Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness
Middleton (CT): Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
$24.95, 268 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6564-4.
Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille I
At first, this seems to be little else than a few random considerations
on psychosomatic diseases, the effect of words and therefore of poetry
on the body, and poetry itself considered as an illness or neurosis
for which writing is the cure, the whole of it being conducted in
a rather amateurish sort of way. To some extent, this is what it remains
to the end, Robert Duncan and his poetry being little else than the
chance occurrence of a personal experience in the protestant tradition.
Subservient to this discourse is some hazy atmosphere of belief in
paranormal influences, which happens to have also been the contagious
climate of Robert Duncans lectures on poetry at New College
in San Francisco in the 1980s. This otherworldly, at once mythical
and mystical dimension is related to what Duncan identified as Charles
Olsons Open Field in his own poem of the same title.
OLearys thesis in Gnostic Contagion is that Duncan
is the agent by whom the spores or germs of Gnosis were
passed on to modern America, and that he had taken this disease
from H. D. The theological systems of the Gnostics is briefly
summarised, with its aeons cascading from the pleroma,
down from the first centuries of Christianity (incidentally Origen
is quoted among the sources with an Origin-al misprint) together with
the usual basic information about Hermes Trismegistus and Asklepios,
All this is done rather cursorily, and soon to be followed by an exposé
on H. D.s psychoanalysis with Freud in the hay-days of
Madame Blavatsky, with little attention paid to the radical materialism
of the Freudian doctrine, which tends here to be recuperated so as
to validate and legitimise H. D.s spiritualism, although
she is much more clearly on Jungs side of a well-known controversy.
Robert Duncan, who considered that Poetry is a womb of souls,
which we as poets attend, is thus presented as a disciple and
Boomian ephebe of H.D. It turns out that Duncans vision of the
world also has its roots in the religion of his adoptive family, who
belonged to the Hermetic Brotherhood of California, an American branch
of the Theosophical Society.
The homosexual poet would later distinguish himself by developing
his personal myth from the figure of Narcissus, which finds an expression
in his recurring central experience of the Atlantis Dream.
He would explain his anti-rationalist aesthetics in the essay Ideas
of the Meaning of Form in which Keats and his Negative Capability
stand as an emblem. Similar ideas would find echoes in Whiteheads
Process and Reality as well as in the works of Creeley and
Olson and crystallise, at Black Mountain College in the 1960s, into
what came to be known as the Black Mountain school of poetry.
OLeary effort to make Duncans concept of apprehension
and Olsons crypto-Jungian, projective poetics coincide with
Geoffrey Hills notion of Poetry as Menace and Atonement
remains perhaps too sketchy to be utterly convincing. But the intellectual
affinity of Duncan with Eliade, the author of Shamanism, is
particularly striking. What is remarkable, too, although it has never
been mentioned, is the extreme resemblance between Duncans work
and poetics and that of British poet Ted Hughes, his contemporary
and also a self-styled poet-shaman, whose final Cave Birds
poem is very close to My Mother Would Be A Falconress.
On the whole this book is symptomatic of what is perhaps its authors
refusal of rationalistic vision and academic method, for it never
steers clear of psychological shallows, stitching together sometimes
thought-provoking but systematically undeveloped insights. The final
digressive swerve into examining now the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey,
fascinatingly interesting as it may be in itself, tends to deal the
final blow to the attentiveness of the benevolent reader, who is left
to trace for himself whatever tenuous link there really is
between the vatic scat rasp of Mackeys voice, monophysism, H.D.s
psychoanalysis, Duncans homosexuality and nice reproductions
of Jesss paintings, except an obscurely dizzying odour of Gnosticism.
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