On Robert Duncan: A Talk with William Everson

Robert Duncan died February 3, 1988, following a long illness. A number of writers agreed to write brief essays on the poet for a special issue of American Poetry, including William Everson. Due to his long trial with Parkinson’s disease, however, Everson was unable to complete his tribute. In its place he agreed to discuss his friend with me at his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains on March 8, 1988.

 William Everson: What I was particularly impressed with about the reaction to Duncan’s death was the prestige he had accumulated over the last years of his life. This was apparent in the acclaim and homage occasioned by his passing. The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, no less. I hadn’t expected that. No matter how much coterie-support we poets can count on, we hardly think of ourselves as front page news.

Lee Bartlett: How did you regard his reputation?

Everson: Well, over the years we were always under a cloud from the establishment--disparaged as bohemians, beatniks, and hippies. What seems to have happened is with the passing of all the great modernists, and now with the second generation almost gone, Duncan emerges in prime place, with impeccable credentials, as a forward carrier of consciousness, the bearer of those celebrated values.

Bartlett: So you place Duncan in the modernist line.

Everson: Emphatically. Following Pound, he was a long-time, banner-bearing member, and so built his career. Then in the Ekbert Faas interview he reversed himself and claimed romanticism. I think he was probably disassociating himself from the oppressive postmodernist sweep, which has become so total it chiefly inspires tedium. The truth probably is that in his head he was a modernist but in his heart of hearts he was a romanticist. Actually the position isn’t all that common. Al Gelpi’s new book, A Coherent Splendor, is a masterful study of the prolongation of romanticist values in the marrow of the modernist bone. However, if the Augustan age can be thought of as the thesis, due to the establishment of a self-conscious formal English literature, and the romantic revolt taken as the antithesis, then modernism shapes up in a fairly creditable synthesis. I say "fairly credible" because Gelpi stresses what pains the modernist masters took to disparage romanticism. But it doesn’t look like we’re headed for another thesis, a new Augustan Age. On the contrary, it looks like Robert’s instinct will prove correct: full speed ahead to neoromanticism! And he brings a special proclivity to the synthesis, possessing almost a physical disposition in the upshot. I have in mind the childhood accident to his eyes, which left him cross-eyed, bifurcating his vision, making him more aware of accidentals than of essences, or at least more than people of normal vision.

Bartlett: Can you explain this a little more fully, how this applies to modernism over against romanticism?

Everson: The thrust of romanticism was toward the sublime but by the century’s close it had deteriorated to the banal, giving the new century, our own, the opportunity to emerge as a quasi-classical hegemony called modernism, in which intangibles like complexity and abstraction-- sophisticated technical invention and spatialized form--take precedence over the substantive rendition of the subject in romanticism’s preoccupation with strong emotional resonance of the ideal. Thus Robert’s eye injury with its consequent bifurcation put him in line with the aesthetic abstraction that was modernism’s special characteristic. In the same way an artist hooked on drugs may find his imbalance inadvertently increases his penetration into the rarified interstices of a disordered world. Actually, Faas goes into it in the opening pages of his biography of Duncan, giving Robert’s own version of his weird vision and goes on to speculate that the eye defect may well have had its positive effects for a child who was to face multiple alienation as orphan, sexual deviant, and disreputable bohemian.

Bartlett: Who were Duncan’s primary modernist precursors?

Everson: Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

Bartlett: And romantics?

Everson: Coleridge, I would assume. He wasn’t particularly Wordsworthian.

Bartlett: But you do regard the modernist impulse to hold the primary position.

Everson: Without doubt, over the greater part of his career Robert was a torchbearer for the modernist movement, a front-runner for an entire field this is passing away. Even its sequel, post-modernism, is finished. The new romanticism is emerging not out of literature as yet but out of popular culture--namely, the "New Age." The literary movement will surface later when the intellectual elite gets accustomed to it, which will take some time because the snobs did not discover it themselves, so they stand aloof. But they’ll come around. Never forget the three stages of an idea: first, it’s false, heresy, a lie; second, it may not be false but it is irrelevant; and third, "But we knew that all the time!"

I think Robert knew in his bones that postmodernism was finished; it was so widespread, so universally followed that it had become predictable. So he started back to the fountainhead. But he did not live long enough to do much with it, and maybe it’s just as well he completes his witness with his modernist achievement intact. His life is more coherent this way.

Bartlett: What do you think is his greatest attribute?

Everson: His visionary insight into the intangible dimension of phenomena constituting reality, and the imagination to register it in graphic figures and potent speech. He had a marvelous sense of imagery, but went too much by aesthetic theory, which seems the modernist pitfall. Modernist art becomes too esoteric, too abstract. It eschews the common touch, the physical dimension. Duncan was a seeker. His life, his art was a quest. All his experimentation was a search for the will o’ the whisp of significance in the welter of circumstance. His whole life was a record of sojourning in or another branch of aesthetic speculation. When he was working out one of these phases he often wrote poems that were not very interesting. To him they were vital, because the search was vital, and to many postmodernists they were ingenious and hence commendable; but as poetry they were too abstract. Then when he had the implications worked out he would stop to catch his breath, and the span of his attention would drop below the speculative level to the old inveterate lizard waiting with primordial patience in the heart of man, or in his plexus, his groin. And it will rouse itself, wake from its long hibernation, slit its skin lids, and sing. And the libidinous song will find his lips, and its thin reptilian croon run down his arm to his finger and pen, and the song of salvation is born again, the litany of self-renewal is heard again in the world:

Negroes, negroes, all those princes,
holding cups of rinoceros bone, make
magic with my blood. Where beautiful Marijuana
towers taller than the eucalyptus, turns
within the lips of night and falls,
falls downward, where as giant Kings we gathered
and devourd her burning hands and feet, O Moonbar
thee and Clarinet! Those talismans
that quickened in their sheltering leaves like thieves,
those Negroes, all those princes
holding to their mouths like Death
the cups of rhino bone,
were there to burn my hands and feet.
Divine the limit of the bone and with their magic
tie and twist me like a rope. I know
no other continent of Africa more dark than this
dark continent of my breast.

Once the theoretical problem was worked out he would return to a more integrative poetry. At that point the mood changed from intellectual quest to visceral recovery, maybe for only a single poem, essentially out of sequence, but fundamental.

Bartlett: Would he have thought of himself as a vatic poet?

Everson: That was his pride, his sense of vocation.

Bartlett: Why would he be so drawn to H.D.?

Everson: Her modernist sensibility. Actually he was always attracted to intellectual women. Unlike many homosexuals he was not a misogynist. But he had enough of it in him that he wasn’t cowed by militant feminists, as I am. I’ve thanked my stars for his presence more than once, on some university panel when my sexist poetry of an earlier day was in hot water. Sexism and violence coexist in the masculine unconscious, as they do in the feminine, and to get at them you have to expose them. This is best done through your art. Duncan understood the function of the violence in what I was doing. As for H.D., her modernist credentials were impeccable. She was the first Imagist. That in itself would be enough to quicken Duncan’s interest. Actually, Gelpi’s book is very convincing on H.D. as a vatic poet in her own right. But Duncan’s esteem for latter-day postmodernist male poets is harder for me to understand. They had the vatic impulse but lacked the means.

Bartlett: What about Charles Olson?

Everson: I could never grasp what Robert saw in Olson’s versecraft, his technique. I never thought of him as all that much of a poet. In his Faas interview, Gary Snyder said much the same thing: how, when Olson made his appearance on the San Francisco scene, he provoked interest as a commentator or historian, rather than as a poet.

Bartlett: What do you make of Duncan’s following Olson back to Black Mountain?

Everson: Don’t get me wrong. Olson was a wonderful man, a stimulator and an engenderer. One of the truly big men of our time, mentally as well as physically. His enthusiasms were profound and contagious. In a word he had awesome charisma--"heavy karma," as the hippies used to say. But he was not a great writer, a great poet. And this seriously limited his literary theories. For a theory is only as great as the sensibility that conceived it. As Kenneth Rexroth said, "Charles was deaf." The result is that "composition by field" is the most disastrous doctrine to afflict the art of poetry since the prose poem. It is the alternative formulation of a poet deficient in ear, the achievement of Duncan with the method notwithstanding.

Thus Duncan’s support--a poet endowed with extraordinary ear--proved a blessing to the Olsonites. For Duncan they in turn supplied the coterie accreditation, the expert opinion necessary for elitist credibility in esoteric performance. It doesn’t really matter that an old Neanderthal like me, recalling our salad days back in the forties, favors only a couple of Duncan poems a decade. That is more than enough to keep his name alive in the anthologies of the future. As to the reason Duncan followed Olson back to Black Mountain, all we can go by is what he said: that it was because of the Maximum Poems. He further said he had always considered himself sui generis, until he read Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Olson. It was then he realized he was part of a group.

Bartlett: Did you find it strange that he didn’t regard himself more a part of a San Francisco or Bay Area group?

Everson: Oh, he certainly did! But that was politics, literary politics. At the level of aesthetic affinity and intellectual discernment he stood apart, feeling rather lonely till he found the Olsonites. But like politics the world over, our movement was composed of several strains of disaffiliated, disaffected members who had serious differences among ourselves, but due to the wintery climate prevailing in the literary scene, found ourselves banking together against the literary establishment. The various strains can be identified via their sources. Duncan claimed Pound; Lawrence Ferlinghetti claimed Reverdy; Rexroth claimed Williams; Snyder and Whalen claimed Williams also; Phillip Lamantia claimed the surrealists; I don’t recall who James Broughton and Michael McClure pointed to; I claimed Robinson Jeffers. As long as we were in struggle with the academics and the publication monopoly, we stuck together, but once we had surfaced enough to let some fresh air in, the fragmentation began.

Bartlett: It was Duncan’s acceptance of and by the Black Mountain group that marked the turning of his career.

Everson: Yes. The San Francisco identity had been too circumscribed by local insular limitations to register effectively on the national consciousness, and the Beat explosion as it erupted in the fifties found him unresponsive to its ethos. But the Black Mountain movement escaped these limitations. Donald Allen’s breakthrough anthology, The New American Poetry in 1960, led off with Black Mountain, Duncan in strong second place, and his success was instantaneous. His highly evolved improvisational skills enabled him to assimilate the Black Mountain aesthetic perspective in short order, and his three most celebrated books followed one another in rapid succession across the sixties: The Opening of the Field in 1961, Roots and Branches in 1964, and Bending the Bow in 1968. Moreover, his vehement anti-Vietnam War poems were widely applauded. Then in the seventies the San Francisco gay movement began to amass the political clout to command civic recognition for its own. As Duncan had been one of the first gay intellectuals to emerge from the closet in World War II, he soon became a widely respected local celebrity, accounting in part for the front page exposure in the metropolitan press on the occasion of his death. As I mentioned before, this surprised me, but apparently no one else.

Bartlett: Did you read Duncan’s later work, Groundwork I or II?

Everson: Not really. I tried the first one a few times, found nothing I could get my teeth into, and put it aside. It’s a good example of what I said earlier about the experimental work, which got even more so as he aged, not surprisingly.

Bartlett: What about the earlier poetry?

Everson: I favor his early maturity where he balanced the two sensibilities, the head and the heart. I quoted, "An African Elegy." It is one of the most forceful of Duncan’s achievements. Capable of work like that I wish he had never heard of Black Mountain.

Bartlett: You got to know Duncan through his friend and co-editor James Cooney in about 1940.

Everson: Yes. I had corresponded with Cooney, who had advertised his journal, The Phoenix, as being Lawrentian. When Duncan moved to Woodstock to work with Cooney, he saw my letters and wrote me that he like my poem "Orion," which I had submitted. This started a pretty intense correspondence. I didn’t meet him until about a year later. He was hitchhiking from Bakersfield to Berkeley, and he stopped by in Selma for an afternoon. We lost contact a little during the war.

Bartlett: Then your friendship resumed in the Bay Area after the war.

Everson: Yes. Mary Fabilli, whom I would marry, had been a friend of Robert’s for many years. Earlier he had given me a print she had done, which I had hanging on my wall for a good number of years before I met her. When Mary and I got together, it brought me closer into Robert’s circle, though I always felt he was a little threatened by our relationship. It was at the point about 1947 or ‘48, that I began to become aware of certain competitive strains between Robert and me that hadn’t been there before. We were at our closest during that period. Mary would invite him over for dinner fairly often. Sometimes the situation was a little strained. Mary had moved out of her bohemian phase and was finding him hard to take at times; when he became hysterically entertaining and outrageous, and deliberately so, she would suffer a bit, so that I couldn’t enjoy it either.

Bartlett: Did he show you much work during this time?

Everson: Our relationship was mainly social, though he showed me a few things. The aesthetic dimension was taken up by the soiree readings around Berkeley. I’ve always admired Robert as a poet, even though I can’t understand a lot of his poetry. I think that his homosexuality and his problem with his vision are the two things that enabled him to handle the modernist technique with such authority. These gave him an orientation that other people don’t have.

Bartlett: So he would necessarily carry over these aspects of his daily life into the life of his writing.

Everson: Yes. This takes us back to his concentration on accidentals. He grew up looking between two things. One eye focused one place, and one on an other, which made him constantly aware of the correspondence between two things. This correspondence became the field wherein he wrote. It became the relevant area so that his whole vocabulary, his whole intonation, his style, were all oriented around the visionary duality. One problem with the tangible is that it becomes banal all too soon, and it is this banality that the modernist seeks to avoid at all costs. He keeps his subject matter low profile and his affect high.

Bartlett: When you use the term tangible what exactly do you mean?

Everson: The concreteness of subject matter.

Bartlett: In your article on Duncan in Credences you mention a few reservations about his work.

Everson: I think my reservations are more cogent that my acceptances. I thirst for substances and Robert doesn’t press the thrust through to the consequence. I’m an incarnationist and I’m often frustrated by his poems. Even in the best work, which is some of the best our age has produced, I want to see him press further into the archetype. When he rounds a poem out it’s because for that particular project he’s arrived at a satisfactory equation between being and nonbeing.

Bartlett: Can you think of a particular example of this?

Everson: Well, take a poem like "Persephone." That was a very early poem, one that Robert sent me in an early letter. I was always impressed with his capacity to go for broke sexually; he had the forthrightness to be explicit, which very few people did in those days. I was the same, only from a heterosexual standpoint. We fought the critics off back to back.

Bartlett: What do you think of the Ekbert Faas biography, Young Robert Duncan?

Everson: Terrific. I thought I knew Robert, but I found I hardly knew the first thing about him. His incredible early life carries the account. You find yourself marveling that he survived at all, then that he emerged with intelligence intact. Some of my friends were put off by the fact that English is not Faas’s first language, but in my reading that proved a plus. The Europeans bring a more historical and objective biographical perspective to the individual life, which effects a kind of cultural canonization that Robert’s heroic courage, intrepid eccentricity, and aesthetic integrity can sustain. The stiff, rather formal diction, detachedly unshockable, puts its painful burden in benign perspective. I predict the book will prove to be one of the cardinal elements in Duncan’s posthumous literary reputation.

Bartlett: How did Duncan regard it?

Everson: When I finished reading it I sat down and wrote Robert a letter intensely reaffirming all our friendship had meant to me. He told me later that the letter arrived at a decisive moment for him. The book itself had depressed him, and he tended to fault the author for that. But after my letter he took heart, and I know that in his next reading at U.C. Davis he brought the book along for sale with his poetry texts. I rank it among the top two or three literary biographies I have read.

Bartlett: Faas devotes much of his narrative to Duncan’s homosexuality. Do you feel his homosexuality influenced his work beyond its specific subject matter and imagery?

Everson: Absolutely. The Apollonian tension in the work comes directly out of his homosexuality. I used to regard him as a Dionysian because of the dithyrambic sensibility, yet he points to the prophetic side of Apollo as his archetype, at least in conversation with me. He formalizes his homosexuality through the Apollonian/Dionysian equation, identifying Apollo and rejecting Dionysus. This is the basis of his work.

Bartlett: When did you discover he was gay?

Everson: It was implicit in the early work he sent me and confirmed when he was living with Hamilton and Mary Tyler in Berkeley in the 1940s. They were good friends of mine. Either they told me, or maybe it was George Leite, editor of Circle.

Bartlett: Did this change your attitude towards him?

Everson: I recognized it as soon as I met him, but interestingly I never let it interfere with our friendship. For some reason it didn’t threaten me. His disposition is so generous that my masculinity didn’t feel threatened. But we did have a strange and intense relationship at times.

Bartlett: Meaning?

Everson: As I explained in my Talking Poetry interview, for example, when I gave a reading at the Bancroft library (or rather at Wheeler Hall for the Bancroft) to celebrate their acquisition of my archive, Duncan was in the audience with two young gay poets. I got a standing ovation, but Robert who was sitting just ahead of me four or five rows back, had been put off by James Hart’s introduction, which he more or less laughed through. As everyone rose to their feet, Robert declined to stand. I understood this, though I was hurt by it. That was probably the hardest day in our forty-year friendship.

Bartlett: What did you make of his decision not to publish for fifteen years?

Everson: I thought it was suicide, but it turned out that he knew what he was doing. He emerged from that silence increased in prestige and in purpose.

Bartlett: When was the last time you saw Duncan?

Everson: Three years ago. He came down here with our mutual friend Al Gelpi to spend the afternoon. He had already undergone treatment for his kidney problem and had his portable dialysis machine with him. He had never been here before. We really didn’t talk about anything consequential, but it was a good and healing visit. Actually, the healing had come several years earlier, at a conference on the San Francisco Renaissance at U.C. San Diego. It was a good conference, with lively exchange during the day sessions, and the night readings well attended by the public--though with the inevitable ego trips and partisan rhetoric. On my night to read my Parkinson affliction was acting up, and I just stood at the lectern to cover my shaking; I read for an hour, just a straight reading with no pyrotechnics. When I finished, Duncan came up, his face glowing, his crossed eyes shining, and said in hushed tones, "My God, Bill, you cut through all the shit!" I am blessed in my life to have had the friendship of a great man.

Bartlett: In closing can you speak of Duncan’s death, how you saw it in terms of his life?

Everson: Apparently he died utterly at peace, in the arms of his housemate and longtime companion, Jess Collins, a very edifying death, given the sensationalism of his early years. I think of him as protected by his Muse, living through the great San Francisco Aids epidemic of the 1980s, untouched by it all. Actually, beauty as a property of divinity is an ancient philosophical tenet of both the East and West traditions, and in our time Nicholas Berdyaev, the great Russian existentialist thinker, make a strong case for the sanctity of the great artist. When I think of Duncan’s invincible courage, aesthetic integrity, and purity of vision, the dross falls away and I experience him again in his essential being, his beautiful soul confirmed in the poet’s own degree of sainthood.

[Reprinted from American Poetry]

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