This is the third gathering of Robert Duncan’s essays, following Duncan’s own selection of thirteen in Fictive Certainties, 1984, and Robert Bertolf’s selection of twenty in A Selected Prose in 1994. Maynard’s new selection of 41 essays certainly eclipses the other two, although it doesn't live up to its title of “Collected Essays” – something which Maynard hints in his introduction may have troubled him. He describes Collected Essays there, somewhat paradoxically, as including only “most of Duncan’s longer and more well-known essays along with a representative selection of other prose “ (xxxiv-xxxv) and calls for the publishing of “a necessary companion volume for all of Duncan’s remaining uncollected prose” (xxxvi); he also provides a five-page “Appendix of Uncollected Essays and Other Prose.” His book’s title was possibly his publisher’s decision, perhaps dictated by its being part of the press’s series “The Collected Works of Robert Duncan.” Although Maynard also describes his new selected as a “reader’s edition” and only “lightly” edited, it is by far the most scholarly of the three, with a 51-page section of notes and a lengthy bibliography of the works and editions which Duncan appears to have cited.
Duncan’s 1984 selection, on which he worked intermittently for at least fifteen years, contained most of the essays that were influential in the reception of his poetry during the 1960s, its most productive decade – “Ideas on the Meaning of Form,” “Towards an Open Universe,” “The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy,” “The Truth and Life of Myth,” and “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife.” Bertolf in 1994 omits all but the first two of these, I suspect because the other three are among the most theosophical, performative and rhetorically extravagant of Duncan’s prose. One gets a sense that Duncan presented the essays he wanted to disseminate and be known by, and Bertolf those that he thought it politic for him to be known by. Maynard merely wants Duncan’s essays known and includes both these essays of wondrous excess and the somewhat more circumspect – “Ideas on the Meaning of Form” and “A Critical Difference of View.” Even in the latter, however, while writing less ecstatically, Duncan found it
Most of the 1950s and 1960s essays in Maynard’s selection I heard in some way during Duncan’s 1959-69 visits to Vancouver – heard either as quotations or references in his lectures or conversations, or as ideas on their way to becoming part of later work. At the same time I collected these as they variously appeared in samizdat, little magazines or chapbooks. It was a curious experience to be witnessing the formation of works that one knew would become documents in the history of poetry and poetics, as they are here, and as one (“Pages from a Notebook”) had already become at the back of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry. However one views their often over-the-top mythopoeic vistas, the essays continue to be surprisingly relevant to poetry and to the planetary situation as it has evolved since Duncan’s death. “[E]ach idea of poetry in so far as it is vitally concerned is charged with the conviction that it has a mission to change, to recreate, the heart of poetry itself” (202), he observes in “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife,” and then adds this comment about the painful necessary strife within the individual poet:
The very life of our art is our keeping at work contending forces and convictions. When I think of disorders, I often mean painful disorders, the disordering of fruitful orders that form in one’s own work. This is a creative strife that Heraclitus praised, breaking up, away from what you knew how to do into something you didn’t know, breaking up the orders.” (203)
My search for a poetry that was not to come to a conclusion, a mankind that was in process not progress, or let’s say a picture of life – of the nature of life itself – in which no species would be an advance on another, leads me on to a view of language, world and order, as being in process, as immediate happening, evolving and perishing, without any final goal – the goal being in the present moment alone. (204-5)
Here and throughout the book is evident the profound influence on his thinking of both Darwin and Freud. “The magnificence of Freud,” he writes, “is that he never seeks to cure an individual of being himself. He seeks only that the individual may come to know himself, to be aware. It is an underlying faith in Freud that every ‘patient’ is Man Himself, and that every ‘disease’ is his revelation” (39). It’s an understanding of Freud that was rarely reached in North America by professional psychoanalysis. In a footnote to the book’s final essay (the essays are chronologically arranged), “The Delirium of Meaning,” he links Freud to his own practice of ‘tone-leading’ and to aleatory poetics:
Freud in his exposition of the “dream work” in The Interpretation of Dreams made his breakthrough because he took the word seriously, to lead to a seriation of meaning. And in The Psychopathology of Daily Life, he began to show that errors, lies, accidents, if they be by “chance,” chance upon hidden destinies or designs at work toward meaning, if we but read into the text letter by letter and overhear sound by sound. (434)
In his 2004 comments on Duncan’s then still-to-be-published The H.D. Book, Ron Silliman suggests that it presents science as instrumental and non-poetic (Silliman apparently did not view Freud – present throughout that book’s 600 pages – as a scientist). That is not often the view of science that appears throughout these essays, particularly in their references to Darwin and later studies in biology. DNA, newly modelled in 1953 by Watson and Crick, is cited nine times as evidence of both the mysterious complexity and commonality of biological life. One of these citations occurs in an explication of the “en masse” of Whitman: “we see [it] now as the en masse of the potential theme and variations of the one code of all life forms, the DNA, man no summit, no superior, but equal, glorious in that revelation that is present in every thing – how the meaning of the democratic intuition has grown in its import! – telling as every other event in the ringing of changes in that code is telling” (381). Another occurs in a description of his experiences of creating poetry: “The beginning of the poem stirs in every area of my consciousness, for the DNA code it will use toward its incarnation is a code of resources my life pattern itself carries; not only thought and feeling but all the muscular and visceral intelligences of the body are moved” (154). One can only wonder what poetries Duncan would have perceived in the expanding unknowabilities being revealed by current space telescopes or by Europe’s hadron collider.