Arion Lyre

83. The Structure of Rime, by Robert Duncan, with etchings by Frank Lobdell

The story behind the Arion Press edition

How the book The Structure of Rime came about will be told by me as publisher, because it is a personal story. In 1960, while serving as an officer in the U. S. Navy, stationed in San Angelo, on the Panhandle of Texas, I was reading as much modern and contemporary poetry as I could obtain by mail order. That year an important anthology was released by Grove Press, The New American Poetry, edited by Donald M. Allen. He brought together disparate strains of the poetry that had developed in the fifteen years since the end of the war, which generally followed the precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Allen’s organizing principle was to group the poets that came out of Black Mountain College, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beat Generation, the New York scene, and a fifth column with no particular geographical identification. The poets included Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Edward Marshall, Jack Spicer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Brother Antoninus, James Broughton, Madeline Gleason, Robin Blaser, Philip Lamantia, Ron Loewinsohn, David Meltzer, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, Michael McClure, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and John Wieners, all of whom I eventually had a hand in printing and publishing.

The second poet in that anthology, following Charles Olson, was Robert Duncan, represented by eight poems in the first section of poets related to Black Mountain College and The Black Mountain Review. He could as well have been placed in the second section, the San Francisco (and Berkeley) Renaissance, for he had been a student at the University of California, was identified with Berkeley, and was a long-time resident of the City. From 1951 until his death he lived in San Francisco with his companion, the artist Jess Collins, known simply as Jess.

I was intrigued by Duncan’s poetry, particularly by his prose-poems. The first finely printed book of poetry I purchased after I started printing and publishing at the Auerhahn Press in San Francisco (1961) was Duncan’s Letters (1953-1956), handset and printed by Claude Fredericks in Pawlet, Vermont, for publication by Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Books in 1958. The book is unconventional. It begins with the copyright page that also serves for the colophon (printer’s statement). The title page follows the author’s six-page preface. At the end are acknowledgements of magazine publications and a listing of Duncan’s previous books. Just two sizes of Garamond type are employed, the prose sections set ragged right. The paper is French mouldmade Arches for the text and Shogun Japanese handmade for five drawings by Duncan. The wrappers are orange marbled paper. That is for my copy, one of 450 copies of the total edition of 510. Sixty copies were printed entirely on Shogun and specially bound “with the author’s endpapers”. Letters is cherished in my library at home as an early inspiration both for its poetry and its artistry in bookmaking.

Last year Arion Press published a facsimile edition of a unique artist book by Jess, The Boobus and the Bunnyduck, in which the artist wrote out by hand in blue ink and illustrated with colored crayons and pen and black ink a children’s story by the poet Michael McClure. This charming and beautiful work was made in 1957 and had never before been published. I was aware of its existence but was prompted by our retired editor Glenn Todd to contact Christopher Wagstaff, of the Jess Collins Trust, about the possibility of publishing the book. We produced it in full color on an ink-jet printer, having carefully calibrated the color balances, in an accordion-fold format, in an edition of one hundred copies for sale.

As we were completing production, I suggested to Mr. Wagstaff that Duncan’s Structure of Rime series be published by Arion Press. He and his co-trustee Mary Margaret Sloan administer the estate of Robert Duncan through the Jess Collins Trust. They were enthusiastic and arranged with Duncan’s publisher, New Directions, for our reprinting of the series in this first collected edition. They also contacted the Poetry Collection in the library at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where Duncan’s archives reside, and asked that a search be made for any unpublished poems in the series. The curator James Maynard went through the notebooks of the poet and found six “Structure” poems that had not been published and one that had been published in Ergo! The Bumbershoot Literary Magazine as a memorial soon after Duncan’s death.

The poems that appeared during Duncan’s lifetime were published in The Opening of the Field, Grove Press, 1960, (thirteen); Roots and Branches, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964, (eight); Bending the Bow, New Directions, 1968, (five); Ground Work: Before the War, New Directions, 1984, (three); and Ground Work II: In the Dark, New Directions, 1987, (two).

The Structure of Rime is an extended discussion and demonstration of Duncan’s poetics, his principles of prosody, his belief in the open form, and in content unconstrained. I had long felt that it was the most significant of Duncan’s serial poems and that it deserved to be published in a single volume. My friend the Chicago critic Larry Kart wrote to me about the impending publication, reserving his highest praise for the first six “Structures”, though confessing that he sometimes felt in need of a secret decoder ring while attempting to decipher the poems. In a postscript he quoted a passage from “The Structure of Rime VI”:

Lying in the grass, the world was all of a field, and I saw the kite on its string, tugging, bounding – far away as my grandmother – dance against the blue from its tie of invisible delight.

And he added: “Probably no such phrase as ‘far away as my grandmother’ could appear later on, not to a man who had become (by the time of ‘Five Songs’) ‘would-be shaman of no tribe I know’.” Kart addressed the difficulties encountered by readers of Duncan’s poetry. “Certainly, up to a point, any great poet has a right to his or her special language and the right to expect us to go to school to learn it. The problem is also that much of what’s been written about Duncan is no less hieratic in tone than the work itself.”

As an aid to our understanding, I invited the poet Michael Palmer (a friend of Duncan’s from the early 1970s who has written extensively about him and his poetry) to write an introductory essay for The Structure of Rime. Palmer begins:

Robert Duncan occupies a singularly complex place in the varied poetic landscape of post-World War II American poetry. He pronounced himself a “derivative poet”, profoundly indebted to his great modernist masters, Eliot, Pound, H. D., Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and others. He thereby challenged the myth of originality that had become deeply ingrained in the poets of his generation, while simultaneously, if paradoxically, asserting a particular originality of his own. This assertion would dispute the concept of the Self as primary source of the poem, while positing language, and language before language (the Unnamable), as the wellspring of poetic speech and invention.

Michael Palmer has done a superb job, clearly and succinctly laying out the preparation a general reader needs to confront the poems and winningly leading us into them with an open mind to experience what cannot be explained. All I can add is encouragement to read and reread, understanding what becomes apparent, allowing oneself to intuit as much as possible from what seems opaque.

Appended are Duncan’s “Notes on The Structure of Rime”, two discourses that Duncan wrote, in 1961 and 1973, for Warren Tallman, a professor in the English Department at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. Readers will find these notes both helpful and challenging. He ranges from the pure pleasure of being read to as a child and the necessity for affectless recitation of poetry to his hermetic and arcane preoccupations and on to observations about the body politic and poetic that consists of cells and is supported by vertebrae.

In the mid-sixties, Duncan came to the Auerhahn Press with a proposal that it publish a collection of his poems: A Book of Resemblances, to be illustrated by Jess. We issued a prospectus with a drawing by Jess for “The Song of the Borderguard” soliciting orders for what would have been our most ambitious book, but the underwriting Duncan expected was not forthcoming and he withdrew the project. The book was published in 1966 by the New Haven rare book dealer Henry W. Wenning, reproducing Duncan’s elegant handwriting and Jess’s illustrations by offset lithography. It was a more practical solution than a letterpress edition would have been, more appropriate for the art, and certainly attractive for its presentation of Duncan’s highly individual calligraphy. Now The Structure of Rime presents our opportunity to properly honor the accomplishment of Robert Duncan the poet.

As after-dinner entertainment, Duncan and Jess would make crayon drawings on letter-paper. Some of Duncan’s were shown in a San Francisco gallery and I bought one, its title taken from Gertrude Stein, “Coming out of a doll in vain”. I considered using Duncan’s art to illustrate this book, but the drawings in his estate did not seem sufficiently related to the subjects of the poems. Jess Collins made oval collages in tribute to Duncan and his poetic heritage. Apt as these might have been for this book, they had been reproduced before and are to be used again as cover art for the complete works of Duncan in six or seven volumes, forthcoming from the University of California Press.

The artists’ agent Anne Kohs came to me with prints by Frank Lobdell, abstract etchings with aquatint that struck me as just right for this book. Lobdell is of the same generation as Duncan and they traveled in the same artistic milieu of the Bay Area, sharing interests in modernism and surrealism. I thought the imagery of the prints represented a visual equivalency to the literary expression in Structure of Rime. Lobdell maintains that,“the purpose of painting is always to go beyond what can be said in words”.

When I spoke with Michael Palmer about how appropriate I thought these works of graphic art would be, he added the clincher: Duncan and Jess admired Lobdell’s paintings, and he thought he recalled one hung in their home. Palmer remembered being introduced to Lobdell by Duncan at a public event. In a recent conversation Lobdell confirmed that he knew Duncan and holds his poetry in high regard.

Andrew Hoyem

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