poetics on Robert Duncan’s birthday

Originally: 18 September, 2005, response to a 16 September, 2005, post by Gary Lundy on Tribe.

Poet, Professor, and Gay Activist Louie Crew posted on his Facebook status that Robert Duncan was born today (7 January) in 1919 (see Louie Crew’s post and its links to more information about Robert Duncan). This inspired me to pull a copy of Bending the Bow, a collection of Duncan’s poetry from 1967, from my shelf. I also did a quick Google search, looking for a quote I recalled (but still haven’t located, so perhaps I made it up in my mind).

In  the recursive way the internet tends to echo thoughts and bring us around to the same place, I found during my search a conversation on poetics that Gary Lundy and I threaded together on Tribe.net. I highly recommend reading the whole thread for Gary’s incredible words about poetics that began with “of poetry,” much like a Michel de Montaigne essay would have been titled. My first comment to Gary,  which began a longer conversation, related to Robert Duncan and Bending the Bow.

To commemorate Duncan’s birthday, I am re-posting this ramble on poetics today.


I began my response to Gary something like this:

[The original comment has been revised and edited, 7 January, 2013.] What you say is right there, Gary. I often think about my own poetry as being an attempt to articulate that which can be felt and intuited, but cannot yet be articulated. To push out into the space beyond understanding. To be in a moment without comprehending. I like William Carlos Williams‘ sense of the necessity of this that you site here.

Robert Duncan also puts well this space of inarticulation, ambiguity, and multiple articulations. From the Introduction he wrote to his book, Bending the Bow, in San Francisco, 1967, which makes the point about the need to understand ambiguity and poetry in a society such as ours (keeping in mind the recursiveness, that 1967 Viet Nam was our war, in 1968 Nixon took over the reins, and in 2000-2008 many ex-Nixon players pulled the strings behind the Bush administration as we entered two wars in the Middle East):

We enter again and again the last days of our own history, for everywhere living productive forms in the evolution of forms fail, weaken, or grow monstrous, destroying the terms of their existence. We do not mean an empire; a war then, as if to hold all China or the ancient at bay, breaks out at a boundary we name ours. It is a boundary beyond our understanding. Now, where other nations before us have flounderd, we flounder. To defend a form that our very defense corrupts. We cannot rid ourselves of the form to which we now belong. And in this drama of our own desperation we are drawn into a foreign desperation. For our defense has invaded an area of our selves that troubled us. Cities laid waste, villages destroyd, men, women and children hunted down in their fields, forests poisond, herds of elephants screaming under fire–it is all so distant from us we hear only what we imagine, making up what we surely are doing. When in moments of vision I see back of the photographt details and the daily body counts actual bodies in agony and hear–what I hear now is the desolate bellowing of some ox in a ditch–madness starts up in me. The pulse of this sentence beats before and beyond all proper bounds and we no longer inhabit what we thought properly our own.  —Duncan (i) [note: deliberate spelling variations remain from the original]

Duncan here is speaking both of poetry and the world, of reading and living, simultaneously. At once, the tragedy of Viet Nam is literal and metaphor, the discussion of poetic forms both literally about poetry and metaphorically about war and society. We sit here again, now attacking the Middle East, Islam rather than China the “big enemy” (cf 1984) marking boundaries “beyond our understanding,” floundering “where other nations have floundered,” defending “a form [poetic, social, political] that our very defending corrupts.”

Here, from Duncan’s poem “At the Loom, Passages 2” (lines 29-34):

Why, even in the room where we are,

reading to ourselves, or I am reading aloud,

sounding the music,

the stuff

vanishes upon the air,

line after line thrown.

So fixed meaning vanishes even as we sing the music, or utter the sound of the words, woven into the warp and weave of our existence as threads to follow, the will warping as the threads warp and wave. The next lines go to weaving the loom and an etymology of warp (35-41):

Let there be the clack of the shuttle flying

forward and back,             forward and


warp, wearp, varp:      “cast of a net, a laying of eggs”

from *warp- “to throw”

the threads twisted for strength

that can be a warp of the will.

The whole of his poem “Where it Appears, Passages 4” could be quoted here to make this point: that poetic meaning goes out and beyond the mere probable, but does so while the poet realizes it is not graspable. He begins by cutting the warp (lines 1-2):

I’d cut that warp

to weave that web

in the air

And this, of course, before our own warped web of fiber optic and copper wire connectors, radio frequency wi-fi, satellite signals, 3g, 4g, 5g, ad nauseam, ad infinitum weaving its threads and warping our wills. He goes on to destroy the “truth” of imagery. that is to say, to point out that the image signifies only another image, reflecting endlessly in mirrors or images and mirages of meaning (lines 5-10):

let image perish in image

leave writer and reader

  up in the air

to draw



That these images reflect into each other like two mirrors might be inferred further from lines 20-22:

    The magi of the probable

bring forth a mirror,    an

       iridescence,       an ocean

He holds this ocean / mirror in the palm of his hand, “as if I could cast a shadow” (line 22) that would “surround/ what is boundless” (lines 25-26). He admits that he cannot grasp “this pearl” that “…touches/ upon every imagination of what / I am” and possibly, with a • and a space, he is “wrong about the web,     the/ reflection,      the lure of the world/ I love” (lines 27-32).

It is poetic ambiguity, which is the heart of writing poetry, this acting “as if,” while knowing that what “I am” is imagined, and that  “I am   • / wrong.” Yet we still try to hold the ocean or the mirror in our hands, that is, we write poems. We try to grasp the ungraspable ocean, to find the mirror that reflects who we are. And we are wrong. But it is right to do this, to reach for the water and the reflection. A glimmering.  A bit of light. “An iridescence.”

From “Wine, Passages 12,” a drunken guitar player plays, and the music takes over. All of this in the context of erotics, for Duncan gay erotics, queer attraction, signaled in the poem by Bacchus and overt arousal for the guitar player. It doesn’t matter, the poem says, what the musician attempts to play. For “…suddenly/ an energy, a melody” (lines 8-9) “encircles” the poet as the guitar arouses and in “the sullen/change in the light  of this    •     hard-on the music presses/ its rime” and “gives itself over to the need,/ the guitar’s imperative” (lines 17-21). The guitar player is muse and object of desire. But the guitar is poetics. And, in the end, the guitar / poetics  drives the music / poem (lines 28-30):

The guitar takes over, takes the voice,

its sound enormous,         the enormous

sonority at the edge of the void      •

The guitar, “with a purity unknown to speech / improvises a variation” (lines 35-36). Spontaneity as the instrument, the poem, poetics takes the voice. This is something related to “We come to hear him play, eventually, this fiddle madman, his dervish tunes / drive us to frenzy with the images of long forgotten friends and car crashes,” the first two lines of my own poem Fiddle Music.

Yes, this, too, is “the best language can do”: hear the mad (Duncan referred to the blind) fiddler play, let the guitar take over.


In my response to Gary’s thoughts, I shifted from Robert Duncan’s poetry and guitar / music to another metaphor, light and quantum optics:

Music works, improvisation guitar one of my ways to express something inexpressible. However, I also think of the speed of light when I think of what poetry is, can be, isn’t.

Light travels at a fixed speed, but we can’t quite comprehend it, let alone apprehend or attain the speed of light. It seems instantaneous. And when we see a light in the sky, a star shining, we think we see it now, as it is. But, if that light is 100 light years away–a distance indicating that light would take 100 years to get from here to there and vice verse–or a thousand light years away, or a million… then the star we see is not the present star. It is some past light, indicating the star as it was.

So a poem leaves from its origins at some speed incomprehensible and unattainable by the poet, the moment thought / feeling / sense formed and insisted on its poem. But the thought / feeling / sense moment cannot be captured as it is, for it continues to travel in the universe of meaning, to shift, to change, to encounter other meanings, perhaps to explode or implode… yet the poem manages in a way to stay connected.


Entanglement. Once light has spread from its source at the speed of light, another property comes to play with it. If the light at the source increases or decreases, all of the light that has spread out from it increases or decreases instantaneously. At once. No speed of light. (see Zajonc, Catching the Light: The Entangled History of Light and Mind).

So, the best language can do, so excited, is to entangle a fluctuating and changing thought-moment source and shift ambiguously along with it; thus we can greet what we don’t understand and know it again for the first time, shifting boundaries at the speed of light and knowing that what we thought we knew, that “fact,” or “truth,” took 100 light years (or nanoseconds) to get here, so its knowledge is old, while its intensity remains new and true to the source at each encounter. Thus, eros.

In  2012, I read that some scientists seem to have found particles that go faster than the speed of light. Perhaps they are our poems. I wrote a poem, “Faster than the Speed of Light” in response to it. Another poem, “Poetics for Gary,” in a way continues this conversation he and I have had going for many years now, since we met long ago in Edmonton. “Poetics,” the poem, actually began as an email to Gary. I look forward to continuing the conversation for the rest of our lives.

Midwest / Mid-East book cover

Midwest / Mid-East by Michael Dickel

All of January
Midwest / Mid-East
is on sale for 30% off.


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