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Legacies of Community

Kreis in Verse: Robert Duncan and the Masters in Poetics Program at New College of California

Kreis de vers : Robert Duncan et le programme de Masters of Poetics de New College of California
Nicholas James Whittington


Cet article explore l’implication de Robert Duncan dans le Masters in Poetics Program du New College of California à San Francisco dans les années quatre-vingt. Duncan y retrouva Diane di Prima, David Meltzer et Duncan McNaughton pour y créer une filière d’études se démarquant à la fois des départements de littérature traditionnels et de ceux de creative writing. La nouvelle formation se distinguait par son recours à des méthodes pédagogiques innovantes, rendues possibles grâce à l’amitié unissant les professeurs qui étaient eux-mêmes proches de leurs étudiants. Cet article prend pour point de départ les affinités phonémiques qui relient le terme allemand kreis et le vocable français crise afin de montrer comment ce cercle de poètes et d’universitaires a réussi à s’unir pour faire face à ce qu’ils percevaient comme une crise traversant le champ littéraire en raison de la professionnalisation et de l’esprit carriériste engendrés par l’émergence d’une forme d’industrie de la création littéraire (creative writing) concomitante à la dévalorisation de la poésie comme forme vitale de connaissance.

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1This paper will address a multifaceted moment of crisis in Poetry in the late 1970s that, for my purposes here, might best be identified by the rapidly accelerating institutionalization and professionalization of poetry in the United States – most obviously in the viral expansion of the Creative Writing complex over the latter half of the twentieth century – which in part moved Robert Duncan to join with a circle of like-minded and similarly inspirited poet-scholars in the fall of 1980 to inaugurate the sui generis Poetics Program at New College of California, a community of inquiry I consider to be the last poetic kreis of Duncan’s life. The Poetics Program constituted a kind of magic circle within which Duncan and company could model and enact the esoteric rites of reading and writing fundamental to their own poetics and to the transnational, transtemporal tradition of poetry with which they were in correspondence. The German kreis, of course, has an echo in the French crise, and so my title means to suggest the constitution of a circle as Robert Duncan’s response to crisis, not only in this instance, but throughout his life. Indeed, Duncan had faced a number of personal, political, and poetical crises before and, in each instance, found or formed a circle to carry on in the face of it. These earlier experiences both prefaced and informed the peculiar kreis in question here and the crise to which it responded, so before discussing the latter, a brief survey of the former seems apropos.

2As an undergraduate in the run-up to World War II, Duncan rejected the University of California’s enmeshment in the military-industrial complex, concretized by conscription in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and consequently “turn[ed] from the [broader] authority that the requirements and grades of the university or the approval of my teachers had once had over me to a new authority in the immediacy of what I had come to love,” as he recalled in The H.D. Book: “‘You don’t have to go,’ Lili commanded, raising her hand in a dramatic gesture that had been delegated its powers by the conspiracy of our company” (Duncan 2011, 64-66) It was such conspiracy of company that would carry Duncan through his early Berkeley years in the late 1930s, and it carried him through his ensuing New York years in the early 1940s, too, as he grew into his life as gay man and poet, continuing to draw strength from his Berkeley friends, while also now falling in with the circle around Anaïs Nin. Then, when he returned to Berkeley in the middle 1940s on the heels of his confrontation with John Crowe Ransom and the New Critical establishment over his landmark essay, The Homosexual in Society, he founded his first major poetic kreis, with Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, under the influence of their professor of medieval history, Ernst Kantorowicz. Kantorowicz’s prior association with the mystically-inclined literary circle of the poet Stefan George, commonly known as the George-kreis, combined with their own participation in Kenneth Rexroth’s Libertarian/Anarchist Circle, caused the three young poets to inaugurate their self-styled Berkeley Renaissance. But soon the university’s complicity and collaboration with the military-industrial complex irrupted again, now in the form of the anti-communist “Loyalty Oath,” and their refusal to sign caused the poets, their professor, and many others to be scattered, essentially spelling the end of the magical moment of Duncan’s first major kreis.

3While the realization of the Berkeley Renaissance had been predicated on the close physical proximity of its three central participants, Duncan, Spicer, and Blaser, the core four of Duncan’s second major kreis – Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov – spent precious little time together, in the flesh. Their intimacies developed largely through the mail, via letters, and in the pages of such magazines as Origin and The Black Mountain Review, and it is due to their identification with these magazines, not with Black Mountain College itself, that Donald Allen associates them with several others in his seminal 1960 anthology The New American Poetry. While this fact has been acknowledged widely enough, its significance is somewhat underappreciated, for if the crisis in part occasioning the Berkeley Renaissance in the middle 1940s had been a substantial lack of local poetic activity, inside or outside the academy, the crisis a decade later was a significant lack of publishing outlets for work that did not adhere to the dominant New Critical dictates. The geographical dispersion of this second kreis and its corresponding textual basis seems key to understanding Duncan’s poetic and pedagogical stance, throughout his life, and most especially in his last years in the Poetics Program at New College. As Olson writes in The Maximus Poems, “Letter 5,” addressing Vincent Ferrini:

A magazine does have this “life” to it (proper to it), does have streets,
can show lights, movie houses, bars, and, occasionally,
            for those of us who do live our life quite properly in print
            as properly, say, as Gloucester people live in Gloucester
you do meet someone
as I met you
on a printed page             (Olson 28)

4Duncan would “meet” some of his own most important contemporary interlocutors “on a printed page,” or in typescript or manuscript – or if he did not first meet them there, they would grow into a company, as Creeley was wont to put it, in that medium – and so the material conditions of the company of Poets in the contemporary world would correspond to the material conditions of the company of “Authors [...] in eternity,” as Duncan has it, via Blake. Both Olson and Duncan understood these at least double temporalities, double materialities, and double realities to be proper to the poet, whose responsibility, as Duncan puts it in “The Law I Love Is Major Mover,” “is to keep / the ability to respond” (Duncan 1960, 10) – and correspond – to and with one’s peers and one’s antecedents, both in the flesh and breath and in the text. The core faculty of the Poetics Program all adamantly believed, as Duncan did, that “poetry is a process poets collaborate (and participate) in rather than originate,” as Stephen Collis writes in his introduction to Reading Duncan Reading: “The poet is never single, never individual for Duncan; rather, he or she is ‘a crowd of one who writes,’ and the lyric ‘I’ is not ‘the private property of the writer’ but a form ‘in which all men may participate.’” (Collis xiii)

5The cultivation of the ability to so participate, collaborate, or respond was Duncan’s primary goal when he taught alongside Olson, ever so briefly, at Black Mountain, and when Duncan subsequently returned to San Francisco, where his Black Mountain and Berkeley Renaissance kreise overlapped and interpenetrated. Duncan joined Spicer then as dual, dueling elder-guides to a passel of younger poets at regular salon gatherings, while also orchestrating Spicer’s “Poetry as Magic” workshop and arranging a residency for Olson, both via the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, circa 1957. What critics like to call the Beat Generation had sprung up in the city, and the two poets sought to counter what seemed to be not merely an anti-academicism (as had run through the Berkeley Renaissance and Black Mountain, too), but an anti-intellectualism and correlating devaluation of poetic tradition. While Duncan would develop a number of intimate and important poetic and personal relations with the (mostly) younger poets he met at this time, nothing quite akin to the Black Mountain and Berkeley Renaissance kreise emerged, for it seems to have been more a tutelary relationship: the elder, guiding spirit holding open a space for potential protégés, to give them entrée to that tradition. Among Duncan’s younger poet-protégés then was David Meltzer, who recalled Duncan and Spicer being “the focal points Young poets like me and Joanne Kyger [...], Michael McClure, Richard Brautigan, Ebbe Borregaard, George Stanely, and Harold Dull would go and await the two maestros.” (Meltzer 2001, 204) Meltzer “became intoxicated by the dynamic between Spicer, who wanted to ‘de-rhetorize’ poetry, and Duncan, who proposed a rhetorical, lyrical verse” (Ellingham and Killian 112) but a quarter-century later, while no less intoxicated by the indefatigable polymathic synthesis of Duncan’s thought and talk, Meltzer and another longtime poetic compatriot and mentee, Diane di Prima, would join Duncan as colleagues on the core faculty of the Poetics Program at New College of California. Where they had been his students, now they were his peers, and while Robert Duncan remained, irrefutably, the star of the program, the center around which all things swirled, it was the decades-long friendships and poetic engagements he enjoyed with Meltzer, di Prima, and many others who would participate in the program as teachers and/or students that allowed the Poetics Program to erupt into the extremely idiosyncratic and rigorous program that it was.

6What made its idiosyncratic rigor and rigorous idiosyncrasy possible in the first place was, above all else, the intimacy and communitas manifest between the persons involved in the program, including many in the first cohort of students. David Levi Strauss and Carl Grundberg were both close to di Prima’s lover, Sheppard Powell, from their undergraduate years at Goddard College, and spent a great deal of time with the couple in the years immediately preceding. Similarly, Aaron Shurin had come into di Prima’s orbit a few years earlier, when his ex-boyfriend, Jackson Allen, became di Prima’s lover. Around the same time, Shurin became Duncan’s friend and lover, too. These three were joined by John Thorpe and Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who were both neighbors of McNaughton in Bolinas, California, in the 1970s, near Duncan’s and di Prima’s then-homes in Stinson Beach and Marshall, respectively, and knew the others well, in public literary and private living room contexts, Hawkins also having been married to Robert Creeley for several years. Others from the Bolinas community and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area would participate in the program, as would many from further afield who yet had close connections to the faculty and other students. This was particularly pronounced in the beginning, but continued to be true throughout the program’s first incarnation (1980-1987). For examples, Dawn-Michelle Baude was a student of Duncan’s friend Michael Davidson, Julia Connor a student of M.C. Richards, of Black Mountain, and Todd Baron a friend of Tosh Berman, son of Wallace, whose magazine Semina, the community out of which it arose, and the ethos it embodied were key for Duncan, di Prima, and Meltzer. Many other dear friends and fellow travelers would also teach in the program, including Michael Palmer, Joanne Kyger, Michael McClure, Robin Blaser, and Philip Whalen, to name just a few.

7This community of inquiry’s intimacies, intensities, and idiosyncrasies deserve much more extended consideration than it is possible to give them here, for it was not merely an unorthodox academic program with an unusual curriculum concerned with esoteric traditions of poetry, but a true kreis and perhaps the apotheosis of Duncan’s career-long cultivation of the “ability to respond.” Under Duncan’s influence and with a core faculty in complete sympathy and essential agreement with the founding intelligence of director Duncan McNaughton, the Poetics Program was an active response to the painfully apparent institutionalization and professionalization of poetry then rapidly accelerating in the United States via the viral expansion of the Creative Writing complex, a complex to which the Poetics Program was in express opposition for several reasons that I will now address.

8In the late 1940s, when the Berkeley Renaissance was getting underway, there were a mere 5 graduate programs in Creative Writing. By 1970, that number had grown to 45. Ten years later, when the Poetics Program at New College was born, there were more than 100 programs offering an MFA in Creative Writing, or something analogous. The Poetics Program, however, rejected that booming discipline, just as it rejected the academy’s more traditional mode of literary study. The Poetics Program was to be “neither a variation on ordinary graduate studies in literature, lacking students’ and faculty’s primary commitment to the vocation itself – nor [...] a glorified creative writing program, lacking a thorough, sound acquaintance with the values and knowledge of the tradition of poetry,” as McNaughton and co-founder Louis Patler wrote in their original proposal. (5) “English departments presume custody of the tradition in which they have had no hand in making,” they argued in the 1980-1981 catalog, while “creative writing naively presumes a careerist objective.” Now, as D. G. Myers wrote in his seminal study, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, the term “Creative Writing” actually “refers to two things: (1) a classroom subject, [i.e.] the teaching of fiction- and verse-writing at colleges and universities across the country; and (2) a national system for the employment of fiction writers and poets to teach the subject.” (Myers xiii) Duncan and company’s antipathy to the first thing will be addressed more fully below, but in short, the Poetics Program completely eschewed anything at all resembling the “workshop” de rigueur in Creative Writing programs across the country. “Courses of that type are not only without merit,” as the first catalog stated, “but [...] intrinsically fraught with endless potentials for disaster for anyone concerned with learning the nature of poetry.” (Myers vi) As Duncan simply put it: “It isn’t our affair what kind of poems they are [writing]; it’s our affair how they answer for their poetry.” (Planning Session Audiotape)

9As for the second thing, the faculty had no more interest in training future teachers than they did in influencing the aesthetic development of their students or fine tuning their poems. Instead, beginning “with a minimum assumption of [students’] prerogatives as working poets,” together they wanted to “address [...] the character and intentions of the tradition of poetry [...] (its practice and the knowledge transmitted within the formalities of its practice), [which] while always exoterically conditioned by the exigencies of time and locale, is never less than, in each instance or recurrence of itself, an individual esoteric science, a gnosis.” (“Proposal” 5) McNaughton and company identified Poetry “as a singular spiritual discipline whose primary embodiment is in its own art of language, and whose motives and consequences lead out to a knowledge equal in magnitude and completeness to any other [...],” as they wrote in the original program proposal: “The goal of our program is to at least demonstrate to students the outline of the esoteric tradition of poetry as we know it, and to direct students to certain crucial terms to which that tradition evinces and which is almost universally ignored, refused or adulterated within academically prejudiced situations.” (5) This tradition, seen as springing from pre-classical sources mainly in “the ancient East Mediterranean and Near East,” continued to “the immediate present” despite “the advent, history and presence today of the reasoning mind as the dominant assumption of human knowledge during the past two and one-half millennia [...]. [The Poetics Program] posits poetry and its tradition as a primordial, initial act of perception and imagination which precedes and exceeds rational discourse and reduction” (McNaughton 6).

10It is interesting to note that Creative Writing, as an academic discipline, was introduced with a seemingly sympathetic outlook. Myers writes that the discipline’s originary desire was to broaden and invigorate “an austere and uninspiring literary scholarship, obsessed with the ideal of scientific knowledge, [that] had treated literature as mere material for analysis instead of what it was – the most spiritual of subjects.” (Myers 16) By the 1920s, under the thumb of what Myers calls the “philological syndicate,” (ibid. 129) “graduate study in English had come to mean the acquisition of a research method [...] and the investigation of the history behind literature,” while “poets (and poets’ point of view) had been excluded from academic literary study. ‘The poets should be inside the universities,’ [Henry Seidel] Canby said, ‘for scholars in literature should be poets even if they never write a line of verse.’” (ibid. 127) Norman Foerster, the original director of the Iowa School of Letters, out of which the Iowa Writer’s Workshop would spring, turned “for examples of thoroughly integrated literary personalities [...] to the Renaissance humanists – Petrarch, Poliziano, Erasmus – who took ‘all of literary scholarship as their province.’” (ibid. 132) For Foerster, “the divergence of the humanists from ‘the typical scholar of the present day’ was captured [...] in the term used by the great historian Jacob Burckhardt to describe them in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1878): they were ‘poet-scholars.’” (ibid. 133) It was upon the New Humanist desire for a reintegration of the poet and the academic that the discipline of Creative Writing was built.

11“Why then does creative writing now seem like anything but this integration?” is the fundamental question that motivates Myers’s book: “In the hallways of the English department, exchanges between poets and scholars are marked by mutual hostility. The poets complain that literary study has ‘no point of contact with the concerns of most working poets’; the scholars dismiss creative writing as ‘pseudo-literature.’ The institutional situation is a far cry from what the founders of creative writing envisioned. What happened?” (ibid. 4-5) Myers’s own answer is only partial, but it initiates a line of inquiry quite apropos the Poetics Program’s vehement rejection of the MFA industry and Creative Writing complex:

In the decades following the Second World War, as the American university expanded under pressure from several different sources – the postwar demand for more democratic access, the demand for more education to compete with the Soviet Union after Sputnik, the sheer demand for more classroom space as the baby boom generation began to make itself felt in the mid-sixties – creative writing became one of the primary engines driving the expansion. It was a means for enlarging the university’s role in American society. It needed no further justification: if it was no longer undertaken for the sake of integrating literary study with literary practice, it could be pursued for its own sake – free from any other institutional responsibilities. (Myers 5)

12Though Myers does not dwell on the nefariously nationalist implications of this expansion, Eric Bennett and Juliana Spahr, among others, do. In Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War, Bennett argues that “to understand creative writing in America, even today, requires tracing its origins back to the apocalyptic fears and redemptive hopes that galvanized the postwar atmosphere [...]. The Cold War–era writers who laid the ground for a future nation of Master of Fine Arts programs [...] cared deeply about the Pax Americana, and built up their writing programs informed by that concern.” (Bennet. 4-5) Reinforcing Bennett’s study, Spahr points out, in Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment, that “the MFA is just one part of [the much larger] machine” (Spahr 149) of governmental interference in cultural production, domestically and internationally. Spahr and Bennett both trace larger patterns of instigation, “infiltration,” “harassment and recuperation” (Spahr 21) of cultural organizations, literary magazines, academic programs, conferences, and more, investigating the broad “institutionalization of culturist movements and of creative writing in higher education,” in part via overt and covert public-private “recuperative funding” (Spahr 22) partnerships, involving the likes of the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations, the State Department and various domestic governmental agencies and operatives.

13The work done by Bennett, Spahr, and those they draw on is invaluable, but despite Bennett’s claim that the “revelation,” as he puts it, “that creative writing programs played a role in the national-security establishment is [...] original to [his own] research” (Bennett 14), McNaughton and those he brought together at New College to form the Poetics Program would not have needed all the facts and figures to identify these essential patterns, or to connect them to the Creative Writing industry and MFA complex. McNaughton was briefly engaged in graduate study in Arabic at Princeton, “to study, [he] thought, Medieval Islamic philosophy and theosophy and so forth,” before recognizing that he was being trained to become “an agent of the set-up,” as he put it, to “go into the government foreign service [...], work for ARAMCO, or [...] become a college professor.” He quit, of course, “to be a poet.” (Interview 01-30-2015) Diane di Prima had been surveilled and harassed repeatedly by the FBI for her own writing, including her Revolutionary Letters, which were serialized throughout the underground press in the later 1960s and 1970s, as well as her publishing activities and theatrical productions, and her direct, material support of various revolutionary actors and actions in those years. David Meltzer, while to my knowledge never directly targeted, witnessed plenty of harassment and recuperation, infiltration, and pacification in the poetic, artistic, musical, and political countercultures of Los Angeles and San Francisco from mid-century on, and he addressed these diverse and synergetic forces throughout his work, including the essays “Patchen” (1962) and “Isla Vista Notes: Fragmentary Apocalyptic Didactic Contradictions” (1970), the unpublished Rock Tao (1965), and variously throughout the poetry, including his vital Beat Thing (2004), which make clear both the sensitivity and trenchancy of his critique. Robert Duncan’s aforementioned youthful rejection of the university’s enmeshment in the military industrial complex and his initial flirtation and final conflict with the state-sponsored New Critical establishment integral to all accounts of the development of the discipline of Creative Writing are both well known, but in respect to the Poetics Program’s rejection of the standard MFA workshop model, the latter is particularly instructive here.

14Noting that “the New Critics and the early creative writing pedagogues fed from the same abundant trough,” Bennett writes that “the New Criticism gained a high profile largely by way of funding from the philanthropic arm of Standard Oil [...], part of an extra-­institutionally supported internationalist vision for global culture under the terms of a liberal democratic capitalist American order.” (Bennett 60-63) “In the 1950s,” he continues, “anybody who was anybody published in the Kenyon, Partisan, Hudson, and Sewanee Reviews [...]. The major intellectual themes and preoccupations of the period, as formulated and promulgated by [the New Critics], attained their influence through them.” (63) On the cusp of this hegemony, in late 1943, arch New Critic John Crowe Ransom accepted the 24-year old Robert Duncan’s poem “An African Elegy” for publication in The Kenyon Review, and the poem was slated to appear in the fall 1944 issue, but Ransom reneged at the last minute after reading Duncan’s essay “The Homosexual in Society” in the August 1944 issue of Politics. Cast in the light of Duncan’s argument, the poem now seemed to Ransom “to have obvious homosexual advertisement, and for that reason not to be eligible for publication.” (Ransom to Duncan, 26 October 1944) In a 1980 interview, conducted at the outset of his New College adventure, Duncan spoke with a certain relief of these events, remarking how he had just barely “escaped being acclaimed [...]. Well, let’s call it ‘claimed’”:

I was out, just read out, out, out, at a point when I would have been in the wrong place. When the issue came out, I would have been in: Auden, Paul Goodman, Parker Tyler; I mean the place looked like it was a coffee klatch. I’m glad I wasn’t in there; I would have been read not as an advertisement but a conformist of the first water [...]. This was one of the meanings of the Black Mountain Movement: you don’t get mixed up. Think how important it was to Coleridge and Wordsworth that they weed out and that they not get mixed up with Southey. (Duncan 2012, 114-115)

15The danger of getting mixed up in the establishment, for Duncan, was that one begins “writing those poems as you’re told to write.” (ibid. 115) In this case that would mean adhering to New Critical dictates, but Duncan had a starkly antithetical view of the poem and of the poet, a view well expressed in the introduction he gave to a reading by Ransom’s ally Randall Jarrell: “He has no obsessions: he has been trained in psychology and his poetry never yields to unreal convictions [...]. Jarrell is both a poet and a university professor. In the latter profession, of course, a divine madness is not an asset. Daemonic inspirations such as Yeats or Lawrence sought, or discomforting convictions such as Williams or Pound have been limited by, are not compatible with the responsibilities of teaching in the humanities.” (Jarnot 162)

16The New Critical influence that so dominated Creative Writing’s struggle against the “philological syndicate,” as Myers calls it, hinged on the New Critics’ “search for a method that would rival the analytical rigor of science while escaping ‘the stigma that attaches to the romantic view,’ as Ransom called it – treating literature as ‘at best a heroic but childish affirmation in defiance of the most conscientious revelations of science.’” (Myers 129) The New Critical approach to “the formal properties of literature [...] refused to acknowledge meaning independent of carefully rendered form [...], insist[ing] on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the poem or story,” as Bennett puts it. (Bennett 29-30) New Critical “poetics demanded that a writer fashion a text so perfectly that it provided readers with everything they needed.” (Bennett 52-53) The New Critics attempted “to purify literature,” or “to ‘purify the world they stud[ied] by isolating it,’ as Ransom said of academic investigators in general.” (Myers 129) In isolating the poem, the story, the “creative” writing from anything that might attend that writing, e.g. literary, cultural, social, political, spiritual, and imaginal history, and at the same time from Romantic experience, all that remained was “the internal structure of poems. What all of the critics had in common, [R. P.] Blackmur said, was ‘a tendency to make the analyzable features of the forms and techniques of poetry the only means of access to poetry and somehow the equivalent of its content.’” (Myers 129-130)

17This is a far cry from the Black Mountain mantra, which Charles Olson attributed to Robert Creeley in the former’s hugely impactful essay “Projective Verse”: “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” (Olson 387) That admonition must be understood at least dually: that form should arise out of content, i.e. be extended by it, rather than be an arbitrary or conventional imposition upon it, and also that form, in turn, should extend that content, i.e. stretch it, take it further, farther. These are corollaries, not equivalences. Form and content should not be seen as co-extensive, merely, but mutually extending, and thus open ended, leading the poet and the poetry ever onward and outward, as opposed to inward toward some static crystalline perfection. The raison d’être of the workshop, as Donald Davidson said, was the “exposure of any weakness as to rhyme, meter, imagery, metaphor [...]. A poem had to prove its strength, if possible its perfection, in all its parts.” (Myers 131) “Projective Verse” on the other hand insisted on attention to “process,” to “the kinetics of the thing,” that the poet should “go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself.” Olson writes: “USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!” (Olson 387-388) The movement articulated here is not linear, i.e. logical, nor centripetal, turning inward toward some central eye of the poem, but centrifugal, as Nathaniel Mackey has put it (Paracritical Hinge 239), turning outward from that ostensible eye, which is only its beginning. This, of course, is the advantage and challenge of such work. Forever unfurling and enfolding as it does, the poem thus tends to fray as much as it may weave. To shift imperfect metaphors, if I may, for Black Mountaineers, and later New Collegiates, the poem might be likened to a room full of windows, while for the New Critics it was a room full of mirrors. The latter might be shined to perfection via the sort of creative writing workshop developed under New Critical influence, so that every facet of its “form and style” brilliantly reflects some singular pip, but the former under such treatment is likely to leave the average workshop participant stupefied by the myriad and multiplying views.

18It is the mirrored-room model of reading that accounts for Ransom’s inability, once his bigotry was aroused by Duncan’s essay, to see anything other than an invasive “abnormality” corrupting what had initially seemed a “brilliant” poem. The mirrors would have multiplied instantiations of this “abnormality” throughout, turning what might have been an acceptable, even admirable “sublimation” of the poet’s “problem,” had Ransom perceived it, into crass “advertisement,” not for the poem itself, but for a sociopolitical position, defying the New Critical “pressure to make the text successfully autonomous in its economy of symbolic meaning,” as Bennett writes: “No insignificant part of the obsession with craft, in the early writing workshops, reflected this pressure.” (Bennett 52-53) “Impure” work, i.e. work that does not endeavor to be “autonomous” in this way, cannot be accommodated by the traditional workshop, with its focus on timely production and thingly perfection, its prompts, and its deadlines for drafts, revisions, term portfolios, and thesis manuscripts. What such a focus leads to, unfortunately and all but inevitably, is the compartmentalization of the poet’s work. In this traditional workshop model, “with its provisional ceding of authority to the peer group which evaluates an unpublished work while its author, by custom, listens in squirming silence,” as Mark McGurl characterizes it in The Program Era, (5) the work is always cut off, delimited, and “ceded” in digestible, perfectible pieces to this “peer group,” or, as McGurl has it elsewhere, “the competition” (McGurl 17).

19In recent years the book length “project” has been in vogue and Modernist strategies of fragmentation, polyvocality, use of appropriated material, and other “impurities” are hardly foreign to MFA programs today, but as Bennett and Spahr note, historically, this is on account of the same forces that backed the New Critics also co-opting what were at first oppositional Modernist formal strategies in an effort of defang them. This oft articulated primary opposition between the dominant New Critical model and the alternative Modernist example – which most poets subsumed under the New American Poetry label followed – was about both form and content. If the New Critics and their acolytes wanted to “isolate” and “purify” the world of the poem, the Modernists and their heirs wanted to do precisely the opposite. They wanted to adulterate it, or rather reify its always already adulterated reality. As has often been said, if the New Critics were nationalists, the Modernists were internationalists, and their formal strategies reflected these differences. However, as Bennett notes, via Greg Barnhisel’s Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy:

The writing classes at Iowa and Stanford [...] embraced for the most part only the formal radicalism of modernism, doing as Barnhisel argues Perspectives USA did, “redefining modernism as being characterized primarily by style, not by subject matter: in directing modernism away from its often collectivist/Utopian origins and toward bourgeois individualism; in transforming modernism from an avant-garde, oppositional movement to a style that could be comfortably embraced by diverse spheres of elite culture in the U.S.; and in constructing a coalition of elites that accepted and endorsed modernism as America’s high culture and that linked, however implicitly, modernism to the mission of the U.S. national-security establishment.” (Bennett 24)

20Juliana Spahr rather lackadaisically lumps the New American poets in with this recuperated “national American modernism” (Spahr 113), seeming to conflate the anthology, The New American Poetry, with the New American poetry at large, which I think is quite a bit less nation-oriented than she gives it credit for in her brief remarks, but she does name Charles Olson and Robert Duncan as two New American poets who “attempt to represent something other than a U.S. landscape, include languages other than English, or attempt to think about global culture (rather than national culture)” (Spahr 113). The Olson-Duncan, i.e. Black Mountain, strain of the New American poetics was indeed deeply involved in “other than national” thinking, to borrow Spahr’s phrase (76), and it was this strain of the New American poetics that most influenced the Poetics Program at New College of California. The poets who taught in the Program were all USAmericans – with only two or three visiting poets as exceptions – writing in the wide vein of the New American poetry, and significant attention was paid at New College to the work of other USAmerican poets also writing in that wide vein, along with their Objectivist, Modernist, and Romantic predecessors. At the same time, the Poetics Program’s curriculum was distinctly “other than national,” placing this whole USAmerican tradition in its international, transnational, pre-national, or again, more broadly, “other than national” and transtemporal context. The English-language tradition, of which the USAmerican was part, was seen in turn as part of a wider “European” tradition – contemporary, Post-Modern, Modernist, Romantic, Medieval, Classical, Pre-Classical – which was seen as part of an even wider Mediterranean tradition, with mystical Jewish, Islamic, Gnostic, heretical Christian, and Pagan constituents also placed in conversation with diverse African cosmologies – most notably the Dogon – and indigenous traditions of the occupied land now known as the United States and the Americas at large. It is here, not only in its eschewal of anything at all akin to a Creative Writing workshop in favor of the intensive study of actual traditions in poetry, and not only in the “other than national” scope of these traditions, but in its ecumenical insistence on the spiritual base and esoteric aspects of the art – embracing the “divine madness [...], daemonic inspirations [...], [and] discomforting convictions” Duncan faulted the New Critics for rejecting – that the New College Poetics curriculum most stands out from any other.

21Though the Poetics Program was not, in fact, created explicitly to give Duncan a place to teach, as has sometimes been implied – there was much afoot before he agreed to join the program, and it would have happened, albeit quite differently, no doubt, had he declined – his influence on the pedagogical ethos and actual curriculum of the program was profound, insisting on deep and wide reading in an effort to elaborate extensive poetic lineages, while also conducting intricate investigations of individual poems, even demanding that his own students learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and apply it in their analyses. He also endeavored to weave much of the material being taught concertedly by others into his synthetic elocutionary jags, and it was an endeavor of which he was more than capable, having himself introduced Meltzer and di Prima to the fields in which they taught at New College.

22In the planning process for the program, each faculty member was supposed to chair one semester and help define the basic parameters of subjects for the others to teach, but Diane di Prima later recalled how her attempt to do so backfired, in a manner of speaking, in an early curriculum-planning conversation with Duncan: “I said, ‘Robert, I think you should do a course that covers nonorthodox threads of thought in the West, maybe from the caves to the present. Give us a sense of continuity, how it all relates to one another, Gnosticism and the heresies and this and that.’ He said, ‘I think you’re supposed to teach that, dear.’ I said, ‘Robert, I don’t know anything about it.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s why we teach, isn’t it?’” And so, as she put it, “he trapped me into a whole field of study” (Meltzer 2001, 17-18). The next several years of di Prima’s teaching would be dominated by what she casually referred to as “the history of heresy.” Officially titled “Hidden Religions in the Poetry of Europe: The Continuity of the Gnosis,” the subject was described in the first catalogue thus:

We are the inheritors of an unbroken tradition whose roots are lost in antiquity, and which has always stood outside the orthodoxies of Christianity, Islam, Judaism. In historic times it manifests in the Manicheans, the Gnostics, the “heretics” of the Christian era: Anabaptists, Hussites, Cathars, etc. It came into its own during the early period of European tantra (11th-13th century) in the Love Courts, the written Kabbalah and the Grail myths, and it blossomed in the renaissance concept of the Magus as lived by Bruno, Dee, Paracelsus. This way of seeing the world continued through the dark age of Reason and came into prominence again in the 19th century: both in popular “occult” fiction and in the latter-day secret societies that are the inheritors of the oral traditions. This body of experience has served as source for much of the poetry and art of the world, and produces its own resonances in us even when we are unaware of the reason. We will seek to trace the ancient gnosis in the literature and art of Europe and bring it more fully into conscious recognition. (Catalog 1980-1981)

23Having seriously studied such subjects since the early 1960s, her claim not to “know anything about” all this was not quite accurate. Nonetheless, di Prima felt that she was a novice, and this is important. Most anyone would feel abashed when confronted with Duncan’s own erudition and facility, but instead of being intimidated, di Prima was encouraged. The personal and poetic trust these persons had for one another seemed to invite them into the eternal novitiate of one another’s company, and Duncan was the model of indefatigable, lifelong learning, through his own teaching and auditing others’ classes, as well. Matt Haug recalled Duncan being one of just four students one semester in David Meltzer’s signature class of the Kabbalah, sharing his “homework” with the others as they shared with him (Interview 08-05-2018). According to classmate Scott Thompson, Duncan said he’d sworn never to formally “study” Kabbalah until he could do so in Jerusalem, but he’d been visited in a dream and been instructed to take Meltzer’s class, and so there he was (6-27-2020), not to oversee his own student’s teaching, but to participate in a collective inquiry into a subject to which he had introduced that student more than a decade earlier.

24As Meltzer told the story, Duncan used to come into the Discovery Book shop in San Francisco’s North Beach, where Meltzer worked in the late 1960s, to browse and to use the facilities; and one day, Duncan came storming out of the water closet, waving a book in the air, irate that someone should have left such an important book on the back of the toilet. So it was that Duncan introduced Meltzer to the work of Gershom Scholem and the study of the Kabbalah, which dominated his thinking throughout the 1970s and became the foundation of his teaching in the 1980s. Meltzer had no hesitation about introducing such an esoteric subject in this context, but if he had, he would have been reassured by Duncan’s insistence, at a March 1980 curriculum planning session caught on tape, that Meltzer “[come] in on [his] home ground” of the Kabbalah,

because [...] there’ll be places where you see it changing [into] a poetics, so you show how a body of ideas that has nothing to do with poetry when it’s proposed [can be used] [...]. This in a way stands for the Tradition, it stands for the part that [students] are used to, called Literature, and how do ideas affect poetry – but we go the other way around, we ask how does poetics immediately find itself, find its content, in advancing material [...]. (Planning Session)

25Later, in the program’s second catalog, Duncan would add that “ciphering and deciphering go back to primary biological functions of reading the environment in trial and error toward vividness and depth in life-time and life-space, toward resonance,” so that Kabbalistic “ideas and encounters with the letters of the alphabet itself [...] lead back to the primary religious ground that is suggestive indeed in relation to [...] the field of Poetics” (“Why Poetics?”). “It should be conceived as a model, how you can go thoroughly through a set of a tradition [...], so they can identify, within a tradition, heresies and so forth, and they’re prepared to go through Catholic Christology, or anything else they want to do. Buddhism. Mickey Mouse.” (Planning Session)

26Speaking to another of his classes, Meltzer echoed Duncan’s admonition to di Prima about “why we teach”:

I’d like to explain to you (as well as myself) how inseparable teaching/learning is from any other real or imagined work or play I signify in my life as “creative.” Often enough to have its own truth we hear the standardized opera or operetta whose male or female center mask is a writer or poet or artist who teaches (as we ironically spell it) “for a living,” losing touch, with the creative continuum and becoming empty inside, Eliot’s “hollow man” metaphor made real. What is implied is that teaching is not creating. Or that creating is not teaching. If it isn’t, then “teaching” as a word takes on the dense weight of a darkness-exploding bouquet, petals or pages of sad and sinister meanings. I teach because I want to learn. I teach because I want to know always more about those subjects I teach. I do not teach “subjects.” We are all “subjected” too much. Actually, I’m not really a teacher because I am always learning what it is I’m teaching. (Meltzer 2020, 43)

27For the Poetics faculty, teaching / learning was as thoroughly poetical as reading/writing, the only difference being, perhaps, the condition of the company: silent, on the page, in the latter case; aloud, in the flesh, in the former. It did not matter, ultimately, who was the “teacher” and who the “student,” only that they were engaged in a learning experience together. As Meltzer said, “I distrust hierarchies.” (“Lecture Notes” 43) The official classroom setting was immaterial. They might just as well have been sitting around a living room, and indeed, in many other instances they were. Diane di Prima taught all of her classes not at the college, but in her own home or a studio rented from a friend, and moreover, as David Levi Strauss wrote, in the course of the first year in the program:

It became increasingly clear that there wasn’t enough time to do everything we needed to do during class time, so various groups spun off, meeting outside in people’s homes. When the semester ended, we were still utterly absorbed in the Duino Elegies in Michael Palmer’s class, so we moved the class from New College to Michael’s living room and continued to read. There were always little groups spinning out of David Meltzer’s classes, to read the Zohar or practice Hebrew Calligraphy…. Other groups were planned, to read poems in Spanish, Japanese, Hebrew. (Strauss, unpublished mss.)

28As Dan Blue wrote, “[Duncan] was forever starting clubs: a Homer group, a Pindar group, a group reading Finnegans Wake. While he often would attend their meetings, Robert did not preside. These were conceived as opportunities for students; if Robert joined, it was strictly inter pares. Yet I cannot but help see it as particularly RD that he would take an act – reading – which many consider almost erotically private and suggest we do it as a collective.” (Blue, unpublished mss.) No matter the size of the group, where it met, whether it was technically a class or not, it was constituted as a collective of persons whose relations were not merely collegial, but familial. In their overlapping capacities as students, student-workers, free-lance laborers, friends, and lovers, Poetics Program affiliates also acted as faculty members’ research and personal assistants, gardeners, babysitters, chauffeurs, and more. It was a community, as any community of persons, but a peculiar community based most fundamentally upon a common inquiry into the ways and means of the poem, and the life of the poet, so the boundaries and “hierarchies” of the average academic arrangement did not apply. What was asked of students was not that they become well-versed in the extant secondary critical literature. In fact they were dissuaded from doing so, being encouraged instead to approach the verse itself directly and to perform a kind of “personal spiritual exegesis,” to use McNaughton’s terms, heavily inflected by “[Henri] Corbin’s study of the ta’wil of the Muslim spirituals. In the context of procedures of certain Muslim theosophies, ta’wil forms with tanzil a pair in contrariety. Tanzil denotes the literal religion, the letter of the Revelation; ta’wil translates the Greek exegesis and is taken to designate a spiritual procedure which begins, but does not culminate, with the Revelation’s letter.” (McNaughton xxxx) It leans on that “perception by the heart which the Sufis term ‘inner taste’ (dhawq)” of “the true knowledge of things [...] inaccessible to the intellect.” (McNaughton xxvii).

29Lest there be any doubt, this demanded they perform extremely rigorous and intricate readings, readings exceeding even the notorious “close readings” of the New Critics, not in spite of the refusal to isolate the technical and material aspects of the poem from any other, but because of this refusal, because of an insistence on treating the poem’s formal, physical properties as an alembic, so to speak, positing the text of the poem and the multifarious contexts of its being written and read as communicating vessels. In light of this, the infamous “Poetry Wars” of these years, over the course of which various writers associated with so-called Language Writing ascended to positions of power and influence in avant-garde poetry circles and ultimately the academy, seems a new turn in the ongoing struggle against that stranglehold of academicism and scientism the New Critics were so instrumental in strengthening after Creative Writing’s original disciplinary dalliance with a spiritual base and in the face of Modernist celebrations of the “spirit of romance,” as Pound put it – though the Language Writers were in no way aesthetically or politically allied with the New Critics, of course. Many affiliated with the Poetics Program did bemoan the seemingly “corporate” exclusiveness of the Language group, as such, (Strauss, 7-1-2017) and there were a number of significant personal and poetical conflicts between members of the two factions, which have been explored amply elsewhere, but alliances and oppositions were “all fluid,” as Norma Cole put it (7-24-18). It must be stressed that in no way were Duncan and company opposed to including in the study of poetics the contemporary critical and linguistic theory that formed the ideological base of much Language Writing. Indeed, not only did McNaughton invite a number of writers often associated with the Language group to teach courses and give readings under the auspices of the Poetics Program, but others on the faculty, Duncan, Palmer, and Meltzer, especially, explicitly engaged many of their favored theoretical texts in their own courses. What the core faculty of the Poetics Program opposed was excluding the prophetic, visionary, mystical, imaginal, and romantic aspects of the poem. As Duncan said in a 1982 interview:

One of the most interesting and coherent movements [...] is the Language poets. And I find them reductionists [...]. I usually quip, you start out with logical positivism and you end up with illogical negativism. All sorts of things that are ruled out in language: it can’t refer and so forth. So language is turned over to a kind of logic. I’m never illogical, but I’m never logical, for in my head logic is zero – zilch. I’m a poet, not a logician [...]. The Language group has set logical rules on their language. And I see them not merely as being reasonable or rational, but as rationalizing. They set their premises, and then they rationalize what language should do, so now there is depreciation, because they begin to rule out subjects. That is, they rule out that language really can’t express love, really can’t express emotions, and can’t have subjects. Well, I think you see the absurdity. What they really say is it shouldn’t, because it obviously can [...]. Their rules are clean lines, shouldn’t have – shouldn’t go overboard, you shouldn’t be [...]. So proprieties show up. (Duncan 2012, 261)

30The determination of what is and is not “proper” has long been one of the academy’s self-assigned duties, but, while not entirely indecorous, Duncan and company abhorred “proprieties,” so in the face of the ever-expanding influence of the university-based Creative Writing complex, in the midst of the broader Culture Wars then being waged – a scant month into the program’s first term, Reagan was elected to the Presidency – to witness the ascendance of a new poetic avant-garde that also seemed predicated on such exclusion was perhaps too much. This multifaceted moment of poetic crisis required a new kreis to counter it, without “careerist objectives.” They came together not to get or give degrees – few students actually graduated from the program in its initial incarnation – but to inquire collectively into their poetic inheritance, to define their poetic lineage, to do the groundwork necessary to grow their own poetics. As Lisa Jarnot writes, “on more than one occasion, Robert Duncan told friends that at an appointed time he would become a ‘master teacher,’ even if it meant standing on a street corner and imparting information to passersby.” (389) When that appointed time arrived, New College offered a platform far more suitable than a street corner, and McNaughton surrounded him with a set of colleagues who could not have been more simpatico and supportive, so Duncan gave himself completely to this communal endeavor. “I always felt,” Meltzer said, “that actually was life-sustaining for him [...]. It really kept him going in a very positive way” (1-23-15). Even as his health failed and his writing slowed, as Susan Thackrey recalled, Duncan “went on teaching, until one day at midmorning break he stopped and his public poetics of instruction stopped also” (Thackrey 1989). While Duncan’s late poetry has received increasing critical attention since the 2006 conference at Buffalo, “(Re:)Working the Ground” and resultant 2011 volume of the same title, edited by James Maynard, the Poetics Program at New College, in which Duncan not only taught, but in many ways through which he lived late in life, deserves much more attention from Duncan scholars than it has received. I have tried to at least begin to address that relative neglect, briefly here, and more substantively in my just-completed dissertation, not by focusing exclusively on Duncan’s part in the play, but by considering the entire community of inquiry, as I’ve come to call it. It seems, too, that those of us currently developing our own poetics of instruction, be they exercised under the auspices of departments in Creative Writing or not, could only benefit from a closer look at its completely unorthodox and, to this day, sui generis approach.

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Nicholas James Whittington, « Kreis in Verse: Robert Duncan and the Masters in Poetics Program at New College of California »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicholas James Whittington

University of California, Santa Cruz
Nicholas James Whittington is a poet, scholar, educator, editor, printer, and publisher living in Oakland, CA since 2012. Born and raised in San Francisco, he continues to edit and publish the serial AMERARCANA along with the occasional small book under the auspices of his family bookshop, Bird & Beckett Books, while completing his dissertation at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on the original incarnation of the Masters in Poetics Program at New College of California. He is co-editor of the anthology, Roots And Routes: Poetics at New College of California (Vernon Press 2020), and his own poems appear here and there, including the small books Indefinite Sessions (Gas Meter 2016), Provisions (PUSH 2017), and Resolution of the West (Bootstrap Press 2020). At Impart Ink, an errant studio, he designs, typesets, and prints books both digitally and via letterpress (

Nicholas James Whittington écrit, étudie, enseigne, édite et publie à Oakland, Californie, depuis 2012. Originaire de San Francisco, il poursuit la publication sérielle de la collection AMERICANA ainsi que d’autres volumes dans la maison d’édition familiale, Bird & Beckett Books, tout en menant à bien, à UC Santa Cruz, ses recherches doctorales, qu’il consacre à la version originelle du Masters in Poetics Program au New College of California. Il a co-édité l’anthologie Roots And Routes: Poetics at New College of California (Vernon Press 2020), et ses propres poèmes ont été publiés notamment dans Indefinite Sessions (Gas Meter 2016), Provisions (PUSH 2017) et Resolution of the West (Bootstrap Press 2020). Avec Impart Ink, il imagine, fabrique et imprime des livres au format numérique ou papier (

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