Monday, October 19, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 43.2 (Robert Duncan)

Ground Work
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Duncan, Robert
Ground Work

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

I bought this after having read Nathaniel Mackey's essay on Duncan, in which he discusses "Santa Cruz Variations" quite extensively. Reading the poem after having read the essay was a strange experience in that I found I actually liked Mackey's essay on the poem more than I liked the poem itself.

Ben Friedlander made a point on his blog the other day that he had trouble with Duncan because he had too deeply imbibed T.S. Eliot. I am not sure what he meant by that exactly, but there is something in Duncan's work that I, too, resist, or which resists me. I think it has something to do with excess. Duncan is very much a poet of the "more is more variety." You could put Olson in this same category; however, there is something essentially different about their excesses.

Olson's excess is almost entirely an excess of the material (world). He manages to create a form in Maximus that allows him to continually discover new information and then add it into the mix, leaving it more or less unchanged. The experience of reading Olson, for me at least, is one of discovery. I feel as if I am with the poet as he stumbles on some new piece of information and I often feel the same frisson as he must have as he placed it into the poem to let it resonate with other pieces of information information.

Duncan's excess, on the other hand, is a kind of subjective excess. In his poems, the material world stimulates an internal and seemingly infinite process of subjective response. At a certain point in almost all of his longer works, I wish he would turn his attention to something else. He rarely does. It reminds me of what I spoke about the other day in the letters to Levertov, in which he just erupts and the words and associations and so forth just keep coming and coming and coming until he, to my mind at least, wears out both the original impulse and the reader's attention.

This often results in a kind of narcissism. Or better, this kind of narcissism often results in a kind of self-reflexive writing that I find tiring. The poem ultimately winds its way through a tangled web of associations to a place where it is always about its own composition. In Olson, composition seems to be the means, whereas in Duncan it is the end. Maybe that is Ben's point -- that in Duncan, as in Eliot, you have what feels like a closed, internalized symbolic system, whereas in Olson you have one that is essentially open.

Here's a recording of Duncan reading "The Dignities" from Ground Work II on PennSound:

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