On Robert Duncan's "Poem beginning with a line by Pindar"
"There is natural mystery in poetry. We do not understand all that we render up to understanding."
Duncan writes that a poem "is an occult document" subject to "x-rays and vivisection." In this sense, "occult" means that a poem resists and it yields, in Stevens's sense that it resists the intelligence almost successfully. This happens because the poem is a "field" into which the poet brings his or her materials. In the case of his long, famous "Poem beginning with a line by Pindar," the materials are not only the Roman poet's Third Pythian Ode, but the myth of Pysche and Cupid (as represented by Goya), a poetic lineage from Whitman to Williams and Pound, and American Presidential history.
The poem is in four parts: the first begins with a mishmash of Pindar, the beautiful but nonsensical "The light foot hears you and the brightness begins," quickly clarified as "god steps at the margins of thought." In some ways, this poem provides evidence of the numinous: a foot cannot hear in any way we understand, but the lingering occult presence brings with it luminosity. Most of this first section describes Goya's painting of Pysche and Cupid, the troubled story of a god in love with a human. The second section transitions from myth to the imperfect present, using the strokes of President Eisenhower and William Carlos Williams to represent the rupture of poetry from public policy (a public poetry being possible from before Pindar to Whitman). The stroke victims' language is a distorted, mis-signifying stutter: "The present dented of the U/nighted stayd. States. The heavy clod?/Cloud. Invades the brain." At this point in history, "The smokes of continual ravage/obscure the flame." A catalogue of presidents is a list of graceless "idiots fumbling at the bride's door." In the third section, dedicated to Charles Olson, we see Ezra Pound, an inspiration for such a jeremiad against "liars in public places." Pound as Olson came to know him at St. Elizabeths is the broken "old man at Pisa," though, unlike WCW, his language is untouched and stronger than ever, even if he a "A man upon whom the sun has gone down." Pound transforms into a mythic figure, "the hero who struggles east/widdershins to free the dawn." He is against the grain of the American myth, in which "West/from east men push." The fourth section is a diffuse return to the misreading of Pindar, punctuated by the footfall of a "boundary walker," his "foot informed/by the weight of all things." This walker traverses a wilderness and dissolves into a ring of children dancing. Near the end of the poem, Duncan represents its genesis: "the information flows/ that is yearning. A line of Pindar moves/ from the area of my lamp/ toward morning." The poem ends with the children dancing "In the dawn that is nowhere... clockwise and counterclockwise turning."
In this final section, Duncan comments on his line from Pindar in a prose paragraph aside that also describes the poem: Pindar's art "was not a statue but a mosaic, an accumulation of metaphor." It is an inspiration for Duncan's poetics of the field. He, like Olson and others in NAP is not pursuing a well-wrought urn, but initiating a sometimes occult process, or creating a field where thinking and music can occur. Found within his "Pages from a Notebook" is a statement enclosed in quotation marks but not attributed: "I do not seek a synthesis but a melee." This uncontrolled "melee" is as apt a description of field poetics as the accumulating mosaic. It is a poetics of action and of presence--poems are not objects for readers to enjoy but fields of participation. They are energy transfers (Olson's) or "passionate dispersions" of magic (Duncan).
While working through this poem, I have begun to identify with Duncan the same way I identify with Olson. Personally, politically they are far apart, and they have different intellectual interests too. But each seems on first blush a little ludicrous. They have large ambitions that seem to have been accomplished by others in styles that seem dated. But I'd encourage any one interested enough to have read this far to give both consideration. Though I've read and liked his Opening of the Field, studying "Pindar" at length is driving me to further study of his work.
Recommended: The Opening of the Field
To Read: Lisa Jarnot's bio (forthcoming), Bending the Bow, Roots and Branches, Selected Prose
- ▼ June (7)
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