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Modernist Legacies

“A / music / at rest”: Late Duncan and Objectivist Poetics

“A / music / at rest”: l’œuvre tardive de Duncan et les poétiques objectivistes
Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas


Dans la vie du poète Robert Duncan, Louis Zukofsky constitue un défi majeur, tant il occupe la place paradoxale d’un mentor qu’il admire mais qui promeut des principes modernistes opposés à bien des égards à ses revendications « romantiques ». C’est avec sa grande œuvre tardive, Ground Work, que Duncan parvient à voir en Zukofsky plus qu’un mentor et à intégrer pleinement dans son travail sa présence aussi perturbante que féconde. Cet article se donne donc pour tâche de lire de près plusieurs poèmes spécifiques tout en s’inscrivant dans une réflexion plus vaste sur leurs principes d’écriture respectifs. Il vise à mettre en exergue l’influence cruciale de Zukofsky dans l’œuvre tardive du poète, en tant qu’elle constitue une force antagoniste au sein d’une écriture en perpétuelle expansion, tout en proposant une conception plus souple du poème long, fondée sur le processus plutôt que sur des arguments ou des structures mythopoétiques qui avaient tendance à séduire l’auteur, même s’il tentait de leur résister.

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  • 1 The correspondence with Denise Levertov indicates that Duncan read Oppen’s The Materials not long a (...)
  • 2 Duncan’s side of the correspondence, from June 1947 to February 1966, is preserved among Zukofsky’s (...)
  • 3 The present essay is a follow-up to a previous discussion of these two poets (Twitchell-Waas 2012), (...)

1Duncan rarely refers to “Objectivist” or “Objectivism,” and except for Louis Zukofsky there is little evidence in his work of the other poets falling under the “Objectivist” rubric. In a late interview, while expressing warm personal affection for George and Mary Oppen, he claimed he deliberately did not read their work prior to George’s death in 1984 because they had been Stalinists (Duncan 2012, 442-443). This remark cannot be taken too literally, but it is only Zukofsky with whom he had a long-standing engagement and who came to represent a major challenge to his own poetic assumptions.1 By Duncan’s own account, his attention to Zukofsky goes back very early, to when he was a teenager, and he initiated a correspondence with the older poet in 1947, when Zukofsky had all but disappeared from public view.2 More than any other single person, Duncan was instrumental in connecting Zukofsky with the younger generation of poets that led to his gradual emergence beginning in the mid-1950s. In 1958 Duncan instigated an invitation for Zukofsky to teach a summer course at San Francisco State College, and he confided to Denise Levertov that he had anticipated that Zukofsky would act as a salutary counter to himself and Jack Spicer among their younger acolytes (Duncan/Levertov 125-126). He admitted that this did not work out as he had hoped, but this gestures at the somewhat devil’s advocate role Duncan saw Zukofsky playing in his own poetic thinking and practice, which I will take as the leitmotif in what follows.3

  • 4 Cf. “The Truth and Life of Myth”: “Time and again, men have chickened out in the fear of what that (...)
  • 5 Zukofsky is working from Wittgenstein’s brief Preface to Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. (...)

2Indeed, one would think Zukofsky represented, in almost every respect, a version of modernism antithetical to Duncan’s own self-proclaimed propensities and would be classed with those modernists who submitted to the protocols of Enlightenment rationality, such as Eliot, Moore and Stevens.4 We can understand Zukofsky’s basic stance in the so-called “Objectivist” period (around 1930) as a rigorous demystification of the residual romantic and mythopoetic elements that still marked the elder modernists, which might be taken as one possible definition of “Objectivist.” This is the tenor of his critical writings which emphasize a realist formalism set within a thoroughly secular contemporary context. Composing the early movements of “A” (“A” 1-7) in 1928-1930, Zukofsky eschewed any overriding argumentative, thematic or mythopoetic structure, other than the search for an adequate form for the poem itself, meaning a form directly responsive to the complexity of present experience and history. In “A” Zukofsky simply wrote discrete poems whose interweaving with each other was whatever recurrences came up in composition, and in “A”-23 he evokes Wittgenstein’s image of criss-crossing, a more or less random network of intersections without center or boundary (Zukofsky 560).5

  • 6 In speaking of the compromised situation of modernist poetry in the U.S. around the time of World W (...)

3In The H.D. Book, Duncan’s most elaborate account of his pedigree and self-contextualization, Zukofsky is barely mentioned. In a reading of modernism that places H.D. as central, it is not easy to see just where Zukofsky fits in.6 Duncan regularly enough mentions Zukofsky as a major mentor from early on, but when he addresses him in “After Reading Barely and Widely” in 1959 (Duncan 2014b, 80-84), the elder poet seems primarily an excuse to extemporize. Duncan’s poem registers little cognisance of the poems or implied poetics of Zukofsky’s volume but instead flaunts his own extravagant preoccupations and is liberally populated with trolls and faeries, mysterious Jews, alchemical Mercury and an array of other such figures. My sense is that it is only quite late in Duncan’s career, roughly the last decade of his writing life, that he felt compelled to confront the challenge of Zukofsky more seriously. Of course the Ground Work volumes were in large part premised on a return to the primary sources or grounds of Duncan’s poetry, not least a deliberate troubling of that ground.

  • 7 Duncan’s habitual pairing of Olson and Zukofsky goes back at least to “Notes on Poetics regarding O (...)

4A probable factor in Duncan’s increased attention to Zukofsky in his later work was the death of Charles Olson in 1970. If Dante and Shakespeare define the larger possibilities of poetry, Duncan repeatedly paired Olson and Zukofsky as the two antithetical contemporaries who defined the “polarities of what poetic consciousness might be” (Duncan 2014a, 355; Duncan 1995, 145) for himself and his fellow poets who situated themselves as following in the wake of Pound and Williams.7 Personally and poetically Duncan was obviously much closer to Olson, who he credited with calling his generation to order, instilling a sense of mission and community among the younger mid-century American poets committed to innovative practices, so that with Olson’s death he felt that a period had come to an end (Duncan 2012, 104-109; Duncan 2011, 217-218). At roughly the same time Duncan turned 50, his relationship with Levertov conclusively unravelled and he announced his 15 year hiatus from publishing a new book. Clearly Duncan saw himself moving into a late phase of his poetic career that required new and more troubling challenges.

“With In” and the Presence of Zukofsky

  • 8 “As Testimony: Reading Zukofsky These Forty Years” (1978) and “In Introduction: John Taggart, Dodek (...)
  • 9 Palmer seems to have been an important mediator for Duncan in the 1970s, feeding his French interes (...)

5The superficial evidence for Duncan’s intensified engagement with Zukofsky in the Ground Work period is an unfinished serial essay on Zukofsky, plus further remarks in the introduction to John Taggart’s Dodeka, both written 1978 (the year Zukofsky died), as well as mentions and allusions to Zukofsky and “A” scattered throughout the late volumes.8 It is worth pointing out that Zukofsky of the mid-1970s is quite a different proposition from the Zukofsky of the late 1950s since during this period he produced and published the bulk of his major work: “A”-13 through -23 as well as Catullus and 80 Flowers, and even Bottom, although finished earlier did not appear complete until 1964. It also seems to me relevant that Robert Creeley brought out the minimalist Pieces, in 1969, dedicated to Zukofsky, and perhaps Michael Palmer is part of the mix as well, although I cannot say exactly how.9

6I want to begin with a very late item of Passages, “With In,” which is part of the set entitled “Regulators” (written 1980-81):

WITH IN              [Passages]

strict form
bound to
and / or
charm love’s
out side
work thru
him / her
knots yes
in form
me to you.


     at rest.
(Duncan 2014b, 712-713)

  • 10 A recording of the reading, “Reading in Buffalo, 1982,” is available at PennSound, http://writing.u (...)

7I may be wrong, but I cannot think of any other poem across Duncan’s entire body of work that is quite like this, overtly manifesting what he refers to as the “functional” tendency of modernism (Duncan 2011, 337, 363), against which his self-proclaimed romanticism is opposed. The prepositional title that calls on a doubled reading and the very narrow lines are signature Zukofsky, while the concluding lines with the centered capital A followed by “music / at rest,” clearly enough signal Zukofsky as well. If we require further confirmation, there is a recording of this poem in which Duncan states he is thinking of Zukofsky.10 “With In” mimics a typical Zukofsky technique whereby the lines can be simultaneously read as discrete units or as syntactically flowing into each other. Conceptually one could read this poem as a single line, although actually, in reading it Duncan strongly emphasizes the discreteness of each very short line or even each word (portentous emphasis on distinct phrases and words is characteristic of Duncan’s layout and readings of the late poems). In any case, it is precisely the formal interplay between these possibilities, a kind of doubled syntax, that is so typically Zukofskian and makes for the fugal dynamic of the poem. Duncan characteristically foregrounds this interplay by immediately introducing the topic of form, and while the poem has a quite Zukofskian sinuousness that eludes ready paraphrase, it is not a particularly difficult poem. Inside/outside, bounded/unbounded, and/or, him/her – this is about the dialectic of forms, the poem as active form or the forms within which we necessarily live, which both limit and define while also opening up and including. As the poem proceeds, we discover it is a love poem or what Zukofsky would call a valentine. For Zukofsky “valentine” simply designates any poem, since they are stripped down versions of what is implied in every poem, that is, the desire to exist with others, in other words the desire to be with readers. And in that desire for others is at base a desire for rest, for balance, a sense of completeness. But of course if music is Zukofsky’s reiterated image of this desire achieved or at least its possibility, music never rests but always dissipates in time – just as the poem “A” goes on and on without any pretence it could come to conclusion other than in an arbitrarily constructivist sense: the proposed form filled in so one moves on to something else. Of course this concluding “at rest” rimes with the final line of Duncan’s book, “– an eternal arrest,” which is another way to end the job (Duncan 2014b, 733). This is all the more striking in that “rest” is not something we generally identify with Duncan, the self-declared Heraclitean.

8However, one cannot talk about this poem without noting the set of Passages to which it belongs, the “Regulators,” so that its startling visual impact is foregrounded in counterpoint to the wall-to-wall poems that fill out their over-sized pages to the point where the distinct lines seem to dissolve. “With In” might be read as analogous to “A”-16, that movement of just four words scattered over a single page that demands to be read as in some sense poised against the long, often very long movements typical of “A”. In one sense “A”-16 suggests that if you can say it in four words and plenty of blank space, then why all this verbiage elsewhere? In any case, it seems to me that “With In” has its self-admonishing implications set against the other poems in “Regulators.” We might note that the poem immediately follows two of the more remarkably apocalyptic poems Duncan ever wrote, “In Blood’s Domaine” and “After Passage,” on disease and nuclear catastrophe respectively. Within this context, “With In” quite abruptly cools things down, and indeed the following two Passages that complete the set are considerably more calm and focus on renewal – the natural process in “Seams” and then finally addressing the poetic equivalent, the Muses, quite explicitly going all the way back to the conventional fountainhead of Western poetry in Homer’s Greek. In this sense, the entire set of “Regulators” might be read as pivoting on this seemingly slight, spinally poem.

9Furthermore, we can readily read “With In” as a succinct summation of Duncan’s poetics, the dialectic of forms, of inside/outside, limits and transformation, love and strife that underwrites all of his work. But here the poetry is stripped down to functional essentials without the usual flamboyant decor or glamour he so loved. In this poem Duncan has allowed to an unusual degree a counter presence into his poetry, one that could be read as challenging all Duncan’s long-winded defences of high rhetoric and exotic content. If this poem can be read as a figure for or of Zukofsky, we might also read it as a figure for Duncan stripped bare.

Poetry at the Edges

10In the introduction to John Taggart’s Pythagorean inspired Dodeka, written a few years prior to “With In,” Duncan describes Zukofsky’s work and “A” in particular in a characteristically loaded sentence:

[…] the poem in its transmutations of the music proposed emerges as a measured consciousness of self and world, tempered throughout by a scale of feeling and inspiration– not cautious, but considerate, ultimately, economical, in the root-meaning of the word – ecological. (Duncan 2014a, 354-355)

  • 11 Elsewhere Duncan speaks of the “ecological” in somewhat different terms, as synonymous with the Dar (...)

11The key words that structure this sentence all gravitate toward an assumption of balance or rest. It is unlikely one would characterize Duncan’s own work as either economical or ecological, but the latter term captures Zukofsky’s interest in creating a sense of dynamic presence and density, of being in the world with others, and tending toward an ideal of equilibrium, which is one way to understand “a music at rest.”11 As for the “economical” in its root meaning, both Duncan and Zukofsky are notable poets of the household, but with Duncan the household is always related to wandering and return, however often he evokes his domestic setup with Jess, because his poetics, which demand perpetual self-challenge and transformation, never allow him to sit still at home or even to feel at home in the larger cosmos. For Zukofsky on the other hand the domestic scene is the site from which he builds out his sense of existence, that is, of measure, which is grounded on a desire for dynamic balance within constraints, the recognition that a tangible world always impinges and is shared with others.

12In the active field of Duncan’s poetry, one side tends toward the metaphysical, what many have interpreted as religious or spiritual poetry gesturing at gnosis or states of being beyond or before language, even poetry (Finkelstein, O’Leary). This puts Duncan in the classic modernist framework of what used to be called the disappearance of God, which determines the task of the poetry as compensation, the recovery or re-creation of perennial powers that resist the fallen regime of modernity. The dialectical antithesis of this, skipping over the Freudian Duncan, is the Duncan who insists that belief does not come into his poetry, for “I am not an occultist or a mystic but a poet, a maker-up-of things” (Duncan 2011, 278, 500; Duncan 2012, 92-93). It is this latter Duncan that intersects with Zukofsky, where the emphasis is on the work as artifice in the manifold senses of that term. However, what is fascinating about Duncan is how he keeps these seemingly antithetical positions in play with each other so that we never seem able to pin him down. Surely, few poets so compulsively and extensively explain and justify their poetics, not least in the poetry itself, so that poetic explanation and practice are constantly conflated. This can be understood as symptomatic of his defensiveness wherein his rational scepticism is everywhere in evidence in defence of those pockets of resistance against Enlightenment scepticism. Or, one might understand this as keeping in play what open field poetics, or simply free verse, proposes, that is, the necessity to re-examine and re-enact just what the possibilities of the poetic are with each and every poem. In any case, we cannot assess Duncan’s poetry without taking into account this omnipresent meta-poetic consciousness that persistently reflects on and legitimates his poetry. Consequently there is this counterpointing to what he seems to claim for his poetry, the desire to achieve a species of pure participation in the essential action or principle of the cosmos conceived in Heraclitean terms, the poet as “a creative locality of the cosmos” (Duncan 2014a, 266). Duncan sites his work on the edge or at the boundaries – that littoral space where sea crashes against shore, or at Caesar’s Gate where alien Asia presses in, or where in the introduction to Bending the Bow demonstrators and police come together, each mutually defining and altering the other (Duncan 2014b, 294-295), the endless play of identity and difference. Therefore it is undecidable whether the “IT,” the totality that is never a whole, is to be located out there as some ultimate ground or spiritual state of being, or merely in the play of words coming together and coming apart.

13Essential to Duncan’s poetics of the edge or borders is the claim to allow others or the Other into his poems, a central tenant of his insistence on being a derivative poet as an essential strategy for countering the egocentric voice of the lyric poet or the singularity of the textual body. However, we need to take this claim with a degree of scepticism since throughout his work we are never out of ear shot of Robert Duncan’s “manic spiel” (Duncan 2014b, 440), yet one more explanation of or lecture on what he is doing as he supposedly does it. For all the quotations, allusions to and self-conscious rewriting of others in his poems, we rarely feel anyone other than Duncan is talking. In comparison, Zukofsky is every bit as much of a self-consciously derivative poet as Duncan, and we can say that roughly 90% of his works in both poetry and prose are worked directly from quotations, found textual materials. But for the most part it is of little importance to identify, much less reposition his reworkings in relation to these sources. The textual materials are simply fodder for his own poetry, which takes for granted that writing is always rewriting and thus always already implying the social, that any writing is collaborative and derivative and expresses sociability. Consequently it is not easy to consistently identify the voice of Zukofsky or of the poem, particularly in the later movements of “A”, much less how his materials convey or represent his personal perspective – something we are rarely in doubt about with Duncan. We might describe Zukofsky’s typical practice in a phrase as “improvisation within flexible constraints,” with the understanding that improvisation is almost always a matter of engaging directly with found materials, a self-conscious working process. I take it that this implies a recognition of limits, of the obdurate real both material and social, which persistently impinge on the poet and the poem. This is hardly surprising for a poet who lived his entire life in the thick of New York City, and who also was a keen reader of Spinoza.

14For all Duncan’s talk of being a derivative poet, as well as of “the Law” and obedience, fundamentally he recognizes no constraints since he positions himself as a poet as engaged in pushing beyond the edge of whatever is, from the known to the unknown – “lawful anarchism” as he puts it (Duncan 2014a, 99). While self-conscious derivativeness offers Duncan the grounds for a communal vision, a symposium of the whole, what is even more axiomatic for his poetics is change and disruption, a “poetry that raises a crisis in What Is” (Duncan 1995, 147). It has to be said that he is true to his assumptions, recognizing that violence and war – whether on a personal, textual, social or cosmic level – cannot be refused and indeed are implicit in his own mythopoetic assumptions, which he was fond of framing in Darwinian terms. In this light Duncan’s persistent return to Zukofsky is striking as an implicit critique of his own propensities to dominate. One could hardly say the presence of Zukofsky counterbalances these propensities, nevertheless they mark a limited critical self-awareness. Zukofsky’s poetics tend toward structures of inhabited space against Duncan’s more anarchic libidinal impulses, whose limitations he could recognize in, for example, the Beat poets, of whom he was always wary. The culmination of the long dialogue with Levertov– on personal, aesthetic and political levels– convinced Duncan he must accept the implications of his Empedoclean assumptions, that the forces of Strife have equal claim as the powers of Love, however much this may result in personal and poetic pain and regret. In “The Torn Cloth” Duncan admits to Levertov that he was personally in the wrong yet poetically insists he had no choice (Duncan 2014b, 582-585).

“Jamais [Passages]” and the Forms of the Long Poem

  • 12 Mallarmé appears prominently in “A”-19, both his poetry and his Le Livre project, although this doe (...)

15While the late “Jamais [Passages]” explicitly refers to Zukofsky and “A”, if we simply read the body of the poem, we would never divine any particular relation to Zukofsky. The title’s evocation of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard seems a more relevant reference point, and Duncan is not alone in suggesting some deep kinship between Zukofsky and the French poet.12 However, the brief headnote positions the poem or the reader quite precisely at the point in 1928 when Zukofsky has achieved his breakthrough poem with “Poem beginning ‘The’” and now turns to “A” as the lifework that will “prove his Art” as a major poet (Duncan 2014b, 592). As we have come to expect, the poem itself is really a re-enactment of Duncan’s own essential poetics, an affirmation of poetry as a pushing “beyond,” which seems tenuously related to Zukofsky’s own practice and stance. The poem is structured as a dialectic between the articles “a” and “the,” the only details that could be construed as an allusion to Zukofsky, but here reversed as the poem begins with “a” and ends with “the.” We might understand this as any given poem begins as one among an infinite possibilities and strives to realize itself as “the” possibility, as a definite distinctive body however ephemeral. However, presumably Duncan conceives of the poem dialectically and so always dissolving even in this process of self-realization. A version of this that appears in the poem is of the “Universe” as the concept of a totality that implies “Intention” and order, of which “Verse” is a part but also breaks off from, moves beyond or is resistant to “Uni-” (Duncan 2014b, 593). Again we recognize here Duncan’s Heraclitean poetics, the ceaseless play of identity and difference as the foundational myth of existence itself that poetry necessarily re-enacts. If this is a poem in some sense about Zukofsky, it has to be said it is, unsurprisingly, a very Duncanized conception of the “Objectivist” poet, who is more oriented toward a sense of being in the world as an awareness of limits and others and who would never cast the poem so explicitly up into such a cosmic or grandiose framework.

16However, we should consider Duncan’s careful positioning of the poem as a homage to the young Zukofsky at the moment he starts on “A”. Here Zukofsky refuses to underpin his big poem with mythopoetics, simply positing 24 parts to be filled in as they happen, in effect discrete poems that nonetheless are collected so as to suggest any number of unpredetermined interrelations. The first unnumbered Passages poem, “The Missionaries,” is a response to Jackson Mac Low’s The Pronouns, which as Mac Low explains and Duncan partially quotes,

[…] is “A Collection of 40 Dances”– not a series. That is, despite the fact that the dances are numbered, each is a separate & complete work in itself & may be performed on a program before or after any or none of the other dances in the collection. Also, any number of different realizations of one or more of the dances may succeed or follow each other during a particular performance. (Mac Low 67)

  • 13 It seems to me this is what Duncan is driving at in remarks on “A” as collage in a late interview, (...)

17Although Mac Low numbers his poems/dances, this offers an explanation for Duncan’s abandonment of numbering for Passages. Duncan often thought out loud about the form of the modernist long poem, particularly the paradigmatic examples of the Cantos and Paterson – the former’s attempt to thematically and argumentatively contain the poem’s dynamics ending in the acceptance of its fortunate failure and the latter’s various proposed forms everywhere broken open by its focus on the immediate and the possible, the poet as Madame Curie “working the pitchblende – in obscure matter” (Duncan 2011, 454, 222-226). “A” more obviously offered an exemplary collaborative model for the late Duncan, a collection or criss-crossing, rather than a series, that can be entered or centered at any point and reassembled.13 So the form of the long poem never aspires to a determinative paradigm but rather a dynamic inter-relational structure both internally and externally. This suggests a reading of “Jamais” as a meditation on Zukofsky and his long poem, so that Mallarméan chance becomes a figure for “a,” the particular specificity of the “now” that simply seems to happen as it comes, but at the same time it weaves a sense, seemingly reveals intersections and patterns as lived, a sense of existence as precisely that attentive activity of chance and its routinization, a movement toward “the.” For Duncan the latter will always gesture at grander frameworks, whatever is implicated by “the sea” or “darkness” or “IT.”

18Duncan’s headnote to “Jamais” specifically indicates the realization of Zukofsky’s art in “A” 22 & 23 (published 1975), which might be understood as simply the completion of “A”, since these movements were composed last, with “A”-24 already assembled by his wife Celia and published some years previous. However, if we assume Duncan is addressing the poetry of these movements itself, then we note a nominalistic tendency toward relatively autonomous words, where syntax is highly compressed, often to the point of seeming abandonment, and paraphrasable sense is at best suggestively elusive. We can recognize an analogous free floating tendency of the phrasal units in the Ground Work poems as Duncan attempts to mimic the flickering of identity/difference that is the ground of his mythopoetics while simultaneously being open to more and more of that ground, which literally stretches the seams of the poetry. I take it that this motivates the curious intrusion of foreign languages, primarily French, into the late work, which do not function as polyglot poems in the manner of, say, the Cantos, where ideally readers know enough of the foreign languages to catch the flavour or allusion of the source. Rather, the “foreign” languages and their interlingual puns, real or imagined, gesture at the borderlands of languages or even further to the fluid possibilities that are the grounds of Language. Those poems written substantially, even predominately, in or with French are nonetheless composed and to be read in the context of English. The limitations of Duncan’s knowledge of French becomes the occasion for those opportunistic “errors” that so intrigued him and that he insisted on retaining as integral to the creative process (McGann). One could argue that Zukofsky took this a step further in his late interest in homophonic translation, which is really a procedure for composition by homophonic suggestion. This practice culminates in “A”-23 where Zukofsky works extensively from a handful of languages and incorporates brief examples from perhaps a dozen more. With the possible exception of Latin, he knew none of these languages well, and most he knew not at all beyond being able to read off, more or less accurately, their phonetic scripts (there is very little from the foreign language he knew best, French, and apparently none at all from his mother tongue, Yiddish). This working with “foreign” languages was a compositional process for breaking “native” habits and feeling out language possibilities in English, but English understood as interlaid with or intersected by all other languages in the universe of Language, both realized and possible.

19There is thus a similarity between these poets in their aspiration to work from and with the grounds of language, or the imagined space where language is potential rather than codified. By placing these two poets in dialogue, we can better perceive their limitations. Zukofsky would insist on the poem as tactile object in the world, the sensuous particulars of language that would bury concepts and themes in the affective act. “A”-23 has what appears to be an epic framework, the 800-line central body worked from literary texts covering 6000 years (literate history) in chronological order. The trouble is that this framework is submerged such that any narrative or thematic implications it might suggest are dissolved in the specifics of the textual dynamics wherever the reader happens to be, without center or thematic development such as the stylistic evolution Joyce offers in the Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses. Zukofsky would insist on the musicality of the poetry, although this is clearly not a conventional sense of poetic music or sonority, but rather a dynamic affective experience resistant to conceptualization yet a heightened sense of phenomenological realization, the sense of being in the world with others that writing and reading always necessarily imply. This radical nominalistic tendency seems antithetical to Duncan’s compulsive conceptualizing that constantly gestures at larger, seemingly metaphysical frameworks. His poetry tends towards a model of gnosis necessitating a continual process of self or textual transformation as an experience of the “beyond” or unknown. This may help explain why Duncan on at least one occasion describes “With In” as a prayer, a desire for musical “rest,” a momentary relief from his poetry’s demand for often violent transfiguration.

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Cox, Kenneth. “Tribute to Mallarmé: ‘A’-19.” Collected Studies in the Use of English. London: Agenda Editions, 2001. 256-270.

Duncan, Robert. An Interview, April 19, 1969 [with George Bowering & Robert Hogg]. Toronto: Beaver Kosmos Folio/Coach House Press, 1971.

Duncan, Robert. “Letters on Poetry & Poetics [Letters to Robin Blaser & Jack Spicer].” Ed. Gary Burnett. Ironwood 22 [11.2] (Fall 1983): 95-133.

Duncan, Robert. “As an Introduction: Charles Olson’s Additional Prose.” A Selected Prose. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf. New York: New Directions, 1995. 145-151.

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

Duncan, Robert. A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985. Ed. Christopher Wagstaff. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2012.

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

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

Duncan, Robert & Denise Levertov. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf & Albert Gelpi. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Finkelstein, Norman. “Late Duncan: From Poetry to Scripture.” Twentieth Century Literature 51.3 (Autumn 2005): 341-372.

Jarnot, Lisa. Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Mac Low, Jackson. The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for Dancers. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1979.

McGann, Jerome J. “Art and Error, with Special Thanks to the Poetry of Robert Duncan.” The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007. 83-97.

O’Leary, Peter. Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Oppen, George. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey. “The Airs of Duncan and Zukofsky.” Reading Duncan Reading: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Derivation. Ed. Stephen Collis & Graham Lyons. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. 67-88.

Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey. “‘A legacy / windfall’: ‘A’-19.” Z-site: A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky (2014). (Accessed 22 March 2020).

Zukofsky, Louis. “A”. New York: New Directions, 2011.

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1 The correspondence with Denise Levertov indicates that Duncan read Oppen’s The Materials not long after its publication in 1962, but without much appreciation, remarking: “I think what I don’t like about Oppen’s work and calld his lack of imagination and ear is that he occupies a stultified and stultifying areas of the reasonably real"– a remark that could be taken to apply to the “Objectivists” generally from Duncan’s perspective (Duncan/Levertov 401, 405). It is worth keeping in mind that at this time Duncan was deep in the H.D. Book and the poems of Roots and Branches, when he was particularly intent on defending the occult oriented interests of H.D. and himself against more secular and rational critics and poets. Later Duncan read with Oppen on at least one occasion and one suspects more (Jarnot 316), and Oppen's Selected Letters indicate clearly that Duncan did read and respond to his late poetry (300, 345). Oppen, for his part, was paying attention to Duncan's work from the time he returned to poetry and held him in high esteem (45, 183-183). The relationship deserves further study.

2 Duncan’s side of the correspondence, from June 1947 to February 1966, is preserved among Zukofsky’s papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas at Austin. It is warm but not large or frequent. Zukofsky often expressed to others his personal affection for Duncan and Jess, as well as his high respect for Duncan as a poet, despite his scepticism about mythopoetics and cautioning Duncan against composing “poetry about poetry” (Duncan 1983, 123).

3 The present essay is a follow-up to a previous discussion of these two poets (Twitchell-Waas 2012), which gives further biographical background and offers close readings of the two poems in which Duncan most explicitly addresses Zukofsky, “After Reading Barely and Widely” (1959) and “Jamais [Passages]” (1975), as well as Zukofsky’s response to the former poem, “Her Face the Book of – Love Delights in – Praises.”

4 Cf. “The Truth and Life of Myth”: “Time and again, men have chickened out in the fear of what that hawk, the genius of Poetry, threatens, and surrendered their imaginations to the proprieties of rationalizations of new schools of criticism, grammarians, commonsense philosophers, and arbiters of educated best taste”– and Duncan goes on to specifically implicate Eliot, Pound, Moore and Stevens (Duncan 2014a, 180).

5 Zukofsky is working from Wittgenstein’s brief Preface to Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1969).

6 In speaking of the compromised situation of modernist poetry in the U.S. around the time of World War II, Duncan remarks: “There is one lonely acolyte of poetry where Louis Zukofsky perfects his art, wrapped in the cocoon of an ‘objectivism’ derived from Pound and Williams, a hidden zaddik in a thicket of theory, to emerge in the myrrh and light of ‘A’, to keep the music, and in the working hive of his thought in Bottom: On Shakespeare” (Duncan 2011, 216-217). In the first instance, this refers to Zukofsky working away in almost total obscurity for a couple decades before re-emerging as a major poet in his prime around 1960. But of course Duncan’s particular figure for expressing this takes the tenuous fact that Zukofsky happens to be Jewish and presents him as a covert Hasidic master who will appear when the time is ripe. Despite his efforts to recast Zukofsky in terms closer to his own preoccupations, this sentence is hedged with unease over Zukofsky’s “cocoon of ‘objectivism’” and “thicket of theory,” as if these were mere defensive reactions repressing his authentic poetic self.

7 Duncan’s habitual pairing of Olson and Zukofsky goes back at least to “Notes on Poetics regarding Olson’s Maximus” (published 1956), into the middle of which he interpolated a note insisting on the equal importance for him of Zukofsky’s Bottom: on Shakespeare (Duncan 2014a, 51). At the time only the opening part of Bottom had appeared in New Directions 14 (1953), although Creeley would shortly publish a couple more segments in Black Mountain Review. For other substantial pairings of Olson and Zukofsky, see Duncan 2014a, 339-340, 355; Duncan 2012, 18-19, 161, 256-257; Duncan 1971, [n.p. 12-13, 25-27, 30].

8 “As Testimony: Reading Zukofsky These Forty Years” (1978) and “In Introduction: John Taggart, Dodeka” (1979) in Duncan 2014a, 339-345, 353-360. The former was written to be included in a memorial issue for Zukofsky of Paideuma, to which Duncan appended a note that this was the first of a projected four parts (Duncan 2014a, 491).

9 Palmer seems to have been an important mediator for Duncan in the 1970s, feeding his French interests, particularly the new French theorists and poets, but who also had a strong Zukofsky connection. One of various glancing allusions to Zukofsky, “‘A’ then, a note to Z I would / remember” (Duncan 2014b, 686) appears in the Passages “In Wonder,” which seems to be dedicated to and is presumably in dialogue with Palmer. This poem manifests the increasingly radical formal decomposition characteristic of much of the late work, including interlingual puns and neologisms. Duncan was paying close attention to Creeley’s Pieces period work, as indicated by his essay, “A Reading of Thirty Things,” which is co-dedicated to Palmer (Duncan 2014a, 331). The primary point here is that there are a number of poets, aside from the example of Zukofsky, who Duncan deliberately took on as challenges to his more rhetorical and romantic propensities.

10 A recording of the reading, “Reading in Buffalo, 1982,” is available at PennSound, (Accessed 4 Nov. 2019). The write-up on the PennSound website does not indicate that the “prayer,” included as part of Duncan’s preamble, is in fact “With In” and belongs with the “Regulators” sequence that Duncan reads complete, except for the final poem, “YOU, Muses.” The reading took place in a church and as part of the same event, Duncan read a sermon, “Crisis of Spirit in the Word,” Credences, 2.1 new series (Summer 1982): 63-68.

11 Elsewhere Duncan speaks of the “ecological” in somewhat different terms, as synonymous with the Darwinian evolutionary model where struggle and conflict are generative, which he often evokes to contextualize his own poetics (see “Notes on Grossinger’s Solar Journal: Oecological Sections,” Duncan 2014a, 263-271).

12 Mallarmé appears prominently in “A”-19, both his poetry and his Le Livre project, although this does not imply a long-standing interest in the French poet. Zukofsky’s attention was serendipitously sparked by the presentation of a copy of Le «Livre» de Mallarmé (1957) from his Francophile son, who is also a major presence in this movement. On Mallarmé’s appearance in “A”-19, see Cox and Twitchell-Waas 2014.

13 It seems to me this is what Duncan is driving at in remarks on “A” as collage in a late interview, although he gets distracted before he finishes his thought (Duncan 2011, 448-449).

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Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas, « “A / music / at rest”: Late Duncan and Objectivist Poetics  »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 20 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas

Independent Scholar
With a PhD from Duke University, Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas has taught in China, Taiwan and Singapore and published widely on twentieth-century American poetry. He now lives in retirement in Bellinzona, Switzerland. He edits the Z-site: A Companion to the Work of Louis Zukofsky ( and occasionally translates (with help) from contemporary Chinese poetry.

Après un doctorat à Duke University, Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas a mené une carrière universitaire en Asie (Chine, Taiwan, Singapour), publiant de nombreux articles sur la poésie américaine du XXème siècle. Il vit actuellement en Suisse, où il dirige le « Z-site: A Companion to the Work of Louis Zukofsky » ( et traduit en collaboration de la poésie chinoise contemporaine vers l’anglais.

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