregular ballad form, to which Duncan recurs from time to time throughout his work, offers the clearest instance of the at once delimiting and liberating disclosure that poetic speech can offer in this regard. Throughout his work, of course, there are many triggers that lead to transmission, in several senses of that word, as various times and voices enfold themselves within the poet’s measures, and various echoes conjoin. These multiple threads are part of what Duncan proposes as “derivations,” and a central reason why he denies “originality” in his work. Voices and echoes and temporalities converge and merge in the streaming of the poem. It is here that we experience what Agamben calls “playland,” “that is a made place, created by light…” (Agamben 65). One must be open to its currents, its arrivals, its abrupt shifts of direction, its layerings and sudden, even random, intrusions, its silences, as chance and necessity, randomness and design, in what sometimes feels like an impossible, terrestrial multiverse. It is the dance, at the end of “The Propositions,” that Duncan, in high Romantic mode, urges the poet to move into:

O poet! if you would share my way,
come in under the law, the great Longing.
Dwell, as the guardian plant does, by appetite
at the shores of the Sun, come
         under the Moon, keep
                  secret allegiance to the out-pouring stars
                           in Night’s courts,

move into the Dance         Whose bonds men hold
         holy:         the Light

life lights in like eyes.           (Duncan 1960, 38)

20And, following from that, if indeed it follows from that, one final thought or afterword: The open of course cannot be spoken.

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Agamben, Giorgio. Infancy and History. Trans. Liz Heron. London: Verson, 1993.

Auster, Paul. The Music of Chance. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Ed. Peter Hunt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Christensen, Inger. Alphabet. Trans. Susanna Nied. New York: New Directions, 2001.

Christensen, Inger. The Condition of Secrecy. Trans. Susanna Nied. New York: New Directions, 2018.

Coolidge, Clark. Poet. Boston: Pressed Wafer Press, 2018.

Duncan, Robert. The Opening of the Field. New York: New Directions, 1960.

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

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

Duncan, Robert. The Collected Later Poems and Plays. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Berkeley: U of California P, 2013.

Gross, Ronald and Quasha, George (eds). Open Poetry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Olson, Charles. Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Palmer, Michael. “Robert Duncan and the Invention of Childhood.” Keynote Lecture, Robert Duncan Symposium. School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2010.

Rovelli, Carlo. The Order of Time. Trans. Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. London: Penguin, 2018.

Shadows and Embers. The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Rinde Eckert. Paul Dresher Ensemble Studio. April 12-14 2019.

Zukofsky, Louis. Anew: Complete Shorter Poetry. New York: New Directions, 2011.

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Michael Palmer, « Coda: The Open »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 Palmer

Born in New York City in 1943 and long resident in San Francisco, Michael Palmer’s poetry is recognized as major contribution to American letters. His many collections include At Passages (1995); The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972–1995 (1998); The Promises of Glass (2000); Codes Appearing: Poems 1979–1988 (2001); Company of Moths (2005); Thread (2011); and most recently The Laughter of the Sphinx (2016). He has translated works by Emmanuel Hocquard, Vicente Huidobro, and Alexei Parshchikov, among others, and edited Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics. For over thirty years he has collaborated with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

Né à New York en 1943, établi depuis à San Francisco, Michael Palmer est l’auteur d’une œuvre poétique de tout premier plan. Ses nombreux recueils incluent At Passages (1995); The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972–1995 (1998); The Promises of Glass (2000); Codes Appearing: Poems 1979–1988 (2001); Company of Moths (2005); Thread (2011); et plus récemment The Laughter of the Sphinx (2016). Il a traduit les œuvres de Emmanuel Hocquard, Vicente Huidobro, and Alexei Parshchikov, parmi d’autres, et a dirigé l’ouvrage Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics. Il collabore depuis plus de trente ans avec The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

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