Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Robert Duncan's "Bending The Bow"

Yah, it ain't new. First published in 1963, to be exact, but I've been putting off Duncan for decades because of my preset, prejudicial, averse mindset stemming from a distaste for, and impatience with, the Olson influence, that Black Mountain fraud who mystified and conned generations (with, in many quarters, only a small let-up even today) into swallowing a sour mishmash of scattered allusions, lumpy prose sprayed like a cat's territorial markings on most every page, and turgid narrative which boasts a name or place in the time it takes to tag it, then flees to the next billboard.

But this is a review (of sorts) on Bending The Bow, so I'll abstain from the popular Olson/Duncan/Bowering sport of making a spiritual tessellated stained glass dome of luminary (by back-and-forth backpatting) luminosity of the initiate legions, which only seems to create worth by the hushed evocative tones its communal practitioners proceed with, rather than any convincing evaluative analysis.

Robert Duncan's Bending The Bow begins with a post-volume introduction (written in 1967) which actually begins: "We enter again and again the last days of our own history ....". Now, Irving Layton frequently penned prefaces, for over three decades, to his multiple volumes of poetry by linking the upcoming contents to contemporary political realities. Layton's pro-U.S. gov't views on Viet Nam have long been derided, and Duncan, here, takes the popular stance, as was the case with Lowell, Bly, and many other American poets, of passionate opposition to the war. Fair enough. But poetry is supposed to be concerned with proportion, with truth in its minutest particulars, so "being on the right side" means nothing when such frantic hyperbole is standard issue. OK, again, it's a prose intro, so let's turn to the relevant text in the poetry:

"robot service in place of divine service;/the Good Word and Work subverted by the Advertiser,/He-Who-Would-Avert-Our-Eyes-From-The-Truth."

That hysterical stump-waving scrawl comes from "Passages 26: The Soldiers", and is not replicated faithfully as to typographical integrity, but then I'm not going to the trouble of entering, pasting, and transcribing the exact layout here. (It's not that much different, in this case.) Which brings me to the next annoyance with this book: if Olson's "projective" verse excited and "opened up" possibilities for poetic form (I'd say poetic shape, but that's a large argument for another time), then Duncan, here, has run amok to the extent that one gets dizzy from trying to figure out the speed, pace, dynamics, emphases, pause length (the big "period" which is explained in the intro is ludicrous -- how long is the pause? And should it be flexible, or should we have a second-hand stiopwatch at the ready?), not to mention the meaning attached to the scores of degree of indentation.

There is a full page of prose explication before the two-page "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" which doesn't cancel the obnoxious didactic meandering by the ploy of a different title ("A Lammas Tiding"). And the poem? Apparently, it's an important one in the Duncan canon, so I'll quit taking apart "minor works", as the frequent counter-criticism goes, and deal with this one.

This is a brilliant poem. It's, for Duncan, a rare lyrical success. But, rare for any poet, it enacts and sustains a deep, complex universal psychological intransigence, that of the sensitive youth (boy to mother, specifically) who needs his mother's protection while simultaneously despising her for that power and for putting a limit on his necessary flight. The final three lines, even after his mother has died, returns to: "I tread her wrist and wear the hood,/talking to myself, and would draw blood".

The high rhetoric of Duncan's long poems with big themes aren't even a footnote to those of Hart Crane, a poet who closely resembles Duncan in tone and epic concern. Where Crane could also be embarassing in his emotivity, his strangely anguished feeling over slight events and stock characters, he could also craft gorgeous lyrics, whether or not their scope called for the formal richness. Duncan, however, is a prescriptive poet, but what's worse, one whose answers are cliches, are simplistic, however well-meaning they are.


A.H. said...

Surely, Duncan "resembles" Crane, in terms of influnce. The term "form" would be correct aesthetically, not "shape". It's a pity that you waste so much time reading a poet that is quite clearly not to your tastes, the greater pity is that you read him so uncreatively. Perhaps, you should have put off Duncan for a few more decades.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand your comment re Crane's influences. I stated that their tone and epic concern were similar, and I didn't give a schoolroom parallel on comparative influences between the two since that's beyond the scope of a blog mini-review, and in any event, not something I'd want to pursue in depth since the Pound-Olson-Duncan-et al axis doesn't flic my bic.

Don't understand your terse comment on "form", either. Seems I'm agreeing with you there. ("Aesthetically" is an evaluative word, and it's funny you use it in the case of Duncan's peripatetic hysterics, masking as "form". Shape is indeed his concern, as it was for Olson.)

Your next comment makes no sense at all, since one can't make up one's mind that one likes or dislikes a poet (and I just read one of his books-- he may have written many better works that this, I'm not judging him on those)unless one reads the volume thorougly, and with attention. Or are you one of those who scans a poem, and then makes a blanket judgement based on "aesthetic" lines?

Your next tidbit is unrevealing, since you don't give any indication that you, yourself, have read Duncan creatively.

The only comment I'm in agreement with is your closing sentence.

A.H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.H. said...

I take your point. As Crane pre-dates Duncan, the resemblance goes in one direction, in terms of influence: there are parts of Duncan, especially in "The Years as Catches", that echo Crane's clotted metaphors. Duncan was interested in "open field" composition, hence "The Opening of the Field" which is linked to open form. Shape is a function of that. Duncan viewed the poem as a Felt Form, a structure ever open to change: so, poems are passages, awaiting openings in the future. Form is greater than the shape on the page. Duncan isn't a concrete/shape poet. Lines on the page, as with Pound in "The Cantos", are planes/lines of thought, organised on sculptural lines. And a sculptor makes a form, not a shape. No, I do not scan and make a "blanket judgement". I have read all of Duncan...that is the difference...over many years. I think, if you are going to criticise a poet, you have to read him/her closely and attempt to understand where they are coming from. To criticise from prejudice is just too easy.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see how you (and Duncan)are using the word "form". Of course its common understanding is to do with verbal, rhythmic, sonic rules, not typographical approaches. The latter is what I understand as poetic shape. You can differentiate between concrete/shape poetry, but its structural function is hard to separate -- Duncan's "Bow"/shape products -- is it not? I realize the theoretical manifestoes and intent may be quite different in Duncan, but as I've said in previous blog posts, one must separate the author's intent with what the reader actually experiences. Only the perception (rightly or wrongly) is important. Duncan's "Felt Form", as you put it, still translates -- to me-- as highly strange and vague rhythmic units. I'd think it unfair to call it arbitrary or insolently opaque, but I can't make structure-to-meaning sense of it, and that's an honest conclusion, not at all based on prejudice. (And as I say in another post, prejudice doesn't mean the reader can't respond fairly. I've had prejudices overturned, for the good OR bad, many times. It's disingenuous, anyway, to use that charge, since there is an element of prejudice, however faint, in all of our readings and conclusions.)

I did mention that I very much enjoyed "My Mother Would Be A Falconress". This poem, accomplished, seems written by a different poet, one using, convincingly, a wide range of poetic qualities -- honest emotion, organic deployment, patterned thought, complexity, musical interest and delight. Perhaps this is why my frustration with the rest of the book was amplified -- I wanted more of that, and less of the condescendingly didactic Viet Nam journal bombast.

Thanks for the discussion.

eurydike said...

Point of fact: "Bending The Bow" was published in 1968, not 1963.

I don't know why you bothered writing this review.

Right-wingers have no understanding of poetry.
This is clear from your attribution of Olson as a fraud. And of course your embrace of the safe poet and shining Republican hero, Hart Crane.

I can understand that a Wall Street Journal intellectual like yourself would be threatened by the dynamic of the Black Mountain project (which also gave birth to UC Santa Cruz). Both were towers of idealism that were later stormed and destroyed by what has evolved as the digital Walmart culture. That probably pleases you.

Sad to see a person who takes the time to write a review of an important poet and his most important work, but only does so in order to slam that poet on political grounds, and who gets his facts wrong starting in his first paragraph.

I'm surprised you didn't quote Nietzsche.

Brian Palmu said...

Yes, you're right. Bow was published in 1968, so of course that error invalidates everything else in my review. Brilliant!

As for the rest of your reply, I won't grace straw-stuffed ad hominem and cardboard cut-out political apposites with a rebuttal. Ironic, though. Or perhaps not, since you're a fan of BTB. Both you and Duncan show a shallow approach to politics.

Why don't you deal with the points I actually made as to the TEXT of BTB? Gimme a POSITIVE review-rebuttal. Or is that beyond your ability? After all, any poet whose work I admire, I'm quick to deal with the poems themselves, especially to "correct" misconceptions.

Your move. But if it continues with the same ad hominem silliness, it'll be deleted.

Brian Palmu said...

Oh, and I guess your knowledge of history is lacking-- L Johnson was still in power when Duncan wrote Bow. You know, that rabid "right-wing" Democrat who was applauded for human rights. Nixon continued the fiasco of Viet Nam, but Johnson was Viet Nam's author.