- Robert Duncan and the Pragmatist Sublime by James Maynard
Of the many exciting developments in post-1945 American poetry scholarship over the course of the last several years, the continual release of new publications from the University of New Mexico Press’s Recencies Series (edited by Matthew Hofer) has been one of the richest. With the publication of James Maynard’s Robert Duncan and the Pragmatist Sublime, the Recencies Series has filled a major gap in criticism on Robert Duncan and the poetry of the San Francisco Renaissance. Maynard delineates three historical phases of Duncan’s career— characterized by surrealism, a poetics of organism, and a final French turn— while coordinating the ideas and [End Page 106] methods in Duncan’s writing with the pragmatist philosophies of John Dewey, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead. Duncan consistently read these philosophers throughout his life and used their cosmological worldviews to create “larger and increasingly complex structures in an attempt to make a poetics adequate to the excess of experience and the experience of excess,” as Maynard argues (33). Although Duncan made many explicit statements concerning his appreciative deployment of pragmatist ideas to conceive a relational and heterogenetic poetics that tries and fails to catch this excessive nature of the real, and although those statements clarify the central role American pragmatist philosophies played in Duncan’s imagination, many remain unpublished.
That is to say that only James Maynard could have written this invaluable book. As Curator of the Poetry Collection at SUNY Buffalo, Maynard has been and continues to be well positioned to articulate unique perspectives on Duncan’s writing, his influences, and his unpublished manuscripts. I first met James as a graduate student while researching Duncan’s correspondences, and like many other scholars who write about Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance, I have benefited from his encyclopedic knowledge of Duncan’s sources over the years.
That said, Maynard’s book does not merely coordinate concepts or philologically chart Duncan’s allusions to Whitehead, James, and Dewey. Engaging theory and poetry, Maynard’s first chapter develops the innovative concept of a “pragmatist sublime” through an extended intellectual history. In this account Whitehead’s process metaphysics and James’s pluralism contend with Kant’s and Lyotard’s negative sublime and subjectivism. Maynard thus diversifies the sublime, complicating its frozen image in the Kantian tradition “as an epistemological indeterminacy buttressing (or, in the case of certain postmodern versions, challenging) an autonomous subject” (14). In contrast to the subjective versions of the sublime, Maynard shows that Duncan adhered to and advanced the concept of the sublime “as a pluralistic, ontological, and relational phenomenon of experience” (14). This knowledgeable and well-drawn intervention makes this book not only useful for scholars of American poetry but also for students invested in theory, conflicting philosophical traditions, and influence studies. [End Page 107]
The book’s following chapters apply the concept of the pragmatist sublime to three overlapping phases of Duncan’s career, investigating his early engagement with surrealism (about which almost no other scholarship exists), the development of his mature poetics of organism through his transformations of Whitehead and James, and finally the darker turn toward the French language and the void of Duncan’s last poems. The well-written analysis of these historical phases widens scholarly knowledge of Duncan’s poems while also unearthing the conceptual relationship between American philosophy and American poetry.
Along the way readers well-versed in the influence that Whitehead wielded over projective poetry will find many intellectual matters with which to engage. Does the book too quickly dismiss Charles Olson’s first use of Whitehead and Olson’s subsequent influence on Duncan? Is Maynard’s attempt to coordinate continental philosophy with Duncan’s later poetics valid in light of the earlier pragmatist analysis? Although engaging critical questions like these will emerge for readers deeply invested in the finer points of projective verse and process philosophy, the book’s overall portrait of the intimate relationship between pragmatist strains of thought and Duncan’s avant-garde, projective practice is a...