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Revelation, Not Revolution: Queer Poetry’s Political Life, as Read through Robert Duncan’s Late Anarchism

Révélation et non révolution : la vie politique de la poésie queer, lue à travers l’anarchisme tardif de Robert Duncan
Eric Keenaghan


Robert Duncan, poète américain homosexuel, avait des relations conflictuelles et souvent contradictoires avec la libération gay et les questions politiques liées à l’identité sexuelle. Néanmoins, ses idées sur la centralité de l’érotisme dans l’art poétique pourraient nous aider à repenser le potentiel et les limites de la poésie pour faire face aux crises qui affectent et déshumanisent les personnes queer aujourd’hui.

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1Robert Duncan’s 2019 centenary coincided with the semicentennial of the Stonewall uprising in New York City, which is popularly believed to mark the start of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) liberation. A half-century has elapsed since that fateful event which precipitated a movement to overturn systemic heterosexism, patriarchy, and white supremacism. Yet, the anticipated revolution never arrived. Gender and sexual nonconforming persons continue to be policed and are targets for hate crimes, even in the United States. In parts of the world, our lives and loves are still illegalized. Given Duncan’s own reputation as a homosexual poet and a self-described anarchist, the example of his work and life is worth revisiting now, as some wonder what role, if any, poetry has in LGBTQ+ persons’ and communities’ confrontations with various contemporary crises.

2As I argue in my earlier essay “Robert Duncan’s Radical Humanism” (2011), much of his writing’s value owes to how his addresses of crises, generally, force the recalibration of readers’ politico-ethical imaginaries. By setting out to poetically trouble readers’ senses of self, he “compels the withdrawal of their support for progressivist, atomistic, and exclusivist understandings of selfhood” (Keenaghan 2011, 126). His poetry can shake readers’ confidence in prevalent neoliberal imaginaries rooted in privacy, identity, and national exceptionalism. Such an invaluable gift for poetic crisis-conjuring results from how Duncan treats love and eroticism as a mode of dispossession, a vehicle for what I have called his “queerly universalizing project” of extracting oneself from neoliberal formations in order to surrender to a grander human commonality (Keenaghan 2009, 91). The coincidence of the momentous anniversaries of Stonewall and Duncan’s birth affords an opportunity to explore further how queerness factors into this aesthetic and ethical project by putting Duncan’s lived relationship to LGBT+ activists’ revolutionary ambitions into conversation with his own biographical anarchism. He rejected revolutionary rhetoric and moved instead toward a revelatory metaphysics, a move reminiscent of those made recently by leftist political philosophers who unexpectedly embrace idealism and metaphysics in the face of past revolutionary efforts’ failures.

Beyond personal politics: Duncan’s ambivalence about poetry’s relation to gay liberation

3Beginning with “The Homosexual in Society” (1944), the first signed American essay on the author’s own sexuality and art, Duncan refused to closet his sexuality. He also did not hide his life partnership begun in the 1951 with the visual artist Jess (born Burgess Collins), as other midcentury queer writers did. Both Duncan and Jess even transformed their household into a shared, explicit motif in their artwork, a queer “trope of public domesticity” that troubled the gender line dividing the feminine private and masculine public spheres in the cold war United States (Keenaghan 2009, 101). Despite openly admitting his own same-sex desires and relationships, Duncan’s personal relationship to sexual politics and identity was fraught. Indeed, though “The Homosexual in Society” often is anthologized and celebrated for its sexual self-disclosure, the essay’s premise actually is that homosexual identity ought not provide the basis for creative life. No social category could. “[O]nly one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations,” he writes. “To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, churches, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance” (Duncan 2014, 11, original emphasis). Duncan’s faith in accessing human commonality through disaffiliation, bypassing all forms of social identification.

4Despite such a universalizing vision, Duncan did not necessarily equate the human with the natural. That would be a mistake. As Judith Butler reminds when writing of transgender rights, understandings of the human operate through exclusionary norms which fail to recognize nonconforming gender identities and desires and thus discount them as irreal. Invisibilized, “they have not been admitted into the terms that govern reality” (Butler 31). Duncan’s universalist vision was constructionist. Through his poetry, he aspired to imagine and move toward a wholly new reality, a new cosmogony altogether unfettered by identity of any kind. Thus, even the idea of the human is a mere potential, not an actuality, for it is re-created and manifest through artwork. As he wrote in the decade leading up to Stonewall when reflecting on the power of art, as demonstrated by Paul Cézanne’s Impressionist challenges to realism, “in this new medium, in a new light, ‘man’ and ‘environment’ both are made up” (Duncan 2011, 168).

5Although he disavowed identity politics and self-expressive poetics, Duncan was celebrated in the gay literary culture that emerged alongside post-Stonewall sexual liberation movements. This milieu imbued poetry with a great deal of political significance. “Poetry in these early post-Stonewall years defined and transfigured the moment,” historian and former gay liberationist Michael Bronski noted upon Stonewall’s semicentennial. “Poetry [...] became the lingua franca of the movement and of the larger gay community” (Bronski). Duncan’s own work was collected in the first gay anthology, Ian Young’s The Male Muse (1970), as well as in Winston Leyland’s later Angels of the Lyre (1975). Like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, John Wieners, and Harold Norse, he gave an extensive interview for Leyland’s liberation magazine Gay Sunshine in the late 1970s. Gay Liberation Front (GLF) periodicals printed articles on gay poetry and reviews of gay anthologies that lauded his work. Gay writers and critics positioned “The Homosexual in Society,” especially, as a trailblazing piece. Fag Rag, an activist publication affiliated with Boston’s GLF chapter and with which Bronski was affiliated, republished the essay in 1973, along with an unsigned preface introducing Duncan as “one of America’s gayest and greatest poets” (Fag Rag Collective 3). The reprinting probably was made upon the urging of Wieners, Duncan’s former student and a member of the activist collective.

6The Fag Rag editors touted Duncan’s essay as “prophetic” of gay liberation, “a neglected part of our historical heritage” that they valued partly “because it raises issues so unresolved today” (ibid.). Those issues included liberationists’ disagreements about the value of minoritized identities and camp subculture. Some radicals advocated a version of what is now called the deconstructive queering of fixed sexual and gender roles, both heteronormative and LGBT+. They feared that minority recognition risked ghettoizing gender and sexually nonconforming persons, setting them apart from mainstream society. If that happened, systemic revolution would be impossible. A liberalist agenda, based on tolerance and acceptance of difference, would supplant real change. “And now I will tell you what we want, we radical homosexuals: not for you to tolerate us, or to accept us, but to understand us. And this you can do only by becoming one of us,” GLF cofounder and poet Martha Shelley wrote in her breakthrough manifesto “Gay Is Good” (1970) (Shelley 6). Such understanding, of “our kind of love, to hunger for your own sex,” emerges when heterosexist and heteronormative Americans cease to cling to their insulating and divisive identities and instead claim some degree of same-sex desire (not necessarily “homosexual” identity) (Shelley 6). For Shelley, the Fag Rag Collective, and similarly minded radicals, identity logics inhibited solidarity amongst LGBTQ+ persons and with their straight counterparts, thereby prohibiting truly revolutionary systemic change.

7In the years immediately following Stonewall, “coming out of the closet” was not an expression of a fixed, private gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender identity, as the phrase often is understood today. Instead, it was a political enunciation of opposition to a system of sexism and fixed gender and sexual roles, whose policing perpetuated oppressions ranging from homophobia to white supremacism to imperialism to the military-industrial-prison complex. “Gay liberation,” activist Allen Young wrote in 1972, has “the goal of sexual liberation for all” and would allow everyone to “experiment with new ways of relating,” sexually and not sexually (Young 25, 30). However, even a year later, when Duncan’s anti-identitarian treatise was republished, an increasingly liberalist, reformist spirit began to supplant liberationists’ radicalism. Many activists turned toward minoritarian identity politics. Divisions split LGBTQ+ groups and communities from within, as supposedly fixed identity lines defined political agendas according to subgroups’ self-interest. By the end of the decade, as liberation transmuted into reformism and competing equality campaigns, liberal visibility led to the emergence of new market niches. An assimilationist homonormativity emerged. Activists clung to an old order and merely changed the definitions of social identities, rather than actively, desiringly, and dynamically reimagine humanity and the very need for identity categories in the future.

8While East Coast activists and writers recognized how Duncan’s universalism forecast a vision of liberationist transformation, some younger gay writers and activists in the California Bay Area expressed reservations about the revolutionary potential of his poetics. James Mitchell, for one, recalls how, circa 1968 and 1969, unlike Allen Ginsberg or even the deceased Frank O’Hara, “Duncan didn’t impress young people,” either politically or poetically. “[N]obody liked him much, his was just a whole different vocabulary, let’s say. We felt ourselves more modern than that” (Mitchell). Perhaps it was more difficult for local activist-poets to overlook how Duncan distanced both his work and his person from revolutionary liberation politics. He even rejected the political and positional term “gay,” unless it proved beneficial for him. For instance, in 1974, he told the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate that he was not a “gay poet” (Duncan 2012, 175). Yet, the same interview opens with his commentary about the free classes on gay literature he was offering at the headquarters of the Society for Individual Rights, a local homophile political organization. “Young [gay] poets coming along had no measure for their expression […]. You had a lot of sexual expression and great poverty in emotional expression and, certainly, in passional expression” (Duncan 2012, 174). Gay men were writing lots of sexy poems about desiring and fucking other men. But human emotion, especially truly unsettling passion that could challenge one’s sense of stable selfhood, was absent. Sexual behavior was openly represented for shock value, to secure an identification with a minority community already relegated to the margins. As Duncan saw it, not only was there no attempt to imagine a new future course that would liberate all human love and desire. These self-expressive gay poets also willfully alienated themselves from the existing human order.

9Duncan thought he could intervene to define a tradition of gay writing and poetics, one that would work in queering imaginaries of human desire. His prescriptive and prohibitive pedagogical control might make the new generation better gay poets than it would have been without his mentorship. If activists veered away from his vision for what gayness should—not could—be, Duncan protested. He became “furious,” as publisher Raymond Foye recalls about Duncan’s response to the Fag Rag Collective’s publication of Wieners’ campy project Behind the State Capitol, or Cincinnati Pike (1975) (Foye qtd. in Dunn 43). That volume is far removed from the sort of Keatsian lyricism, anchored in Negative Capability, in Wieners’ first two books, which Duncan had once praised as inspiring his “awe and love” (Duncan 1965, 598). Behind the State Capitol just left him cold. He felt that the GLF had exploited Wieners’ mental illness and was “destroying his reputation” by publishing lesser poetry, mere agitprop and confessional sexual verse, albeit fragmentary and superficially experimental collage, akin to what often appeared in movement periodicals (Foye qtd. in Dunn 43). As Michael Bronksi recollects about gay liberation poetry, “Anyone could write a poem; the act itself was an expression of selfhood and freedom” (Bronski). While that democratic quality of versifying made the form attractive to activists, for Duncan that attitude was exactly the problem. Anyone could write a poem, but that didn’t mean they understood how writing is itself a desiring act, disruptive rather than expressive of selfhood.

Personalist anarchism: Refiguring the politics of queerness in Duncan’s poetics

10Duncan thematizes his conflicted feelings about gay political culture in “An Alternate Life,” a serial poem composed between 1976 and 1978 that opens his final collection, Ground Work: In the Dark (1987). Throughout the sequence, he wrestles with his sex drive as an aging man and with his infidelities to Jess. In the series’ second part, “Homecoming,” during a memory of his “first session of talking in French,” Duncan seems self-aware and confronts the emotional toll of his personal struggles in a language “I do not know to speak” (Duncan 2014a, 648, 649). By staging a confessional, he poetically admits his individual transgressions and feelings. It is an aberrant moment, considering that, around the same time in “The Self in Postmodern Poetry” (1983, based on a 1979 talk), he had described writing as a practice “where the ego is banished from the work, or, rather, is commanded to lose itself in the work” (Duncan 2014a, 407). Rarely does his person enter a late poem so baldly as in this poem, especially when addressing his own sexual history.

11“An Alternate Life” still strives to offer a generalized, impersonal testament about generations, though. La politique des vieux […] / C’est leur vengeance contre la vie,” Duncan writes. Old men’s politics, their vengeance against life. The next line reformulates that sentiment: “ – la vengeance de la Vie contre ma vie – ” (Duncan 2014b, 648). The vengeance of Life against my life, as if he has been betrayed by Life itself in tying his person to a past generation’s political ideologies. The poem continues:

Et moi,           je suis maintenant
            dans le foyer de cet âge.’

For Time has come into a new age. (Duncan 2014b, 649)

12When read as personal lyric, this passage’s significance is simple: nearing sixty, with Stonewall almost a decade past, Duncan finds himself a homosexual man on the cusp of old age. But that is just part of the story. For he also is a midcentury anarchist, caught between one sociopolitical order and the next. Duncan was generationally removed from gay activists and poets, a fact affecting how he interpreted the liberationists’ increasingly identitarian, though initially radically coalitional and systemically transformative, politics.

13The personal politics in “cet âge,” in the 1970s, were distinct from, yet related to, the anarchism of Duncan’s generation. During his early career in the 1930s and 1940s, he had been attracted to what was called personalist anarchism. Critic James Gifford, who examines Duncan’s early connections to a transnational network of anarchist thinkers and artists, finds such personalism as evident in that generation of anarchist artists’ “general tendency to avoid creating movements or schools, their politics of the unpolitical [a concept introduced by Herbert Read], and their aesthetic emphasis on the experience of the individual” (Gifford xi). Gay and lesbian liberation ideals had similar anarchist overtones, with sociopolitical philosophies – such as communalism, insistence on individual freedom, and critiques of the church and the state – that owed partly to individual GLF and Radicalesbian activists’ lived connections to anarchist collectives like the Diggers (Cornell 275). This ethos provided “a site at which main features of the broad 1968 movement came together and overlapped,” bringing together facets of the cultural and lifestyle revolution with the New Left’s political one (Brown 818). The resultant personal politics fomented a willful sense of self-determination and self-expression, informed by one’s “personal practice of moral beliefs,” qualities already established as antithetical to Duncan’s poetics (Farrell 7).

14Unlike later exponents of personal politics, Duncan, like other anarchist personalists of his generation, distrusted the sort of absolutist sovereignty New Leftists adhered to. He was suspicious of the very ideas that individuals could exercise absolute autonomy and that individual moral codes could exist. He also rejected the idea that any community, whether minority or national, could be fully realized, with its members’ identities transparent and self-evident. Instead his personalism was predicated upon a notion of universalizing commonality, what Andrew Weaver terms the “moral basis” of Duncan’s worldview, an ethos “connect[ing] his political (socialism, anarchism), philosophical, and mystical interests into a rather organic whole” (Weaver 77). Duncan’s assemblage poetics reflect that whole, by poetically actualizing, “a community of voices, a community of knowledge” (Weaver 78). Such community is not a given, represented as it is by the artwork; instead, it is a potential or an ideal toward which one must continually work. Mande Zecca finds in anarchists’ elegies from the 1940s evidence of how personalism exists in “tension” with what she calls “prefigurative anarchism” (Zecca 92). The latter concept “implies a particular temporality of aspirational struggle in which the decisions, encounters, and relationships that structure the daily life of a community are made to approximate the political ideals previously imagined possible only after the revolution” (Zecca 92). One acts and writes as if the ideal exists amidst the day’s realities, even though it is still merely a potential. Poetic representations of present troubles capture a “fragile and contingent” political ideal, prefigured by past theorizations (Zecca 95). Personalist anarchist writings of past and present crises thus elegiacally evoke a hitherto unrealized future and introduce a “messianic” moment of possibility (Zecca 95). We might imagine a poem as punching a hole in the fabric of social space-time, in an attempt to access, just on the other side, the promise of an imagined but hitherto unrealized community.

15Recently, political philosophers have similarly theorized how imaginatively engaging a trouble-ridden present “allows a virtuality to emerge that did not already exist in (past) time” (Avanessian 82). Several posit poetry is fundamental to “a pre-political process” of “[c]hanging reality-settings” (Campagna 7). Much of poetry’s strength owes to its congress with metaphysics, “[t]he ineffable dimension of existence […] which cannot be captured by descriptive language, and which escapes all attempts to put it to work – either in the economic series of production, or in those of citizenship, technology, science, social roles and so on” (Campagna 10). As Franco Berardi puts it, “Poetry reopens the indefinite, through the ironic act of exceeding the established meaning of words” (Berardi 2018, 32). Such reopening entails a negotiation with the present’s contingencies and conditions. That fact precludes the writer’s or readers’ sovereign action. “The future states of the social world,” Berardi writes elsewhere, “are not the linear effect of political will, but the result of infinitely complex relations and conflicts and mediations” (Berardi 2017, 14). Ironically, the contingent and mediated nature of opening a future, by rending the fabric of the past to liberate its unrealized potential, often causes one to confront one’s own impotence. But Berardi asserts, “I do not identify impotence as powerlessness” (ibid. 41). Power inheres in the possibility we may be liberated, imaginatively, from semiocapitalism’s increased policing of identity, language, and meaning. We feel impotent because we just do not know, definitively, how to tap that power. But in rejecting present oppressions we also negate all recognizable, fixed markers of community to reveal potentially empowering imaginaries. “The presence of the remaindered others disrupts identitarian logics” and reveals the only positive entities to be solidarity and comradeship (Dean 55). These generic ideals symbolize contingent relations which transcend social identity categories and bind participants in a transformative vision.

16Zecca’s account of modernist anarchist poets’ striving after such paradisiacal commonality and political philosophers’ recent reflections on poetry’s magical ability to liberate unrecognized potential send me back to “An Alternate Life.” The last line from the section “Homecoming,” quoted above, evinces the poem’s true import: “For Time has come into a new age” (Duncan 2014b, 649). Duncan here tries to punch a hole in the social space-time continuum to get to the series’ titular alternate life, a figurative home paralleling the poem’s autobiographical narrative about literally returning to Jess from adventures in Australia and France. Read as staging a figurative or mythopoetic homecoming, “An Alternate Life” is less a confessional lyric and more a counter to the decade’s shifts in sexual politics. Rather than revolution, Duncan valued revelation as the means of manifesting a longed-for commonality, or what he later called the primordial. Longing is a key part of this ideal, for it draws attention to how this commonality-to-come arises from desiring relations amongst individuals – inclusive of but extending beyond sex. As critic Jeanne Heuving notes, such eroticism, which she terms love, served Duncan as “a way to write poetry in which the diverse aspects of himself could find dispensation through a poetics of interactive, rather than willed relationships” (Heuving 111). This affection is not ego-driven but instead grows out of revelatory intersubjective relations. A desiring commonality results, with it and its participants ever evolving.

Eros and revelation: Toward a metaphysics of queer transformation

17Duncan began to link personalist anarchism, eros, and revelation decades before Stonewall. While living on Mallorca, he wrote Charles Olson in 1955 that the Spanish island’s past had taught him that revelation characterized a short-lived cultural age in Europe, ending at the start of twelfth century after only two hundred years. “Revelation is followd [sic] by illustration or description,” an epoch continuing through the twentieth century (Duncan and Olson 81). Duncan felt that he, Olson, and Robert Creeley, empowered by their loving poetic comradeship, could reignite that lost revelatory epoch. When writing of his Black Mountain compeers’ bonds, he mused, “What is the verb of ‘eros’?” He soon answers his own question: “What is shared is voluntary, a voluntary” (Duncan and Olson 77). Voluntary is a charged term in an anarchist vocabulary, signaling the ethico-political valence of the love and desire underlying these poets’ revelatory project. Two years later, in another letter to Olson, Duncan himself explicitly connected these factors when he invoked the Italian-American anarchist martyr Bartolomeo Vanzetti and his idea of “voluntary community” to describe Black Mountain writers’ “elective correspondence” (Duncan and Olson 120).

18In Duncan’s mind, this loving revelatory anarchist project linked him and his friends with their high modernist predecessors, whose “vision of a free society” during the Second World War he describes in The H.D. Book as realizing Vanzetti’s ideal of voluntary community (Duncan 2011, 122). In “Eros” (written 1961, published 1968), the third chapter of The H.D. Book, he charts a mythopoetic history of revelatory culture from the troubadours to the high modernists to himself. Duncan aligns that imagined lineage with the erotic ideal of Ezra Pound’s Spirit of Romance. Rachel Blau DuPlessis has traced how The H.D. Book presents such eroticism as a queer device, a means of “a fluid (polymorphous) looping between homosexuality and heterosexuality, a way of living in fantasy through various desires” (DuPlessis 643). For me, Duncan’s narrative goes even further, rejecting the very bases of gender and sexual identification. He instead explores what he calls “the primal Eros” (Duncan 2011, 88). That erotic principle fuels the poet’s sympathetic magic, a direct connection to all things. “The universe had once, almost, spoken to man” (Duncan 2011, 88). That was before the rise of a Judeo-Christian paradigm, wherein “a language that originated in the Word, the speech of man, was to be the true universe” (Duncan 2011, 88). The work of modern imaginative poetry opts for a past magical paradigm, when all things spoke to and through the poet. As Duncan writes later in The H.D. Book, “Call it his personal feeling, or the communal reality, it exists only in its dance, only to its dancers” (Duncan 2011, 198-199). That is, the alternate life experienced by the poet lives only in the artwork revealing it, which in turn engenders new participatory experiences.

19In his 1978 University of Iowa lectures, Duncan linked this erotic revelatory theme to the concept of primordial time Olson developed out of Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy. “I’m not talking about vision,” or quasi-mystical prediction, Duncan asserts about the primordial (IP 72). “This is creation. And that is a phase of process that is present. The primordial, that which has not come into being and is the other side of the immediate present moment” (Duncan 2017, 72). At the following year’s Charles Olson Memorial Lectures at SUNY Buffalo, he associated this creative temporality with poetry’s “primordial voice” and “the overwhelming music that advances” through a poem (Duncan 2017, 96). This phenomenon compels us to experience poetry in a nonrational way that upturns the mind’s, and thus the ego’s, primacy. As Duncan puts it, “You do not hear the content, you feel it. Actually, it’s a body tone change that goes on. In some way you know the content. So when you return to it, your experience is of reading what you know. Yet you’re moved beyond our usual intellectual distance we take from something we’re hearing and seeing” (Duncan 2017, 96, emphases added). Such revelation returns us to “[t]he great dark reality in which body, soul, and spirit had been one in unknowing” (Duncan 2011, 86). Feeling – a whole-bodied, inspirited experience of “unknowing” – is at the heart of Duncan’s anarchist poetics. Feeling breathes political life into his writing, even when his anarchism was at odds with prevailing revolutionary paradigms.

20Readers, blinded by his rhetoric of the ideal, have tended to miss that whole-bodied quality. In the early 1980s, poets Bruce Boone and William Everson separately identified Duncan as an overly idealizing, disembodied erotic poet, averse to depicting “the rawness of sex” (Boone 82, original emphasis). Both describe him as “Apollonian,” in contrast with (heterosexual) Everson’s self-described Dionysian poetics. Yet, they still acknowledge that even though Duncan tended to sublimate his writing’s libidinal force his poetics has a “sexual energy” and thus “insurrectional, revolutionary” potential (Everson 149, 148). I would stop short of calling it “revolutionary,” but the disruptive and energetic nature of this poetic eroticism does attest to how Duncan’s idealism is responsive to, and negating of, material conditions. Ideals do not mean that he only has a limited engagement with either desire or, as poet Brian Teare recently has argued, political actualities. “Idealized Love is no match for the blameless mutual aggressive bond between mother and child or lover and beloved, just as Democracy is no match for actual life in the United States” (Teare). In actuality, though, Duncan tried to actualize the ideal dimensions of love, poetry, and politics; that is, he tried to make them less abstract.

21Teare specifically writes of Duncan’s platonism. If we turn to the “Eros” chapter of The H.D. Book, though, we find Duncan scorning Plato for moving away from The Symposium’s homoerotics in The Republic, where the Greek philosopher explicitly condemns same-sex relations and affection (Duncan 2011, 87). Though Duncan does not discuss how Plato’s Republic also exiles poets from the demos because of their treacherous imaginations, that fact underlies his rebuke. For our poet, imagination and (homo)eroticism are implicitly connected forces in the creation of new ideals. Duncan’s complaint about Plato’s homophobic policing sheds light on how he understood the Greek’s motive for banning poets. “We saw in Plato’s teaching the old cosmology replaced by a new ideology. Now, everywhere, cosmology and ideology give way to psychology” (Duncan 2011, 88). With the emergence of gay liberation a few years after that chapter’s revision, ideology and psychology, each overrun with abstracting idealisms, would combine as gay activists made the personal political and revolutionary. Thus, queer life was doubly removed from the revelatory erotic cosmology and the alternate life Duncan had long imagined.

22Activists presumed one could know oneself, a self-knowledge achieved through sex and proven by coming out, the politicized act of publicly claiming gay identity. So much of gay liberation politics, especially for cis males, came to revolve around equating sex with self, and confusing sexual intimacies for love or passion. As Duncan says in his Gay Sunshine interview, though, “falling in love is bringing something out at a deeper and deeper level”; in contrast, “scoring,” or having sex, merely “bring[s] out who’s there,” in oneself and one’s partner (Duncan 1982, 93). Minutes later, he turns his attention to writing poetry, which he describes as “being in love with language and not knowing it all the way through” (Duncan 1982, 94). Sexuality presumes light and enlightenment, self-knowledge and identity as means of self-empowerment. But love and writing presume darkness and vulnerability, a meaningful condition of unknowing. As he states in an excised portion of the interview, later printed in Soup, “our total society is so alienated from love because power’s moved into all the places where love ought to be” (Duncan 1980, 39). If those places harbored love, not power, they would be where we find “the miraculous” (Duncan 1980, 51). Those sites then would be resources for disrupting and disturbing the sociopolitical status quo and individual habits of mind. The mystery we cannot know is poetry’s gift, the little miracle that opens the experience of an alternate life by inviting readers’ participation with the unknown.

23The same year as Stonewall, Duncan published an untitled statement in The Magazine of Further Studies. It signals his growing interest in an unnamed poetics that approached “form as creation or fiction of a universe as a way of ‘knowing’ the real universe. Form as a mode of participation in the real. It is not only in order to participate in the universe but also to participate in self” (Untitled). Perhaps to participate is the verb form of eros, with all its anarchist promise and feeling. By putting “knowing” in scare quotes, Duncan insinuates that descriptive and identitarian certainties need to be thought aslant. He aspired to feel his way, blindly, through an erotic participatory poetics toward a potential anarchist commonality. He hoped to fall in love again, unexpectedly and disorientatingly, with the world’s primordial potential, with what lays hidden in plain sight, encrypted in life’s and art’s tiny miracles. For LGBTQ+ readers today who may be disillusioned by the supposedly revolutionary community that never arrived, Duncan’s poetics thus offers an object lesson in how we, too, might approach art as the occasion for passionate engagement in the revelation of a feeling of enlivened, desiring solidarity and the creation of new ideals that might guide us toward the promise of a future human commonality.

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Eric Keenaghan, « Revelation, Not Revolution: Queer Poetry’s Political Life, as Read through Robert Duncan’s Late Anarchism »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Eric Keenaghan

The University at Albany, State University of New York
Eric Keenaghan is associate professor of English at SUNY Albany. He is the author of Queering Cold War Poetry (Ohio State University Press) and has published widely on sexual politics and ethics in the work of Robert Duncan and other queer twentieth-century American authors. 

Eric Keenaghan est professeur associé à SUNY Albany. Il est l’auteur de Queering Cold War Poetry (Ohio State University Press), et il a largement publié sur la politique et l’éthique de la sexualité dans les œuvres de Robert Duncan et d’autres écrivains américains queer du XXe siècle.

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