Duncan and Sagetrieb

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(by way of The Poetry Foundation)

In keeping with our celebration of the work of Sagetrieb, and with the recent release of Lisa Jarnot’s biography Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus and the publication of The Collected Early Poems & Plays, it seemed apt to look back at the special issue of Sagetrieb 4.2-3 (Fall/Winter 1985) which was dedicated to the life and work of Duncan. Contributing authors included Robert Creeley, Ronald Johnson, George Butterick, and many others.

In addition to remembrances of, essays on the work, and what were then unpublished documents by Duncan, this issue included an interview conducted by Michael André Bernstein and Burton Hatlen. We find in this interview Duncan, near the end of his life, speaking openly of the many strifes and trials undergone by him and his fellow Black Mountain poets in the name of poetry. He also speaks at length about his writing process, and in the selection below he speaks directly about the collage method learned from his lifelong partner Jess Collins:

RD: Certainly the collage method is how I saw Pound. Well, when I say “certainly,” I think Pound didn’t see himself using the collage method. There is a good deal of the reincarnation method in The Cantos. Collage is not reincarnation: it is the fact that everything is in the universe so you know that way out beyond your understanding of it everything has a harmony and I don’t think that is something Pound ever . . . nor do I, either, surely none of us do, have a full picture at the present moment. [. . .] Let’s say we’ve got a photographic level which is always very important but I think that photographic level leads to other levels of the spirit.

Later Duncan talks too of the strong influence (or counter-influence) of Pound on his own line and syntax:

RD: When I sent Heavenly City, Earthly City to Pound, he wrote back and said, “Why do you still have to go through that? I thought I went through all that, and you would never have to do it.” And yet in my talks with Pound, the one thing I wanted test him on . . . I knew that he had rejected Finnegans Wake with disgust, absolute disgust, and I knew why but I wanted to ferret it out. Because where Pound has an uncompromised line, I have a constantly compromised line and finally break syntax so that there’s not even a commitment to syntax, and that means every phrase can be compromised by the coexistence of other phrases.

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