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Reading Duncan Reading

Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Derivation

Stephen Collis

Publication Year: 2012

In Reading Duncan Reading, thirteen scholars and poets examine, first, what and how the American poet Robert Duncan read and, perforce, what and how he wrote. Harold Bloom wrote of the searing anxiety of influence writers experience as they grapple with the burden of being original, but for Duncan this was another matter altogether. Indeed, according to Stephen Collis, “No other poet has so openly expressed his admiration for and gratitude toward his predecessors.”
Part one emphasizes Duncan’s acts of reading, tracing a variety of his derivations—including Sarah Ehlers’s demonstration of how Milton shaped Duncan’s early poetic aspirations, Siobhán Scarry’s unveiling of the many sources (including translation and correspondence) drawn into a single Duncan poem, and Clément Oudart’s exploration of Duncan’s use of “foreign words” to fashion “a language to which no one is native.”

 In part two, the volume turns to examinations of poets who can be seen to in some way derive from Duncan—and so in turn reveals another angle of Duncan’s derivative poetics. J. P. Craig traces Nathaniel MacKey’s use of Duncan’s “would-be shaman,” Catherine Martin sees Duncan’s influence in Susan Howe’s “development of a poetics where the twin concepts of trespass and ‘permission’ hold comparable sway,” and Ross Hair explores poet Ronald Johnson’s “reading to steal.” These and other essays collected here trace paths of poetic affiliation and affinity and hold them up as provocative possibilities in Duncan’s own inexhaustible work.  

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vii


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pp. ix-11

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Introduction. The Poetics of Derivation

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pp. xi-xxii

To begin with the sorts of claims about Duncan’s originality or unique contribution that might typically form the foundations of a new collection of essays on a single and in some senses neglected author would be entirely out of place and character here. It is not a question of Duncan’s...

Part I. Duncan Reading

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pp. 1-25

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1. Robert Duncan’s Miltonic Persuasion: The Emergence of a Radical Poetic

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pp. 3-23

In his 1942 poem “The Years as Catches,” Robert Duncan writes: “I brood upon these lines of Milton, words / where there moves such a tide to feed / my restlessness.”1 The restlessness Duncan refers to is multifarious: during the late 1930s and early 1940s, already feeling alienated because of...

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2. Robert Duncan’s Derivative Poetics: Community, the Metaphysicals, and the Nature of War

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pp. 25-43

For Robert Duncan, poetic tradition is not simply a means to poetry but poetry itself; and use and acknowledgment of tradition through appropriation bring with them a certain degree of “derivativeness.” This derivativeness by no means implies a passive acceptance of literary precursors and...

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3. Textual Poetics and the Politics of Reading in Duncan’s “Night Scenes”

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pp. 45-66

Robert Duncan’s 1964 collection Roots and Branches opens with the figure of the Monarch “tracing out of air unseen roots and branches of sense / I share in thought.”1 It is a fitting way to begin a collection in which the poet will so thoroughly and with such a capacious vision explore the...

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4. The Airs of Duncan and Zukofsky

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pp. 67-87

No one was more responsible than Robert Duncan for initiating the remarkable public reemergence of Louis Zukofsky during the late 1950s and 1960s, yet in many respects the elder poet’s poetics were antithetical, indeed antipathetic, to Duncan’s own. Zukofsky would appear to represent...

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5. Is the Queendom Enough (without the Queen)? Poetic Abdication in Robert Duncan and Laura Riding

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pp. 89-106

In his 1953 “Statement on Poetics” appended to Donald Allen’s pathbreaking New American Poetry anthology, Robert Duncan lists Laura Riding among his poetic sources. She is one of the “heros, gods and models” he wished to “emulate, imitate, reconstrue, approximate, duplicate.”1 In his...

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6. Reading A/Drift: Robert Duncan’s Use of Foreign Words

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pp. 107-125

In his essay “On the Use of Foreign Words,” Theodor Adorno vouches for “a determined defense of the use of foreign words,” as he is waging a merciless war against purism, on the one hand, and “an immanent, closed organic language,” on the other.1 In his view, a proper defense should not so...

Part II. Reading Duncan

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pp. 127-151

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7. Derivation or Stealth? Quotation in the Poetry of Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson

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pp. 129-149

Why do we read? What are our motives for opening a book? Are we looking for pleasure, knowledge, instruction? When Barry Alpert, editor of VORT magazine, asked Kansas-born poet Ronald Johnson (1935–98) the same question in 1974, Johnson answered: “I read to steal.”1 For a poet...

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8. Symposium of the Whole: Jerome Rothenberg and the Dream of “A Poetry of All Poetries”

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pp. 151-171

For all his justly celebrated internationalism, Jerome Rothenberg owes a major portion of his poetic horizon to the Black Mountain poets, especially Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Paul Blackburn. In this essay I want to investigate the impact primarily of Duncan upon...

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9. How the Dead Prey upon Us: Robert Duncan and Susan Howe

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pp. 173-188

When Robert Duncan died in 1988, Susan Howe published a short tribute to him in American Poetry, naming him as her “precursor father.”1 Yet little has been made of this self-confessed affiliation. Although Howe is more commonly linked to Charles Olson, sharing his preoccupation...

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10. Divining the Derivers: Anarchism and the Practice of Derivative Poetics in Robert Duncan and John Cage

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pp. 189-209

The similarities between Robert Duncan and John Cage are striking. Setting aside the biographical similarities, the two shared significant aesthetic and ideological positions: both were avowed anarchists who talked openly about how anarchism influenced their poetry; both appreciated Ezra...

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11. The Poets’ War: Inflation, Complicity, and the Daimonic

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pp. 211-229

Robert Duncan had an early and continuing impact on Nathaniel Mackey’s poetry. Mackey’s dissertation, “Call Me Tantra: Open Field Poetics as Muse,” is primarily a study of Duncan’s work. Mackey admits to a “scared” awe of Duncan prior to meeting him in the late 1970s; after their...

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12. Talking Cosmos: Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson

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pp. 231-251

Curiously, the source for one of Robert Duncan’s most influential statements about his poetry is the jacket copy for the first New Directions printing in 1969 of his book Roots and Branches, published originally by Scribner in 1964. “I am not an experimentalist or an inventor,” intones Duncan...


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pp. 253-264

Contributor’s Notes

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pp. 265-266


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pp. 267-271

Further Reading

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pp. 273-296

Back Cover

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p. 297-297

E-ISBN-13: 9781609381349
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381165

Page Count: 262
Publication Year: 2012