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  • Mourning the Modernist Undead:Robert Duncan’s Company and the Felt Silence of the Lost Generation
  • Sarah Ehlers (bio)

I wanted to say something,that my heart had such a burden,or needed a burden in order to say something.

Robert Duncan, “Doves”

After learning of H.D.’s death, Denise Levertov scribbled a note to Robert Duncan and enclosed a poem:

We found H.D.’s obituary in the Times this morning. . . .

   The poem enclosed, which I was going to send to you anyway, I now dedicate to her memory.

   I am sad.

(Duncan and Levertov 309)

The poem, titled “September 1961” and eventually published in Levertov’s O Taste and See (1964), was written after H.D. suffered a stroke that left her mute in the last months of her life. The event prompted Levertov to meditate on H.D.’s loss of speech, as well as on the increased silences of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, two other modernist predecessors she and Duncan shared. “September 1961” explores how “the old great ones,” as they are dubbed in the poem, are “learning to live without words” and, as a consequence, leave the next generation “alone on the road” (O Taste 9) and in the wake of a “new silence” (10). Duncan’s response to the poem proves how profoundly it affected him. He wrote to Levertov that he had been at work on a sequence called “Doves” about H.D.’s aphasia, and that her poem, in its gesture toward a [End Page 89] “wordless reality,” had come to him as a “breakthru” (Duncan and Levertov 310).

This essay aims to describe the mediation between modernist inheritance and the development of the “new American poetry” as a space of, to quote “September 1961,” “new silence.” Indeed, the exchange from September and October 1961, however brief, demonstrates how both Levertov and Duncan, as they attempted to come to grips with their modernist lineage, were preoccupied with questions of silence and the loss of speech.1 “September 1961” evidences Levertov’s preemptive mourning of H.D. She dedicates a poem to H.D.’s memory that describes her loss of speech, not her death, and she grieves a loss of speech or voice that precedes death, where there is not an ontic loss but an ontological one. Levertov’s belated tribute, coupled with Duncan’s fervent reaction to it, reveals how midcentury poets created a fantasy space heavy with modernist silences even before the previous generation was gone. As Duncan’s letter suggests, “September 1961” deals with a complex negotiation that he, too, was confounded by: even when the previous generation was physically present, their voices were quiet, unclear, even disjointed. For Duncan, the experience of thinking through such a loss amounted to nothing less than a “breakthru.”

In what follows, I explore the dialectic between Duncan’s process of mourning the dead and his earlier preoccupations with tropes of silence and aphasia—that is, the inability to clearly express oneself in speech—in order to reveal how Duncan constructs the ground for his own poetics through the perceived loss of his predecessors.2 [End Page 90] Such an exploration opens up a new way to understand the poetics emerging out of the loaded time when important modernist mentors had lost language but were still living.3 Duncan’s three major volumes from the 1950s and 1960s—Letters (1958), The Opening of the Field (1960), and Roots and Branches (1964)—evidence his personal attempts to cope with the loss of his mentors, as well as his ongoing preoccupation with the “wordless reality” that Levertov so powerfully evoked for him.

A self-proclaimed derivative poet, Duncan is a central figure for understanding how postwar poets engaged issues of literary inheritance. In the introduction to his landmark anthology The New American Poetry (1960), Donald Allen posits that the creation of a “new American poetry” at midcentury necessitated building on the modernist tradition while also “evolv[ing] new conceptions of the poem” (xi). The evolution of Duncan’s “conceptions of the poem” during the fifties and sixties can be understood through a consideration of how he staged his own scenes of writing...


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