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Magic, Alchemy, and Esoteric Thought in Works by Robert Duncan and Jess*

I knew Robert Duncan and Jess in the last 10 years of Duncan’s life, from 1978 to 1988. I just realized yesterday that I am now the age that Duncan was when I first met him (60). But then, I was 25.

Jess, “Jerusalem” (ca.1962 – 64) ink on white board in standing Art Deco frame, illustration planed for but not used in Duncan’s A Book of Resemblances (1966). Given to David Levi Strauss and Sterrett Smith upon leaving San Francisco for New York City in 1993. It reads “It seemed so far.”

I came to San Francisco from Goddard College in 1978 and quickly became part of the circle around the poet Diane di Prima. My best friend, Sheppard Powell, was Diane’s lover. Through Diane, I met Duncan. I had been reading Duncan (and Spicer and Blaser and Pound and Olson and Williams and Creeley and all the Black Mountain and other New American poets) for many years before this. The rumor at the time was that Duncan wanted to come back to teach, to “give it all away.” He hadn’t really taught extensively since being at Black Mountain with Olson and Creeley in the ’50s.

So these rumors circulated among young poets that Duncan and Diane were putting together some kind of school. This turned out to be the Poetics Program, under the auspices of New College, that started in 1980. It was taught entirely by poets. Duncan and Diane were joined by David Meltzer, Duncan McNaughton, and Michael Palmer, among others.

Sketch for the plantings of Duncan and Jess’s garden.

This was designed as an M.F.A. program, but it was pointedly not a “Creative Writing Program,” which is what everyone else was doing at the time. Rather, this was a program in Poetics, the study of how things are made.

The curriculum of the Poetics Program, put together around Duncan’s interests and those of the other poets he gathered around him, was a very unusual mixture of classical poetics, Hermeticism, and other esoteric traditions, and structuralism and post-structuralism and recent Continental theory. Believe me, no one else was doing this at that time.

My friend Ken Landauer asked me the other day what the connection was between Hermeticism and structuralism in the program, and I said that Duncan saw them both as ways of reading signs. Reading the world through signs.

In an interview in 1985, Duncan said:

“I still respond to poetry as if it too were, as the Hermetic world is, a series of epiphanies that are then discovered, and so a way is discovered—that is, a Blake is going to find a Swedenborg, is going to find a Paracelsus, and so on. Which is the background of our Poetics Program.”

It was all about introducing us to the Sources, so that we could derive from them what we needed, what could feed us, individually, as writers. One didn’t need to accept Duncan’s particular use of the Sources, only the way to the Sources ourselves.

Inscribed box of Stan Brakhage’s 8mm films Song 6 and Song 7 given to Duncan and Jess, subsequently gifted to David Levi Strauss.

So we read Homer and Hesiod, and Plato and Aristotle and Longinus and Ficino and Marlowe and Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus and Dante and Blake and Whitman and Dickinson. We read about Dante’s base in Islam in Henry Corbin, alchemical images and terms in Shakespeare, and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams as a work of the imagination. And we read the Zohar and Gershom Scholem, and Walter Benjamin, and Kabbalistic texts, and Gnostic texts, and the works of G. R. S. Mead and Frances Yates and Kathleen Raine and Jane Ellen Harrison, along with Saussure, Jakobson, Barthes, Todorov, Eco, Cassirer, Levi-Strauss, Piaget, Pierce, Foucault, Kristeva, Derrida, and many others. We concentrated on primary sources over secondary or tertiary ones. And we were ravenous. We read everything.

We couldn’t get to everything we wanted to read in classes, so we formed “clubs” to read Homer and Dante and Shakespeare outside of class. I was in the Homer Club. We read the Iliad in Greek. It took us seven years, meeting once a week. None of us had Homeric Greek when we started, including Duncan. We picked it up as children learn a language, through use. We read and scanned lines each week and translated them using Richard John Cunliffe’s A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect and Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. We gradually built up a vocabulary (helped by Owen & Goodspeed’s Homeric Vocabularies) and learned grammar as we went along (aided by Clyde Pharr’s Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners). We sang the lines in a method of our own devising, using the diacritical marks in A. T. Murray’s Loeb Classical Library edition as pitch indicators. Robert & the Rhapsodes.

When Duncan discovered that I was penniless and hard-working, he hired me to be his gardener, and that’s how I first entered the Duncan/Jess household, at 3267 20th Street in San Francisco. While gardening and studying with Duncan, I started a literary journal, ACTS, in the basement off the garden. Duncan bought the paper for the first issue and let me use the mimeograph machine he’d used for his Dante Etudes to print it. The first issue was comprised entirely of work from students and faculty in the Poetics Program.

Upstairs, Jess was working on his Narkissos (1976 – 91). In the household, Jess was the esoteric (since he didn’t teach), and Duncan the exoteric—very social.

Everything, for Duncan and Jess, was material for the poem or artwork. Jess said “everything in the world has a certain quality or spiritual presence, any simple object or image,” and that his paste-ups and paintings were “a dialogue of presences.”

David Levi Strauss’s copy of Sulfur #3 (1982) with Robert Duncan’s “In Blood’s Domain” corrected by Duncan April 5, 1982. In part, text reads “silences are not the absence of speech.”

In the conversation with Chris Wagstaff transcribed in the catalogue for the Grey Gallery show, Jess said about his Romantic paintings: “I always hope they will trigger the viewer into dreaming. Not only the Freudian dream which is a ‘little dream,’ but the Big Dream, which is an actual other dimension.”

And in his Pillow Book, Jess placed this quote from Bruno: “True poets and true painters choose one another out and admire one another.”

Many people have talked about the Duncan/Jess household and what a particular thing it was. The household was sacred to them. I just want to interject here a different kind of esoteric knowledge that I got from Duncan and Jess, and that was the knowledge of marriage—how to make a life together in art. They had the best marriage I have ever known, and I’ve tried hard to emulate it in my own life. Duncan described his marriage to Jess as “that union of opposites ... of contending forces united in their contention by love.”

The other esoteric knowledge I learned most from Duncan was the knowledge of death, of how to die. I’ve written about this quite a bit elsewhere, but I’ll just say here that Duncan was generous, in the end, to let a few of his students in to see the dying, up close, and this was part of the teaching. The great poet Kenneth Rexroth once said that Duncan’s distinguishing characteristic was “the depth and humanness of his heart.”

It should not be forgotten how much Duncan learned from the writer/shaman/linguist/anthropologist Jaime de Angulo when he was young. Duncan’s deep knowledge of linguistics came from de Angulo, as did the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) that was a big part of the Poetics Program, allowing us to hear and see poems in languages in which we weren’t fluent. Ezra Pound got Duncan a job as de Angulo’s typist, and then when de Angulo was dying of cancer, Duncan became his nurse, and learned about death from him. This is right before the beginning of Duncan’s life with Jess. In his poem “An Essay at War,” Duncan refers to de Angulo as “A bombd house, falling away from us, / reappearing in his own light, / a spiritual refinement,” and repeats the line from de Angulo, “What can I teach you / when there is no time for teaching?”

Robert Duncan's inscriptions in his Ground Work (1984) "for David Levi Strauss/adhering to his source!/RD/July 1984," referencing Duncan's Dante Études: Book Two (1974): Lovely / The way Dante bestows himself / monarchial throughout his thought / and in every imagination / adhering to his source!

When there was no time left, Duncan continued to teach, to try to give it all away.

Duncan was a muse poet, an Orphic poet, a vatic poet. Vates (seer) is the oldest name for a poet, but it fell into disuse and contempt, and was replaced by poeta (maker) until restored to honor by Virgil. Now it is used to refer to an oracle, a teacher, a master in any art or profession. It’s a Celtic word, and the Indo-European root means to inspire or spiritually arouse.

* This text was originally given as a talk at an event with the above title, organized by the artist Jesse Bransford and sponsored by NYU’s Department of Art, Steinhardt School, and Grey Art Gallery, in conjunction with the exhibition at the Grey Gallery, An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle. The discussion also included art historian Susan Aberth and artist Carol Bove, and was held in the Einstein Auditorium on Stuyvesant Street in the East Village on February 28, 2014.


David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

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