Thursday, May 28, 2009

Keenaghan on Duncan (Contemporary Literature)

If I'm going to start publishing in peer-reviewed journals again, I'm going to need to spend a lot more time reading them. I cut back a few years ago because so many of the pieces I read were poorly written, pedagogically useless, and profoundly insular in their thinking. They'd been written, it seemed, in order to cut a notch on the author's CV--a motive I can respect, I suppose--but not one that spurs me to go and read them.

But enough of that griping! As I say, I need to start publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and that means I have to find journals and pieces that I can respect, or at least find interesting. I'm going to start with Contemporary Literature, a journal that I've published in and reviewed manuscripts for, over the years. It happens that their latest issue has a piece about a poet I like, Robert Duncan, by a critic whose work I've previously enjoyed, Eric Keenaghan. (My collection of essays on Ron Johnson has a Kennaghan essay in it.) Even the topic appeals to me: "Life, War, and Love: The Queer Anarchism of Robert Duncan’s Poetic Action during the Vietnam War." (OK, the first part appeals to me; the subtitle is clunky, but no one worries about such things anymore, right?)

What follow are some quotations from the piece, interspersed with comments from me. I didn't cut & paste page numbers; if you like the ideas, go and find the piece yourself!
"In Duncan’s anarchistic philosophy, poetry is not a revolutionary’s tool; rather, it is a creative means of striving toward an alternative vision of life, one rivaling the state’s idea of what life ought to be."
Hmmm... Does "the state" have ideas? Feels like a first-class reification to me, like a student speaking of "society," but I'm not sure if the move is Keenaghan's or Duncan's.

Reading on, it sounds like it's Duncan’s: OK, he's a poet, not a critic, & can do what he wants.
In a 1969 installment of his serially published H.D. Book, he asserts, “As the power and presumption of authority by the State has increased in every nation, we are ill with it, for it surrounds us and, where it does not openly conscript, seeks by advertising, by education, by dogma or by terror, to seduce, enthrall, mould, command or coerce our inner will or conscience or inspiration to its own uses” (2.4: 47).
Says Keenaghan, Duncan's work and thought "can help us rearticulate current conceptions of biopolitics by foregrounding how poetry and desire play significant roles in resisting the state."

I'm not sure I care about that project ("resisting the state"), or believe that it's possible for poetry to play a "significant role" in it, unless you think of "poetry" in the broad sense of "imaginative productions": all the arts, popular culture, and the like. Perhaps if some specific case were before me--marriage equality, justice in Israel / Palestine--I could be convinced. Keenaghan will talk about the Vietnam war as an instance, I gather.

...LONG passages about Foucault. I'm glad he turns to Dewey instead, eventually...but still, this is the discourse (even the diction) I have trouble with: "Poetry, he [Duncan] believed, was an especially useful discursive praxis for reimagining freedom and commonality, outside the biopolitical state’s liberalist life model."

Do I really have to learn to talk like that?

Keenaghan offers a reading of Duncan's poem "Up-Rising," starting out by putting the poem into the context of its publication history. A lot of quoting from the Letters here--letters between Duncan and Denise Levertov. "The controversy surrounding “Up Rising” resulted, for Duncan,
in a year-long writing block, which would lift only in July 1966. Duncan’s production was stalled because he was “[w]aiting for the content of ‘Up Rising’ to undergo its sea change or alchemical phase towards rendering up its purely poetic identity” (Duncan, Letters 528). In other words, he was waiting for that poem’s content to become, of its own accord, something more than an occasional political piece. But that “alchemy” did not happen on its own."

That could be useful to me in the classroom. I teach "Up Rising" now and then.
Rather than as a transparent expression of his own antiwar politics, Duncan encourages us to read the outrage or wrath of “Up Rising” as a product of its writing, a community’s reaction to the reality of a war in the process of becoming real only as it trickles down from the level of the state to the level of the people. Making the war real through communal poetic endeavors is to partake in the exercise of producing new forms of life, outside the state-endorsed American way of life that idealizes individual personhood.
That strikes me as a bit less useful, not least because the poem isn't a "communal" endeavor.

Duncan disliked Levertov's war poems becuase in them, according to Keenaghan, "The state
impinged upon the individual, forcing her to voice her resistance with the same language that the state itself promoted—that of personality and personhood, privacy and privation, property and propriety."

Hmmm... could be useful, although I'd say that it's still at such a high level of generalization that it's not all that engaged with the poems as such.

Writes K,
By opening ourselves to language’s sentimental force, we foster an intimacy that lets the truth of the situation, what Badiou terms the “real,” disrupt our acceptance of an American way of life and cult of personality prescribed and administered by the state.
That invocation of Badiou strikes me as entirely tactical, the sort of thing that one learns to do in graduate school. I find the description of the "American way of life and cult of personality" here to be vague and overgeneral. On the other hand, the notes of sentiment and intimacy strike me as true to Duncan's work: it is both sentimental and intimate, at its best.

I like this:
In his late essay “The Self in Postmodern Poetry” (1979), Duncan wrote that he lived by the tenet “mistrust thy self,” a perversion of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” “All of experience seems my trust fund to me; I must cultivate the mistrust that alone can give contrast and the needed inner tension for vital interest” (226). Another way of putting this would be, One must war not with others but with one’s own self. Life bears intellectual and material benefits only if one “cultivate[s]” a “tension” with one’s own experience.
Says Duncan (in an essay short-cited as "Returning"),
"I see my creative imagination raising a war in things in order to come into the world of opposites and contraries. . . . For, until we see the elements in their dynamic strife, as contraries, we cannot begin to transform contraries into contrasts” (61). Such dynamism, once restored to oppositional elements, would let Duncan rediscover what he calls the “aliveness” of things, in their pluralistic and incomplete natures. “Here, as in physics,” he continues, “the difference between the inorganic and the organic, the bios, is that between a crystallized form and a form of unresolved inner struggle” (61). Perpetual, internal struggle is the only way we know we’re alive. For poetry to help us live, writers must continually combat their precepts and reinterpret their experiences to avoid static—and statist—complacency.
I can think of any number of poets--poets who write about politics and those who write about many other things--I could read in light of these ideas:

“Each of us must be at strife with our own conviction on behalf of the multiplicity of convictions at work in poetry in order to give ourselves over to the art, to come to the idea of what the world of worlds or the order of orders might be” (111–12). This turmoil, to which one consciously and willingly subjects one’s self, is a means of “carry[ing] into the public field the inner battles of the individual poet’s soul” (112). Contention, war, strife—they transform privacy into publicity; they break the wall whereby the liberal American subject safeguards her own self.

ARGH! There, again, that twist into a radically different diction: "the liberal American subject." Maybe I could read that contrast in dictions in some useful way, as itself a kind of "strife"?


What I like most in the piece seems to be the scraps of Duncan! Listen to the contrast between the poet and the critic in the following:
“The very life of our art is our keeping at work contending forces and convictions,” no matter if they do prove to be “painful disorders.” It is a “creative strife,” this “breaking up the orders I belong to in order to come into alien orders.” This aesthetic obligation is utterly ethical, a testament to the poet’s social responsibility.
Keenaghan's gloss is true, I suppose, but tonally jarring: the adventure, the romance of Duncan's "alien orders" (like Ruth amid the "alien corn," in Keats) is lost. Duncan's vision may be ethical, even "utterly" ethical (whatever that means), but it's not only ethical, not simply a matter of "social responsibility."


Ooh! Duncan and Browning? Nice!
Duncan writes of his admiration of Robert Browning’s dramatic lyric: “Against the private property of self, he created a community of selves, taking existence in other times and place, other lives, other persons” (113). This community facilitates the writer’s development of “conscience,” which “lies in the depth and wholeness of his
involvement in the work where it is” (114). Such “involvement”—in both the senses of “participation” (another recurrent word) and of “folding” (as in the author’s invagination into the text)—precipitates what Duncan terms “a crisis in language and world,” not a consolidation of one’s opinion about either (114).
Not sure about that "invagination," but the rest I like, including the attention to various senses of "involvement."


Useful, this:

The crisis at the heart of Duncan’s Vietnam-era poetic is summed up in the following sentence: “All national allegiances—my own order as an American—seemed to be really betrayals of the larger order of Man” (115). If we are not open to the multiple possibilities language awakens us to, if we choose the nation-state and its way of speaking over the other possibilities presented by poetry and its inwardly and outwardly conflicted authors, we lack the resources to productively contrast Americans’ liberalist understanding of personhood as private, bourgeois, and propertied, as well as proper and proprietary. We opt to become like President Johnson, who, in “reading a script rationalizing his monstrous actions, written by a
public relations agent, is dehumanized by a mediating language” (138). If we read poetry, rather than a propagandistic script, we have a better chance of encountering “an other speech”; our new linguistic contacts reintroduce us to our selves. Alienated and altered, we find ourselves “belonging to the process of the Cosmos,” not to the
“progress” lauded by modernity and Western nations (123, 114).
Now we move into the LOVE part of the essay, from Eris to Eros. A longish passage, which quotes a longish passage, worth quoting.

First Keenaghan, then Duncan, then K again:

To conduct his chief enterprise of narrating “the fiction of what Man is,” “the would-be poet stands like Psyche in the dark, taken up in a marriage with a genius, possessed by a spirit outside the ken of those about him” (H.D. 1.3: 67, 68). Alienated from his “ken,” the male poet cross-identifies with his gendered mythic other and imagines himselfas “possessed” and “married” to a force that dispossesses him of himself. As in the classic myth, Eros is that husband:
We are drawn to Him, but we must also gather Him to be. We cannot, in the early stages, locate Him; but He finds us out. Seized by His orders, we “fall in love,” in order that He be; and in His duration the powers of Eros are boundless. We are struck by His presence, and in becoming lovers we become something other than ourselves, subjects of a daemonic force previous to our humanity. (69)
Through eroticism, liberalist fictions of personhood are undone. Vulnerability, becoming undone by an otherness that augments us, is necessary, though risky, for telling the tale of the human differently.

Because politics is born from an irresistible seduction, Duncan does not speak of writers as Romantic agents realizing their will through authorship; instead, writers are, first and foremost, readers. In reading we are most vulnerable, or open, to desire’s unknowing nature and thus to language’s politically transformative force.

Poetry therefore obliquely restores human agency to politics, which Duncan reconceives as politicized passion: “What we follow is enacting the role of Isis in reading or writing, for we must search and gather what we are searching for as we do so” (“Two Parts” 98). Just as Isis must collect and reassemble her husband Osiris’s dismembered body, readers are charged with collecting and remembering a desire deemed irreconcilably other.


“And those of us who saw and acknowledged came into a work or quest: to gather up out of the darkness of democracy and communism the thing we saw. It was the new Adam. It was the new Eros that Psyche saw” (98).


To write is “to recall the Palace of Eros,” Duncan writes elsewhere in The H.D. Book (1.6: 132).
I think I need to read The H.D. Book.


Near the end of the piece, Keenaghan begins to convey some of the romance of Duncan's ideas, catching their tone in a way I enjoy:
This queer nationalism is a process of establishing cosmopolitanism that begins when we set pen to paper or pick up a book, those acts through which we find ourselves “leaving the mother-land or father-land of the national state and entering a Mother-land of an international dream” (132). In sum, poetry’s political act begins when we let the written word we have gathered seduce us, when we let the page lure us into a global, communal life that has not yet come to pass. Such beginnings are endings, too; for when we accept them, we also embrace the termination of our fealty to the state, at least for the duration of reading and writing, and instead think in terms of the life of the world. To embrace such an attitude is always painful. Finding one’s self necessitates declaring war on the only life, on the only nation and self, one has ever known.
This set of ideas strikes me as useful in reading, not only Duncan, but a variety of other poets (Ammiel Alcalay, for example). And the piece as a whole has introduced me to some exciting passages from Duncan's prose: essays, The H.D. Book, the letters. I found it less helpful as a reading of particular poems (i.e., "Up Rising") and as you've seen, I experienced a visceral revulsion against some of its political material. Still, all in all, I'm glad I read it.

More of these to come.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Easing Back

Spending such time--so much time, I mean--teaching romance fiction this quarter that poetry has become extra-curricular again: inviting, escapist, romantic in its own right.

This is, I think, a very good thing indeed.

Bronk & Duncan, recently. And, for the plane tomorrow, Lisa Steinman's introduction to the art, which I've had on my shelf unread months now.

Easing back.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Is To Be Done?

"No serious poetry can be described as self-expression."
--Robin Blaser

You know how, in football, they have a "two-minute drill"? Two minutes left in the half or the game, and they snap off a series of plays without a huddle, maximizing yards in the time that's left? (I think that's what it means, anyway. It's been decades since I watched a football game.)

So here's the deal: I'm in a six-week drill.

Six weeks from now, my fourth NEH Summer Seminar, "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry" kicks off at DePaul. Six weeks from now the final, copyedited manuscript of New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction heads off to MacFarland. Six weeks from now this unfortunate--but productive--academic year will be gone, daddy, gone.

What do I need to write & do by then, or to get there?
  1. Wrap up logistics for the NEH seminar. Books, readings, housing, stipends, festivities, etc.
  2. Do reading for the NEH seminar--not just the assigned stuff, but a general refresher course, to shift back into poetry-teaching mode.
  3. Choose the poets / texts for my Modern Poetry survey next fall. Something new, but not too new. Sick of the huge sweeping survey, but if I only did, say, 6 or 8 poets, who would they be? (British, Irish, American, as I please.)
  4. Prep and teach another four weeks of classes. Ahem. Which means something like four more novels. (I miss teaching poems. Four more poems I could handle.)
  5. Revise the introduction to the New Approaches book.
  6. Revise my own essay for the New Approaches book.
  7. Edit four more essays, maybe five, for NA.
  8. Write and distribute the Call for Papers for JPRS, the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.
  9. Assorted work for IASPR, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.
  10. Do more fundraising and planning for the Brisbane Conference (AKA "Popular Romance Studies: an International Conference")
  11. Decide on the topic for my own Brisbane paper. Can write it in July? While teaching NEH seminar? Hmmm...
  12. Take care of final logistics for Brisbane: hotels, publicity, contact with local authors and writers' groups, etc.
  13. Revise my monograph proposal on romance fiction (including Byatt? Many decisions to be made for this, still.)
  14. Learn (on trumpet) the music I'll be performing with my son's junior high school band.
  15. Learn (on guitar) the parts for five more Alte Rockers songs. (Have I told y'all about the Alte Rockers? Remind me to do so, if not.)
What do I not need to do in the next six weeks?
  1. Finish the Crusie book introduction, and get that moving again. (That's first off the bat AFTER Brisbane, when I'm chuffed and ready for action.)
  2. Decide on future long-term projects (books, peer-reviewed articles, etc.). Many sound promising right now, but there's no need to choose among them until I get past the short-term hurdles.
  3. Buy or learn any other musical instrument.
  4. Give myself grief over anything. Eh-nee-thing. Including whether or not I'm blogging, here or anywhere else.
There's probably more, but that's enough for now. More as it comes to me.

And, since I'm going to Australia, how about a signoff song from Yothu Yindi?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Opened, tonight, The Opening of the Field.

"I saw a snake-like beauty in the living changes of syntax."

Thinking that I may need this back.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


A scatter of very sweet emails and comments have me rethinking the shut-down. If I can think of ways to make this sucker sing, I'll bring it back. Suggestions on the ways are certainly welcome, although I suspect they have more to do with everything going on in my non-virtual life (classes, commitments, etc.) than with varieties of blogging experience.

In any case, I'm touched. And grateful.