The Truth and Life of Myth: A Robert Duncan Symposium
“Robert Duncan and the Invention of Childhood.”
in conversation with Joseph Donahue and Peter O’Leary
Faith Barrett & Karl Gartung
“In Words War: Writing through the Duncan-Levertov Correspondence”
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Three or so years ago, we (Faith Barrett & Karl Gartung) thought to write a play from the Duncan/Levertov correspondence. When that failed we, nevertheless, continued in this collaboration. A correspondence is a kind of collaboration, and to that extent, we wished to correspond, to co-respond. In a conversation, a dialogue, what is said is not really said by the one or the other, but what is between them. “Let’s keep it between us,” the song says. Keep love and language and passion and disagreement. The hope always is to lessen the “small distances” which divide us, which divided them. In the case of Duncan and Levertov, what divided them was not so much, really.
It is amazing, really, to see her first criticism of his political stance in “Earth’s Winter Song” (Letter 363) mirrored in his withering attack on her war poetry in the late stages of their debate over response(s) to the Vietnam War. The difference seems to come down to her public participation and endorsement of the antiwar political movement versus his adherence to individual anarchist and aesthetic principles. But even here the differences did not really hold. He also took part in antiwar readings, etc. In this we do not look to agree or to disagree. That we do or not seems beside the point. We, of course, were drawn, considering the present state of war, to their controversy, that tragedy.
Watching, as if from a corner, or under a table, as parents fight, crockery is broken.
Those we love, those we do necessarily love.
Collaborating, it’s not an argument we’re making but an argument that is made.
“Duncan Etude – Truth and Life of a Potential Poetry”
Starting with the first line of Duncan’s essay – “Myth is the story told of what cannot be told” – I argue that Duncan’s discussion of “myth” is really a discussion of the potential state of poetry (which, following Agamben, is simultaneously a state of “impotentiality”). I draw this out towards a reading of Duncan’s poetics (and politics) of incompletion in the PASSAGES poems, and intersect this discussion with reflections upon my own efforts to write a poetry of (im)potentiality in “The Barricades Project.”
“Like Capricorn: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of the Vertical”
That concern would be what I’m thinking of as a post-Duncan ascensional poetics, looking at the whole realm of the vertical, of flight, of out of the body travel, of all that is associated with that most ancient and most discredited area of poetry, rising upward.
“The Adoption of Influence: Robert Duncan, Derivation and the Writing Woman”
My presentation grows out of the importance of many women poets, artists and thinkers in Robert Duncan’s poetry. Within a landscape of Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, Helen Adams, Jane Harrison, Denise Levertov and others, I will focus on H.D. as both a poetic influence and a complex dramatic figure in Duncan’s work. First, I explore how Duncan’s H.D. provides the groundwork for a pervasive, mythic female in his poetry. Secondly, I consider matters of gender and sexuality with regard to H.D.’s significance, reading Duncan’s poetry alongside our expectations of both the New American and ‘queer’ post-war poetry. Linking the two parts, I will suggest that Duncan’s writing of the female poet is unique, and still highly political for the twenty-first century: I ask if it presents fresh approaches to academics’ and readers’ existing notions (as well as personal experiences) of the canon, the tradition and the muse.
As part of this presentation, I will introduce the correspondence between Duncan and the leading figure of the British Poetry Revival, Eric Mottram, during the 1970s, relating it to my work on Duncan and writing women.
“Robert Duncan’s Oracular Contradictions”
According to Robert Duncan in his essay “Changing Perspectives on Reading Whitman,” “The oracular mode enters poetry and history where profound contradictions come into play.” Duncan is writing about both Whitman’s poetry and his own. Deeply influenced by Whitman (“in the course of writing The Opening of the Field…Leaves of Grass was kept as a bedside book”), Duncan is acutely sensitive to the contradictions in his precursor’s stance, especially in regard to the issue of American democracy. This sensitivity is due in part to a fundamental contradiction in Duncan’s own discursive practice at a crucial point in his career. Although he wishes to assume to the mantle of an American bard, he is also steeped in a much older tradition of hermetic utterance, in which, as he notes in “The Truth and Life of Myth,” “the truth of things was esoteric (locked inside) or occult (masked by the apparent).” Paying particular attention to Duncan’s essays on and addresses to Whitman, this talk will consider the ways in which Duncan negotiates these contradictions to achieve his own oracular mode.
“In Robert Duncan’s ‘Anima Rebellion,’ Denise Levertov Meets the Goddess Kali.”
“Cruising the Archive with Duncan’s ‘Night Scenes.’”
In 1959, Duncan writes: “I would leave, as I do, a vast nervous contradictory record of the worldly life I have come to celebrate, almost to worship. Not to seek a synthesis; but a melee.” Duncan’s serial poem “Night Scenes” from his 1964 collection Roots and Branches provides us one of these vast records, a single poem that becomes, through Duncan’s poetics, an act of criticism, translation, citation, letter writing, and friendship as much as it is also a single poem. My talk will trace the poem’s genetic history and share a number of constellatory materials from the archive – among them, a previously unpublished poem and translation of Duncan’s, and a number of unpublished letters – in order to open a reading of the poem that may expand the critical conversation about both the textual practices and political import of derivation in Duncan’s poetics.
On Duncan’s Voice
Robert Duncan’s Tribunals: Techne, Poiesis & the Fate of the Book.”
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