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March 19, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Robert Duncan Craft Lecture 1978

Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan (1919-1988)

Craft Lecture 1978


May 19, 1978, at Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians. These are my notes (Blue Notebook 19.47-53), with exegesis, if needed — if possible — in itals. Forgive my scribbling: RD said more words than this, I notated the gist.

Robert Duncan strode the prosecenium in a cape full of invisible stars, his cockeyed gase — one eye was glass — giving a random clue to the tangent his discussiojn was going to take, which described, I think, a spiral  tightening around the topic, which must have been something like Poetry and Nature, rather than your usual linear exponential argument.


RD: the poem is an extension of our own biological intuitions, the biological character of language itself. A universalism: constantly searching for the special nature of the universe. Universe, multipilicity.

Poetry’s an extreme, making things up that don’t relate by belief or knowledge but as I imagine them. Imagining / non-imagining shows you Disbelief/ Belief. We pursue our contact witn the real and surreal. (Laughter) Gee, there are people with no imagination out there…

RD: Music brings us to the threshold of rhyme & rhythmic structure >> poem. We are both reader and writer, there is poetry before we read and write but writing adds a circuit to your speech circuits. In French, they say the reverse, read and write before speaking. Now the eight year old has a talky world. Working physically, we revivify earlier stages. Poetry is the physical expression of the language with which it enters human communication. A cerrtain level of thought is rhythm & rhyme. Cites Edward Sapir, D.H. Lawrence, Charles Scott Sherrington (Man on His Nature)

When you were a baby, the human community as it appeared first above you was a community of speech. Babies explore what moves above them without sorting it all out. They explore with expression of face and body, they mimic without mimicking. What’s the expression on your face right now? Self-conscious. As I mentioned, you can’t go around in the world like that.

We Americans hold the language of gestures in reserve. There’s a split in the world north/ south. The tension of American speech is crucial to its own particular music. How WASPs speak. (Imitates upper-crust East Coast elite preppy accent.) But the USA is such a racial conglomerate, the only nation where all people are potentioally American and present. A ghost here is that all of us are just coming out of the ghetto of being excluded from language.

In my 60th year I’m gonna talk about the poetry scene. My early poetry took on what was happening in the 1950’s. More recently, I have observed new noises in the street sometimes. Today almost nobody doesn’t understand that the body’s part of language. Olson, Stance. Stravinsky, Sacre.


If arms


body can’t

the poem has to be something

you felt


have hidden away

you bring it out

move it find it,

bring it out of a realm of possibilities


A shoft of reading styles around 1956. We were horsing around, having fun reading poetry and movcd toward memorization. Tennyson recordings on wax cyliinders.







These are the feet that move in the poem.Reading, writing and moving, you recover the feet present in the poem.

So at the beginning I thought Letters and Opening of the Field stated my primary concerns: the nature of man (the Zohar), atom/ Adam, primal man, white goddess. Muse tradition one of many? An open question.

H.D. as genius: women suffer (male term). Jungian psychology hostile to animus. Old age, after menopause, should write with genius. Young women were thought virginal, fire and ice. They nneeded that crystalline icy clarity to survive: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie, Greta Garbo. Fiery passion, open scorn. Robert Frost. This has disappeared in our time.

Men’s house formed tribal idea of poetry. Men blabbed their mysteries, women didn’t. Homer betrayed the secrets more than Sappho. We all keep little mystery houses. Poetry’s essential experience of the world is that it’s a mystery.


Duncan walks out the steps of the sonnet.


RD: Magical form: the first baby mystery. To act or dance, you must reciover the lost art of falling. Oh my God I can’t fall, cause if I do I’ll… hearing the screams of parents that you’ll be in an animal position for the rest of your life…

Every culture and historical period has suspected that animals can talk. Peots overheard what birds, animals, insects were saying. Wind and waves, the voice of nature. The nature of speech. (Prologed, srtormyt applause)


Question from Josephine Miles from her wheelchair: Is there poetry wherever the whole organizm returns?


RD: Leaves of Grass: hear the bird, the surf, sounds which flood a baby’s ear, insistence of heart and tody’s own reiterated rhythmic speech.

If it were only your own voice and rhythm, redundance would bore you. It’s a communion of voices and rhythms. You coexist with others. Anthroposophical. Eurhythmy, cacorhythmy. Just one bit of ugliness please Poetry’s an animal response, imitating those great forces we hear. Downward is my usual course, Toward ocean. The difference between Robert Duncan and Robert Bly is that I was raised with the ocean in my ears.

Our own world constructed and potentially populated by imagination. As if Shakespeare had been Lear or Lady Macbeth. They speak so sincerely you think somebody else wrote it. Most of us write our autobiography into the work.

The way in which what we see speaks to us. The way in which we speak what we see:, in a wide range of sounds modulated by evolution. We sort ourselves out by the sounds and clicks we allow.

My parents were barely middle-class, and when their grammar appeared in me they were scareder than qwehn I fell down and hurt myself.


Question about performance:


RD: We know how Shakeaspeare instructed the actors to speak. Trippingly on the tongue. Language is charged with meaning, Pound. Recognition and imagination, Allen Ginsberg is like an actor in that he gives feeling to put it across. Dylan Thomas put it across, Bob Dylan. Elecution gets written into the poem. Poet: if you’re anxioous about what you’re doing lately, maybe you could start there next week.


JOS?: question about narration vs. performance (finds Ashbery boring)


RD: The poets fought longest against being written down. They had a guild, they memorized epics. Tyrants imposed writing things down, keeping records, folders on everyone. Lytical poetry is the child of writing. Memory is the mother of poetry: the epic side.  Narratuve line leads to Milton. We’re no longer pre-literate, the returns on epic are indifferent.

We gave a reading in Berkeley in 1945, everybody mumbled. I’ve been reading aloud in the community for more than thirty years. The poem’s a notation for reading aloud.

Written poem a score for music of reading aloud. Floresence of Bach in synthesis and culmination of the medieval, then Romanticism, multiplicity of the individual, Mozart, everybody reading and writing, Haydn. Dancers today write a language of coreography. How do you interpret it? Learn to read the notation. Balle Russe 1910 was ambiguous. Teoday Merce Cunningham can be read and translated.

Generative impulses appeared with writing down and destroyed memorization. When you read your poem: what does it say?

Question: your versions oral & written, cites Medieval Scenes (1947). Make a critique of your own work — why is it so solidified?


RD: When the music is extremely sensitive, it must be interior. Milton’s huge organelles of rhyme obliterated these interior adjustments.


Q: Alternative to Muse tradition?


RD: personal lyric comes from Antilochus, who was a warrior, and Sappho. These two coexist in us. The sybilline prophetess climbs back up breathless over that pot to breathe the sacred fumes and give us the answer again, Mommy. Moslems have only male angels, which I find strange. Charles Olson found it intolerable that a woman should be the knower. But if a mouse appears and she talks to you, well, that’s where you start working.


Q: neue gedichten


RD: Jack Spicer took dictation from Rainer Maria Rilke.  Pound dictated the Cantos to a woman, Pound was reacting against the shock of World War I, the killing iof his generation in the rtrenches,

Poem, poema, greek. In English poet is maker, dichten, in the Jewish saying God’s voice, inspiuration, inhaling from God and then giving forth your voice, bardic, as Allen Ginsberg does, pouring forth. It’s shocking to Allen that he goes back after he has written a poem and finds that the work is crafted. Cunningly made, crafty.


Q; Charles Olson died before the new consviousness of left and right brain.


RD: Start with the voices of the street, street people, Villon. Poets don’t qualify by being nice, or having their heads on straight. Poetry embodues the world. James Dickey is murderous on the Cantos. For close news about what realm of fantasy, for the central problem: ask the dream. Robert Graves confounds two powers. The Muse cheats on him. What Rilke said: we are all that poet.


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