Shall We Gather at the River
The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans
Derivations, Robert Duncan’s selected poems 1950-1956, is the companion volume to The First Decade, the work of 1940-1950. The selection in both cases is an act of composition, the poems chosen for compatibility of tone. Mr. Duncan writes poems and, in a cooler spirit, makes books. If he were to bring all his poems together, the result would be “my true book—no pleasure for aesthetes: a composite indecisive literature, attempting the rhapsodic, the austere, the mysterious, the sophisticated, the spontaneous, ‘higglety-pigglety’ as Emory Lowenthal sez.”
Fortunately, aesthetes will find that the diversity of Mr. Duncan’s art has not been suppressed; the poet has selected the poems on the understanding that higgle and piggle are fundamentally sound. Selection is not repudiation; Mr. Duncan trusts his art. His poems are free within the terms of a poet’s Natural Law, an act of faith which encompasses all the acts of doubt and despair. Some years ago he asserted that “the order man may contrive or impose upon the things about him or upon his own language is trivial beside the divine order or natural order he may discover in them.” Poems written in this spirit aspire to a natural form, significant in so far as it shows propriety, rather than to conventional form, “significant in so far as it shows control.” The sacred book of the arts is also the sacred book of life, “the Book that Writes trees, lakes, mountains, vistas of sun and moon, natural letters to the illiterate deep.”
This is the source of Mr. Duncan’s confidence. A careful artist, he proposes “to take care by the throat & throttle it.” He thinks of poetry as age-old wisdom, old stories, old lore, a light in the window for a traveling reader, “old desires, hungers of house and hand,” Writing a poem is like removing the telephone, letting “the interrupted spirits of the household” speak again: “when silence blooms in the house, all the paraphernalia of our existence shed the twitterings of value and reappear as heraldic devices.” The poet’s heraldry is natural, like breathing, and he pursues it as part of the natural order of things. “I make poetry,” Mr. Duncan has written, “as other men make war or make love or make states or revolutions: to exercise my faculties at large.”
Lest this poetics be facile, he subjects it to his own complication, breaking the cadence for the sake of definition and measure. In his imitations of Gertrude Stein he cultivates discontinuity, as if to earn the final grace of melody, questioning “the whole basis of an unbroken continuum in poetic language” and forcing “a new sense of interrupted movement.” Painters like Jess Collins and Brock Brockway are important to Mr. Duncan because they display “new organizations allowing for discontinuities in space.” In Whitehead, he finds congenial philosophic principles. But Stein is the angel of Derivations, helping the poet to keep things going while breaking the routine. I assume that discontinuity is another name for the transaction which Mr. Duncan describes in Letters, the “process which sets self-creation and self-consciousness in constant interplay.” He speaks of the responsible delirium of artists, “appearing in the desire for a new order which radiates from their works.” The function of discontinuity is to set up a dynamic relation between action and consciousness; as in the action of writing a poem, and the consciousness of doing so, the discontinuity keeping both phases tense.
Continuity at large, discontinuity in detail: the grand measure is achieved by altering the prosody. In “Light Song” Mr. Duncan speaks of “a free improvisation, keeping the constant vow.” Discontinuity also mediates between fact and dream. “To see a table, converse with a table: that is a daily wonder,” but “all that is merely sensible objects to or yields to the urgencies of ours to dream the world.” Mr. Duncan’s poems, then, are essays in torsion, and the search for appropriate forms and prosodies is conducted with strain in mind. The sign of discovery is “a choreographic nicety” in the lines, where the stress of fact and dream is accepted. No obstacle is dissolved or transcended.
Mostly, Mr. Duncan speaks of poetry as the act of naming or rendering. The poems exercise this faculty upon certain fundamental rhythms of life: emergence, conversion, return, the thinking of the body. The poet plays language like a kite: “kites of excitement dance in the blue, defining what had been ennui as a space to move about in.” Mr. Duncan does not confound chance with choice, but he delights in the strain of their duplicity, and the poetic possibilities which persist. He has made his vow, and now he is free.
Indeed, it often appears that the most poetic force in his work is his love of poetry, the goddess, the virgin, now invoked as “Lady,” and poems are the measures of that love, the heraldry of his vow. This does not solve particular problems, but it provides in Mr. Duncan’s world a space to move about in, and it encourages the poet to believe that problems may be soluble. The immediate problem is the gap between feeling and form, the old discontinuity. Coleridge distinguishes, in the essay “On Poesy or Art,” between “form as proceeding, and shape as superinduced.” The latter, he says, “is either the death or the imprisonment of the thing; the former is its self-witnessing and self-effected sphere of agency.” To Mr. Duncan, the relevant form is form as proceeding, the relevant spirit is natural piety, the poet in service not in chains:
But “the games
that lead man into real life” if, as Arp says, “the Dream
connects man with the life of light and darkness” are substitutes of love. It is a hearth, a compassion, creating the world in its likeness.
So his true book is likely to be, after all, his Complete Works, the force proceeding as poetry rather than secreting itself as poems. For once, poetry is more significant than poems, because poetry is the continuous law of Mr. Duncan’s life, poems merely occasional witnesses to its presence.
As to form: Mr. Duncan speaks of it as the object of search and discovery, but he also implies that the poet is already compromised. Whatever the poet does, he was bound to do; whatever he discovers was already written in invisible ink under the lines of his page. “After Freud, we are aware that unwittingly we achieve our form.” This makes no case against wit. If the forms a writer works hard to achieve are inevitable, inevitability is a function of work.
James Wright works on the assumption that a poet ought to choose, even if in retrospect the choice appears a matter of fate. In Shall We Gather at the River everything depends upon the speaker’s voice, his chosen idiom, and the speaker is, in most of the poems, an old man, derelict, afraid of the police. What the voice says is what the man has come to: there is no amplitude or resonance left, the dry voice testifies to a final attrition. “I speak of flat defeat / In a flat voice.” What has gone before is felt in the silence between the words, but the silence has nothing to say of freedom or possibility: unlike Mr. Duncan’s household spirits, the inhabitants of Mr. Wright’s silence are merely recording the gap between one defeat and another.
The speaker in these poems might be described as a Gerontion whose pharynx is bad, except that the comparisons are merely appropriate: Eliot’s Gerontion has a plangent rhetoric to keep him going, and Stevens’s complainant is merely tired of time. Mr. Wright’s old man has been beaten by the police. So the question of form, for Mr. Wright, is approached by way of role, character, action, and fate.
The method is sinister analogy, as if the whole world of natural forms were determined by a police state. “Dusk limps past in the street,” and in “The Minneapolis Poem,” “a cop’s palm / Is a roach dangling down the scorched fangs / Of a light bulb.” Words, written down, are “caught and frisked naked.” The landscape is “machine-gunned and shattered,” the falling rain has nothing to do with anything. The corresponding figures of desire are tokens of freedom: “I want to be lifted up / By some great white bird unknown to the police.” In “Inscription for the Tank” the victim cries, “I wish I had walked outside / To wade in the sea, drowsing and soothed,” and in “In Terror of Hospital Bills,” “Oh moon, sow leaves on my hands.”
In several poems, grass, the sea, and the moon are invoked for relief, as if they alone might still survive the attention of the police. Anyway, “the sea can stand anything. / I can’t.” Gradually, these figures of release and desire come together in one; a call to someone to rise from the river and stand with the speaker on another shore. “Come up to me, love, / Out of the river.” Sometimes the water is personified, the speaker a listener “waiting for courteous rivers / To rise and be known.” Whores in Wheeling, West Virginia, are sung as drowning every night and, in the morning, climbing up the other shore, “drying their wings.” In “Three Sentences for a Dead Swan” Mr. Wright speaks of the Ohio River, “no tomb to / Rise from the dead / From.”
The poetic act itself, then, consists in gazing upon the water. “By Nicollet Island I gaze down at the dark water / So beautifully slow.” The act is essentially poetic because it concentrates energy without making any demands upon its object. It is intense, but not predatory. We must begin again, trying the human experiment as if for the first time, with only the spirit changed. The public world is a handful of dust containing fear, suicide, cops, poverty, blindness, namelessness, and age: “it is a ghost town of Etruscans who have no names / Any more.” Poems are not poverty programs or welfare schemes, but acts of feeling, beginning again. Mr. Wright shares with Theodore Roethke a feeling for roots, bones, marrow, fresh starts. Roethke’s poetic world is more intricate than Mr. Wright’s, his green-house botanically richer.
Some of Mr. Wright’s poems sound as if the possibilities of growth and fulfillment earned in Roethke’s poems were now canceled. It is too late to go over that broken ground again, the old man seems to say. But in “What Can I Tell My Bones?” Roethke’s speaker says, “I recover my tenderness by long looking,” and now Mr. Wright’s invisible man is ready to settle for the means, though he is not confident of the end. The difference is formal, too, since Mr. Wright’s poems are deliberately dry and brittle, with short lines miming fear, and little or nothing of Roethke’s long cadences for growth and resurrection. As in Mr. Duncan’s Derivations, Mr. Wright’s book is more than the sum of its parts, mainly because of the sustaining relation between one poem and another, and the continuity of terror which desolates the land.
Mr. Wright’s short, end-stopped lines would be of little use to Mr. Dugan, who needs rather the long, complex sentence, its subordinate clauses incriminating the theme, drawing more and more nuances into complicity. Mr. Dugan drives his language hard, concentrating the violence of his attention upon theme and variation, forcing every possibility in the vicinity to declare itself. In poems like “The Branches of Water or Desire” and “On Zero” he fastens upon themes which would be mere conceits if handled with less determination. But Mr. Dugan applies himself to their possibilities, devoted to ramification; and in the end we feel that, far-fetched as the themes are, they are worth their carriage. The secret is attention, refusing to give up even when the case seems lost.
Collected Poems consists of Poems 1 (1961), Poems 2 (1963), and Poems 3 (1967). I can see no development in the poetry; in fact the spring seems to run dry toward the end, most of the memorable poems are in Poems 1. The procedures have remained more or less the same. In the best poems Mr. Dugan has worked up steam before the poem begins, and the first lines release it; thereafter the power drives through the language, nothing is allowed to rest until the whole work of syntax is accomplished.
I think he has two analogies for this. The first is the poem as oasis: the theme a desert, thirsting to be realized, the underground spring the imagination itself, forcing its way up into speech and form. In the poem “Oasis,” “the water argued greenery to sand: now sand / Is passionate with fruit.” I read the poem as a parable of the poetic imagination, its surface consistent with a certain cavalier note in Mr. Dugan generally. He will do anything with a theme, short of paying its expected toll: released from that dreary obligation, he lavishes his gift upon its object.
The second analogy justifies the satirical poems: poetry as graffiti, the book a latrine wall. Mr. Dugan calls his satires “counter-songs,” and they include army verse, prison song, gallows-humor, the dry mock, any product of “our subway selves” in disgust. In “Self-Exhortation on Military Themes” Mr. Dugan mentions Tyrtaeus, the Greek elegiac poet who was hired to write marching songs to stimulate the Spartan soldiers. At Dugan’s Edge they ply a counter-rhetoric, the poet a C.O., conscientiously subversive. The public enemies are big business, profit, Progress, “the rules,” offices, officers, receptionists, typists, clerks, “the economics of appearance,” department stores, “the synthetics,” glass doors, state-sponsored fear, and “Miss Unknowable, 1964.” At the Edge, sound if not safe, Mr. Dugan proposes rage and cunning; cunning, to be more ingenious than the officers, and rage, “my prime whiskey.” But, to be fair, Mr. Dugan scrawls graffiti upon his own walls, too; a man liberal in mockery ought to spare a little of it for himself. Mr. Dugan treats himself as merely what is left of bourgeois pride and common nature near the end of its rope. Ironic to heroes, he does not propose to join their ranks.
We have two poetries, then, but they depend upon the same values. Mr. Dugan’s words of praise are not as numerous as the other kind, but they are well established in Romantic idiom. The ground of praise is elemental: wind, fire, water, abundance of earth, “the truth of outside weather,” “a child’s summer and its wealth.” The grandest verb is “burn,” joyfully deployed in “Winter: For an Untenable Situation” and in a later poem about the Pythagorean Silences. “Rage” is good for the same reason. I take these words as Mr. Dugan’s terms for an American Romanticism, an American Sublime. The oasis-poetry is consistent with this reading, and I think of the acrid note in these poems as marking Mr. Dugan’s disgust at the defeat of the American Sublime. The personal version is given in “The Mirror Perilous,” near the end:
I could take it or leave it, go or stay,
and went back to the office drunk,
possessed of an echo but not a fate.
When Mr. Dugan mocks himself, the common reason is self-disgust, that everything is possible but nothing is fatal; that is, nothing is required, nothing is worthy of a grand idiom, a tragic drama. It is a mark of Mr. Dugan’s good taste that the predicament issues in poems not lugubrious but spry.
Adrienne Rich’s leaflets are poems written between 1965 and 1968, a bad time for those Americans who would like to be quiet. The poems come from “the panicky life-cycle of my tribe,” messages from underground. “I wake in the old cellblock / observing the daily executions.” Mostly, the verses are anecdotes of loss, “the clear statement / of something missing”: “the eyes reflect something / like a lost country.” And the definitive figure is a stretching across the void, for sanctuary, hopefully for relation. “If I were only colder, / nearer death, nearer birth, I might let go / whatever’s so bent on staying lost.”
The source of whatever hope remains is the feeling that “something wants us delivered up alive,” tears may still mean mercy. Several poems keep the words going until one hand reaches toward another, as in “Nightbreak” and “The Demon Lover,” despite the bad time, “shivering here in the half-dark ‘sixties.” The moon, “cracked every which-way, / pushes steadily on.” I relate many of these poems to the “sweetness hardly earned” which Miss Rich celebrated in the “Autumn Sequence” of Necessities of Life.
The formal invention in Leaflets is mainly found in the third section, called “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib,” a long sequence incited by Aijaz Ahmad’s literal English versions of the work of the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869). Each ghazal consists of a group of at least five unrhymed couplets, related not by plot but by image and association. It is useless to read the couplets as if they were aphorisms, luminous and final. Many of them are tedious, if taken with a presumption of concentration and force; they work best when they are received like images in a symbolist poem, one image stretching across vacancy to the next.
It is clear that Miss Rich has invested heavily in this form, the pervading note is apocalyptic—“Someone has always been desperate, now it’s our turn”—and the messages, bottled and thrown into the sea, are the cries of desolation heard in a different measure in other parts of the book. The continuity throughout the different forms and measures is based upon Miss Rich’s feeling for the redemptive power of language, set off against the inescapable fact that there are limits to this power. “We are our words, and black and bruised and blue. / Under our skins, we’re laughing.” But, two stanzas back:
The world, we have to make it,
my coexistent friend said, leaning
back in his cell.
Siberia vastly hulks
behind him, which he did not make.
This is Miss Rich’s special area of feeling, the shadow falling between word and desire, word and need. When the shadow obliterates her world, she longs to be released from the old burdens, the past, memory, responsibilities. In two poems, the fox is her device for this longing: the animal is self-possessed, the only tense the present, free of ancient lore, archives, and heirlooms. The poems are “5.30 a.m.” and, one of the most powerful things in the book, “Abnegation.”
The author of The Naomi Poems calls himself Saint Geraud (1940-1966) for reasons which Paul Carroll tries to explain in the Introduction; happily the poet is alive in his own person as William Knott, sometimes billed as Bill Knott. His book comprises love poems to Naomi, public poems addressed to Vietnam, and satires addressed to contemporary American poets. The Vietnam poems are so naïve that the question of their poetic quality, as an issue to be distinguished from their political stance, hardly arises. For as long as it survives, the most significant factor is that Mr. Knott practices a dead language:
Let the dead bury the dead:
it is said. But I say it is we living
who have been shoved under- ground, who must now rise up
to bury the dead, the Johnsons, Francos, Fords, and McNa- maras.
In a poem called “from I Don’t Know” Mr. Knott writes:
I don’t know but I can’t see much difference between John
Ashbery or Donald Hall or Barbara Guest or David Wagoner or
William Meredith or Anne Sexton or Sandra Hochman or Thomas
Clark or Kenneth Koch
or others writing
a poem…and a U.S. aviator drop- ping a bomb on Vietnamese
and children: both acts in these hands are in defense of
oppression and capitalism.
Well, if it’s all one to Mr. Knott I choose the former. Besides, if he can’t see much difference, etc., what is he doing on the Advisory Board of the new New York Quarterly in the company of Mr. Ashbery and Mrs. Sexton?
Paul Carroll assures the reader that Mr. Knott is a gifted poet, but the evidence has more to do with the impression Mr. Knott made in the Student Lounge of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee one December afternoon in 1965 than with anything to be verified by consulting this book. Richard Blackmur wrote, in his essay on Cummings, of poets who think that there is life in their poems merely because there was life in the feelings which the words represent. Mr. Knott’s talent seems to me to be undermined by this conviction. Very few of his poems achieve a natural authority, and I can only conclude that the feelings have not found their enabling form:
I’m tired of murdering children.
Once, long ago today, they wanted to live;
now I feel Vietnam the place
where rigor mortis is beginning to set-in upon me.
I would not impugn Mr. Knott’s feeling. I only regret that it did not transpire in the words. If the relation between feeling and words is difficult, there are poems like Mr. Dugan’s “Love Song: I and Thou” in which the difficult art has been accomplished.