Nina Serrano and Jack Foley—KPFA’s interwoven pair—are back again as May jumps into the calendar (May Day! M’aidez!). A special feature of today’s program will be a celebration of the great California (Oakland-born) poet, Robert Duncan (1919-1988). There will be an international celebration of Duncan at the Sorbonne from June 12 to June 14, but today’s show is strictly home grown. Nina and Jack will also contribute their special brand of hi-jinks.
Here is Nina:
16th Day of the New Year
It is the 16th day of the New Year
The resolutions morph into intentions
Eat healthier food
Up my game in performance
and dig deeper and wider for new words for poems
What words did I first love
Words like cherry
so like cheery which referred to Santa
with cherry red lips and cheeks
the very air around him crackling with cold and energy
and the delight of a sackful of gifts
Cherries became cherry pie for Valentine’s Day or chocolate covered
But it is a long wait for fresh cherries and their hard pits
To find a cherry pit in a cherry pie is a treasure worth saving
I know if I survive it
the year will reveal other surprises delights and disappointments
and maybe death itself is all of those
Can I remember how words came into my life
I revel in them so much today
and have even developed playmates
to toss them back and forth with me
molding and reshaping them
singing them through the airwaves
and carrying them to random places and people
who in turn will play frolic and soar
in the game without rules or scores winners or losers
We take godlike pleasure in creation
The world belongs to all of us
even if we dig and plant a tree it is not ours
In the same way our children and students belong to themselves
Asserting this from their first cries
demanding attention to their needs
defining for us that work is taking care of need
and finding the play in it
adding spice to food
painting rock with pictures to share stories
revealing the alternative truth and facts of matter
The pee and the poop that we and all the insects
litter the planet Earth with
still does not make it fall through space
with the weight of the accumulation
but keeps on smoothly sailing
through eternity in a choreographed expansion
into unlimited space
redefining itself only through its onward motion of creation
The journey redefines itself daily
carrying all living and dead and recycled atoms
Everything that is and was
mixing it up with this stuff of living and dying
and expanding the universe
And here is Jack. First the event:
MAY 11: A CELEBRATION OF ROBERT DUNCAN @ 100
“At dawn in Oakland in the cold of the year I was born, January 7th, with the sun before rising or just below the horizon in the false dawn and Saturn in his own house, in Capricorn.” —Robert Duncan
Though renowned as a poet, Robert Duncan (1919-1988) was also a graphic artist who produced visual work of considerable interest. As a celebration of the poet’s centenary, some of this rarely-seen work will be on display at the Jess-Kael House, 2419 Oregon Street, in Berkeley from Saturday, May 11, 2019, 2-4:30 (opening) through June 9, 2019.
Friends and admirers of Duncan will also discuss and read from his work. Appearing will be Joanna McClure, Jack Shoemaker, Jack Foley, Lawrence Jordan and other special guests. A special feature will be a written statement about the poet by his longtime friend and colleague, Michael McClure. The house will also be displaying Jess’s art work.
A friend of Robert Duncan’s remarked, “Robert would come to these parties, and if nothing else was going on, he could always draw. It was a form of play.” “Play” is a central element in any description of Duncan, whose rich, dense, brilliant verse was at once a challenge and an inspiration to anyone who came into contact with it. For Duncan, consciousness was bound up and intertwined with words like childhood, magic, romance, primal, and these elements are present in his graphic work as well. “I am everywhere involved in religion,” he once remarked with amusement, “but nowhere does my involvement produce a church.” Acutely aware of all the artistic ramifications of Modernism—and constantly paying homage to them—he nevertheless produced work rooted in what Modernism always represented as its generic enemy: Romanticism. “I see always,” he wrote in one of the poems of The Opening of the Field (1960), “the underside turning.” The instrument for his graphic work was not the brush but the wax crayon. “When I write by hand,” he remarked, “I can feel the poem in my hand.” Something of the same thing can be said of these drawings. “Lines” produced by the crayon echo “lines” produced by the pen. For Duncan, as for Jess, “writing” was a form of “drawing,” drawing a form of writing. “Drawingwise,” Duncan remarked to a student once, “your drawing looks like it was withdrawing, not going forward.” Duncan’s drawings are never like that. They are reminders of an artist who once said, “The world of spirit is everything,” and who praised Alfred North Whitehead because Whitehead thought of people “not as entities but as events”: “So for me there is a question: Is there a me? I? What I do is that I pose a creative process in which I assemble me from surrounding facts.” “Assemblage,” fantasy, homoeroticism, and poetry meet in both this artist’s verse and his graphic work, as they did in his life.
The Jess-Pauline Kael house
is located at 2419 Oregon Street in Berkeley. Film critic Pauline Kael lived there from1955 to 1964, and the house boasts many beautiful murals created for Pauline Kael and her young daughter in 1956 by the artist Jess (1923-2004).
JACK FOLEY ON ROBERT DUNCAN
One of the many extraordinary things about Robert Duncan’s work is that he wrote a great many wonderful early poems which are more or less neglected in the light of his later work. These lines appear in Writing Writing (1952-53):
When I imagine myself as lover
Love is again here, here I say,
coming forth by Day once more
from all mere longing, belonging
The morning turns
quiet as words speaking,
a soliloquy of audible silence.
I found the City Lights edition of Robert Duncan’s Selected Poems (1959) in a college bookstore in Ithaca, New York, where I was attending Cornell University. It must have been in 1959 or the early 1960s, and I may well have stolen the book. I was 19 or in my early 20s and I had very little money, and though I was gentle and law-abiding in most respects, my literary needs drove me to break boundaries. I found the book, like the lines quoted above, impressive and complex. I was very interested in “The Venice Poem” in which the theme of homoeroticism is explicit, but I was enchanted by “Strawberries Under the Snow,” a poem Duncan had written in the late 1940s:
Digging in the snow, the children
uncoverd wild strawberries,
rosy and joyous, hidden among leaves,
red, red as the blood of the children
fallen upon the drifts of snow.
All winter the snow fell.
The children lying in the chill snow drifts
uncoverd wild strawberries
hidden among the leaves.
And the little Saints came down,
the little Saints came down the ladders of Heaven
to sing for the frozen children
glowd like love in the cold.
how you dream !
You have been drinking wine, Child,
That’s why your heart is singing.
Your cold face does not move
but how you dream !
You turn your head in the drifts of leaves
until the snow melts
and your dreaming eyes
open like strawberries.
There is no evil here.
The snow is so soft, so white.
Tho the children will never waken,
they are not dead. They sleep.
O how the heart breaks
yearning to awaken the sleeping children.
Look! Childhood lies here
at the foot of the ladders of Heaven.
Here are the strawberries.
There is no evil here.
The poem is utterly magical and persistently enigmatic. It’s not that the poem lacks “paraphrasable content”: it’s that its paraphrasable content seems contradictory. Are the children dead? The poem suggests that they have frozen to death in the snow but it also insists that “they are not dead. They sleep.” (Yet if they are asleep, they evidently can’t be awakened: “O how the heart breaks / yearning to awaken the sleeping children.”) People often complain that a poet masks his message: why can’t he just say what he means? Their assumption is that a poem is like a piece of expository prose: it suggests that the poem is trying to say something and making a bad job of it. But it is often true that a poem is not trying to “tell” us anything at all: it is trying to give us an experience—to “arouse” us. The experience of “Strawberries Under the Snow” seems to me valuable even though I can’t quite decide what the poem “means.” The poem tells me that “there is no evil here”—in this fairy-tale experience. (It’s one of three “Homages to the Brothers Grimm.”) Here, it seems, dream trumps reality—and even death (if it is death) is muted. Contexts turn and shift in a dream-like way. Is the poem suggesting at some level that there is “no evil” in homosexuality—another kind of “fairy” tale? Perhaps. In this world, one is free to live with enigma, with contradiction, with dream, with intersecting contexts and multiple values. It does not insist that we choose anything, that anything should come out a “winner.” It is a far cry from Super Bowl Sunday.
I came to know Robert Duncan’s work much better after my wife and I moved to California in 1963. I attended readings he gave and collected his books. When he died in 1988, I staged a large tribute to him featuring many people who knew and loved his poetry. I loved his brio and his panache and his deep learning. I felt he was a better critic of his work than were the people who had written about him and that his poetry soared with an extraordinary intelligence and passion. He taught me about the immense poetic usefulness of the Oxford English Dictionary—of history and of words as the embodiment of history—and I shared his passion for Charles Olson’s Maximus poems. But if Olson assigned Jung at Black Mountain, Duncan assigned Freud and had his students read Finnegans Wake, a book Olson didn’t care for. Olson distrusted puns; Duncan made them all the time—in conversation as well as in his writing.
Duncan clearly understood the mind to be multiple, but perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this fact was not merely that he understood the mind in this way but that he was aware that this understanding had implications for literary form.
Micah Mattix writes in “Robert Duncan, The Collected Early Poems and Plays” that Duncan “regularly used devices indebted to surrealism—parataxical juxtaposition of incongruent images (often of sex or violence), illogicality, and a multiplicity of ‘voices.’”
But if there is a multiplicity of voices within the poem, shouldn’t there be a multiplicity of voices in the recitation of the poem? Why should a “multiple” poem be recited by a single speaker? I’ve asked Sangye Land to join me in reading a poem I wrote FOR THE BIRTHDAY OF RD (JAN 7):
In “the winter wild”
How to save you
From the Abstract Mind
Master of the crossed sticks,
The crossed eyes—
How to pull poetry
From the dry vicissitudes
Of a mind
You enter my heart
In this dark time of the year.
How to say
“These are poems
of an irregularity”
Your words, your face,
The slight stutter of your beautiful voice,
The tears when you spoke of Jack Spicer.
What can I tell you, Master Poet?
Your words opened my heart.