Letters, Abroad and Back

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Letters, Abroad and Back A review of Robert Duncan, Letters: Poems 1953-1956. Edited and with an afterword by Robert J. Bertholf. Chicago. Flood Editions. 2003. 71 pp. $17

One of the books that coaxed Jacques Derrida away from phenomenology in the early 1960s was University of Chicago Assyriologist I.J. Gelb's A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology, a survey of work deciphering cuneiform pictographs dating from the two millennia before the Christian era. Gelb's 1952 book suggested to Derrida "the massive factum of phonetic writing"-the fact, that is, that it is our own alphabetic model, and the way in which it regulates the relation between mark and sound, that lets philologists determine how a word, of whatever language, might be pronounced. Reading Rousseau's essay on the primacy of the vocal instrument, and trained in the use of Saussure's forensic apparatus for proving that instrument primary, Derrida made a little bet against the Enlightenment. To call writing by nature phonetic, or derivative of spoken words, forces the dealer to draw from the deck in an effort to find a card that can prove it is so-prove, that is, a pre-history of words in the study of evolutionary life forms that isn't entirely derivative of the logic of alphabetic systems, symbolizations, written keys. Derrida, not dealing but playing against the deck, kept his cards to himself, and called. Bluffing his desire for what GeIb had called a science of writing, or grammatology, he really hoped the deck would break the dealer, freeing a grammatology from the "suspicion [thrown] on only a certain type of writing.. .phonetic writing" by the inferential interpretive methods of classical philology, which for a hundred years had structured the human sciences.

Derrida's work during this period was a reformist stratagem within the structuralist tendency as it began to gain wide currency, sweeping aside the broad and confident positivism of American anthropology and linguistics at mid-century. A touchstone of that disciplinary breadth was its mania for data, the surrealist-collector's joy sublimated into the labor undertaken, often enough, by the graduate students willing to do it-as is reflected in the stories of two young American poets, Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan, both of whom were, to differing degrees, affiliated with the Department of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Spicer working with David Reed on adapting quantitative methods of data analysis from Slav-language studies to Native American idiolects, and Duncan typing the manuscript of the poet-ethnographer Jamie De Angulo's book, "What is Language" (a work which exists only in the collections of two California libraries). The generation of poet-ethnographers-they include De Angulo and Harry Smith-constitute the last among American poets to credibly presume that poetics partakes in the knowledge-gains in anthropology, archaeology, comparative and formal linguistics, neuroanatomy, psychology, and philosophy-largely philological disciplines. Another way to say this is that Duncan and Spicer, who for a time in the early 1950s collaborated on a project they called "a Grammar of Poetics," are among the last generation of poets for whom prosody does not seem a mandarin activity, as it surely did once structuralism penetrated linguistics and grammars of all kinds gave way to grammatology. Duncan himself, we may see now, wished (in his words) to "free the thing"-a poem-"from its prophets"-its knowledge-specialists-but, uncannily, it seems, he called Derrida's hermeneutic reading method onto the stage:

One supposes, not too originally, that such prophetic naming-here, of "deconstruction"-is what poets do, and, indeed, the supposition has stepped right in the uncanny fact of Duncan's warning: "you dont know what yer saying." This poet knew that to resist "an old line" was to embrace an old role. I'm tempted to posit an atmospheric genealogy, to suggest that "deconstruction" was in the air in the mid-195Os, though I have no way of proving this. …