A Materialist Critique of Robert Duncan's Grand Collage

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Author: Peter Michelson
Editor: Michelle Lee
Date: 2007
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 75)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,848 words

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[(essay date winter 1980) In the following essay, Michelson explores common ground between the ideas of Karl Marx and Duncan and concludes that, although their approaches differ, both seek to improve the quality of life for mankind.]

"for I loved the man ... this side Idolatry" Jonson on Shakespeare

I. The Truth and Life of Myth

In 1954 Charles Olson, respectfully but distinctly chiding Duncan, argued, "against wisdom as such," for "only sectaries," he said, "can deal with wisdom as separable," and the poet is "not free to be a part of, or to be any, sect. ... The poet cannot afford to traffick in any other 'sign' than his one, his self, the man or woman he is. Otherwise God does rush in. And art is washed away, turned into that second force, religion."1 Duncan heard and attended, observing some years later in As Testimony, "'Wisdom' is, of course, something different from the goal of religion; as in turn ... it is something different from the goal of poetry."2 Nonetheless, "in Art as in Religion it is by faith we move," and with that Duncan melds Olson's duality, positing a dialectical communion between art and religion. This special religious sense is crucial to understanding Duncan's poetry and the mythopoeic theory behind it. For Duncan believes, with Olson, that the breath and all it implies, including inspiration, including form, is the man. And so when he says that,

everything we live by is substantial by a belief threatend by disbelief, even in ourselves. ... and where my spirit feeds, where there is that other mystery of orders that I find in poetry, I am a fanatic not an aesthete. I can no more adjust myself to like or dislike [poetry] here than I can appreciate the universe. I am inbound to the event and suffer with the event in its disregard,3

we are given several insights: that dialectic ("belief threatend by disbelief") is part and parcel of his mythopoetics, that dialectic is the medium of poetic energy (the power by which it moves us and through which "everything we live by" is made "substantial"), that the moving, substantiating power of dialectic in turn derives from its source in "that other mystery of orders," and that that poetic mystery is the stuff of ... or, in a structuralist phrase he often uses, the "text of" ... life, the easy regard or disregard of which is (as he argues eloquently in The Truth and Life of Myth) a particularly modern source of suffering.

We may here be reminded of Marx's observations in his "Critique of Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole":

as a natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being (man) is a suffering, conditioned, and limited creature. ... To be sensuous is to suffer. ... Man as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering being--and because he feels what he suffers, a passionate being. Passion is the essential force of man energetically bent on its objects.4


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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420075217