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

By | 15 February 2023

During his Australian visit, Duncan’s theory of ‘essential gossip’ was actualised in a series of ‘PrePrefaces’, written in the front of his book Caeser’s Gate: Poems 1948-50 (1972). These ‘dedications’ were gifted to poets he met, providing souvenirs of his visit. The ‘PrePrefaces’ are at once marginal to Duncan’s oeuvre (only one appears in The Collected Later Poems (2014)) and marginal to ‘Australia’s New poetry’ (Edwards, Jacket). Instead, as both occasional and bespoke they graft these two spheres together, declaring Duncan as part of the community of Australian poetry and, at the same time, authorising antipodean derivations and appropriations of his oeuvre.

For Nigel Roberts, Duncan penned this comedic prose poem, which later served as a foreword to Roberts’ collection In Casablanca for the Waters (1977):

In stead (sic) of a lyric he staked out a heterostead in the old mined-out back country of genital anxiety. Along the trail he leaves for us he arranges stations of his cock. Aie! now we see Nigel hoisting his flagpole and the flag of white undershirt flighting aloft.

In the design of the phallic supply-works inspurtations press upward into the tubes of a poem. But what we hear is not triumphant. The forlorn bull in the cold field drags his balls and memory as he strives to come forward. (Duncan, Collected Later Poems, 630).

The motivation to write a ‘PrePreface’ – a before Foreword – might suggest an author intent on grounding or circumscribing the reception of their work. If the written preface, as Jacques Derrida argues, aims to complete a work but points instead to internal incongruency or an essential lack, then a ‘PrePreface’ must only redouble the compensatory ‘logic of supplementarily’ (215). Yet for Duncan, the open-endedness of language and literature was cause for celebration: ‘Why should one’s art (…) be an achievement?’ he wrote in 1953, ‘Why not, more, an adventure?’ Accordingly, he began numerous sequence poems and long works that were left unfinished in his lifetime: ‘Passages’, the ‘Structure of Rime’ and the posthumous H.D. Book (Duncan, Collected Essays, 38). In his Australian poem for Roberts, Duncan pushes this logic a step further, writing a ‘Prepucal Face’ (a ‘foreskin-Foreword’) to be removed, or left intact, depending on preference. The poem’s macho bawdiness (the ‘forlorn bull’ dragging its testicles to plough ‘cold fields’; and the ‘stations of his cock’) is highly unusual compared to Duncan’s published work, and perhaps instead speaks to his playfulness in unrehearsed settings; his lectures were notorious for their camp comedy and fun.

For the poet Chris Edwards, who had helped organise the American poet’s visit, Duncan wrote:

There has surely been the time for this flame of almost vision to hover so above the candle that is all wax of my spirit you think to read by. And all that is lovely sleep(s) and melts before a warmth bedded down in flesh. It’s not here a poetry I seek to awaken, for in that realm your own flame hovers in my reading. But the lodestone of your so holding to the mind’s body of thought. As I lean forward to embrace ‘The Torso’ that must be your actual toso (sic) – but I lose even the word torso, you have refused the r I sought to so return. The smile neither of victory nor of regret in which you sign your presence spreads thruout (sic) mine like a flesh entirely of tears.

The sensual romanticism of this prose lyric is more congruous with Duncan’s larger oeuvre: ‘The Torso Passages 18’ (1964), written after filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s navy-themed homoerotic short Fireworks (1947), and mentioned in the ‘PrePreface’ to Edwards, is exemplary in this regard (Collected Later Poems, 351-3). Indeed, Duncan had a sufficient reputation as a poet of ‘Eros’ that in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003) the titular protagonist is described as lusting after Duncan’s ‘severely Roman profile’ during his lecture at the University of Melbourne. ‘(Costello) would not have minded a fling with him,’ Coetzee writes, ‘would not even (…) have minded having his love child, like one of those mortal women of myth impregnated by a passing god and left to bring up semi-divine offspring’ (183). Coetzee is notorious for his playful, refractive metafiction: Elizabeth Costello, a fictional heterosexual female writer (whom Coetzee on occasion delivered lectures in the guise of) falls in lust with the flesh-and-blood homosexual poet Robert Duncan at a real lecture he gave in Australia. This complex binding of literature with the facts of history provides a useful pathway into the complexities of the Edwards ‘PrePreface.’ The poem, as we shall see, can be read as a fictionalised prediction of a real event which occurred at the end of Duncan’s Australian visit.

Edwards was twenty-one years old when Duncan visited in 1976. He met Duncan at his first Australian lecture at the University of Sydney and the two became fast friends. As Edwards recalls:

One night during the latter part of his visit, while we were both staying at the Adamsons’ house, Robert came into my room and, without uttering a word, began kissing me and unbuttoning my shirt. I began trembling, then shaking uncontrollably. I took him by the hand, told him I didn’t feel right about this, and asked: ‘What about Jess?’ He didn’t answer that question at the time, but he did say that it was my sense of right and wrong that mattered, and once I’d stopped shaking, he just quietly left the room (email to author: 23/5/22).

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