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 …
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