The Duncan/Olson dichotomy

A review of two volumes

Photos of Robert Duncan (left) and Charles Olson (right) by Jonathan Williams, from the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. Used with permission of Thomas Meyer.

An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson

An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson

Robert J. Bertholf and Dale M. Smith

University of New Mexico Press 2017, 312 pages, $75.00 ISBN 978-0826358967

Imagining Persons: Robert Duncan’s Lectures on Charles Olson

Imagining Persons: Robert Duncan’s Lectures on Charles Olson

Robert J. Bertholf and Dale M. Smith

University of New Mexico Press 2017, 252 pages, $75.00 ISBN 978-0826358912

Here are two elusive pieces of the context of midcentury American poetics. The Robert Duncan/Charles Olson letters have been available, until now, only in the brief reviews of each other that the poets extracted from them (“near-far Mister Olson” and “Against Wisdom as Such”), passages quoted by scholars who have been able to visit the archive at Storrs, and handfuls in Sulfur, Poetry, and Olson’s Selected Letters. Duncan’s lectures on Olson can be heard at PennSound, but his idiosyncratic delivery, an incredible contrast with the mastery of his prose, makes the recordings, and the verbatim transcript of one of them published by Lost and Found, hard to follow. In these two companion volumes from the University of New Mexico Press, edited by Robert Bertholf and Dale Smith, the letters are complete, the lectures are beveled, and a nimble apparatus of introductions, notes, glossaries, bibliographies, and indices nearly half as long as the texts themselves collapses the distance between these documents’ moment and our own.[1]

The middle of the American century is itself a key context for our own practice. After the progressive challenge to conceptual poetry, we seem to be again, or still, in a period where the most enlivening possibilities belong to what Michael Palmer, Duncan’s interlocutor in the final lecture, calls, (in)complete with a question mark, “analytic lyric?”:

taking over the condensation of lyric emotion and focusing it then on the mechanics of language … and using that then … as a critique of the discourse of power, to renew the function of poetry.[2]

One thing that I hear in this “condensation” is “composition by field,” the supremely demanding procedure that Olson introduces in “Projective Verse” and Duncan adumbrates as 

such a change in the meanings of every part in the creation of each part that every new strictness is also a charm undoing all previous strictnesses. … Each syllable of the poem, if we keep alive each sound in the sounding of the whole, is such a stricture — just the sound it is — that proves in the movement of the poem to be a liberation.[3

A poem in which every element is, paradoxically, central is not an instance of a form but the form itself, because to subtract anything would be to present a different form. Yet this supersaturation is a kind of form that remains practicable partly to the extent that we can further particularize its genealogy. I will try to show how first An Open Map and then Imagining Persons can be useful to such a project.

Duncan attributes the possibility of field composition’s “unerring, abundant and casual subtleties” directly to Olson himself, the man as a kind of event.[4] Referencing Olson’s proposal, in “Projective Verse,” of a line based on the breath, Duncan writes, “it is the breath (and you.”[5] He calls The Maximus Poems “the first of a different type.”[6] He writes to Olson in 1957, ten years into their friendship, “your work gives us all measure … every published work from you is a necessity for anybody seriously at the work … this Olson thing is a loaded literary event.”[7] Speaking only for himself, Duncan makes this into a refrain in his letters to Olson, the way he makes a refrain throughout his work of Ezra Pound’s “Cleaners’ Manifesto,” “Against Wisdom as Such,” and conflicts taken as contrasts: 

You stretch me. … [A]s always when on the brink of work — a swift thot of you.[8

I … am “sent” forward toward necessity by each made thing poem you show forth.[9

Your lines are directives.[10

… the man who most demands of me the effort that awakes radiance in life.[11]

[Y]our attentions can always excite my own.[12]

Before setting myself to the typewriter this morning I want this prime bonus of writing to you and that brings you right in here around me.[13

[T]he inspiration of your poetry (how readily I get instruction from your example) comes, as always, with the happiness of being with your mind and spirit.[14]

In these remarks, Duncan is actually performing an accurate reading of Olson’s view of poetic form or “measure” in “Against Wisdom as Such.” In Olson’s December 21, 1953, letter to Duncan, notable for being the rough draft of “Against Wisdom,” he writes that “wisdom … isn’t a measure.”[15] He then proposes to substantially reinscribe the term “wisdom” in order to arrive at his own conception of measure or “style”: “i think wisdom, like style, is the man — that it is not extricable as any sort of a statement.”[16]

Duncan’s refrain that “the man” Olson himself is the supersaturated measure of composition by field, however, stands in provocative conflict with other points in the letters where Duncan digs in his heels for precisely the kind of wisdom that Olson wants to reinscribe out of existence:

The art or care remains / of meanings (that the man working strives to realize, i.e. locate what he is working: make it fit, sound), hence measures.[17]

[M]easure in thot (the orders of justice) is co-equal with measure in composition. Focus (claritas) = accurate count.[18]

By “justice,” here, Duncan may just mean “exactness,”[19] or he may be thinking of Plato’s Republic, where an inquiry into justice leads to a discussion of the good as the highest form. In Olson’s essay “Human Universe,” he looks forward to the language of “Against Wisdom” when he writes that

Plato[’s] world of Ideas, of forms as extricable from content, is … where, increasingly, my contemporaries die, or drown the best of themselves. Idealisms of any sort … intervene at just the moment they become more than the means they are, are allowed to become ways as end instead of ways to end, END, which is never more than this instant, than you on this instant, than you, figuring it out, and acting, so. If there is any absolute, it is never more than this one, this instant, in action.[20]

Whether, in the final analysis, Duncan plays two sides or maintains a poetics like Olson’s will depend on whether Olson has achieved a position distinct from something called “wisdom.” Duncan, perhaps picking up on the resonances of “absolute,” does not think so: “In a sense [Olson] is so keen upon the virtu of reality that he rejects my ‘wisdom’ not as it might seem at first glance because ‘wisdom’ is a vice; but because my wisdom is not real wisdom.”[21]

If Duncan is right, and if wisdom is indeed necessarily “extricable,” then Olson is in the volatile position of fighting necessity. Duncan throws Olson a bone, however, by insisting that not everything extricable falls under the fraught heading of “Ideal(ism)s”: “Ideals belong to the diffuse order; insights to the active focus.”[22] If we associate “Ideal(ism)s” with what Palmer calls “the discourse of power,” then Duncan’s insistence on “insights” as a less deluded form of wisdom provides a framework for thinking about field composition’s criticality, Olson’s pursuit of “another perspective from which to enact a different political life.”[23] In a little history, Ammiel Alcalay quotes Olson’s 1951 Fulbright application to study Sumerian civilization: “the premise of such a study of origins being, that the present is such a time, that just now any light which can lead to a redefinition of man is a crucial necessity, that it is necessary if we are to arrive at a fresh ground for a concept of ‘humanism.’”[24] Olson’s measure is ultimately the lifelong restlessness with which he pursues this “fresh ground.” In 1966, “hole[d] up” for a month in a Berlin hotel room under doctor’s orders to “feed [his] heart,” he is still able to propose traveling to Greece to study tablets of the ancient, still undeciphered writing system Linear A, “green things my own mind has fed on … which probably wld take traveling I’ll not relish.”[25]

What excites my doxographical sensibility is the question of whether wisdom admits of a more finely grained typology than good/bad. Is Olson’s “fresh ground” a different order of justice or good than Duncan’s “art or care … of meanings,” with corresponding differences in measure or poetic form? Smith is right to emphasize how “the digressive features of [Duncan’s] speech created … ‘presence,’”[26] because Duncan’s lectures often feel like a separate discourse from the wisdom that we have been tracking, but one remark in particular provides a productive framework for our question: 

Charles goes back to the Sumerian. He tries to drive back to the Sumerian and then he has to find in the Sumerian the undoing of certain elements. … What struck me when I came to the earliest mention of man as most estranged from that with which he’s most familiar was that Charles advanced it as a proposition, a project, that we were to undo the estrangement. … My reading through and through has never been that sense. I have always assumed that Heraclitus is telling us the very nature of what’s there.[27

Duncan is referring to Olson’s meditation, in The Special View of History, on Heraclitus fragment DK 22B72, which Olson translates, “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar.” The question of whether Olson or Duncan is the more Heraclitean is probably unresolvable. On the one hand, in the fragment “Everyone has the potential for self-knowledge and sound thinking,”[28] Heraclitus is optimistic about “undo[ing] the estrangement” from our “most familiar,” ourselves. On the other hand, the logos to which this “sound thinking” leads us is merely our necessary estrangement, the “ever different” river into which we are always stepping, abstracted into a principle, call it “war,” “an ever-living fire,” or “a back-turning harmony, like a bow or a lyre.”[29]

Either way, the opposition between “undoing” and “telling” estrangement is a good framework for making sense of some of the major differences in emphasis throughout Olson and Duncan’s intercourse. For Olson’s part, Duncan’s remark that Olson “tries to drive back to the Sumerian … to find in the Sumerian the undoing of … the estrangement” refers to Olson’s statement in “Against Wisdom as Such” that “One has to drive all nouns, the abstract most of all, back to process — to act.”[30] “Act,” here, in turn, connects with the “absolut[ization]” of “acting/-on” in the “Human Universe” passage quoted above, and all this sketches a structural analogy, in Olson’s thinking, between “estrangement,” “abstract[ion],” and “Plato[nism]” in the denounced position.

Duncan’s part, to my mind, is more complex. Smith, in his portion of the introduction to An Open Map, helpfully calls attention to how Duncan, in his August 8, 1954, letter responding to the published version of “Against Wisdom,” cautions that Olson’s anti-abstract project requires abstractions such as the distinction between “genuine and false” for accuracy.[31] In my forthcoming essay “Robert Duncan as Platonist,” I argue that Duncan’s statement in that letter that “in made-up things, in the imagination the will has a range of a different kind”[32] expresses an interest in abstraction not just as a guardrail but as a reality, as central to “what’s there.”

What are the implications for the project of “telling us the very nature of what’s there” when this abstraction is further conceived as “estrangement”? The fragmentary and amphibolous nature of Heraclitus’s text is one model. Responding to Aristotle’s complaint that “punctuating the work of Heraclitus is difficult because it is unclear whether a given word goes with the word that precedes it or the one that follows it,” Robin Waterfield writes, “What Aristotle apparently could not imagine is that the word goes with both at once.”[33] In a similar vein, Plato’s late dialogue the Sophist calls Heraclitus “terse[].”[34]

No one could accuse Duncan of being terse, and Plato’s method in the Sophist may be a better analogue than Heraclitus’s style for Duncan’s textual strategy. The Sophist aims to establish that it is possible for speech to be false, in order to establish philosophy as a specialized discipline of truth, against the sophists’ protestations that there are no special criteria for speech because “everything has to be true.”[35] As with Heraclitus making a first principle of estrangement, the Sophist gets into some weird ontological spaces by way of establishing the possibility of false speech, ultimately exploring different forms of the being of nonbeing.[36] On a textual level, this search for the reality of falsehood plays out in a network of actual falsehoods that Plato plants for the reader to track down and interpret. In “Robert Duncan as Platonist,” I present evidence for Duncan’s 1967 reading of the Sophist and subsequent exploration of its ideas, and in a passage in Imagining Persons we can see him, like the Sophist’s interlocutors, consenting to dwell and play in a field that includes falsehoods and errors: 

You’re following what is emerging in the work. … So we’ve got two different possibilities as this goes. In the most open composition where you’re following, you can get it wrong and have to correct it. You’re following what the poem indicates and so you correct out your own intrusion. Now that already, if you thought about a free, open composition, why couldn’t you intrude? You are also happening. The poem’s happening and you’re happening — is it an intrusion? You follow the poem and you don’t, no no you don’t pick up along the way?[37

Duncan is resisting Olson’s notion in “Projective Verse” that “From the moment [the poet] ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION — puts himself in the open — he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares … right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand.”[38] Palmer, Duncan’s interlocutor in this lecture, observes that Duncan’s rejection of Olsonian notions of propriety is key to determining the “field” as open: 

If you think of a field, we only arrive at one if it’s bounded in a certain way. … So we can perceive it as such. The thing that does come into question in the theory of field is, what is the nature of the boundedness. … How do the boundaries function, if they are not simply to close the thing off?[39

We can see the alternately incisive and digressive consistency of Duncan’s lectures as an “open mapping” of estrangement taken as a reality.

Crucially, Duncan understands that the distinction between this map and the corresponding territory is a key feature of the territory, so he includes this distinction in the map. He writes to Olson on February 6, 1960 of “melodic lines … whose spirits must be bereft for the Kosmos is.”[40] Duncan composes his measure of “melodic lines” that, by being “bereft” of the “Kosmos” or reality that they would map, simultaneously distinguish or estrange themselves from reality and map or mirror reality’s constitutive distinction or estrangement from itself.

The doxographical distinction between Duncan’s imagination of an anoriginal estrangement and Olson’s intuition of an original “act,” and the corresponding methodological distinction between open mapping and “driv[ing] back to,” help frame one of the most arousing exchanges in the correspondence, in which Duncan crafts a theory of poetry as “Revelation” by analogy with medieval Spanish architecture: 

— but the epiphany (mine) is that just here a complex iconography (where all images are signs) is brought into a complex plastic knowledge (where the two dimensions of the fresco, and the symbolic many dimensions of what is represented, and the three dimensions of the architecture — the apse is semicircular — provide spatial counter-points with the advancing and recedings of forms and colors). You see at a glance a created space, which being drawn, draws. And — the exhilaration of the maker is so keen — see the created time of a poem and that as the plastic feeling be complex there, then needs — for this exhilaration — a like wise complex iconography.[41]

Duncan speaks of a measure or poetic form, “the created time of a poem,” that achieves “exhilaration” and “complex[ity]” when it, “being drawn, draws”: when the poet composes it of components that assert themselves as “signs.” This semiotics is an “open mapping” because of the structural distinction between the sign and its referent.

Olson’s response turns on the concept of the “reductive” from “Against Wisdom”: 

Again, I suppose, the reductive process: find out what the objects are on which the words run to place a name. … I come back to that damned word reductive. Makes sense. Break it down. Get the pieces. Work from them. Have no intention but oneself as the possible source of the transformation: that if one honestly (wow!) tries to make the picture, the picture will be iconographic — will be whatever is the polarity of reductive: (productive? reproductive?[42]

Olson acknowledges that his and Duncan’s differences of measure fall within the common project of composition by field by pointing to the supersaturated form and content of the “iconographic” as their shared endpoint. But rather than saluting the distinction or estrangement between the iconographic’s component signs and their referents, Olson insists on “work[ing] from” absolute proximity to the referents or “objects.” This sounds less fanciful when we consider that the way that he proposes to “get” these objects is by “reducti[on]” to “oneself” by the method of “honest[]y.” Perhaps he is thinking of the phenomenological reduction to the immanence of one’s own intuitions. A wisdom of “the man.” An inner “fresh ground.”

An Open Map and Imagining Persons are living documents of this paradigmatic disagreement that continues to inform our own idiom. 



1. One of Bertholf’s beveled and annotated transcriptions appeared in Sulfur in 1995, giving a sense of the long gestation of these projects. He also annotated Duncan’s letters to Olson in the previous issue of Sulfur.

2. Michael Palmer, “Lyric Practice (Analytic Lyric?),” in Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (New York: New Directions, 2008), 256.

3. Robert Duncan, “The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography,” in Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985), 50.

4. David Antin, “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry,” in Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966–2005 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 185.

5. Duncan to Olson, January–February 1954, in An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Dale M. Smith (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017), 46. Parenthesis left open in original.

6. Duncan to Olson, March 9, 1963, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 188.

7. Duncan to Olson, August 24, 1957, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 124.

8. Duncan to Olson, January 21, 1957, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 108.

9. Duncan to Olson, June 4, 1957, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 119.

10. Duncan to Olson, November 10, 1959, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 155.

11. Duncan to Olson, ca. May 1961, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 176.

12. Duncan to Olson, January 9, 1963, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 183.

13. Duncan to Olson, April 26, 1963, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 193.

14. Duncan to Olson, January 8, 1968, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 213.

15. Olson to Duncan, December 21, 1953, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 41. An exception to the careful editing of these volumes is the editors’ backward claim that “In this letter, Olson quotes from his essay ‘Against Wisdom as Such.’” Bertholf and Smith, “Introduction: Love and the Idea of Form,” in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 231n54. Olson begins his screed “against wisdom” in this letter in reaction to Duncan’s remark about Olson’s poetry in the previous letter: “Then, but it is not central yet, it is still coming into view, another devotion. The wisdom we seek.” Duncan to Olson, ca. December 15, 1953 (37–38).

16. Olson to Duncan, December 21, 1953, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 44. A comparison with “Against Wisdom as Such” shows the sometimes very subtle reinflections that led from this letter to that essay: “I take it wisdom, like style, is the man — that it is not extricable in any sort of a statement of itself.” Olson, “Against Wisdom as Such,” in Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 261.

17. Duncan to Olson, January 9, 1963, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 184.

18. Duncan to Olson, January 8, 1958, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 135.

19. Duncan to Olson, November 3, 1958, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 143.

20. Olson, “Human Universe,” in Collected Prose, 156–57.

21. Duncan, “From a Notebook,” in Fictive Certainties, 65. Duncan and Olson’s mutual student, John Wieners, concurs. Of “Against Wisdom as Such,” he writes that “a wisdom is posited there, / as such.” Wieners, Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals, ed. Michael Seth Stewart (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015), 128. Wieners edited the relevantly titled poetry journal Measure, which Duncan says inspires him like Olson does: “MEASURE, the fine corps of it where the charge lies — tunes me up. As your presence (presents) here [in San Francisco in 1957] demanded out of me [my poem] the ‘Propositions.’” Duncan to Olson, August 24, 1957, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 123.

22. Duncan to Olson, January 8, 1958, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 136. Duncan associates this “diffuse order” with Allen Ginsberg, about whose writing he never has anything positive to say.

23. Ammiel Alcalay, “Republics of Poetry,” in A Little History, ed. Fred Dewey (New York: re:public/UpSet Press, 2013), 66.

24. Alcalay, “Republics of Poetry,” 70.

25. Olson to Duncan, December 30, 1966, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map,210-11.

26. Dale M. Smith, “Introduction: Advocating Projective Verse Aesthetics,” in Imagining Persons: Robert Duncan’s Lectures on Charles Olson, ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Smith (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017), 3.

27. Duncan, “Ideas of Primordial Time in Charles Olson’s Work,” in Bertholf and Smith, Imagining Persons, 59.

28. Heraclitus, in The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, trans. and commentary by Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), DK 22B116.

29. Heraclitus, in The First Philosophers, DK 22B12, 80, 30, 51.

30. Olson, “Against Wisdom as Such,” 263. This sentence is not in Olson’s December 21, 1953, letter to Duncan, and notably precedes Olson’s fascination with Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality.

31. Smith and Bertholf, “Introduction: Love and the Idea of Form,” in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 11–12; Duncan to Olson, August 8, 1954, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 53.

32. Duncan to Olson, August 8, 1954, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 53.

33. Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 316–17.

34. Plato, Sophist, trans. Nicholas P. White, in Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 242e3.

35. Plato, Sophist, 260c1.

36. See Adam Katz, “There’s Difference and Then There’s Difference,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 48, no. 4 (2017). The earlier Republic had already argued that the highest form “the good is not being, but superior to it in rank and power.” Plato, Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube and C. D. C. Reeve, in Complete Works, VI.509b8.

37. Duncan, in Duncan and Michael Palmer, “On Projective Verse,” in Bertholf and Smith, Imagining Persons, 180.

38. Olson, “Projective Verse,” in Collected Prose, 240.

39. Palmer, in Duncan and Palmer, “On Projective Verse,” in Bertholf and Smith, Imagining Persons, 181. Remember that Palmer’s book of essays is called Active Boundaries.

40. Duncan to Olson, February 6, 1960, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 163.

41. Duncan to Olson, August 14, 1955, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map,80.

42. Olson to Duncan, August 21 and 24, 1955, in Bertholf and Smith, An Open Map, 85, 87. Parenthesis left open in original.