JMW: Your book on Robert Duncan, Gnostic Contagion, appeared about ten years ago. How did you come to know Duncan’s work? What remains compelling to you about Duncan’s poetry?
PO'L: I’ve described and perhaps mythologized my first encounter with Duncan’s work in a piece I wrote about “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” for the Poetry Foundation’s website. In 1989, I was a visiting student at Reed College for the year; Jim Powell, a visiting poetry teacher for the year, led a small group of students – maybe five or six of us – through later twentieth-century American poetry. We’d already read Rexroth, Lowell, and Bishop in some detail, as well as Bunting (whom Powell adopted as an American because, at the time, Americans were the only ones publishing Bunting). When we started in to reading Duncan, we had Powell’s personal experience guiding us, in part. Powell has been part of Duncan’s Homer group, which was reading through the Iliad line by line. He had, therefore, a sense of Duncan’s intelligence and the way it worked (as well as how it was different from other poets’). Maybe more instructively – because this was a time before recordings of poets were as easily available as they are today – he schooled us in how to read a Duncan poem aloud: how to read the pauses and how to read the linebreaks. Duncan had died only a year before this introduction to his work; his memory was still fresh for Powell.
I left Reed to return to the University of Chicago; there, I wrote a thesis on Pound, Olson, and Duncan and pretty much never looked back. A few years back, I was teaching a course on Black Mountain Poetry at the School of the Art Institute; at one point during this time, Joel Felix looked into my book bag and, noting the books I had in it, said, “You’ve been carrying the same books with you since I met you fifteen years ago.” Though circumstantial, it remains true: in some sense or another, I carry the books of these poets with me – mentally or actually – pretty much wherever I go. But especially Duncan.
Gnostic Contagion, as I explain in the preface to the book, arose out of the dissertation I wrote at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. If the misery of a man in his early twenties pining to be a poet is, at last, essentially a kind of generic unhappiness, the misery of a man in his early thirties writing a dissertation is truly unremarkable but no less isolating, enduring, or melancholic. When I finished that work, I thought, “That’s it. No more Duncan.” And then the opportunity to publish the book came along, which involved a lot of revision. When that was done, I said, “That’s it. No more Duncan.” But then the Duncan/Levertov correspondence was published. I kept writing essays and reviews. And still do. I’ve just finished the manuscript for another critical book, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Reading and Writing Religious Poetry, which has pieces on Duncan at its core.
I think, at last, we’re on the cusp of a great Duncan renaissance: finally, the first volumes of the Collected Works are going to appear from California. While many of the other figures from the San Francisco and Berkeley Renaissances have seen their works published in collected editions from university and mainstream presses – Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Helen Adam, Kenneth Rexroth, to name a few – Duncan’s work has struggled incorporeally in a publishing purgatory. The Chicago Poetry Project just held a symposium devoted to Duncan’s work, which we called “The Truth and Life of Myth,” named after Duncan’s best-known prose work. We had a dozen poets and scholars in town, Duncan enthusiasts all, giving talks and readings. (All of which will appear on PennSound in the near future; and on the new Jacket2 as a Duncan feature, edited by myself and Margaret Sloan.)
Duncan’s work remains compelling to me for reasons I’m not always in control of. Vocally, rhythmically, musically, I just don’t think he had a peer. Conceptually and cosmologically, he took poetry seriously in a way that places him, in my mind, in rare company: with Whitman, with Blake, with Dante. But if I were to identify one thing that keeps drawing me back into the work – its gravitational core – it would be Duncan’s insistence on myth as the source of power in the poem. That’s what I think I’m going to write about next.