To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Reconfiguring Romanticism (25): William Everson, on Robert Duncan’s romanticism and modernism, & other matters

Lee Bartlett, interviewer, March 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.

[Originally published in Lee Bartlett’s American Poetry, 1988, as “On Robert Duncan: An Interview with William Everson.” Bartlett wrote of this: “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 [a.k.a. Brother Antoninus]. 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.” During his later years in central California, Everson founded Lime Kiln Press, through which he published limited artist's editions of his own work & those of a number of his contemporaries & predecessors.]


A.H. said...

A very interesting interview, which on reflection, seems flawed in many ways. To identify Pound as the main Modernist influence...then tag HD on later? The momentum of HD is far greater than Pound's-- on Duncan. The statement that Duncan was a Romantic, backed up by a possible Coleridge influence, is grossly inaccurate. Surely, the Romantic influence was Shelley. His interest in synthetic Platonic imagery shows again and again on Duncan. The weakness of this appraisal is that it shows little detailed knowledge of English Literature: Duncan's English/Celtic borrowings are skipped over as Duncan is quickly placed in the grand American line of Pound. How times change perspective...or closer good to see Duncan remembered. Thanks.

Stephen Morrissey said...

Thank you for posting this interview with William Everson, an interview that I hadn't read before. Everson's Birth of a Poet, his emphasis on shamanism and poetry, and his body of work all deserve to be read and studied by younger poets today.

Art Durkee said...

I think Everson was correct about Romanticism being in the marrow of Modernism. I've always thought it was there, psychologically if not obviously in terms of literary style or structure. The archetype of the Hero-Artist, the avant-gardist placed in rebellion against the establishment status quo, the idea that Modernism was rejection as much as revelation—these are all very romantic ideas.

Thanks for sharing this interview.