Photo by © Allen Ginsberg/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
In her critical biography, Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, published by University of California Press in July this year, ‘Lisa Jarnot has the following paragraph as the book’s epigraph:
Harvey Brown recalls Olson’s story of walking around and around the block near Duncan’s house before building up the courage to actually ring the bell. “Well how would you feel,” he asked Brown, “if you were about to meet the Ambassador from Venus?
Charles Olson was an imposing figure, a man who stood 6ft 8 inches tall. His poems, ‘The Kingfishers’ and “In Cold Hell, in Thicket’, influenced many poets in the USA as well as certain poets worldwide. Olson was an American modernist who linked earlier figures such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to the New American poets. He was considered a primary figure by many post modernist groups such as the language school.
Olson, taught at Black Mountain College from 1948 until 1957. The school was established in 1933 as America’s first independent experimental college and was situated in North Carolina. Featuring democratic self-rule, its staff included luminaries such as the painters Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, composer John Cage, the architect Buckminster Fuller, choreographer Merce Cunningham and the architect Walter Gropius among others. Olson became the Rector in 1951 and the position enabled him to bring in poets like Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn and Robert Duncan to teach and lecture.
As editor of The Black Mountain Review Creeley established links with the Beat poets in San Francisco by publishing them alongside Black Mountaineers. The central tenet of the Black Mountain poets was ‘composition by field’. Olson was formulating his famous theory of projectivist verse during this time. Its tenets spread around the world and by the 1960s had reached Australia. Many of the poets in Sydney’s Generation of ’68, including myself, were influenced by the Olson/Creeley essays.
The main thrust of Olson’s theory of projective verse was against the dominance of the Anglo-American tradition of poetic forms. For Robert Creeley, the thing was to create a new aesthetic where poetry could operate in an open field; “form is never more than an expression of content’ wrote Olsen, to which Creeley added: ‘and content never more than an expression of form.’
It is 23 years since Robert Duncan’s death, yet volumes of new work are being regularly published. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov appeared in 2004. The University of California Press is publishing The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan in six volumes. The H.D. Book (Collected Writing) in 2011 and just this month the huge Collected Early Poems and Plays.
In person Robert Duncan was a cyclone of poetry. His talk was endless and vibrated with ideas. Along with his study of the Gnostics and the occult, he was up on the latest discoveries in science, psychology and astronomy. He contained many contradictions, he called himself a derivative poet and followed what he called generations of masters. He was a legendary word-spinner, his conversation could take off from anywhere, then lead into to complex discussions of : ‘the matter of Bees’, ‘The Truth and Life of Myth’, Dante, Shelley, Pound, Gertrude Stein, Helen Adam, H.D., Denise Levertov, Mondrian , Stravinsky, Freud, Mahler, the Bach cantatas, W.B. Yeats and Hart Crane, Heraclitus, Mallarme and Christopher Brennan’s correspondence.
Michael Palmer says ‘Such conversation was often joyous, always intensely vital, yet often also marked by an undercurrent of unquiet desperation. Electric connections would occur or fail to occur. The process was strikingly heuristic, resistant to closure, the goal a mapping of attention and a form of comprehension.’
Robert Duncan was an innovative writer who stood out from other New American poets because his poetry was influenced as much by Dante and Blake as it was by Walt Whitman. When he came into his major work in The Opening of The Field his poetry was metaphysical, lyrical and experimental:
Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow
as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.
She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.
It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down
whose secret we see in a children’s game
of ring a round of roses told.
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
After reading many critics, the most useful description of Duncan’s style I found was by Thom Gunn:
much of Duncan’s unusualness for a new reader comes from his unfamiliar readiness to take what I have called the high road. Historically it has become less used only recently, since poets started to move away from the grand style.
Most of us have in recent years taken a very low road indeed, finding our virtues in understatement and our safety in irony; we are tentative and evasive; we disown passion or we clothe it in indirection.
Duncan, by contrast, makes claims for the importance of poetry that are both Poundian and Shelleyan (perhaps Dantean as well): in doing so he holds himself responsible for deep feeling, whether public or personal, without the qualification of irony, and adopts the voice of the seer or the bard even to the extent of giving an archaic cast to his speech. (And by the way) Before automatically condemning the poetic device of archaism, we would be well advised to remind ourselves that it has a long and respectable history, and was not merely a regrettable Victorian invention.
In an essay ‘Ideas of the Meaning of Form’ Duncan makes this observation :
Poets, who once had dreams and epiphanies, now admit only to devices and ornaments. Love, that had been a passion, had best be a sentiment or a sensible affection.
In 1960 Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry appeared and promoted the influence of the Black Mountain poets worldwide. I bought a copy in Sydney in 1968 and discovered Robert Duncan’s poetry and poetics . These poetics were like nothing I’d ever come across: for example, to read a poet from the second wave of modernism whose style seemed free from a contemporary sense of fashion gave me a sense of liberation. It was a time of rather doctrinaire poetics in Sydney and I needed to fly above this climate. What I discovered in Duncan’s poetics was an imaginative style that didn’t seem too far from William Blake’s visionary images. What made Duncan so extraordinary to me was that he was a contemporary, a main player in the New American Poetry, who called himself ‘derivative’ yet his work seemed both experimental and timeless.
The tone of Duncan’s poetics sounded archaic and yet I was drawn to passages that articulated my original impulses to write poetry:
What we expected poetry to be when we were children. A world of our own marvels. Doors of language. Adoration. We dreamed not originally of publishing. What a paltry concern. No child of the imagination would centre there. But we dreamed of song and the reality of romance.
At the time it was difficult for me to think of publishing a book of poetry as a paltry concern. I had published my first book Canticles On the Skin and was riding high.
I began reading Duncan’s work more closely and discovered he did his thinking with his poems, ideas developed as the lines were being written, the process of writing was often included like instructions . He would say ‘I wrote’ when he meant ‘I read’ and vice versa, the open field was a fictive certainty where truth and the imagination became the structure of his poetry. Here’s a passage where he discusses this:
Where there is a soul, all the world and body become the soul’s adventure or trial. The body is real and all real things perish. But realities give birth to unrealities. As Plato discovered, as St Augustine discovered in the City of God, unrealities, fantasies, mere ideas, can never be destroyed…. Poetry is the very life of the soul: the body’s discovery that it can dream. And perish into its own imagination.
Michael Palmer had a similar experience with Duncan’s poetics in The New American Poetry: he writes that certain passages of Duncan’s poetics: ‘appeared to lay the ground for a prosody and a poetics in radical opposition to the institutionally dominant Anglo-American formalism of the time, to propose a prosody and a poetics responsive to the most recent developments in music and the visual arts, yet anchored, through Dante and many others to a ‘spirit of romance’ animating human history’
Michael McClure says: ‘Robert showed us the real possibilities of free verse—that free verse could be an implement for thought. I needed just such an example, and Robert was the living example.’ McClure’s talking about the early 1970s here.
When I finally met him in 1976, Duncan proved to be the living example I had been searching for as well.
I need to sketch out some biographical details briefly here: I have drawn from Lisa Jarnot’s Robert Duncan, The Amassador From Venus (A Biography), along with some details I’ve taken from Robert Duncan’s The HD Book.
‘Robert Duncan was born on the 7th of January 1919. At birth he was given the name Edward Howe Duncan in honour of his father, a railroad engineer on the Southern Pacific line in California. His mother, Marguerite Duncan hadn’t intended to deliver her tenth child at home, but she had been ill, and a local hospital refused to admit her, fearing that she was infected with the Spanish influenza. There were several factors that contributed to her death some hours after her son’s birth. She was six months into her pregnancy—the baby was due not in January, but in April. And despite the fact that the child weighed only six-and-a-half pounds: the crown of his head was wide, further complicating the birth. Marguerite Duncan hemorrhaged during the delivery, and under the best of circumstances there would have been reasons to expect difficulties—she was a small woman in her late thirties who had already given birth to nine children, two of whom had been stillborn.’
Robert Duncan knew the story of his birth and subsequent adoption from an early age. Before his birth, his step-parents, Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes, had become involved in a theosophical group in the Bay Area, a hermetic brotherhood modeled after late-nineteen-century occult groups such as London’s ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ and Madame Blavatsky’s ‘Theosophical Society of New York and India’.
The Symmeses had discovered Robert Duncan, or more accurately, he had been sent to them. By the reckoning of their religion, his astrological chart indicated that he had, in a past life, lived on the mythological continent of Atlantis as one of its great innovators.
According to hermetic doctrine, his mother Marguerite Duncan’s role had been simply that of a ‘vehicle’ of his birth. She was an agent of his reincarnation and she had died so that he might be handed over to his rightful parents. The preparation for the child’s arrival began some time before 1919. For the Symmeses the terms of the adoption were threefold. The baby would be born at the time and place appointed by the astrologers, the natural mother would die shortly thereafter, and the child would be of Anglo-Saxon protestant descent.
At age three, Duncan was injured in an accident on the snow which resulted in his becoming cross-eyed and seeing double. In Roots and Branches, his second major book, he wrote, “I had the double reminder always, the vertical and horizontal displacement in vision that later became separated, specialized into a near and a far sight. One image to the right and above the other. Reach out and touch. Point to the one that is really there.” Duncan often spoke of his ‘double sighted vision’ and claimed it influenced his poetry.
The household of Duncan’s early years was alive with creativity, his Aunt Fay often wrote and illustrated tracts about her mystical discoveries. Robert Duncan later told his friend Helen Adam that he showed his Aunt Fay one of his first childhood poems, she read it and her response was ‘This is very lazy of you. You have been a poet in so many lives.’ Duncan was unfazed by his first critic Aunt Fay and continued writing throughout his childhood, and, knowingly or not the adults around him granted him the permission to indulge in a pantheism of his own.’
Although Duncan eventually grew skeptical of his family’s pseudo-orthodoxies he turned to many of his parents’ sacred texts when he wrote his poems. ‘At the center of his library in years to come were a large number of books out of which he fashioned a poetics paying tribute to both his mother’s theosophical interests and his father’s profession as an architect. His stories of his childhood, always embellished with each retelling, returned to the same assertion: family gatherings had provided him with all the material he needed to kindle his imagination. He had been a regular spectator to passionate conversations by Plato, Shakespeare, and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. He often informed his audiences of the debt he owed his adoptive family: ‘They were spinning a tale beyond belief and I wanted to go into that tale.’
It’s important to know Duncan often made a distinction between his beliefs and those of his adoptive parents. As late as 1982 he presented what he called a ‘sermon’ at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo entitled ‘The Continuity of Christian Myth’, this lecture clarified the Christian streak in Duncan’s thinking. He told the audience that he prayed to an Old Testament God, ‘just in case’ but then went on to say ‘No question that my poetry is poetry of spirit….. Is it a poetry of religion? Do I have one? ….. I have been described as a mystic poet. My only possible mysticism is the experience I have of language, which to me is pure spirit and to me is something more than eternal… In language I encounter God.’
At this point it’s time to hear a Robert Duncan’s poem :
My Mother Would Be a Falconres
My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when I’d turn my head.
My mother would be a falconress,
and she sends me as far as her will goes.
She lets me ride to the end of her curb
where I fall back in anguish.
I dread that she will cast me away,
for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.
She would bring down the little birds
And I would bring down the little birds.
When will she let me bring down the little birds,
pierced from their flight with their necks broken,
their heads like flowers limp from the stem?
I tread my mother’s wrist and would draw blood.
Behind the little hood my eyes are hooded.
I have gone back into my hooded silence,
talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.
For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me,
sewn round with bells, jangling when I move.
She rides with her little falcon upon her wrist.
She uses a barb that brings me to cower.
She sends me abroad to try my wings
and I come back to her. I would bring down
the little birds to her
I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly.
I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood,
and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying.
She draws a limit to my flight.
Never beyond my sight, she says.
She trains me to fetch and to limit myself in fetching.
She rewards me with meat for my dinner.
But I must never eat what she sends me to bring her.
Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me,
always, in a little hood with the bells ringing,
at her wrist, and her riding
to the great falcon hunt, and me
flying up to the curb of my heart from her heart
to bring down the skylark from the blue to her feet,
straining, and then released for the flight.
My mother would be a falconress,
and I her gerfalcon raised at her will,
from her wrist sent flying, as if I were her own
pride, as if her pride
knew no limits, as if her mind
sought in me flight beyond the horizon.
Ah, but high, high in the air I flew.
And far, far beyond the curb of her will,
were the blue hills where the falcons nest.
And then I saw west to the dying sun–
it seemd my human soul went down in flames.
I tore at her wrist, at the hold she had for me,
until the blood ran hot and I heard her cry out,
far, far beyond the curb of her will
to horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world where
the falcons nest
I saw, and I tore at her wrist with my savage beak.
I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight,
sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist,
striking out from the blood to be free of her.
My mother would be a falconress,
and even now, years after this,
when the wounds I left her had surely heald,
and the woman is dead,
her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart
were broken, it is stilld
I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.
Here’s a short passage from one of Duncan’s notebooks describing his step-mother:
She was a beautiful woman I suppose. She had black hair that was wild and naturally waving about her head and a fine delicate nose, nostrilled like a nervous horse… but we could see her irrational angers in those eyes.. She was perhaps in this even a magnificent creature, tyrannical with the beauty of will that the tyrant has.
Can we assume Duncan based the figure of the falconress on his stepmother? Peter O’Leary in his book on Duncan’s poetry, Gnostic Contagion asks the question:
Who is the mother?’ He concludes ‘She is so archetypally portrayed, we fall short by calling the falconress Minnehaha Symmes. And yet this is Minnehaha, with whom Duncan had an undeniably excruciating relationship. Perhaps in attempting an archetypal portrayal of the mother, Duncan portrays exactly what he would disown, his adoptive mother. And what of his real mother? She died at birth. We have read in shamanic legend that the bird-mother comes at the moment of spiritual birth and physical death.
Thom Gunn understands the mother as an irreducible figure, saying that she is ‘merely, completely herself’ He elaborates: ‘The mother appears as a distinct and close figure, no less mythical for her clarity. The images of her as a falconress and him as obedient little falcon who is later to break away from her enable Duncan to dramatize the whole series of conflicts involving possessiveness and love on the one hand and freedom and the need for identity on the other.’
In her biography, Lisa Jarnot writes of Duncan’s ambivalence toward his stepmother:
his fascination with her authority would surface in the poetry he wrote as an adult. But part of what he perceived as the oppressiveness of his stepmother’s personality certainly came as the result of her own upbringing. Abandoned by her father at the age of two, and raised in the company of several strong-minded women, Minnehaha Harris, by early adulthood, was willful, controlling, and never without resource’
My friendship with Duncan came about after I met Allen Ginsberg at the Adelaide Writers Week in 1972 when Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were the invited international guests of the Adelaide Festival.
Ginsberg’s main event was at the Adelaide Town Hall where he performed with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a group of songmen from In-dull-kana. Later that night, after the readings, I came across Ginsberg playing his harmonium in the bar at the Oberoi Hotel. He was singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. When he finished the Blake he sang another song that very much appealed to me. I approached him and asked about the song. He told me he’d co-written it with Bob Dylan. This immediately connected us and was the beginning of a epic conversation that went on into the night. Later Ginsberg invited us back to his room where we listened to him sing and talk for hours. By 3am the other poets who came up to the room had either left or fallen to sleep on the floor.
I started showering Ginsberg with questions about poetry, he answered some and ignored others. I remember asking him what he thought of the poetry of John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin and Robert Bly among others. He started singing again— maybe to avoid answering my questions—however I pushed on regardless, I was obsessed with the need for answers. I think I became frenetic but Ginsberg remained calm. After a while he sat down on the floor in the lotus position and began chanting a mantra.
I tired to interrupt when he lowered his tone of voice but he waved an arm and placed a finger on his lips. Finally he stood up and went over to the desk and picked up his Indian shoulder bag and rummaged through for a notebook. He wrote something on a page and handed it over to me saying, ‘Here Robert, this man will be a godsend to you, he is a scholar poet and will answer your restless questions. I looked at the page and there was a little drawing and he had written Robert Duncan’s name and home address. Ginsberg told me to write to Duncan and include a copy of my book with the letter.
At the time I was a slightly disappointed with my meeting with Ginsberg. At first I thought he palmed me off because I was being so intense. With hindsight though I realize how kind he was, and how precisely he had chosen the poet I should correspond with, the poet I would be compatible with. Although in 1972 Robert Duncan was unreal to me as a person, an unapproachable star, he certainly didn’t seem like somebody you might write a letter to, he was as remote as Percy Shelley living in some unimaginable realm. As it turned out, that name and address Ginsberg handed to me opened all the doors I ever wanted to pass through.
I studied as much of Duncan’s poetry as I could find, along with biographical and critical essays. I discovered Duncan’s childhood had been complicated by the early knowledge of his homosexuality. Michael Palmer writes “his homosexuality which would play a central role in articulating the complex thematics of his work. Long before it was safe to do so, Duncan ‘came out’ in both his personal and public lives”.
In 1944, Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics published Duncan’s still-controversial article, ‘The Homosexual in Society’. This caused John Crowe Ransom to withdraw Duncan’s ‘African Elegy’ from its scheduled publication in the Kenyon Review . Many lines of battle were being drawn at once.’
I wrote to Jonathan Cape in London and bought The Opening of The Field, Roots & Branches and Bending the Bow, Duncan’s trilogy of major work. I studied these books intensely for six months before taking Ginsberg’s advice and writing to Duncan. It took me at least two weeks to compose the letter, containing six or so typed pages, along with a handwritten first page mentioning in detail meeting Ginsberg and his suggestion to write. I also included a book of my poetry ‘The Rumour’. As a post script I enquired about Duncan’s new work, then asked if he had any new poems that we could publish in New Poetry the poetry magazine I was editing. I didn’t believe he would send us a poem, the request was a postscript, one last flourish to my letter.
A month later Duncan answered with a hand-written letter, saying he had to let my book: ‘have its time for him’ but now he ‘had come to that time’. He said that he was out of typewriter ribbon and had taken my book with him on his way to buy supplies:
(quoting his letter) “ I walkt across town, down amidst warehouses..reading from the beginning aloud and so, getting a voice that would be yours before I began to realise in The Rumour the voice I know in my own poetry had come into it. But what do those cadences sound like in Australian?”
I was astonished at the thought of Robert Duncan walking across town there in San Francisco reading aloud from my book . What better response could I want? The last sentence of this letter mentioned ‘‘Museum’ a previously unpublished poem: ‘”If you want to use the enclosed ‘Museum’ for New Poetry it’s yours—as some kind of return for the reading you do give me—” (Duncan often spoke about the way poems sounded. When he discovered certain Australian poets he was interested in, he would ask for tapes of them reading their poetry.)
I wrote back accepting his poem and I took this opportunity to ask Duncan the same questions I had asked Ginsberg, questions he had avoided answering, about John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin and Robert Bly, I wanted to know how they figured and why some had been left out of The New American Poetry anthology. I had no idea at the time that Duncan had advised the editor Don Allen about the selection.
By return mail Duncan answered my questions about these poets:
About the me-lange of Ashbery, Merwin and Bly— With ‘Three Poems’ and his about to be publisht ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ Ashbery is truly wonderful—and wonder should verge everywhere upon “I wonder”—Most important he is never vague. In his own terms he talks about ‘beautiful lies’; so there is some aesthetic pose. And transformation of high camp (as if starting there gave the permission needed for the transcendent speech). He writes in the interior voice (so much so that he has great difficulties with public readings) Wallace Stevens base (with, as he notes, Laura Riding) and I would surmise Marianne Moore—but not the Pound, Williams, Lawrence, or H.D. (or later Stitwell) i.e. the Carlylean heroic stance—He is civilized, which I am not, ( tho the ‘Dante Etudes’ speak for how much I love the civilizing influence of San Franscio) (This is still the difference between upstate New York and third generation Westerner (which means ones parents and grandparents were “pioneers” or 1850 beatniks) In my perspectives Ashbery is a major contemporary, which I don’t see Merwin or Bly as. In Ashbery’s perspectives any prospect of “importance” is considered to be distasteful.
At one point, struck by the similarity between structures of Rime and some of Merwin’s poems, I tried to find if back of that there was an agreement of mind— well, Merwin remains “enchanted” in his own intent seeks to make the erotic imprint or at least suggestion. He writes, reads, moves in the special homogenous mode (and mood) he thinks the poetic to be. That analogy to dream-experience that had struck me as a kind of mind-less presence, he doesn’t contest the die mon, who in turn begins to lose muscle.
When poems by Bly are quoted (as also with Wright) I have been attracted; but always to lose track when trying to read. Comes out no score. And as I find his reading manner embarrassingly affected, hearing it don’t help. I just don’t find the life-urgency—I mean having to find life in the poem. (Like Merwin’s needing that erotic enchantment; or Ashbery’s entire existence in the poem)—The maverick James Dickey is another one, no question— no doubt about his being a poet— tho a psychotic (driven by the compulsion to get in touch with the panic of a victim about to be violently killd; feeding off of his old fire-bombing missions and the eyes of stricken deer.) I lifted him whole (riming with a ten-year-old-me at catastrophe games and phantasies) to charge “Uprising”— if Dickey had any conscience of what is going on in his great poems, he would be a marvel (but the thought of the cost of conscience in his case is beyond me)
We corresponded for another two years before I hatched a plan for a Robert Duncan poetry reading and lecture tour of Australia in 1976 . After a lot of organizing we finally arranged for him to stay in Australian for four weeks; this included a week in Sydney where he stayed at our place in Lane Cove. Duncan did a series of talks and readings at Sydney University then a reading at Watters Gallery before traveling to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
* * *
Robert Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts. Creeley lost the sight in one eye in a car accident when he was three years old. ( A remarkable coincidence, remember, Duncan also had an eye accident when he was three) Creeley’s father, a prominent local doctor, died of pneumonia a couple of years later. After this setback his mother had to go back to full-time work as a nurse. They moved to a farm outside town and times were hard.
The loss of his eye, and then the loss of his father affected Creeley profoundly. For the first half of his life he travelled as an outsider, his heavy drinking often leading to brawls with friends and strangers. Creeley was sometimes an angry young man who, in one of his own lines, wants “the world to narrow to a match flare”.
He was accepted into Harvard University in 1943 but when his lecturers made it impossible for him to study Hart Crane and Walt Whitman he began attending jazz clubs where he listened to Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. He read Ezra Pound and Coleridge, along with the English Jacobean lyricists who were to influence his poetry. The poet Delmore Schwartz, one of his teachers, introduced him to the 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan, who became an abiding influence.
The young Creeley found university uninspiring, and as his love of jazz grew his grades fell, until he finally decided to leave altogether. Unable to sign up for World War II because of his sight problem, he joined the American Field Service and drove ambulances in India and Burma. He returned home with two medals, and although he was accepted back into Harvard he dropped out before graduation in 1947.
At Black Mountain he learned to teach and honed his craft as a poet until it became swift and intricate, his timing for each phrase and every line was exquisite. Jack Kerouac called him ‘Roberto, the secret magician.’ He taught at Buffalo University as a professor for many years and later in life at Browne where he became known affectionately as the Dean of American Poetry.
When I met Creeley in 1976, my first question was “What do you think of Mallarme?” He quoted a line: “Is the abyss white on a slack tide.” The next instant we hugged and began speaking, simultaneously, and continued without pause until he went on his way. He spoke like lightning, his words flashed and hit home, then resounded in your head for days.
Creeley had come to Sydney from New Zealand to lecture and read his poetry in the Seymour Centre and at Sydney University’s English department. Michael Wilding was able to raise his fare via the Literature Board because there was a conference, the American Bicentennial Seminar. It was a last-minute tour and, considering the publicity, a tiny advertisement in the paper, it’s a wonder anyone came. But his reading and lecture were packed out.
Creeley was put up at the Hilton and we took him back there after his reading. I drove my Mustang with the top down back to Lane Cove, as we walked through the door, the phone rang: “Come and get me, it’s a bleak scene here at the Hilton.” We were still singing and drinking Jim Beam at 3am when we dropped in to see a friend of mine, Gayle Austin, who had a midnight- to-dawn radio program on the ABC in the early days of Double J.
Creeley read poems and spoke about music. Phone calls came in from all over Sydney, the listeners loved him, his poems were breaking hearts on the air. We tried to get his session recorded, but there was no sound engineer and nothing happened. When dawn came I took him fishing. We went spinning for tailor under the Harbour Bridge. “Bob, there’s our Opera House,” I said, and he replied: “I didn’t come half-way around the world to go sightseeing.”
This a poem Creeley dedicated Robert Duncan (listen to the correspondences between this poem and Duncan’s My Mother Would Be A Falconress. (Both poems address a muse, a mother, or a Robert Graves White Goddess figure.
for Robert Duncan
It is hard going to the door
cut so small in the wall where
the vision which echoes loneliness
brings a scent of wild flowers in a wood.
What I understood, I understand.
My mind is sometime torment,
sometimes good and filled with livelihood,
and feels the ground.
But I see the door,
and knew the wall, and wanted the wood,
and would get there if I could
with my feet and hands and mind.
Lady, do not banish me
for digressions. My nature
is a quagmire of unresolved
confessions. Lady, I follow.
I walked away from myself,
I left the room, I found the garden,
I knew the woman
in it, together we lay down.
Dead night remembers. In December
we change, not multiplied but dispersed,
sneaked out of childhood,
the ritual of dismemberment.
Mighty magic is a mother,
in her there is another issue
of fixture, repeated form, the race renewal,
the charge of the command.
The garden echoes across the room.
It is fixed in the wall like a mirror
that faces a window behind you
and reflects the shadows.
May I go now?
Am I allowed to bow myself down
in the ridiculous posture of renewal,
of the insistence of which I am the virtue?
Nothing for You is untoward.
Inside You would also be tall,
more tall, more beautiful.
Come toward me from the wall,
I want to be with You.
So I screamed to You,
who hears as the wind, and changes
changes in the mind.
Running to the door, I ran down
as a clock runs down. Walked backwards,
stumbled, sat down
hard on the floor near the wall.
Where were You.
How absurd, how vicious.
There is nothing to do but get up.
My knees were iron, I rusted in worship, of You.
For that one sings, one
writes the spring poem, one goes on walking.
The Lady has always moved to the next town
and you stumble on after Her.
The door in the wall leads to the garden
where in the sunlight sit
the Graces in long Victorian dresses,
of which my grandmother had spoken.
History sings in their faces.
They are young, they are obtainable,
and you follow after them also
in the service of God and Truth.
But the Lady is indefinable,
she will be the door in the wall
to the garden in sunlight.
I will go on talking forever.
I will never get there.
Oh Lady, remember me
who in Your service grows older
not wiser, no more than before.
How can I die alone.
Where will I be then who am now alone,
what groans so pathetically
in this room where I am alone?
I will go to the garden.
I will be a romantic. I will sell
myself in hell,
in heaven also I will be.
In my mind I see the door,
I see the sunlight before me across the floor
beckon to me, as the Lady’s skirt
moves small beyond it.
The next day we discussed Ted Berrigan over breakfast. I told Creeley that I wasn’t too sure about him, and wondered why he was so influential in the New York School of poetry and in Sydney especially with poets like John Forbes. Creeley asked me if I had any Berrigan books. I gave him a copy of Many Happy Returns published in 1969. He said just sit back and listen. He read the whole of ‘Tambourine Life’ His reading was a lesson. The poem’s satiric edge became clear, the line breaks and pauses made sense in way that opened new meanings and scored the poem’s darker music. I understood Berrigan’s music of inflections then, how Creeley’s American accent could make one line sound flat and next flexible with irony. It became clear to me why Duncan had asked to hear the Australian poets he liked on tape. I understood more by hearing Creeley read Ted Berrigan’s poem that morning than I had in years of study.
The form of ‘Tambourine Life’ was an example of how far Berrigan had stretched the open field poetry that had originated with Olson and Creeley. ‘Tambourine Life’ is dated October 1965 to January 1966 because Berrigan decided to write every day and let the ordinary things happening in his life come into the poem, snatches of news, TV and newspapers, political comments, anything could enter the poem’s field: the title for example comes from Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, a song The Byrds had a hit with on the radio at the time. In the spirit of action painting Berrigan determined his poem would be spontaneous, he said he wanted it to be like a field of colliding particles.
Creeley asked me to read some of my poems—I did this and he was silent for a while, then said, you are sounding like Duncan and this is hard to take. He picked up a folder of my work and flicked through some pages, he read a couple of poems carefully and then threw the folder down. The night before I’d told him some wild stories and he remembered them. He said:
I’d drop the Duncan and follow your own voice. I heard your poetry in the air last night when you were talking, your cadences, those sayings, turns of phrase, it’s music waiting to be scored: remember what Ginsberg says:, the first thought is the best thought. Write your own songs down.
After Creeley left Sydney I started writing again. During the next three weeks I had written the basis of one of my most popular books, Where I Come From. The poems came pouring out, I’d never written with such ease and freedom. I was actually enjoying writing again. I dropped the rhetoric, cut the adjectives and used short tight lines measured by the breath. By studying Creeley’s poetry, where “form is never more than an expression of content /and content never more than an expression of form.’ the poems came pouring out. Creeley had given me permission to use my own voice, to trust my own impulse to write the way I spoke. I had trouble with Ginsberg’s idea ‘the first thought is the best thought’ but decided to try it because I could always revise what I didn’t think was working later on.
Creeley’s visit was in April 1976, five months before Duncan arrived that September. I wrote to Duncan and told him about my escapades with Creeley. He answered by return mail:
Yours of April 26th May 1976 arrived this morning with its such good news that Creeley’s visitation was so propitious. The sense of your time with him projects many times I’ve had when his intense and beautifully directed concern charged the field, especially the concentrated sessions of our first meet up in Majorca. I’d worried about how would Bob take to you and you to him; as how would Australia ‘hear’ him—Well, as you will be knowing all along as you are getting into Bob’s poems more and more—all the elements are there (including his own rhetoric) but often muted, certainly he wants to keep his resonances bare (he is certainly the master rimer)—
I want to finish now with a final quote from another letter Duncan wrote after he returned to the USA after his Australian tour.
I’m enclosing ‘An Alternate Life’; but I think to publish ‘In the South’ with you in Australia. The imprint of an Australian “Life”—of barely that month—is so deep-going that I find it now penetrating even into the most lasting and intimate engravings of my self—tho, if I picked up some echo of the lilt of Australian voices I found so delicious when I was there—contrasted with our American monotone and tight-lipt delivery, it has worn away.
Do you imitate the magpie’s morning song—or does the magpie imitate you?’
– Robert Adamson