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  • Life, War, and Love:The Queer Anarchism of Robert Duncan's Poetic Action during the Vietnam War
  • Eric Keenaghan (bio)

Robert Duncan would achieve national prominence as a featured poet in Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry (1960), which helped to establish him as one of the innovators of open-form poetics. But the politics underlying his poetics have largely been forgotten. Almost thirty years ago, Sherman Paul asked if it was possible to read Duncan as "writ[ing] the definitive politics of his time" (257). Such a reappraisal, Paul knew, would necessitate adjusting the common left-wing precepts about the relationship between poetry and politics. "There is another way of assessing his politics and coming to an understanding of what it means to be a political poet," Paul mused (262). What the critic leaves us, though, are merely clues about what that other understanding might be: Duncan's "defiance of domineering authority" (241); an early alignment with political anarchism (261); a "commitment to the Heraclitean principle of creative strife" (172); his inviting such strife into his life by "say[ing] 'yes' to eros" (227) so as to ward off an "oncoming, always ever-present death" (273). One factor mentioned by Paul—anarchism—has received little critical attention, but it could help synthesize the various elements of Duncan's poetics to account for his "definitive politics." 1 At its core, anarchism is a political philosophy opposing the [End Page 634] sovereign state so as to promote greater freedom for all individuals. In Duncan's anarchistic philosophy, poetry is not a revolutionary's tool; rather, it is a creative means of striving toward an alternative vision of life, one rivaling the state's idea of what life ought to be.

Despite popular misconceptions, anarchism is founded upon creative, rather than destructive, modes of opposing the state. The nineteenth century Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, one of Duncan's influences, described this creative emancipation as a rediscovery of what he termed "mutual aid," an evolutionary principle whereby living beings "find in association the best arms for the struggle for life" (242). The modern state, with its emphasis on profit and capitalist accumulation, encourages an unrelenting individualism that overshadows life's dependence on association. Creativity might help expose a forgotten groundwork for human collectivity wherein individuals act freely yet, because they cooperatively work together, do not interfere with others' liberties. Emma Goldman, a prominent American anarchist, sympathetically condoned acts of violence if the perpetrators found oppressive socioeconomic conditions "unbearable" because of their "sensitive natures" (92). Ultimately, however, she believed that the spirit of anarchy rested in cooperation as "a creative force," and that every element of experience is "a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions" (56, 63). Duncan's work from the 1960s and 1970s recirculates such anarchistic ideas about vitalist and creative resistance. In a 1969 installment of his serially published H.D. Book, he asserts, "As the power and presumption of authority by the State has increased in every nation, we are ill with it, for it surrounds us and, where it does not openly conscript, seeks by advertising, by education, by dogma or by terror, to seduce, enthrall, mould, command or coerce our inner will or conscience or inspiration to its own uses" (2.4: 47).2 Duncan sees the state as more than a policy-making body that [End Page 635] polices or conscripts its citizens. The state also attacks freedom through other means, including commercial markets, educational settings, and religious institutions. Much like Louis Althusser's notion of ideological state apparatuses—systems such as schools or the family that help form the capitalist state's ideological subjects—Duncan's ideas about social institutions cast them as responsible for consolidating a social illness. Unlike Althusser, though, Duncan believed that means other than revolution could provide an appropriate remedy: life could be reimagined.

Because art epitomizes the free individual's ability to reimagine the world, Duncan, like the English anarchist poet-philosopher Herbert Read before him, regarded it as the chief means of producing social health.3 In 1969, Duncan described the poet as "striving to keep alive the reality of his art...


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