duncanRobert Duncan (1919–1988) was a poet  associated with a number of literary traditions and schools, including the New American Poetry and Black Mountain College, as well as the Beats in San Francisco. Duncan was associated with pre-Stonewall gay culture; in 1944 Duncan had a relationship with  abstract expressionist painter Robert De Niro, Sr., the father of famed actor Robert De Niro, Jr.[Politically left wing, he was associated with the bohemian socialist communities of the 1930s and ’40s,  and the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s.  He was  also an influence on occult and gnostic circles.  His work was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

tolanJames Tolan is a poet and educator. His collection Mass of the Forgotten was published by Autumn House Press in 2013. He is the co-editor of New America: Contemporary Literature for a Changing Society. Red Walls was published by Dos Madres Press in 2011

James Tolan on Robert Duncan’s “H.D.”

Nearly fifty years from when he wrote it, Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book was finally gathered and published in 2011, and I’ve found precious little said about it since, which seems to me a shame. This is a bear of a book: more than 600 hundred pages and as erudite, meandering, associative, allusive, and elusive as his poetry. Let me apologize upfront. I realize this is not the sort book usually, or ever, handled in this setting. Blame Dom. He let me do it. In his defense and mine, what we’ll discuss is not the book in its entirety but its first chapter. Further, I’ve gleaned both the H.D. poem that acts as Duncan’s madeleine and salient passages from the chapter that I imagine will form the backbone of our discussion. In short, it’s more than OK with me if you lean hard on the passages offered here, if you find Duncan’s first chapter daunting, off-putting, or just too damn much right about now.

Here’s what drew me to this tome: Duncan makes his case for the value of a literature that opens one to the possibility that “[t]he ardor for the truth of what was felt and thought, the faith in passion, was a virtue, a power of man: to search out a life within life.” It’s the experience of literature that drew me to it as a young person and that I have worked fiercely to keep alive in my self, my writing, and my teaching since. Duncan is clear that to value literature in this way flies in the face of polite society: “The intensity of my own spirit was lifted from the shame it had seemed to incur in adolescence—for intensity itself in the genteel household was uncouth.”

Since the lives and livelihoods of so many poets in our country continue to be ensconced in our colleges and universities, such intensity seems to grow rarer, replaced by a professionalization that values intellect, verbal and formal invention regardless of discovery, wit, and the book as project. Professionalization entails the acquisition of credentials that declare one an expert in one’s field. Hard to make such claims if you believe, as Duncan does, that the role of the poet is to receive his art and be shaped by it, to know through such experience that your work is far less earned than given, that the poet is made by her poems as much, if not more, than she can take credit for making them.

My desire is not to critique our writing programs, though that’s always good fun, but to gather around some of Duncan’s ideas regarding the experience of poetry, writing it and reading it, as it relates to the sort of lives we lead: poetry not as practice or play alone but as a calling and permission.

As part of this discussion I’d like to consider:

  • D.’s “Heat” as an example of Pound’s notion of a “perfect” lyric and Duncan’s sense that the poem in fact works to remain open, that such openness is the essential aspect of its integrated form/content.
  • Poetry and literature as a community that is passed down and shared and which affirms a life lived with openness and intensity.
  • Duncan’s resurrection of the image, which happened concurrently with Robert Bly’s work on deep image and with which Duncan’s work is parallel. How Duncan defines image as not merely a literary device of visual representation but as “an evocation of depth…the reciprocity between inner and outer realities.”
  • How such an experience of image–central to his experience of poetry—extends to related thoughts on organic form, the role of the artist in the creation of her art, and rhetoric.

I hope you’ll take a look at H.D.’s “Heat” and the passages I’ve selected and join us for a discussion of Duncan’s views on poetry and the life of the poet. I think we might have some fun and maybe cause a little trouble along the way.


  1. D., 1886 – 1961

O wind, rend open the heat,

cut apart the heat,

rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop

through this thick air–

fruit cannot fall into heat

that presses up and blunts

the points of pears

and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat–

plough through it,

turning it on either side

of your path.

38-39: There was [Miss Keough’s] admiration for the sensitivity and the intensity that [“Heat”] made available, but there was her shyness too, as if what had been disclosed in the poem touched upon a similar disclosure in herself. [Miss Keough’s] voice told us that something was at issue. The way the poet H.D. admitted—let in—to her self through the poem, and then, in a double sense, admitted to the listener or reader, being almost a victim of the thickness of air, the bluntness of fruit, to let life use you like this, was not shameful but heroic. To reveal, even if it be shameful in other eyes… to propose the truth of what was felt, to articulate just the emotion that was most vulnerable and in need, took courage.

Courage, yes—but there was something more. This poem [“Heat”] in itself was necessary in order for what it evoked to be kept alive as a living power. It was the sense of the necessity that what was felt be kept that filled the poet in writing. To find out feeling meant to evoke a new power in life. To feel at all challenged the course of everything about one. To articulate the feeling, putting it forth in a poem like this, brought others into the challenge. To strengthen response was to strengthen and enlarge not only the resource but the responsibility of life ahead. It was something larger than being courageous then—a trust in living, not only to use things but to be used by them, a drive that broke through the restrictions and depressions of spirit whereby men were shaped to a conventional purpose.

39-40:     What I was to be grew in what she was. “I want to know what you will make of this,” she would say, giving me Lawrence’s The Man Who Died or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves to take home with me. I was not to sum them up, not to know something about them so that I could do well in an examination, but I was to grow through them and toward them in some hidden way. What I would make of The Man Who Died orThe Waves would be what I would make of myself, the course of a life. These works were keys at once to responsive chords in myself and to the music they belonged to, to the company of a larger life, and to my work there…. It was a responsibility to glory that she touched in me.

40: H.D., Lawrence, Virginia Woolf had found a realm most real or most alive or most individual in their writing. Wasn’t it that they intensely showed what they were? … What other men kept to themselves, reserving certain thoughts and feelings as private properties, these sought to reveal, not as public property, but as belonging to a community of feeling.

41-2: In [“Heat”] the image stirred not only pictures from my knowledge of a like world, from the shared terms of orchard, pear, and grape at the stem, and the shimmering medium of air in the heat; but it stood too for another statement, arousing and giving a possible articulation to an inner urgency of my own to be realized, to be made good… an unconscious alliance that made for something more than a sensual response… The idea of this being a perfect lyric, an ecstatic, a memorably shaped, moment, drew us away from recognition of the opening and closing address of the poem that cried out for release from such perfection…. [T]his poem… had too, not perfection but the organic irregularities of being felt out from within that life forms have. It had not the regularity of an imposed system, … but its form grew, as living forms do, in the faith or feeling of its own being, transforming itself, using inheritance and environment, tones and cadences, as they happened, toward its melody…The poem was finely conditioned, felt along the track of some inner impulse… It had form not by convention kept but by the pulse of its own event.

42: More than sensation then, more than impression, gave force to the image. It was not only a vivid representation of sensory data but an evocation of depth…the reciprocity between inner and outer realities.

43: The poem had something to do with keeping open and unfulfilled the urgencies of life.

47: [F]or H.D., as for Lawrence or for Williams, the image was not an invention but a numinous event in language, a showing forth of a commanding Reality in the passing personal real.

49-50: The line… was not to express the Image but to call up its Presence, to cause it to happen…There was no thing that was not, given the proper instant in time and intent in vision, Image. There was no image that was not, properly rendered, the nexus of divine and elemental orders in the human world… The image and the voice or dramatic mask provided the nexus of a mystery in Poetry corresponding to the outer and inner worlds in which the poetess, now priestess in the mysteries of the language, worked toward higher and finer modes of participation in a mystery in Life itself.

52-53: [T]he poet works in the densities of the given meanings of words and in the aura of a gathering music, a breath informing the poem, until an image emerges in the work, working the medium until the work itself is immediate to the mind. But this “work” is both a power and, the artist begins to realize … a living presence in which its creator stands…”Am I the god?” [H.D.’s] Pygmalion asks:

or does the fire carve me

for its use?

[A]s the artist works to achieve form he finds himself the creature of the form he thought at first to achieve. The role of the poet, his craft, is to seek out the design in the carpet, to come to know and then to acknowledge his identity in the terms of a poetry he but belongs to. The fire is indeed to carve the poet for its use.

53: As we come into the fullness of our sense of a life work, it is as if we were recovering or rescuing the import of what had always been there. We make good our earliest readings, make real what even we failed to see present at the time, transforming the events of our earlier life in a process of realizing what our work and life comes to mean. Creating meaning we create work and life, and, in turn, for meaning is the matter of the increment of human experience which we come to recognize in the language, we unite our individuality with a vision of its communal identity.

53-54: In the literary establishment Eliot had won the day [and] Imagism was dismissed as if it were a false religion. The Imagist fallacy was not an inherent weakness but a danger… [T]he rationalist orthodoxy strove to establish Imagism as an aberration, a kind of insanity of the poem, in which imagery, which properly was a means in the poet’s presentation of his picture, became an end, as if image carried a meaning in itself.            There is a crucial difference between the doctrine of the Image where Poetry itself is taken to be a primary ground of experience and meaning in life, and the image which is taken as a fashion in the literary world. With H.D.’s “Heat” …I cannot separate the poem from its operation as prophecy or prayer in the shaping of my own life, the efficacy of the poem to awaken depths in me. The key lies in a rhetoric which is magic in its intent and not literary. This is its heresy.

55-56:     [T]he popular pejorative demean[s] the word “rhetoric,: voiding its base in the likeness between the flow of speech and the flow of a river, [one] troubles the currents of meaning…The flow of speech was for the Greeks, as for us, an expression that could refer to words running glibly off the tongue being like a babbling brook, and likewise to the essential power of fluency in saying. The poet must be fluent in speech. There must be currents of meaning as well as particularities of meaning. Speech was a river… The mistrust that men had of speech was their mistrust of rivers that swept men along, that persuaded.

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Stevie Smith (Florence Margaret Smith, 1902 -1971) was an English poet and novelist. She  wrote nine volumes of poetry.  A Good Time Was Had By All established her reputation as a poet of whose “combination of “caprice and doom” was a characteristic of both her poems and the quirky line drawings that often accompanied them.  Smith’s  work thrives on co-existing contradictions: jokey and serious; colloquial and formal; sophisticated and child-like. Nursery-rhyme motifs, puns and seemingly light-hearted verse structures are used to explore unsettling depths. The most famous example of this  is the much-anthologised ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ which was also the title of her 1957 collection. In the 1960s Smith built a popular reputation as a performer of her own work, playing up her eccentricity and ceremonially half-singing some of her poems in a quavering voice. She also made a number of broadcasts for the BBC.

PrufterPoet and editor Kevin Prufer is the author of In a Beautiful Country (2011), a finalist for the Rilke Prize and listed as a 2011 Notable Book by the Academy of American Poets, and National Anthem (2008), named best poetry book of the year by the Virginia Quarterly Review. Other collections of poetry include Fallen From a Chariot (2005), The Finger Bone (2002, reissued 2013), and Strange Wood(1997). A bilingual edition of Prufer’s poetry appeared in Germany as Wir wollten Amerika finden: ausgewählte Gedichte: zweisprachig (2011), selected and translated by Norbert Lange and Susanna Mewe. Prufer edits the journal Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing and is a Professor at the University of Houston.

Kevin Prufer on Stevie Smith

The author of several novels and award-winning poetry collections, Stevie Smith is mostly remembered today for only one short poem, her chilling “Not Waving, But Drowning,” a strange, nearly Dickinsonian meditation on what?—loneliness?  failure of empathy?  futility and despair?  But anyone who picks up her stirring Collected Poems will find in it a poet enormous wit, vitality, and range—not to mention technical bravura and musical dexterity.

 Born Florence Margaret Smith in 1902, Stevie Smith spent most of her life among women.  Her father abandoned the family when she was only two.  Her mother died when she was sixteen.  The remainder of her life she spent with her sister and her aunt Madge in the family home, working for thirty years as a publisher’s secretary (a position she immortalized in her hilarious Novel on Yellow Paper, which she insisted be printed on paper resembling a yellow secretarial pad.)  This isn’t to say, however, that her life was entirely reclusive—a situation we seem all too ready to assign to women authors and artists.  She had many literary friends and saw considerable public success for her work, particularly after leaving her secretarial position (following a nervous breakdown) and performing her poetry (which she often marvelously illustrated with faux-naive line-drawings) on the BBC and in the pages of many of London’s leading literary journals.

Amid the louder voices of mid-20th century English language poetry—Larkin, Frost, Bishop, etc.—Smith’s work might easily be described as an off-kilter, quirky sort of eddy, working apart from the dominant literary movements of the 1930s-60s.  Still, it’s not hard to find in it hints of the Modernist sensibility, as Smith looks out over a world nearly emptied of meaning, a world in which truth often seems to be created only within the mind that observes it.  Elsewhere, she resembles the Confessional poets, poets who find their inspiration not just in literature but in the ideas of psychoanalysis, who perform their selves (and their failures and sins) for an audience of observers.  (It should be no surprise, for instance, that Sylvia Plath was an enormous fan.)

And there’s something even of Mary McCarthy in her slicing wit and her readiness to dice up the foibles of the middle class, the literary aesthetes, the crass, the vulgar, and the devout.  But there’s much more to her work than mere wit and satire. Stevie Smith is a poet of deep theological anxiety, and I sense in her surface playfulness a mind constantly in motion, filled with spiritual double-mindedness, at once suspicious of those who would affirm (for instance) the existence of God, spirituality, or a truth outside the confines of the self … and, at the same time, desperate to believe in them.  (She described herself as a “lapsed atheist” and once offered up these lines: “There is a God in whom I do not believe/Yet to this God my love stretches.”)  Sometimes, her wit barely conceals her anxiety, other times it lays that anxiety bare, the poet grinning skullishly as she confronts cruelty, despair, and hypocrisy.  Frequently, the music in her poems works in counterpoint to the poems’ paraphrase-able meaning, creating a kind of ambivalent tension, as if the speaker feels strongly in two directions, one suggested by the thoughts the poem asserts, the other by the feelings her musical choices suggest.

 I’ve selected a handful of Smith’s best poems to discuss, and hope to touch mostly on her musical and rhetorical choices, the complexity of her thoughts on mortality, the divine, and the vagaries of human nature.  And anything else that interests others…!


Why is the word pretty so underrated?

In November the leaf is pretty when it falls

The stream grows deep in the woods after rain

And in the pretty pool the pike stalks

He stalks his prey, and this is pretty too,

The prey escapes with an underwater flash

But not for long, the great fish has him now

The pike is a fish who always has his prey

And this is pretty. The water rat is pretty

His paws are not webbed, he cannot shut his nostrils

As the otter can and the beaver, he is torn between

The land and water. Not ‘torn’, he does not mind.

The owl hunts in the evening and it is pretty

The lake water below him rustles with ice

There is frost coming from the ground, in the air mist

All this is pretty, it could not be prettier.

Yes, it could always be prettier, the eye abashes

It is becoming an eye that cannot see enough,

Out of the wood the eye climbs. This is prettier

A field in the evening, tilting up.

The field tilts to the sky. Though it is late

The sky is lighter than the hill field

All this looks easy but really it is extraordinary

Well, it is extraordinary to be so pretty.

And it is careless, and that is always pretty

This field, this owl, this pike, this pool are careless,

As Nature is always careless and indifferent

Who sees, who steps, means nothing, and this is pretty.

So a person can come along like a thief—pretty!—

Stealing a look, pinching the sound and feel,

Lick the icicle broken from the bank

And still say nothing at all, only cry pretty.

Cry pretty, pretty, pretty and you’ll be able

Very soon not even to cry pretty

And so be delivered entirely from humanity

This is prettiest of all, it is very pretty.

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

My Soul

In the flame of the flickering fire

The sins of my soul are few

And the thoughts in my head are the thoughts of a bed

With a solitary view.

But the eye of eternal consciousness

Must blink as a bat blinks bright

Or ever the thoughts in my head be stilled

On the brink of eternal night.

Oh feed to the golden fish his egg

Where he floats in his captive bowl,

To the cat his kind from the womb born blind,

And to the Lord my soul.

Our Bog Is Dood

Our Bog is dood, our Bog is dood,

They lisped in accents mild,

But when I asked them to explain

They grew a little wild.

How do you know your Bog is dood

My darling little child?

We know because we wish it so

This is enough, they cried,

And straight within each infant eye

Stood up the flame of pride,

And if you do not think it so

You shall be crucified.

Then tell me, darling little ones,

What’s dood, suppose Bog is?

Just what we think, the answer came,

Just what we think it is.

They bowed their heads. Our Bog is ours

And we are wholly his.

But when they raised them up again

They had forgotten me

Each one upon each other glared

In pride and misery

For what was dood, and what their Bog

They never could agree.

Oh sweet it was to leave them then,

And sweeter not to see,

And sweetest of all to walk alone

Beside the encroaching sea,

The sea that soon should drown them all,

That never yet drowned me.

Black March

I have a friend

At the end

Of the world.

His name is a breath

Of fresh air.

He is dressed in

Grey chiffon. At least

I think it is chiffon.

It has a

Peculiar look, like smoke.

It wraps him round

It blows out of place

It conceals him

I have not seen his face.

But I have seen his eyes, they are

As pretty and bright

As raindrops on black twigs

In March, and heard him say:

I am a breath

Of fresh air for you, a change

By and by.

Black March I call him

Because of his eyes

Being like March raindrops

On black twigs.

(Such a pretty time when the sky

Behind black twigs can be seen

Stretched out in one


Cambridge blue as cold as snow.)

But this friend

Whatever new names I give him

Is an old friend. He says:

Whatever names you give me

I am

A breath of fresh air,

A change for you.

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