- Robert Duncan and the 1960sPsychoanalysis, Politics, Kitsch
Politics and Kitsch
In an important recent reading of Ezra Pound's Cantos, Daniel Tiffany affirms that Pound's famous "poem including history" turns out to be anything but. Pound's epic aspiration cohabits uneasily with "kitsch,"1 which transforms the "modern, redemptive totality" the Cantos had meant to promise into a vision of "archaic totalitarianism": "On its own terms, as a poetic vision of utopia, the Cantos is a failure: It is not, as Pound claimed, 'a poem containing history' but a poem containing, and consumed by, myth: by delusional, bourgeois myths—which Pound converts into neo-pagan 'mysteries'—of class and racial hatred."2 Kitsch's archaizing diction and structural nostalgia in this instance create a futurity in the image of a past that never existed. According to Tiffany, this devastating legacy meant that the next generation of American poets mostly read the Cantos through a fragmentary "hyper-formalist" lens, isolating the achievements of Pound as "better craftsman," as it were, while bracketing the pretensions to epic synthesis of a cultural and political totality. [End Page 157] For Tiffany, the result was that "the appeal and function of kitsch in the Cantos could not even begin to be acknowledged, debated or tested."3
If in many respects Tiffany's account holds true, there is an important exception that this essay will discuss: Robert Duncan, who employs an overwhelmingly Poundian poetics as the basis of his work on the student and anti–Vietnam War protests of the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay area, in no way shying away from Pound's kitschier aspects—archaic diction, sentimentality, ostentatious literariness, and stylistic inauthenticity. Given not only Pound's own anti-Semitism and support for Mussolini but also the well-known association of kitsch with fascism, the deployment of kitsch as the foundation of a liberatory, communalist, and queer left-wing poetics in the fifties and sixties was counterintuitive, to put it mildly. However, my contention here will be that it was also surprisingly prescient and holds a potential that, if far from fully realized, also remains unexhausted. The promise of Duncan's embrace of kitsch lies in the elaboration of an explicitly anticapitalist left-wing poetics and politics that would avoid some of the pitfalls of rationalist critique, or the impasses of a political problematic based on "false consciousness." Rather, Duncan's writing can be seen as a fascinating attempt to inscribe into poetics and concrete action what Samo Tomsic has called the unconscious as the subject of politics.4 That Duncan's project was not entirely successful, as we shall see when we examine his interventions during the sixties, vitiates neither its historical significance nor its interest with regard to today's struggles. The latter sections of this essay will examine in detail Duncan's work in the sixties in the context not only of political contestation in the United States but also of the issues and debates that surrounded May 1968 in France. To start with, however, I would like to sketch the development of Duncan's kitsch poetics in his theoretical writings, notably the recently published The H.D. Book.
In this work, begun as an homage to the modernist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)—one of the most important contemporary poets for Duncan from his adolescence onward—a crucial underpinning of the entire project is nothing but a probing and extension of the "kitsch" aspects of Pound's Cantos, in the interest of an [End Page 158] anticapitalist poetics that puts the political and redemptive aspirations of Pound's work (despite Pound's tragic inadequacy) at the very center of any consideration of his importance.5 In Duncan's rendering, H.D. as woman, queer, and Freudian analysand becomes the emblem and embodiment of the true emancipatory potential of all that Pound had to abject. Duncan refers in several instances to Pound's own phrase stating that the Cantos possessed "the defects inherent in a record of struggle," but Duncan finds these defects also to be the poem's true virtues. Where Pound had hoped for eternal truths, Duncan considers the Cantos more like a...