This lecture, which is part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry and was held December 2, explores the doctrine of discovery that haunts American poetry.
Lisa Jarnot engages in an autobiographical interrogation of what it means to be a woman in a male-centered experimental tradition, and what it means to have white privilege and write poetry. Several questions arise: What do we keep and what do we reject as we acknowledge the systemic racism and American exceptionalism that pervade even the most benign of bohemian writing communities? Is there something transcendent and healing in the poet’s love of making, knowing, and of forging human connections? How can social reckoning and personal romance co-exist in exploring (and having been influenced by) the writers of the Black Mountain School, the New York School, and the Beat Generation?
The Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry supports contemporary poets as they explore in-depth their own thinking on poetry and poetics, and give a series of lectures resulting from these investigations. Lectures are delivered publicly in partnership with institutions nationwide. Find out more about past, present, and future lecturers, and explore the archive at bagleywrightlectures.org.
Lisa Jarnot was born in Buffalo, NY, and educated at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is the author of several collections of poetry, including Some Other Kind of Mission (1996), Ring of Fire (2001), Black Dog Songs (2003), Night Scenes (2008), Joie De Vivre: Selected Poems 1992-2012 (2013) and A Princess Magic Presto Spell (2019). She co-edited An Anthology of New (American) Poets (1997), and her biography of San Francisco poet Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, was published by the University of California Press in 2012. She has been a visiting professor at Naropa University, Brooklyn College, and the University of Colorado, Boulder. She lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, is a Masters of Divinity candidate at New York Theological Seminary and is a minister at Safe Haven United Church of Christ.
Good evening, everyone. My name is Charles Stang. And I'm the director here at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. We're honored to have with us this evening the poet and professor Lisa Jarnot for a talk entitled white males-- I'm sorry-- white whales, white males, Whitehead. We have an hour and a half together. And so I'll keep my remarks very brief.
Lisa Jarnot is the second speaker this year in the center's ongoing series on poetry, philosophy, and religion, which is now in its fourth year. The series aims to explore the porous boundaries between poetry, philosophy, and religion, which have had a tense but productive relationship from antiquity until today. We've decided to explore these boundaries and borderlands, first and foremost, from the perspective of poets, living poets.
Our first speaker in this series this year in October was Fred Moten. You can find the video of his talk on the center's website. We at the center are very pleased to partner this evening with the Bagley Wright Lecture Series in Poetry. And I'd like to offer a special thanks to the series coordinator Ellen Welcker for suggesting this collaboration.
The Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry supports contemporary poets as they explore in depth their own thinking on poetry and poetics. And they give a series of lectures resulting from these investigations. Lectures are delivered publicly in partnership with institutions nationwide, such as our own center here. If you're interested in learning more about past, present, and future lecturers, please visit their website at www.bagleywrightlectures.org.
Now please allow me to introduce our speaker. Lisa Jarnot is the author of several collections of poetry, including, most recently, A Princess Magic Presto Spell in 2019. She coedited in 1997 An Anthology of New American Poets. And her biography of San Francisco poet Robert Duncan, entitled The Ambassador From Venus, was published by the University of California Press in 2012.
She's been a visiting professor at Naropa University, Brooklyn College, and the University of Colorado Boulder. She lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, is both a master's of divinity candidate at New York Theological Seminary, and a minister at Safehaven United church of Christ. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us this evening. The digital floor is yours.
Thank you, Charlie. Glad to be here. I was just looking at the participants' list. And oh my gosh, I was almost-- I'll say it. I was almost feeling nervous. So many old friends, so I just want to say thank you all for being here and especially thanks to I see my church has come out. Safehaven United Church of Christ, thank you guys. And, Rod Smith, I haven't seen you for many years. And Will Creeley, I'm glad you're here. And of course, I'll say hello to my mom.
I wanted to just open with a invocation that is a poem I came across yesterday. It's a poem by the American New England poet Charles Olson. And I was surprised. I know Olson's work fairly well. And this is a poem that I either didn't remember or don't know.
And I wanted to bring it in because this talk has a lot to do with the idea of conflict in identity. And in my world, Charles Olson has always been seen as one of the great poets but also, especially for women, a very problematic poet. And when I read this poem, I thought, wow, well, this tells a story all its own. So it's called "Only the Red Fox, Only the Crow."
You who come after us, you who can live when we are not, make much of love. You to whom the spring can return when we will merely correlate a worm, enjoy the envy in this blind glance. You who shall have the Earth and one another, the government of new, do not fail us. Dance.
We shall not know, but you remember this, the two-edged worth of loveliness, the nights for talking and for kissing. And when, on summer field, two horses run for joy like figures on the beach, your mind will find us as we have found within its reach. Put this then under the leaves or under snow. You who come after us, we send you for envoy. Make most of love.
I feel like there should be an Amen at the end of that. It's so beautiful and so appropriate for this pandemic world that we're living in. So in the way that we are working here, I am going to read from a screen.
And this talk is called white men, white whales, and Whitehead. It opens with a epigraph from George Herbert's poem "Jordan (I)." Shepherds are honest people. Let them sing.
I should begin by saying that I think sometimes that my capacity for earnestness is either my superpower or my fatal flaw. So given this really terrific opportunity to delve into my life and work as a poet, I'm just going to let it all hang out tonight. And I'm hoping that you find something useful in the earnestness and not something dreadful in it, as my 11-year-old daughter so often does.
This is the first of four lectures that I'll be presenting over a period of four seasons. And I've decided to frame the sequence of talks not only as a call story and testimony about my work but also, equally importantly, as a testimony about a tradition in American poetry that has absolutely sustained me. And I think it would be appropriate to say has absorbed me into it as much as I have absorbed it over the last 35 years or so.
When I think about what this tradition is, which we might call an American experimental or open-verse poetry originating out of Whitman and Dickinson and, before that, on the other side of the ocean out of William Blake's work, I know for me that it has always been populated with white men, white whales, as in Melville's in the novel Moby Dick 1851, and Whitehead, as in Alfred North Whitehead and particularly his cosmological treatise Process and Reality from 1929. So this kind of feels like a complicated barrel of monkeys. And I think it is, but I'd like to frame it as something to explore tonight and to be curious about.
The other thing that I want to be clear about from the beginning of this talk is that I am not a fancy poet. Even as I invoke these big books by Melville and Whitehead, I don't want to wield these texts as intellectual currency. I want to use them to tell a tale. I seem to have the mind of a poet, which makes me good at poaching, weaving, collaging, and not so inclined towards traditionally academic discourse, which leads me to a second note, which is that I'm also a towny, as the language poet Ron Silliman once called me.
Meaning, that like him, I'm a local yokel who found my way into an intellectual world by the accident of being basically being in the right low-tuition public university at the right time. In Ron Silliman's case, it was UC Berkeley in the 1960s and, in my case, SUNY Buffalo in the 1980s.
It seems to me that the inspiration behind poems is often a feeling that something is desperately wrong or that something is desperately right. And out of one or the other of these emergencies, something must be said, which leads to the rant or the elegy about the desperately wrong thing [AUDIO OUT] of European descent and from a working class family and female and a local yokel citizen of the United States led me to the extremes of those feelings of the rightness and wrongness of the world.
It was mostly by the time I was in elementary school, I knew that something was desperately wrong on the local temporal level of what I'll call God and country and shopping mall and then simultaneously that something was desperately right on an eternal level, that there was an order somewhere around me in nature that was both unifying and liberating, which is what I would later come to find in Melville's work and in Whitehead.
I'm curious about whether or not there was something particular about my visceral response to those feelings of wrongness and rightness and my need to vocalize them through writing, which is to say I wonder whether or not poetry is a call. I've heard call stories and testimonies in religious communities. And they all share a similar framework, the something happened to me framework of, one day, I was walking down the street and I saw a cross or I walked into a church or someone called me reverend and so on and so forth.
In the circles I swing in as a poet, the call story often starts with Allen Ginsberg, as in, I once was lost, but then I found Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." And I have to say, it was a surprise to me and a little bit of a disappointment when I learned that I was not the only one who had been called into poetry by "Howl" during my senior year of high school and that, in fact, one of my other early poetry heroes, Ed Sanders, had had that same experience in his senior year of high school in Missouri nearly 30 years before I did and that many of my subsequent poetry students had the same experience in their senior years of high school decades later in places like New Jersey and Iowa and Ohio. So I'll begin there because it's my story. And it's also my community story.
When I was in my mid teens, I spent a lot of time playing a tennis racket air guitar in my brother's bedroom. He had the turntables. So we had to. Any activity went on in that shrine where the record player was and listening to records that we'd managed to pick up at the department store down on Route 5.
And it was really an accident or an incident or maybe a flash of novelty, as Alfred North Whitehead might call it, around one of my air guitar jam sessions that tipped me off to a constellation of prophetic voices that included Allen Ginsberg. It began when I came across an LG called "Ballad of Hollis Brown," in which the author Bob Dylan, at the age of 22, pinned down a picture of something that is desperately wrong.
And I remember seeing Dylan perform that ballad on television in 1984 or 1985 with a kind of typical hard-to-follow phrasing that caused one of my family members to blurt out, well, that was just really terrible. But somehow, in the midst of that, I had absorbed. I had absorbed maybe not every word of that song but every ounce of the pathos of it. And if you know some of the "Ballad of Hollis Brown," it's a song not based in historical fact.
But it's a tale about a farmer in South Dakota who's starving. And in desperation, he loads a shotgun. And he kills his wife and his five children. And then he kills himself.
And I found myself running off to my bedroom to make notes about how incredibly transcendent it had been to hear this, how viscerally moved I was by it. At which point, I think I really felt deeply that poetry on the level that Bob Dylan was presenting it as a prophetic art was a matter of life and death and also that I was not going to be able to turn away from participating in it. I want to define what I mean by prophetic art. Because I think that phrase, it can feel unapproachable, especially in the secular world. And it can definitely be misunderstood as some kind of hocus pocus that involves the [INAUDIBLE] and such.
But my definition of a prophetic art is informed by the writings of Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann. I would say a prophetic art is an art that points out the difficulty in a present moment, relates that difficulty to a previous failing within a social contract or a covenant, and gives the listener options for potentially good or bad outcomes. Another way to say this is that a prophetic art is one in which the prophet is attuned to a higher order of things. Some might say attuned to God. And some people might just say attuned to ethics or common decency.
I think Spinoza makes it simple, defining a prophet as one who interprets the revelations of God and adding that prophecy implies not-- this is Spinoza. Prophecy implies not a peculiarly perfect mind but a peculiarly vivid imagination. I'll bring Walter Brueggemann's words directly into the conversation here, as he's so brilliant a writer and so immediately touched by the prophetic tradition in America through his friendship with Martin Luther King.
At the age of 87, I think he is one of the clearest prophetic voices in the wilderness of our global fascist, neoliberal, late capitalist, climate collapse. So he writes in a recent book called The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, he writes, it is the work of 21st century prophetic preachers to name the denial and to identify the infidelities that make our common life toxic. It is the work of 21st century prophetic preachers to name the despair and witness to the divine resolve for newness that may break the vicious cycle of self-destruction and make new common life possible.
What was haunting for me about the Bob Dylan ballad was an acknowledgment of that despair embedded in the American landscape. And implied in that was the despair of what Brueggemann identifies as democratic capitalism and militant consumerism and, in back of that, yes, the doctrine of discovery, colonialism, and slavery. Which, for me, as a white teenager, were more of the invisible parts of that problem.
But Dylan's ballad reminded me that, through an ethos of American individualism, some people were going to perish. And some people were going to thrive. And for the most part, few people are going to say a word about it. And even fewer people are going to act to change things. And I'd like to add that as I was thinking about this today, that it's not just by chance that some people are going to perish and some people are going to thrive. It's there is, certainly, a determined effort for that to happen on the part of, well, people with white privilege.
So I still feel haunted in the same way by the opening of the second section of Ginsberg's "Howl," the Moloch section. What Sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imaginations? Moloch. Solitude, filth, ugliness, ash cans, and unobtainable dollars, children screaming under stairways, boys sobbing in armies, old men weeping in the parks. Moloch, the incomprehensible prison. Moloch, the crossbone, soulless jail house and congress of sorrows. Moloch, whose buildings are judgment. Moloch, the vast stone of war.
I'm writing here in this lecture about how certain white men and certain tales of white whales and a certain Whiteheadian cosmology gave me the sustenance to begin to abandon Moloch and how I learned from them to begin to conspire with others who suffered even when my efforts were imperfect. I've been trying to trace that beautiful trajectory in my early notebooks from hearing Bob Dylan sing the Ballad of Hollis Brown" to reading Allen Ginsberg's liner notes for Bob Dylan's album desire and then discovering Allen's poems and then Jack Kerouac's work and then things like Alan Watts' book The Way of Zen and then Abbie Hoffman's Revolution for the Hell of It and then a few years later coming to the poet Robert Duncan and to Herman Melville and to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and so on, which, as you can see, is a whole lot of white men.
Their white maleness rarely appalled me. Though, I think Kerouac's would a bit later, would a lot later. But mostly, I saw the intention that they were setting in their various poetics of liberation.
Dylan's content on race told me something that no one had ever explained to me at school about what it means to be black and/or poor within the American system and, subsequently, what it means to be white and privileged within that system. And not only had my community not revealed a truthful narrative, they had upheld racism at every turn.
So Dylan was a white man in my political lineage. But he simultaneously was the first example for me of what a white conspirator might look like with his ballads about Medgar Evers and Haiti Carol and Rubin Carter and Davey Moore and George Jackson and with his insistence that America had no future because, as he said in an interview more recently, it's a country founded on the backs of slaves.
I can go back to one of those first spiral notebooks and find my very reverent pencil written transcriptions of Kerouac's and Ginsberg's ideas. Kerouac in The Dharma Bum saying, I didn't feel that I was an American at all. And Ginsberg in his journals from the early 1950s, embracing a really multifaceted, inclusive queerness, is candidly and earnestly as ever. This is Ginsberg.
At 14, I was an introvert, an atheist, a communist, and a Jew. And I still wanted to be president of the United States. At 19, being no longer a virgin, I was a cocksucker and believed in a supreme reality, an anarchist, a hipster, totally apolitical reichian. I wanted to be a great poet instead. At 22, I was hallucinating a mystic, believing in the city of God. And I wanted to be a saint.
For me, those voices, they were the Ishmaels of Moby Dick and not the Ahabs. They weren't the ones steering the ship. And they didn't want to. They were the ones waking up in the arms of communists, Jews, anarchists, and even cannibals happily, and going to see and reading the signs of the heavens.
Even later, when I came to Ezra Pound's poetry, it was clear to me that, as mad as he was, there had been something that he had been searching for through the form of the poem that was meant to open the possibilities of how we see the world rather than to close it. Hearing testimonies from a first generation influenced by him from Robert Duncan, from the filmmaker Stan Brakhage and, from the poet Jackson Mac Low about the ecstasy of coming to read The Cantos is a clue in itself that someone as queer as Duncan and someone as much of a misfit as Stan Brakhage and someone of Jewish heritage as Mac Low was could all cleave to Pound's work and could all be powerfully informed and transformed by it told me that there was something in it besides fascist dogma.
I'd say there was an agony involved in having these deep feelings about the fact that something was very wrong but not having anyone or not having many in a community to mirror that back to me. I find scrawled in one of my notebooks from December of 1986 another passage of Allen Ginsberg's from an unidentified text where he describes the challenge of, quote, the challenge of "knowing how to feel human and holy and not like a madman in a world which is rigid and materialistic," end quote. There was also something agonizing about having prophetic creative energy alongside very primitive creative skills.
Or as the poet Robert Duncan often said, I was a poet who began without talent. That was certainly my case too. But yeah, so having that energy, having very primitive creative skills, and also having a great distrust for any curriculum other than the liner notes of a Bob Dylan album, I think it was that sort of agitation that drove Ishmael out to sea on the Pequod.
As some of you know the opening of Moby Dick, whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet, and especially whenever my hypos gets such an upper hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off, then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
I want to sea in a way I didn't expect to. And my Pequod was a community within the University of Buffalo, a small band of people who, I would say, were Ishmaels working for Ahabs. And the most important of these Ishmael figures for me were two white male poets. The first was Robert Creeley and the second was John or Jack Clark.
They were both in the English department. Though, I don't think that either of them felt that they particularly belonged there. They were both disheveled in the way that Ishmael's shipmates were in Moby Dick. Bob Creeley, he had lost an eye as a result of a car accident as a young person and had, at some point, happily traded in the plastic eyeball for an off-kilter squint. And Jack Clark had had polio, so he hobbled through the hallways swinging his briefcase with a kind of funny, steady determination.
They were both heirs to that experimental American tradition that I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. Bob was a New Englander. He was a Harvard dropout. He was a poet of the lineage and the stature of Dickinson and Williams.
And I guess I'd have to describe Jack as a Midwestern polymath. In addition to being a poet, he was a jazz musician, a Blake scholar. And in his first years on the faculty at Buffalo, he had met the poet Charles Olson. And they had become fast friends.
Neither Bob Creeley nor Jack Clark were mentors in any conventional sense. I think Bob was at his best with people as a friend. And he always craved what he would call a downhome sociality. He had very little interest in assuming any mantle of authority. And Jack was definitely something other than a college professor. Although, he hid it well under his tweed jacket and his owl-life glasses, and his goatee.
I knew that I was going to be able to stay in college. I knew that I would be able to get something out of the academy on one afternoon in one of Jack Clark's classes where I listened as Jack entered into a conversation with a student who was one of those kind of Long Island football jocks. And Jack suggested that the student might understand the reading material better. We were reading Hesiod. He said, you might understand the reading material better, he said, if you tried some psychedelic mushrooms.
It was about three weeks into that class that I really surrendered to his influence. I didn't have to take the mushrooms to do it. But I remember, actually, I don't remember, but I found. I was looking through my old notebooks, and I found a note that said I love Odysseus, which makes me think of a time I was standing-- more recently, I was standing outside Riverside Church with one of my fellow seminary students, and she blurted out, I know King David was a whoremonger, but I love him anyway.
As for Bob Creeley, I remember working up the courage to introduce myself to him on my first day of classes. And I said to him, I'm going to sign up for poetry writing workshop and write poems. And he was really opposed to that idea of entering into a contract to learn how to write poems as products within academia. He had either declined to or had not been invited to teach such classes himself. And in a kind of gentle, brotherly way, he suggested that, perhaps if I wanted to be a poet, I could study languages and history.
What I learned quickly about these two white male mentors is that they were thoroughly disinterested in poetry as a commodity. And they were disinterested in forcing poems into existence. Simultaneously, they were entirely committed to breaking down and maneuvering around any form, be it prosodic form, an academic form, a social form, any form that restricted freedom, which is why I'm so willing to configure them using our contemporary cultural jargon as allies, as coconspirators.
If a straight-laced poet like Robert Frost or anyone out of the line of the new critics was mentioned in conversation, Bob and Jack would simply fume about this travesty of these tedious closed systems within poetry, which was a sentiment that put them at odds with most of the rest of the English department. I'm thinking of the Robert Frost poem that opens with that line two roads diverged in a yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both, this incredible poem of manifest destiny. And I remember Bob Creeley saying, well, why doesn't the son of a bitch just stay where he is and stop taking up space?
So to return to my earnest romanticism, yeah, I think that both Bob Breely and Jack Clark confirmed what I suspected that the retreat of the poem into academic institutions was the death of the prophetic tradition. And I remember a young, very slick poet coming through town one autumn and Jack and Bob deliberating with each other about his work and Jack kind of chewing on his lip and wrinkling his brow and saying, well, you know, he could go either way.
And I still carry that with me, to a fault sometimes, because I do have friends who can stomach certain kinds of poems and certain kinds of poets. And I think to myself, well, if you want something like that, you'd do just as well to go to Pottery Barn and look at the furniture.
In the same way that Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg had employed an earnest, prophetic content, the writers who I came to know through Bob and Jack employed an earnest, prophetic form. They gave me an understanding that received systems are meant to be interrogated, opened, and rearranged. They showed me a world on the page that in no way resembled what I had seen in resectable literature anthologies.
To break with the poetic formalism implied breaking with acceptable social behavior and acceptable social alliances. It meant crossing color lines. Bob's rhythm as a poet came not just out of Carlos Williams but also out of Max Roach. The prophetic tendency was often subtle in the content of Bob Creeley's work but not always. I think of his poem "America."
America, you owed for reality. Give back the people you took. Let the sun shine again on the four corners of the world. You fought at first but do not own or keep like a convenience. People are your own word. You invented that locus and term. Here, you said and say, is where we are. Give back what we are, these people you made, us and nowhere but you to be.
William Blake's etching plates and Whitman's barbaric, yopping stanzas, and Olson's and Robert Duncan's field theory poetics all prophetically rebelled against what was wrong with the world. Duncan habitually explained this in his poems. When I first gave this talk, I gave it at the Poetry Project, which was mostly a poetry audience. And I didn't quite explain, I think, some of my references so much. But I will here.
I'm talking about Robert Duncan, American poet born in San Francisco. His dates are 1919 through 1988. Robert Duncan habitually explained this in his poems. His anarchist disdain for polite order and his love affair with the idea that creative work had a life force that made it a living part of the universe. It took me a long time to understand that what he was writing about in his first full-length collection called The Opening of the Field, is the same thing that Walter Brueggemann is talking about when he describes a prophetic ministry as one that upends the question of right or left-wing politics.
Duncan flat out rejects what he calls manmade laws, including the Constitution of the United States. And he seeks a Law with a capital L, an evolving order of the universe absolutely aligned with Alfred North Whitehead's thinking. Duncan has a poem called "The Law I Love is Major Mover," which he wrote really in the midst of his obsession with reading Whitehead's process and reality. Here's a little excerpt from the Duncan poem.
Hear-- hear, H-E-A-R-- hear, beautiful, damned man that lays down his law lays down himself, creates hell, a sentence unfolding, healthy heaven. Law there-- so let me read that again because the manmade law is the first stanza. And law is lower case here. Hear, or hear me, beautiful, damned man that lays down his law lays down himself, creates hell, a sentence unfolding, healthy heaven. Thou will not allow the suns to move nor man to mean desire move. Look, the angel that made a man of Jacob, made Israel in his embrace, was the Law-- capital L-- was syntax.
So the second half, he's bringing in what sounds like a really Christian preoccupation. Duncan is not particularly Christian. He likes the stories. So he's using it in that way.
But that second part, which is also very homoerotic. Look, the angel that made a man of Jacob, made Israel in his embrace, was the Law, was syntax. Him I love is major mover. It's the logos too. That major mover, that prime mover, that eternal law actually doesn't belong to the church. And it doesn't belong to the state.
There's a touch of Spinoza's thinking here in Duncan. I'm thinking of Spinoza's theological, political treatise, where he makes this same distinction between human law and divine law. And he dismisses human law as a plan of living, which serves only to render the state secure. When I looked at that in Spinoza, I just kept thinking of William Barr declaring New York City an anarchist jurisdiction, making the state secure.
Duncan's major mover, his God is glimpsed through the creative processes of the poem and the universe. There's something that a friend of Duncan's, Don Byrd told me. When I was writing this biography of Robert Duncan, and Don Byrd was saying that there was a reading that Duncan gave of his passages poems in Kansas in 1969. And this would have been a reading where Duncan was very preoccupied with the bloodbath of the Vietnam War and was in the habit of denouncing what Lyndon Johnson, talking about an active satanism in the American scene.
And so Duncan was reading these very dark poems. And Don Byrd says, somewhere in the midst of the apocalyptic passages, Duncan stopped and said, sometimes people ask me why, if I believe this, I bother to write poetry. I write poetry for the fucking stars. I just love that line.
I had come to Duncan's prophetic anarchist imagination through a graduate seminar that Bob Creeley taught in the fall of 1987. He was interested in reading deeply through the works of three of his contemporaries, Duncan, Charles Olson, and John Ashbery. I really didn't know any of that work.
So I said, can I sit-in on that class? And he said, sure. And this is a really wild space when it comes to the theme of white men. But it was a weekly, three-hour seminar with about a dozen graduate students. They were all guys. They were all white.
They seemed very mature to me. Though, they must have been just in their 20s. And the guys always brought cigarettes for Bob, who wasn't really supposed to smoke anymore. But the more he smoked, the more personal he got in relating the poems to the friendships he had with these poets. And it was a little bit bawdy. But what I remember about it is that Bob was really insistent on maintaining a space for me in that company and in creating a narrative for me, and hopefully especially for all the guys, about, frankly, what was wrong with the patriarchal thinking of Olson's and even as he was speaking about very dear friendships and very great poems.
My first real hearing of Duncan's work was there with Bob reciting an early collage composition of Duncan's called "The Venice Poem" from 1947, which, if you know it, is an ornate and dramatic and queer poem, which was not what Bob Creeley was at all. And he didn't do anything with the poem except to read it and to pause here and there to say, in his typical way, you know, this is gorgeous. You dig?
And I really did dig it. But I didn't know why. I just knew that there were so many recesses in Duncan's work and so many hiding places in that poem. And it was the kind of thing that my mom would have heard, and she would have said, oh, well, you know, he thinks too much. But it was a poem that was doing things that I realized that poems, as I knew them, were not supposed to do.
And in the same way that Allen Ginsberg had said things in the poem that no one was allowed to say, Duncan was going to do things in the form of the poem that no one was allowed to do. He was creating an atmosphere and a world out of a collage of very disparate materials that included readings from a medieval history course he'd taken at Berkeley and lines from Stravinsky's Poetics of Music and really excruciatingly personal journal entries about the end of a relationship, including a moment where he outs himself in the poem as a cocksucker, which, when that poem was published, would have repercussions for his early career.
So coming to Duncan, it was a very similar feeling to one I'd had hearing Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" for the first time. I knew that Duncan had begun a conversation that was not allowed for in the world I inhabited. But again, it was more than that. It gave me a feeling of awe and a feeling that a lot of people either didn't know about this good stuff or they were hiding it from me.
I mentioned something at the beginning of this talk about waking up in the arms of cannibals and short circuiting the power of the Ahabs steering the ships. If you've read Moby Dick, you know that the cannibal who Ishmael shares a bed with is named Queequeg. And Queequeg arrives at the beginning of the novel to, I'll say, to, figuratively, penetrate Ishmael. Queequeg, he is the dark-skinned cannibal that the Roman historian saw in the dark-skinned Palestinian Jesus with his cult of body and blood.
Ishmael, in Moby Dick, says from the bridal chamber, which is the room that he shares with Queequeg in the Spouter Inn, he says, I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. The soothing savage had redeemed it.
I'll stop for the word redeemed there. I think that's an important word. The soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifferent speaking in nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocracies and bland deceits. I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn toward him. I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.
I see a real sublime connectedness, a sublime conspiracy that Ishmael and Queequeg have in that moment. And it occurs to me that, every time I've come into something sublime in my life, it's been accompanied by that kind of feeling of being totally out of my depth, out of control. And it's often a sign that there's an incredibly generative but also dangerously heated force at work. This was the case for me with poetry, as it is with Christianity, which seemed to me to be to closely linked in a continuity as part of one continuum.
In the Duncanian line of thinking, such strange feelings and meltings as Ishmael describes them are a sure sign that gnosis is active and present. And I think gnosis is as wild as eros. And in my experience, they have often been collaborators.
So the other part of my life at the university that autumn was a job I stumbled into in the rare book collection in the library system, which was exactly a place where I found gnosis and eros running amok. There was an Ahab-like curator of that collection, who happened to be a scholar of Robert Duncan's poetry. Duncan was then 68, and he was dying. He was terminally ill with kidney and heart disease. Duncan was in San Francisco. And this curator in Buffalo had been making trips out to San Francisco to collect, to buy Duncan's manuscripts and notebooks and library.
And I really remember leaving Bob Creeley's classroom having heard the Venice poem, running to that library where I was working for this curator and just practically leaping into his arms, knowing that he knew Duncan's work and that maybe he could tell me about the secrets of the Venice poem.
And one of the things that came out of that is that it opened a door for me, a literal door to what we call back than we called the stacks, which was the place where all the manuscript materials were held in the rare book collection at the university. And eventually, Duncan's papers were there, and no one was allowed to access those papers.
And I soon learned that they were definitely being kept out of the hands of visiting scholars. And they're definitely being treated as a commodity to be hoarded away until the curator had time to have his way with them. And at some point, I struck a deal that, since I was a lowly undergraduate student and a girl and, obviously, of little threat to scholarly researchers doing real scholarly work that, why not let me catalog this collection of Robert Duncan's work, his notebooks and his manuscripts and his letters? And it came to be.
And I spent many months running to that office every morning at 8:30 AM and sharpening my pencils and standing in front of rows of gray archival boxes filled with Duncan's 81 notebooks, a feeling like that gnosis gatherer of psyche did when she turned her lantern toward eros. If you know of Robert Duncan, you know that he was proudly a San Franciscan and that his work is infused with textures of the Bay Area and its Pacific shoreline. And so too were his notebooks.
Opening those archival boxes, unleashed the smell of the eucalyptus and the rotting paper and the fog dampness that settled in the alleys between the old Victorian houses in the Mission District where he lived. And eventually, I read every page of every notebook. And as a courtesy to the library, as part of my job, I created an index of what was on every page of every notebook, which began to look like a map of Robert Duncan's mind.
I say that library is was place where gnosis and eros ran amok, in that, once I was wounded by that arrow, there was no other place I could happily be. And what I learned through that experience and through being in this kind of odd academic threesome with the Ahab-like curator of the library and with this big fish Robert Duncan is that the only thing that couldn't be taken away from me in the instability of the temporal world was my relationship to those eternal orders of gnosis and eros and the prophetic creative imagination. And all of it led me away from the tedium of the Reagan-era warmongering, democratic capitalism that had swallowed up my adolescence.
It makes me think of a poem of my own that was written around 1999, maybe 2000, and which I now see is really inflected through Duncan and Jack Clark's influence in turning me toward a Homeric landscape. I'll call it, it's a song sung by Achilles. And it's called "Future Poem." "Future Poem," straight out of the Abraham Lincoln place in the middle of a primary election year, which is snow inside the mind, outside the tree, and on the screen. And if I were a cat, I would scratch my ears all day and wear a woolen shirt and have a mate named Jimmy.
And we'd float away in a beautiful pea green boat that is just a dream, like the old people say, out in their old poems, out in the field. And we are busy up outside inside our dreamscape with our boats. Don't bother me, Agamemnon. I am busy with my boat.
Staying busy with an eternal boat is exactly what I'm doing when I'm in the poem. Duncan turned my mind to the fact that humans are transcendent creatures when we manage to find the way there or the kingdom within, as Jesus calls it. There's a quote that I found from this is from one of Duncan's notebooks.
And it's from 1957, exactly at the point that Process and Reality had entered his reading list. He says, our fate, our boundaries are only the boundaries of the imagination through which the creative forces move. What I had intuited about the potentialities of the poem were confirmed by Duncan and his circle, both at Black Mountain and in San Francisco, that a poem was obviously not a static commodity.
It was an organic system living in time and space. It was what Charles Olson, who had discovered that, within-- sorry. Let me start back. It was Charles Olson who had discovered that, within Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality, cosmology were all the metaphors for how a poem worked in this fashion, as a novel process of revelation, rather than as a product maintaining status quo boundaries on the page, certainly working against those neat quatrains and end rhyme of someone like Frost.
I think that all the poets, myself included, skipped over the systematic reading of Whitehead and immersed ourselves really haphazardly in the texture of Process and Reality, which was like stepping onto the Pequod and being cast out to sea. It wasn't to know it on an academic level. But it was to know it in the way that people know each other in the Bible, to have intercourse with it.
It makes me think again of the divine abyss of Moby Dick where Ishmael's shipmate Pip falls off the boat and has the experience of entering the depths. The sea leeringly kept his finite body up but drowned the infinite of his soul, not drowned entirely, though, rather, carried down alive to wander steps where strange shapes of unwarped, primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes.
And the miser-merman wisdom revealed his horded heaps. And among the joyous, heartless, ever juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous God omnipresent coral insects. That out of the firmament of waters, he of the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom and spoke it. And therefore, his shipmates called him mad.
As a quick aside, I think of some occasions of seeing Stan Brakhage's films at his film salons out in Boulder when he's teaching at the University of Colorado and the great confusion that his work caused newcomers in the audience when there were gaps and silences and white space in the midst of these films. And a whisper would go through the audience that something must be wrong with the projector. When, in fact, Stan had simply made a film that reflected how the universe had presented itself to him.
And that's certainly true of John Cage as well. And it's true in the poems of Duncan and Ellison where pauses in the breath or quickenings of the heartbeat are entirely registered in the dance of the white space on the page. And I think that too was inflected with the drive, as Whitehead would say, to embrace the ultimate vibratory characters of organisms. I like that, the ultimate vibratory characters of organisms and the potential elements in nature.
It's funny to see now, as I return to those old notebooks, that my lifelong political influences congealed in a single season of that autumn of 1987. Three days a week, I spent my mornings and late afternoons reading Duncan's notebooks with an interlude between for Jack Clark's homework class. Every Tuesday was a full day with Bob Creeley, a morning undergraduate introduction of American poetry followed by watching him eat his lunch and drink his thermos, drink from his thermos during his office hours, followed by his afternoon graduate seminar.
What was it like to be schooled by those white men? The answer, it was really just fine, even when it was less than perfect. Everything within those conversations about the poem prepared me to question my own embedded forms, my assumptions about language, my whiteness, and my privilege. And even when they were imperfect, like King David the whoremonger, they had their ears open to how organisms danced in relation to the other dance partners in their environment, how humans conspire against principalities, and how, as Duncan said, brilliantly, responsibility is to keep the ability to respond.
They encouraged my earnestness. And I go back to the Oxford English Dictionary to the old English root to that word, earnestness. And I find the word is about anger. It's about desire. It's about passion. And those are all words that I associate with the prophetic tradition, all words that recall poetry's true value and its ability to challenge the oppressions that rise up in human systems or in what Walter Brueggemann calls the Solomonic consciousness, where Brueggemann conjures the image of King Solomon enslaving his own people to build the temple or, in our case in this country, our slaves to build the White House or people to build a border wall.
So in the same way that prophetic poetry develops through an accrual of this tradition that I'm talking about and these people that I love, I often have the feeling that the poets themselves, the actual entities, as Whitehead might call them, constellate together to show the outline of a law, of an order in the universe, of an inherent order in the universe. The continuity of the prophets is also an organic revelation of the universe's secrets. I want to close tonight with a passage from Process and Reality that I find transcribed in one of Robert Duncan's reading notebooks around Whitehead.
Whitehead says, each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin, additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality. The word peculiar comes up again from it came up in Spinoza earlier. I'll read it again. Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin, original formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality.
I hope that what I've said here helps to clarify the circumstances of my origin and the factors that shaped my own peculiar individuality as a poet. But I also hope it's clear that, in the spirit of thinking of these white men and this tale of a white whale and this Whiteheadian cosmology, that the story, while indicative of some individual talent on my part, is also a part of a larger phenomenon that is the prophetic imagination as it moves through history. Thank you.
Thank you all for joining us. And thank you, Lisa, for your time and talent. And for those of you who are interested in this series on poetry, philosophy, and religion or any of the other things that we're doing here at the center, the easiest way to stay abreast of that is to sign up for our newsletter. And so every week, you'll get an update as to what we're doing. We don't yet have our list of poets for the spring settled, but we soon will. So once again, Lisa, thank you. And thank you all for joining us and good night.