Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Promoting "A Community of Thoughtful Men and Women": Anarchism in Robert Duncan's Ground Work Volumes

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Promoting "A Community of Thoughtful Men and Women": Anarchism in Robert Duncan's Ground Work Volumes

Article excerpt

FOR PEOPLE FAMILIAR WITH THE WORK OF ROBERT DUNCAN, discussing him as a political poet likely brings about a quick reference to his vitriolic attack on the Vietnam War. This attack is epitomized in his famous (and perhaps infamous) mid-1960s poem "Up Rising, Passages 25," in which Duncan openly equates President Johnson with Hitler and Stalin as members of "the great simulacra of men" (Bending 81), before going on to describe (in grisly detail) the horrors of America's use of napalm on the Vietnamese people. However, Duncan's poems from this era are not my focus; instead, I will argue that the poems of Duncan's last two books, Ground Work: Before the War and Ground Work II: In the Dark (published in 1984 and 1987, respectively), offer a much different and potentially more resonant type of political poetry. Specifically, I would like to suggest that the writing in the Ground Work volumes is effective political poetry because it avoids (for the most part) the oppositional, polarizing attacks found in his Vietnam War--era poetry. Rather, in these later works, Duncan abandons these attacks in favour of a poetry that creates, through both its form and its content, a model of political anarchism, a subtly didactic model that he hopes the reader will follow and consequently enact in her daily life.

Before discussing Duncan's personal belief in and use of political anarchism, I would like to provide a brief overview of anarchism. Such a definition is necessary in order to both differentiate anarchism from other political movements, particularly Marxism (especially since the border between certain strains of anarchism and Marxism is rather permeable at times), as well as to set the stakes for why the acknowledgement of Duncan's anarchism, overlooked or undervalued by most of his commentators, is crucial to understanding the fundamentally political nature of the Ground Work volumes.

Most briefly, anarchism can be defined as a political system where a community works together without having or needing an overarching governmental system. The anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin nicely summarizes the basic principles of anarchism:

Te anarchists conceive a society in which all the mutual relations of its members are regulated, not by laws, not by authorities, whether self-imposed or elected, but by mutual agreements between the members of that society, and by a sum of social customs and habits--not petrified by law, routine, or superstition, but continually developing and continually readjusted, in accordance with the ever-growing requirements of a free life, stimulated by the progress of science, invention, and the steady growth of higher ideals. No ruling authorities, then. No government of man by man; no crystallization and immobility, but a continual evolution--such as we see in Nature. (quoted in Woodcock 22)

The first thing to note is that Kropotkin's emphasis on natural, organic evolution sets anarchism at odds with utopian thinking, since utopias are places of static perfection. The second and more important thing to note is that Kropotkin does not view any state system (be it democratic, communist, or any other form) as just. This is where anarchism and Marx's version of socialism part ways, even though they share many of the same tenets and originally were factions within the same socialist movement, the International Workingmen's Association (now generally known as the First International). Anarchists reject Marxian socialism precisely because the latter still supports the notion of a state government; Mikhail Bakunin voices the anarchist refutation of Marx's socialism quite succinctly:

No state, however democratic--not even the reddest republic--can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo--People's State concocted by Mr. …

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