Duncan's Introductions at the Poetry Center, San Francisco State University

Chicago Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Duncan's Introductions at the Poetry Center, San Francisco State University


Foreword

Robert Duncan and Jess Collins lived at Banabulfar on the northwest coast of Mallorca from March 1955 to March 1956. They made one trip to continental Europe; in December 1955 they went to Paris, where Duncan wrote the final poem of the book Letters, and then in January 1956 to London, where Duncan wrote the first version of "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," or the beginning of The Opening of the Field. While on Mallorca Duncan and Jess knew Robert Creeley, and finished a book of poems and collages, Caesar's Gate, which was then published by Creeley's Divers Press in Palma. Charles Olson wrote to Duncan offering a teaching position at Black Mountain College, so he and Jess cut short their European adventure and went to North Carolina for the spring and summer terms-as it turned out, the final terms of the college. Duncan stayed on until the end of August to see his play, "Medea at Kolchis: The Maidenhead," produced at the college, while Jess went to San Francisco to find an apartment. In September 1956, Duncan began work as assistant director of the Poetry Center, San Francisco State University.

Duncan wanted to line up his contemporaries, poets who shared his vision of the possibilities of open composition. On the way to Mallorca, Duncan and Jess stopped at Black Mountain College for a one night visit with Charles Olson; and in New York City, waiting for clearance to sail, they met Denise Levertov. When Duncan took up his duties at the Poetry Center he had worked through a myriad of influences, tamed the overly rhetorical style of his early books, and had begun formulating a poetics of collage in writing that allowed the poet to participate in the open field of his own composition. He had finished writing Letters, and begun writing The Opening of the Field not as a collection of separate poems but as a coherent book. He had met and initiated correspondences with the poets whom he counted as his principal contemporaries: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov. He already knew the poetry scene in San Francisco, with Kenneth Rexroth setting the standards of taste at his Friday night meetings and editorial broadcasts on KPFA. Madeline Gleason, William Everson, Jack Spicer, and Helen Adam were part of his immediate circle of friends. At the Poetry Center he quickly recognized that there was more to the poetry scene than reading poems. Much to his dismay, he learned that publicity, promotion, and inevitable political maneuvering were also part of the scene-they were not so much behind the scenes, but so much a part of the daily operation of the Center that by early spring of 1957 he welcomed his resignation from the position effective July 1, 1957.

With the exception of those for Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, Jean Garrigue, James Keilty, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, the statements Duncan wrote for the printed handouts for the readings, both while he was assistant director and after he resigned, defined his closest associates in poetry and lined out his idea of the literary (poetic) history of San Francisco. Charles Olson came to San Francisco in February 1957 to give the lectures that would become the book, A Special View of History. He also gave a reading, which gave Duncan the opening to introduce Olson to the San Francisco audience. Robert Creeley was already known by that audience, but when Duncan wrote his introduction for the reading in July of 1959, Creeley was already launched on a course of writing that lead to the great success of his book For Love ( 1962). Rexroth had discovered Denise Levertov as a young British poet in 1949, but Duncan found her poems in Origin and then sent her his poem "For a Muse Meant," which became the first poem of Letters, and which Levertov took as criticism not as the praise Duncan intended. Her reading in January of 1958 was a triumph, not only because both Duncan and Levertov managed the complications of Rexroth's poetry-politics, but because the San Francisco audience responded enthusiastically to the passionate, projective thrust of her poems.

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