‘My Epic’

Aaron Shurin, Robert Duncan, and the New College of California

Robert Duncan, photographed by Jonathan Williams (1955). Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University

As those of you who read my first commentary know, I have sought out contemporary poets in order to discover how they might frame their own relationship to the epic form. The responses coming in have been fantastic. (For those of you who read commentary number one, I also cleaned my coffee maker with vinegar. The results? Similarly fantastic.)

The question (stripped of framing apparatus) that I posed to a wide variety of writers  was this: “Which epics do you consider part of your own lineage (as a poet, performer, teacher, scholar, reader . . .) and why?” I purposely defined neither “epic” nor “lineage.” I wanted to see in what ways these terms were generative to contemporary poets, and what definitions were alive for them.

Given the epic’s role in nation making, through the retelling of nationalist history, I found Aaron Shurin’s response exciting, especially its own retelling of a period in poetic history.

Shurin writes:

Some time in late 1980, I’d guess, Robert Duncan proposed to the (first) New College community that we start a “Homer study group” to read the Iliad in Greek (!), extending the paradigmatic/paradisiacal NC ethos of poetics (and only poetics) considered from the historical ground up (or the phonemic ground up), and re-situating the act of study from the classroom to the active zones of poets’ lives — the walls of New College were always semipermeable … And thus began an adventure in “many-mindedness” (our happily literal translation of Odysseus’s Homeric epithet — usually delivered as “crafty” or “wily”), a many-mindedness that in this case pointed to the group efforts of companions (initiates?) whose dedication to the project was fearless and devout, whose arduous work was defined strictly as pleasure, whose purity of endeavor (no remuneration, no credit) was measured by the depth of a hexametric chant or the shivering sense of meeting — what? — some molten core of one’s historical and cultural tradition, and whose collectively marshaled poetic intelligence (General Duncan?) was driven towards reading/chanting/translating the entire 15,000-line poem a line at a time (we met weekly for over six years mostly in my living room), an act of foundationalism that took almost as long as it did for the Achaeans to conquer Troy.

Robert Duncan, part of a triumvirate of Black Mountain poets including Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, is perhaps less broadly known as founding member of the Poetics Program at New College of California in San Francisco. Through various incarnations, the Poetics Program served an important role in the development of “San Francisco Schools” of writing, including queer poetries, the histories of which are still being written (right now several keyboards are humming).

For an excerpt of Lisa Jarnot’s forthcoming biography of Duncan, see http://jacketmagazine.com/26/dunc-jarno.html

Next installment: Aaron Shurin on how the epic (and Robert Duncan) transformed his own poetics.