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

By | 15 February 2023

The first three lines quote directly from Adamsons’s ‘Go Book’ (1974), a citation glossed in Duncan’s subheading: ‘After Robert Adamson’s opening song in his Swamp Riddles.’ Throughout the poem, Duncan maintains a dialogue with Adamson, though he soon also summons up other past and contemporary voices: Dante, Pound, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the ‘spirits of Whitman and Shelley’, to name a few. That this is a spontaneous conversation is evidenced by Duncan misremembering lines from Pound, which should read:

Go, my songs, seek your praises from the young and from the intolerant,
Move among the lovers of perfection alone.
Seek ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light
And take your wounds from it gladly.

Drawn from an early poem of Pound’s, Duncan suggests that these lines represent an abandoned romanticism, lost to the angular and impersonal modernism of The Cantos. That Pound is here summoning a self-elected, ideal audience, allows for a meta-citational doubling of Duncan’s point: through his constant dialogue with other poets and texts, Duncan aims to gather ‘voice-prints’, physically removed from him by history and geography, into the contemporary moment of his poem.


On 11 September 1976, Duncan visited the poet and editor Kris Hemensley at his home in Westgarth, Melbourne. ‘Allow me to quote (for) you,’ recounts Hemensley. ‘(Duncan’s) greeting when I answered the (…) front door “I come not as an envoy from imperial San Francisco but as a subscriber to The Ear in a Wheatfield! ”’ (email: 25/3/2021). Duncan was referring to Hemensley’s little magazine, which he had been editing under an evolving title since the early 1960s (Our Glass (1968-9), Earthship (1970-72), Ear in a Wheatfield (1973-6), and later The Merri Creek Or Nero (1978-80) and H/EAR (1981-85)). Hemensley entertained Duncan and a small group of Melbourne poets, an afternoon that Laurie Duggan recounts in a poem:

Robert Duncan (…)
a hand 
               measuring beats 
some eight of us, 
                                                  Melbourne, 1975 (sic) 
(my clothes testify) 

               occult equals outside the purview 
               of the Enlightenment. (Duggan, 43).

As Hemensley corroborated in a recent interview with Tim Wright, Duncan espoused a theory of poetic community which he termed ‘essential gossip’: ‘(Duncan) felt that a lot of the literary history that he was interested in, involved in, was essential gossip. And I believe the same thing’ (Wright, 16-7). Essential gossip, Hemensley explained, implies an understanding that ‘you carry the history with you. And it is this thing of, this synchronicity, this simultaneity, this (…) knowing what has been’. Through a subjective subversion of caninity as the ‘authoritative in our culture’, essential gossip provides a way of recognising that the ‘trajectories of that history are as vivid and as active and as energetic if you intersect with them’ (Wright, 17). ‘€veryone is always gossiping about what everyone is doing, like who’s making it with whom, who has done what with whom, and all that weirdness,’ said poet John Giorno of the New York art scene in the 1960s (161). Essential gossip means to speak about the entire canon in collegiate, personally invested mode. To map this relationship visually would require picturing a poetic community as a kind of family tree of proliferating connections (not unlike the networked poetic diagrams that appeared in Hemensley’s little magazines with increasing frequency after Duncan’s visit (fig. 3)). Yet recognising history as essential gossip also means adding your own name to one of lower branches: to write or read a poem is to connect in a direct sense with the ‘poetry of all poetries’ (Duncan, Collected Later Poems, 264).

Figure 3: Detail from a ‘poetry family tree’ by Kris Hemensley. H/EAR, 5 (1983-4), p. 480.

The term ‘essential gossip’ does not appear anywhere in Duncan’s published writing; no doubt, it was a line he had improvised especially for his Melbourne audience. Analogues to the concept, however, can be found throughout Duncan’s writing, particularly in his influential essay ‘Rites of Participation’ (originally published across two issues of Caterpillar (1967-68) and later posthumously collected as chapter six of part one of The H.D. Book (2011)). There he writes of his desire to call together a ‘symposium of the whole’:

(in which) all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are. (H.D. Book, 154).

It was this belief, that a richness of poetic methods and means had been excluded from the academic sense of what is literature, which inspired Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred, his ‘search for land, that is, search for America’ in the diverse poetic cultures spread around the globe. Duncan’s ideal community is imagined in terms of a Greek symposium, where different cultures can meet, dine together, share stories and entertain: ‘We find our company in Eurpides, Plato, Moses of Leon, Fauré or Freud, searching out keys to our inner being in the rites of the Aranda (sic) and in the painting of processes of Cézanne’ (ibid., 192). Drawing on his reading of the Freudian anthropologist Géza Róheim, Duncan was particularly interested in the Arrernte initiation ceremonies performed in Central Australia. Like the kurdiji ceremony, during which Arrernte boys were taught the songs of their fathers and forebears, Duncan argues that to be a poet was to shoulder the weight of an ancient tradition, to be initiated in and to preserve a cultural practice dating back millennia.

If the Ancient Greek symposium sits behind Duncan’s imagined ‘symposium of the whole’, then we might imagine essential gossip in terms of another pre-modern figuration: Ovid’s description of the House of Fame, said to have been built at the ‘limits of the threefold universe, / Whence all things everywhere, however far, / Are scanned and watched, and every voice and word / reaches its listening ears’ (275-6). ‘(W)hat made (Duncan) a seminal figure for some of us,’ recalls Ian Reid who hosted Duncan in Adelaide, ‘(was) not only (his) extension of the principle of composite structure, but also the sense of permission that some poets in particular feel they have through (his) work’. It is not quite the grand, imperialist gesture inaugurated by Technicians of the Sacred, where in all the worlds poetry is described and classified as forebears to the New American Poetry. But it is a means by which individual poets could assert their voice against a canon recognising the ways they are already a part not only of an Australian, but a world poetic community.

Figure 4: Robert Duncan with a Koala in Melbourne 1976. The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS, SCHOLARLY and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.