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  • Robert Duncan’s Conversion to Poetry
  • Jeffrey Neilson (bio)

I came to be concerned not with poems in themselves but with the life of poems as part of the evolving and continuing work of a poetry I could never complete—a poetry that had begun long before I was born and that extended beyond my own work in it.

Robert Duncan, “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife”

At first glance, the inclusion of Robert Duncan’s essay “The Poetic Vocation: A Study of St.-John Perse” in the November 1961 issue of Jubilee: A Magazine for the Church and Her People appears incongruous. While the Catholic Church in America and Europe had begun to open some of its windows, airing out the fustiness of centuries-old dogma and engaging the cultural conditions of secular modernity, the incorporation of Duncan’s syncretistic vision in this “vehicle for communicating Christian culture,” as one theologian has called Jubilee (Rivera 77), marks a curious editorial choice and historical juncture. Jubilee editors Thomas Merton and Robert Lax were themselves key countercultural participants in this period’s renewed dialogue between the Church and the world. With Vatican II less than a year away, and less than a year into the term of America’s first Catholic president, what was to be considered “Catholic” or “Christian” culture in postwar America was becoming increasingly unstable and internally dissonant. At the same time, poets with a will to indeterminate capaciousness such as Duncan had been revising the totalizing curatorial credos of high modernists like T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, at times with the aim of achieving more capacious poetic [End Page 114] totalities. Charles Olson’s watershed essay “Projective Verse” (1950) transposed the imagist-objectivist lexicon of Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Louis Zukofsky, and others into an idiom of the “open field.” Olson’s theory of “composition by field” proved to be as compromising as it was liberating, as later poets frequently realized Williams’s poetic credo, “no ideas but in things,” in a breach of that maxim rather than the observance thereof. In other words, some influential open-field poets of postwar America often ventured a hypertrophied form of self-expression as an extension of the objectivist project. Indeed, in 1948 Williams cautioned equally against the “raw, psychoanalytic emesis of experience” and the “stasis of meaningless formality” (6). Caricatures of poetic openness at this time range from the free-verse confessional booths of predominately bourgeois academic poetry to the Beats’ performance of marginalized social identity and political subversiveness for the sake of “Left cultural capital,” as Robert Kaufman puts it (141). The similarities notwithstanding, the poetics of the open field’s predominating ethos was one of radical engagement and pluralistic exchange, no matter how inconsistent, unresolved, or estranging a poet’s practice might prove to be.

The present essay takes up Duncan’s appeal, expressed in the Jubilee essay and throughout his life, to a poetic “vocation” or “conversion.” Such an appeal illuminates how we might better apprehend the influence of social perceptions of religious belief and practice on poetic institutions in late modernity. I explore ways in which Duncan’s poetry blurs categories of “modern” and “postmodern” poetics by radically repurposing the rhetorical and affective repertoires of religious callings. Understood as a special task to which one is called by God, a vocation has been typically sanctioned by traditional Christian sources (“Vocation”).1 In modernity, the term has developed a sometimes friendly, sometimes antithetical relationship with its secular counterpart, the professionally specialized career. William Butler Yeats’s “choice” rendered the religious and secular demarcations of a modern poet’s work as categorically distinct: [End Page 115]

The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work, And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.


Yeats’s division of a poet’s life and work is grounded upon a theological logic of poetic vocation, however transposed into a secular world-view such a logic is. The refusal of a perfected life’s heavenly mansions in favor of lyric’s autotelic perfection comprises an aesthetic asceticism that typically shuns a poet...


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pp. 114-144
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