Essential Gossip: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan and U.S.-Australian Poetics

By | 15 February 2023

Adamson describes an almost a cliché brush with celebrity: he knew Ginsberg only through his art, yet nonetheless felt a deep and personal connection; Ginsberg performed his hippy persona and finally deflected the younger poet’s attentions. Adamson’s feelings were hurt (‘I thought, “you old cunt”, (this was) just his way of palming me off.’ (Adamson interviewed by Kinsella, 316)). However, soon afterwards, he followed Ginsberg’s advice and wrote to Duncan. Adamson asked for the American’s feedback on the title poem of his debut collection Canticles on the Skin (1970), and enclosed two issues of New Poetry, having recently taken over as the magazine’s editor. ‘(I)f you have any poems you’d like to submit to New Poetry’, he wrote, ‘that would be the greatest compliment you could make.’ Duncan’s reply included the manuscript of ‘The Museum’ – a long poem punning on the etymological link between museum and muse to project a ‘Grand architecture that the Muses command’ – which Adamson published in the October-December 1972 issue of his magazine (Duncan, 2014, 493). They began an epistolary friendship which culminated in Duncan’s visit in 1976.

Ginsberg’s Australian tour was a professionally orchestrated affair, the American demanding a payment of $800 for each of his appearances at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, more than twice as much as the next highest paid guest. Duncan’s visit, by contrast, was grassroots in its organisation, pulled together on a shoestring budget by a group of dedicated enthusiasts keen to bring him to the Southern Hemisphere. Adamson’s friend, the poet Chris Edwards, calls the image reproduced below the ‘“Too-Hard-Basket” photo’ (fig. 2). ‘It shows me with Bob Adamson and (Adamson’s wife) Cheryl (nee Pullen) in about 1975, maybe early ’76, trying to figure out a way to get Duncan to Australia. (…) The photo captures a moment at which the Duncan trip was beginning to look impossible, due primarily to lack of funding. The body language says quite a lot about that’ (email: 22/1/21). They attempted various fundraising efforts, but eventually Robert and Cheryl Adamson took out a private bank loan to finance Duncan’s travel. They were divorced before the debt was repaid.

Figure 2: ‘Too-Hard-Basket’ photo: Robert Adamson, Cheryl Adamson and Chris Edwards at the home of J.V. (‘Val’) Byrnes, Sydney, circa. 1975-6. Image courtesy of Chris Edwards.

Nonetheless, within a small community of Australian poets, excitement for Duncan’s visit was high. Richard Tipping travelled from Adelaide to San Francisco in 1975 and visited Duncan and his husband Jess at their home. ‘Duncan said to me that he was grateful to (Ezra) Pound for being so warm & simple in their meeting, & I felt very much the same thankfulness’, he wrote in a letter home to Adamson (Poetry Society of Australia Papers, NLA). Edwards and Cheryl Adamson reprinted ‘The Museum’ as a standalone pamphlet in the first issue of their short-lived little magazine, Beyond Poetry (1972). Adamson also obtained funding to print an Australian edition of Duncan’s Venice Poem (written in 1948 but published by Prism in 1975). It was decided that Duncan would stay with the Adamsons while visiting Sydney, with Barbara Giles in Melbourne, Ian Reid in Adelaide, and Fay Zwicky in Perth, before flying back to America via Sydney and New Zealand. Poets around Australia pulled their network tight for the occasion.


Seven years Ginsberg’s senior, Duncan was ill-fitted to the rugged, virile, individualistic mould that is commonly associated with post-war American art. Compare the cosmic megalomania of Ginsberg’s ‘Statement of Poetics’, as printed in Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry

The secrets of individual imagination – which are transcendental & non-verbal – I mean unconditioned Spirit – are not for sale to this consciousness, are of no use to this world, except perhaps to make it shut its trap and listen to the music of the spheres. (…) The universe is a new flower. America will be discovered (417).

– with Duncan’s statement from the same volume:

I have learned to mistrust my judgement upon what I have done. Too often what I thot inadequate proved later richer than I knew; what I thot slavishly derivative proved to be “mine” (401).

In an interview with George Bowering and Robert Hogg in 1969, Duncan further explained his position: ‘I’m always immensely conservative of everything, I want to keep the whole thing going’ (n.p.) – the whole thing meaning, for Duncan, the retrospective yet ongoing integrity of both his own poetic oeuvre and that of, as he elsewhere puts it, a shared myth, which ‘for Dante, for Shakespeare, for Milton, was the poet-lore handed down in the tradition from poet to poet’ (Collected Essays, 165). Duncan sense of himself as ‘not an experimentalist or an innovator, but a derivative poet,’ caused him to acknowledge himself, sometimes defensively, as an anomaly among the ‘New American Poets’:

When it came to (the 1963) poetry conference in Vancouver (…) I was frequently on the floor challenging Ginsberg’s position. And a lot of it was concerning his position on the poem. Mine would be a Constructivist poem, the poem as a work of art. And I very well understood where Ginsberg was in that. I knew the prohibition that you should make a poem (quoted in Faas, 66).

Or, similarly, in a letter to Denise Levertov from 1958: ‘It bothers me a lot to read Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” stuff (…) is a systematization of spontaneity not very much a gimmick? Again, the paintings I dislike (the Farrens, Gustons, Klines, Pollocks, etc (…) is it not also the undogmatic dogmatized’ (116).

An example of what Duncan means by the ‘Constructivist poem’, what he calls his ‘slavishly derivative’ approach to writing, can be found in ‘Go, My Songs, Even as You Came to Me’, printed in Ground Work: Before the War (1984), but written almost a decade prior, when Duncan and Adamson corresponded to make plans for his Australian visit. The poem begins:

Keeping in mind voice-prints that came before you 
again I say to those who have forgotten 

meaning to recall to us from Ezra Pound’s Lustra his “Commission”:

Go, my songs, to the lonely and the unsatisfied . . . 
Go out and defy opinion, 
Go against this vegetable bondage of the blood

where he affirms his alliance with the spirits of Whitman and Shelley, and, again, Pound’s “Envoi (1919)”:

Go, dumb-born book, 
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes: 
Hast thou but song 
… Then there were cause in thee that should condone 
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie. . . 

breaking the pitch of a modernism for the sake of the beauty of an outworn PreRaphaelite mode and the enduring love he had for Rossetti and William Morris]

(Collected Later Poems, 566)

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