Art and Error
With Special Thanks to the Poetry of Robert Duncan
“Sadie, you can’t sing.”
Error, evil, failure: each word names a problem that emerged with the aesthetics of Romanticism and flowered in the twentieth century. A common route into this complex matter has been through the work of a writer like Ezra Pound, where a set of interlocking moral concerns centers in his fascism. Important as that approach must be, I set it aside here. It is an approach that has in any case lost much of its clarifying potential because it can leave us too confident about the ethical issues. Instead of Pound, let us begin with one of his inheritors, Robert Duncan, whose cultural credentials present hardly any difficulties at all.
Duncan is peculiarly apt for this discussion because he had a theory, perhaps even a myth, that covered the problem in at least one of its important aspects. The fullest statement of his views comes in his “Essay in Essential Autobiography,” The Truth and Life of Myth.1 In the second section Duncan sets out to demonstrate how “a poetry of history itself was created.” This poetry climaxes, for Duncan, in his treatment of the lives of certain “men who lived in the Christian myth”—specifically, St. Francis, St. John of the Cross, and St. Ignatius Loyola, “the Saints who were also Poets,” as Duncan says (64). The lives and works of these men expose a prevenient underlying meaning, or “myth,” that pervades all of reality. “Self-made men and self-made poems take pride in their rise,” Duncan observes (60), but those prideful selvings are caught up in a more “momentous design in which men in their acts participate.” So the example of these poet-saints is a key “passage”— to appropriate a useful term from Duncan’s repertory—to the general conclusion Duncan is aiming for at the end of the essay’s second section: the idea that “the grace of the poem, the voice, comes from a will that strives to waken us from our own personal will,” the idea that the poet “strives to waken to the will of the poem, even as the poem