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MARGINALIA: On Robert Duncan's "Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly".

Upon first glance, it's hard to conceive of much common ground between the poets Robert Duncan and Thom Gunn. Duncan's cosmic, bardic, Whitmanian, anachronistically neo-Romantic poems and poetics seem light years removed from Gunn's understated, tough-minded, often neatly metered and rhymed takes on such disparate late-twentieth-century phenomena as motorcycle gangs, Elvis Presley, acid trips, bathhouse orgies, and the decimations of the AIDS crisis. In an interview quoted in August Kleinzahler's 1995 essay "Thom Gunn: The Plain Style and the City," Gunn had this to say about his literary ambitions: "I'm not aiming for central voice and I'm not aiming for central personality. I want to be an Elizabethan poet. I want to write with the same kind of anonymity that you get in the same way somebody like Ben Jonson did" (79). Whatever it was exactly Duncan was aiming for in his work, it certainly wasn't anonymity. In his poetry, an extraordinary range of references and sources--to choose an arbitrary sampling from his penultimate book, Ground Work I: Before the War, which I will be discussing in this essay: Achilles, Paul Celan, Jakob Boehme, John Adams, how to cook a leg of lamb, Ezra Pound, Albigensian rime, Wallace Stevens, "the metaphysical genius in English poetry (1590-1690)", and yes, even the poems of Thom Gunn--is absorbed and filtered through the sieve of Duncan's grand-styled Personality. A famous quote of Duncan's to pair against Gunn's statement of anonymous intent is his proclamation in the 1953 essay "Pages from a Notebook": "I make poetry as other men make war or make love or make states or revolutions: to exercise my facilities at large" (A Selected Prose 19).

Surprisingly, though, despite their surface aesthetic differences, Duncan and Gunn enjoyed a long and fruitful friendship during the many years they both lived in San Francisco. In a 2000 interview with James Campbell, Gunn had only positive things to say about his relationship with Duncan: "Talking with him was, by all accounts, like talking with Coleridge ... He was very funny about himself, and had a wonderful sense of humor. He had very wide, beautiful sympathies ... Besides [Yvor] Winters he's probably the poet who meant most to me in my life ... Duncan was a person of tremendous generosity, with a wonderful imagination" (Thom Gunn in Conversation 36-37). Gunn wrote three highly laudatory and appreciative critical essays about Duncan, including the 1979 piece "Homosexuality in Robert Duncan's Poetry," reprinted in The Occasions of Poetry (1982), and two substantial late-career retrospectives, 1987's "The High Road: A Last Collection" and 1991 's "Adventurous Song: Robert Duncan as Career Modernist," both collected in Gunn's Shelf Life (1993). The essays are clear-minded, generous, and comprehensive, and taken as a whole, offer one of the most readable and thorough introductions available to Duncan's often intimidating body of work. Gunn praises Duncan for his inclusiveness, originality, and unfashionable ambition "to pursue exalted themes with passionate feeling" (Shelf Life 168), and he posits Duncan as a brave counterpoint to contemporary poetic tendencies to find virtue "in understatement and ... safety in irony" and to evasively "disown passion or ... clothe it in indirection" (Shelf Life 141). Duncan wrote no critical essays about Gunn and doesn't mention him at all in any of the pieces included in 1995's A Selected Prose, but he did something perhaps more interesting: in 1971 he wrote a suite of poems in direct response to Gunn's breakthrough volume Moly of the same year, self-published them privately in a set of 250 in 1972 during his famous fifteen-yearlong "blackout" of traditional avenues and modes of publication, and included the entire sequence, entitled "Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly," as a key component in his massive, previously mentioned collection from 1984, Ground Work I: Before the War.

The title of Duncan's sequence is no metaphor: he literally wrote his poems in the physical margins (and front matter) of his copy of Moly, first during an April 1971 bus trip from New Haven, Connecticut, to Portland, Maine, and then back home in San Francisco in October 1971. (These dates for the composition of the poem are taken from the front page of Duncan's privately published typescript of 1972, reproduced in illustration A43 of Robert J. Bertholf's Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography.) Duncan's suite does not concern itself with all, or even the majority of, the poems in Gunn's collection (which famously contains many poems written under the influence of LSD, about subject matter like Jefferson Airplane concerts, psychedelic light shows, and drug dealers in the Haight); instead, the sequence only directly addresses the first two poems in Moly, "Rites of Passage" and the title poem, as well as the unsourced prose paragraph which serves as the epigraph for the volume and situates Gunn's book (or at least its first few poems) in relation to Hermes' encounter with Odysseus and his gift to Odysseus of the magical herb moly in Book 10 of the Odyssey. It's worth taking a closer look at Duncan's poems and examining their tactics and methodology--exactly which aspects of Gunn's themes, content, and style does Duncan respond to? Does he adjust his own style to accommodate Gunn, absorb Gunn into his own formidable, "opened" field of poetics, or find some way of doing both? And what exactly in Moly struck Duncan so deeply that he felt moved to reply to it so directly (and marginally), and in the form that he chose? In the words of Brian Teare, whose long recent essay on Gunn, 2009's "Our Dionysian Experiment: Three Theses on the Poetry of Thom Gunn," deals in part with Duncan's poems on Gunn: "For a reader unfamiliar with Gunn's Moly, the question begged by Duncan's response might be: What on earth did Gunn write to suggest such heavy petting? Is Duncan's an 'appropriate' response?" (232). I'll try, briefly, in this essay to make some headway in answering these and other questions about Duncan's sequence.

Little has been written about Duncan's "Poems from the Margins," but it's helpful to examine the two existing major critical assessments of the work, a chapter about Duncan titled "Marginality in the Margins: Robert Duncan's Textual Politics" in Michael Davidson's 1997 book Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World, and the already-mentioned essay by Brian Teare, as a way of entering into a short discussion of the poems. Davidson's Duncan chapter conjectures that "[f]or Duncan, poetry instantiates a ritual 'scene of instruction' that inaugurates the poem and then becomes one of its central subjects"; this scene often begins with the poet becoming disturbed or enraptured by certain "lexical or philological questions" prompted by what he's reading, and then entering a "deeper level of comprehension ... a 'place of first permission' where suppressed meanings intrude upon the surface text" (175). These suppressed meanings often involve ancient doctrines about the "unity of spirit and form, of soul and eros" and sometimes concern a heretical sexual mystery that is "an allegory of homosexual or bisexual love" and may include "an element of violence and violation" (175). This quest to return to a source of origins and reclaim one's own (and even humanity's) beginnings is exemplified by the title of Duncan's famous poem "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" (from his 1960 collection The Opening of the Field) and is viewed by Davidson as the wellspring of Duncan's art. Davidson sees Duncan's poems on Gunn as not only a key example of one of Duncan's retellings of this "scene of instruction," but as a special one in which Duncan is able to instruct Gunn as well as receive instruction. Duncan's relationship to Gunn in the sequence is portrayed by Davidson as both sexual and collaborative; Duncan "tends to project sexual content into Gunn's poems" (186), and his posture towards Gunn "is not that of an avuncular Socrates to a naive ephebe but of an aroused Pan whose satyric character is as erotic as it is violent" (187). Davidson emphasizes the transgressive nature of Duncan's intrusion upon the margins of Gunn's book and makes much of the differing desires for measure and control at work in Duncan and Gunn's contrasting temperaments. (Davidson's book also helpfully includes copies of four pages from the original copy of Moly in which Duncan wrote his poems; these illustrations indicate how much of an effect the actual physical layout of Gunn's poems on the page had on the form of Duncan's responses.)

Whereas Davidson's chapter focuses on Duncan, Teare's essay is a lengthy treatment of Gunn's development as a gay poet and how it relates to "both poetic and gay histories in twentieth-century Anglo-American literature" (183). The first two theses of his essay address issues of open and closed form, their complicated connection to matters of open and closeted sexuality in Gunn, and how those issues relate to the mainstream and gay critical reception of Gunn's work throughout his career, but his third thesis bears directly on the association between Gunn and Duncan. Teare writes that Gunn's relationships with his two primary mentors, Yvor Winters (straight) and Robert Duncan (gay), were both intensely important to his development as a poet, but Gunn's "reciprocal and mutually influencing poetic relationship with Duncan act[ed] as a gay alternative to heterosexual models of imitation and 'influence'" (185) as represented by the more hierarchical, traditional mentor/student relationship Gunn had with the notoriously conservative Winters while studying at Stanford in the mid-50s. Like Davidson, Teare also emphasizes the essentially erotic nature of the interchange between Duncan and Gunn in "Poems from the Margins" and praises the host of possibilities inherent in such a dynamic. He cites repeated instances in Gunn's essays on Duncan in which Duncan is described as a "derivative poet" (such as the very first sentence of the essay "Adventurous Song") and commends the ways in which a Duncanian style of derivation produces generative, creative "alliances [which] are elective and based on consonances and mutuality" (229) instead of competition and "anxieties of influence," as effectively demonstrated by Duncan's poems on Moly. Beyond this, Teare discusses the ways in which Duncan's sequence can be seen as "a reading of Duncan's own sexual maturation narrative as prompted by Gunn the poet and Moly the book, in which the poet confronts the Oedipal order straight on" (232-233). This idea leads us properly into a discussion of the poems themselves and the sequence as a whole.

Duncan begins his "Poems from the Margins" with a very Duncanian (read: Romantic and rhetorical) "PREFACE to the Suite." It is characteristic of Duncan that his own dominant, extremely recognizable voice takes immediate precedence in the sequence, but it's interesting to note where and how he presents himself using that voice, and how uncharacteristically vulnerable a note that voice ends up striking. Duncan begins, "Childhood, boyhood, young manhood/ached at the heart with it, the unnameable, / the incompletion of desires, and at the margins/shook" (Ground Work p. 67). This "unnameable" is also called "Need" and "Unrest" and "the strain, the estrangement from all I knew, / another knowledge straining to be free" (67). Further into the preface, Duncan specifically places us in his sixteenth year, when his father died and some sort of sexual initiation took place for him; Davidson identifies this initiation as an act of actual violence, a near-rape that occurred when Duncan lived near Bakersfield, California, as a teenager (188). The physical landscape where this act took place is vividly and hauntingly described in the preface as a nexus of extraordinary psychic power for the poet: Duncan calls this space "the wilderness beyond the edge of town, the riverbottom road," "the derelict landscape most portrayd in me," and a place of "marshy wastes" and "solitary and deserted paths" (67). Davidson identifies Duncan's sadomasochistic sexual initiation and the landscape where it happened as the ultimate "field" for the poet, where his original scene of instruction (indeed, almost his primal scene) occurred. That this scene of instruction, and this sense of "returning to a meadow" or "opening a field" (to reference Duncan's own breakthrough volume), so convincingly identified by Davidson as the primary model through which Duncan's poems and poetics operate, are so fraught with associations of physical and emotional violence complicates radically the relationship between Duncan and the emotional sources of his poems. The preface humanizes Duncan, marks him as vulnerable to pain and "unutterable injuries" (68) on an intimate and personal level, in a manner rare in his body of work; Duncan ends the preface by describing himself as "a wounded mouth, / a stricken thing unable to release its word, / a panic spring no youthful coming could exhaust in me" (68). That it was Gunn's work that prompted such an honest and open return to Duncan's own vexed source of poetic origins is indicative of the highly charged, eroticized, and particular way in which Duncan makes use of Gunn.

Next in Duncan's sequence is a poem called "Near Circe's House," which responds directly to the unsourced prose epigraph, presumably drawn from an adaptation or translation of Book 10 of the Odyssey, that begins Moly. The prose excerpt in Gunn's book is told from Odysseus' point of view and describes Odysseus' encounter with Hermes "in the likeness of a young man" (Moly 11), after which Hermes gives Odysseus and his men the gift of moly, an herb which can be used to counteract the magic Circe was using against Odysseus and his crew, part of the effects of which was the transformation of men into swine. Interestingly, Duncan in his poem retells this encounter from the point of view of Hermes and makes the interaction between Hermes and Odysseus entirely more intimate and filled with erotic longing. Instead of simply vowing (in a rather matter-of-fact fashion) to protect Odysseus and his crew by offering them the moly, as in Gunn, in Duncan's version Hermes desperately wants to tell Odysseus to "[t]ake my heart from me/and it will beat for you, wildly" (69). Odysseus' appearance disturbs and "opens up vast breaches of promise" in the static field of Hermes' existence, "which was eternal and self-containd" (68); it seems to spur the god to action, to a deeper involvement and emotional investment. Hermes says to Odysseus, "It is the heart/I spoke of fed this stem in me,/torn out of its own darkness, / this herb calld Moly by the gods" (69-70). The moly in Duncan's version isn't merely a resource Hermes can direct Odysseus to, it's part and parcel of him, almost a transubstantiated host whose magic (of divine love as well as the more corporeal kind) can defend against Circe's "darkening intent" (69). In his description of Odysseus' bewitched and metamorphosed crew, Duncan tellingly makes explicit what's implicit in Gunn: he depicts the swine-men as "closed round in Circe's circles, / grunting, rooting, snuffling, fucking/at the gates" (69). The undercurrents of sexuality at work beneath the surface of Gunn's excerpt are made overtly unequivocal in Duncan's rewrite.

I'll skip "Rites of Passage: I" for the moment and examine the next poem in the sequence, "Moly," which is more directly related to "Near Circe's House." The subject matter of Duncan's "Moly" is identical to "Near Circe's House"--the transformation of men into beasts by Circe's magic--but the person being addressed in the poem seems to change from Odysseus the mythological character to Thom Gunn the twentieth-century poet. Similarly, the voice of the poem's Hermes-speaker modulates into that of a composite Hermes-Duncan figure and tells this to Odysseus-Gunn (71-72):
The voice we raise in poetry
 so that it seems lovely to be enthralld
by words and truth
to be in soaring numbers and in rimes
thickens and
goes down into the throat,
gagging, rooting in the grass,
fertilities of sound,
snuffling, snorting, snared in a
delirium of snout and watering mouth
incapable of speech,
all animal tongue and panting breath, the lungs
sucking the psychedelic air.

The lovely words that make up Duncan's (and Gunn's) poetry and "rimes" are revealed here to stem from powerful and primitive foundations; Teare writes that Duncan discovers in these poems "not only his own attitude toward his sources of poetic power but a reminder of their sexual, at times irrational, origins" (231). As in the preface, Gunn's Moly (and its supercharged, "psychedelic air") serves as the occasion here for the older Duncan to reenact in a way his own primal scene of instruction/initiation, although the associations here ("dumb illiterate / Underbeing of Man, where / violence at last comes home riding / the piggish meat" [72]) are even more unsettling and brutish than those in the melancholy and desolate preface. Duncan/Hermes continues his address to Gunn/Odysseus in "Moly": "Still in that dream I in the depths of/ my sleeping self return to, /1 find you wait in the mind my mind /verges upon" (72). In this vision or dream, Duncan/Hermes reaches out again, as in "Near Circe's House," to help Gunn/Odysseus by offering him the magic stuff of his very being---"I bring, as if it were myself you need, the weed/calld Moly" (73).

I'll return now to "Rites of Passage: I" and discuss it in tandem with its companion piece, the final poem in the sequence, "Rites of Passage: II." Both poems respond to and quote directly from the first poem in Gunn's Moly, "Rites of Passage," which, in vivid muscular language, depicts the sudden transformation of a young man into a centaur-like figure and the subsequent challenge he issues to his father to engage in a ritualistic, coming-of-age, Oedipal duel. As with the reversal of point of view in "Near Circe's House" and "Moly," Duncan speaks in his poem not from the perspective of the transformed young man, as does Gunn, but as the older father figure. (Duncan, born in 1919, was eight years older than Gunn.) What's noteworthy in Duncan's two "Rites of Passage" is that the speaker doesn't merely feel threatened by, or attempt to regain control over, the newfound sense of power and agency discovered by the young man; instead, he himself is brought back to life in a sense by the young man's transformation: "The damp submissive grass/now stirs from sleep,/now turns in every/green blade grown/alert/with listening" (70-71), and "half a century grows fresh in me" (71). Teare writes of these poems that they "take the 'rite' out of the Freudian, heterosexual paradigm of Gunn's original and [change it] into an explicitly homosexual one by virtue of [their] simultaneous recognition of and attraction to the power the youth possesses" (233); in fact, Teare seems to draw much of his alternative theory of derivation and reciprocity as models of authorial influence from what Duncan does in his two "Rites of Passage." One can even see Teare's theory of derivation and reciprocity enacted formally in Duncan's poems, especially in "Rites of Passage: I," where the actual physical composition of the poems in the margins of Moly directly affects the length of Duncan's lines, rendering them shorter and more clipped (and more tightly bound to the left margin) than in almost any other place in either of the two volumes of Ground Work. It's as if Duncan gives a nod to Gunn and allows the younger poet's rhythms and forms to change and alter his own well-developed sense of the line. Duncan also quotes directly and makes generous allusions to Gunn's original poem in his "Rites of Passage"; he references the first three lines of Gunn's poem ("Something is taking place. / Horns bud bright in my hair. / My feet are turning hoof."), as well as later lines like "My blood, it is like light" (15), among others. As in Duncan's "Moly," in "Rites of Passage: II" it's difficult not to read certain lines as being directly addressed to Gunn. Duncan's older speaker seems to be passing a torch of sorts to the younger poet in the second "Rite"; he acknowledges that "[i]rregular meters beat between your heart and mine" and that "where it seems but yesterday I spilld the wine,/you too grow beastly to become a man" (73). There's a magnanimous sense of kindness and openhandedness at work in Duncan's conclusion to the poem, and the sequence, that brings the many concepts and currents of influence, initiation, and instruction at work in "Poems from the Margins" to a fitting, yet unexpected, moment of the changing of the guard (73):
And where my youth was, now the Sun in you grows hot, your
is young, my place you take triumphantly. All along
it's been for you, for this lowering of your horns in challenge,
had her will of me and will not
let my struggling spirit in itself be free.

If Duncan in "Poems from the Margins" passed his torch to Gunn and freely and openly recognized in his sequence the full flowering of the younger poet's talents, how did Gunn react to the extraordinary compliment? In the 2000 interview with James Campbell, Gunn had this to say: "[Duncan] did me a great honour once, by writing a suite of poems based on some I'd included in Moly. He showed them to me, and I was delighted by them, and very flattered. It was like Marlowe having written 'The Passionate Shepherd to his Love' finding Raleigh answering it" (36). As previously mentioned, Gunn wrote three critical essays about Duncan which total over fifty pages in length; Teare tellingly points here to "the sheer volume of critical writing concerning Duncan, about whom [Gunn] wrote more than any other single author" (234). But Gunn returned the favor in another manner, as well: he wrote no fewer than three poems dedicated to Duncan, including "Wrestling" from his 1976 volume Jack Straw's Castle, "At the Barriers," published as a chapbook in 1989 just after Duncan's death the previous year, and the moving elegy "Duncan," the first poem in Gunn's last book, 2000's Boss Cupid, and by some accounts, Gunn's very favorite of all his poems. The first section of "Duncan" depicts the young Duncan at a similar moment of metamorphosis and poetic discovery as Gunn himself experienced while writing the Moly poems; it's as if in his old age, after his mentor's death, Gunn is writing his own "Poems from the Margins." Gunn shows us Duncan at the precise moment "in his twenties [when] a poetry's full strength /Burst into voice as an unstopping flood" (lines 1-2) and he traveled back and forth on the ferry between San Francisco and Berkeley, furiously writing: "Between the notebook-margins his pen travelled, / His own lines carrying him in a new mode/To ports in which past purposes unravelled" (9-11). In the second section of the poem, we move forty years later to a portrait of the old and infirm Duncan, "both kidneys gone;/Every eight hours, home dialysis" (17-18). After the exhausted Duncan finishes a reading, presumably at the University of California--Berkeley where Gunn taught for more than thirty years, he trips and falls "across the white steps there alone" (31), and Gunn gathers him up "where he had softly dropped, / A pillow full of feathers" (34-35). The final stanza of Gunn's elegy for his friend and mentor is worth quoting in full, and brings this essay to an end:
He was now a posthumous poet, I have said
  (For since his illness he had not composed),
In sight of a conclusion, whose great dread
Was closure,
his life soon to be enclosed
Like the sparrow's flight above the feasting friends,
Briefly revealed where its breast caught their light,
Beneath the long roof, between open ends,
Themselves the margins of unchanging night.

Jeff Fallis is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology In Atlanta. His poems and essays have appeared recently in The James Baldwin Review, Atlanta Review, and The Rumpus. He will be presenting on Duncan's The H.D. Book at the Robert Duncan Centenary Conference at the Sorbonne in Paris in summer 2019.


Bertholf, Robert J. Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1986. Print.

Davidson, Michael. Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Print.

Duncan, Robert. Ground Work: Before the War/In the Dark. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf and James Maynard. New York: New Directions Books, 2006. Print.

Duncan, Robert. The Opening of the Field. New York: New Directions Books, 1960. Print.

Duncan, Robert. A Selected Prose. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf. New York: New Directions Books, 1995. Print.

Gunn, Thom. Boss Cupid. London: Faber & Faber Limited, 2000. Print.

Gunn, Thom. Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994. Print.

Gunn, Thom. Moly. London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1971. Print.

Gunn, Thom. The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography. London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1982. Print.

Gunn, Thom. Shelf Life: Essays, Memoirs, and an Interview. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993. Print.

Gunn, Thom. Thom Gunn in Conversation with James Campbell. London: Between the Lines Press, 2000. Print.

Kleinzahler, August. "Thom Gunn: The Plain Style and the City." At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. Ed. Joshua Weiner. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 71-83. Print.

Teare, Brian. "Our Dionysian Experiment: Three Theses on the Poetry of Thom Gunn." At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. Ed. Joshua Weiner. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 181-238. Print.
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Author:Fallis, Jeff
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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