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

By | 15 February 2023

Rebuffing Duncan’s advances caused significant anxiety. Yet ‘Robert was very gracious’, Edwards stresses: ‘Once I’d stopped shaking, he just quietly left the room.’ Afterwards, the pair maintained an epistolary friendship; a selection of their letters has been published in Jacket. As Edwards recalls, a response to his question – ‘What about Jess?’ – was provided in the form of a poem, ‘In the South’, the first instalment in a series of four poems titled ‘An Alternate Life’ (1976-7). Duncan left the poem in handwritten manuscript on Edwards’ bedside, ‘for the young writer to find upon waking from an afternoon nap.’ It reads in part:

I am talking about the beginnings of an age in my body, 
light as a mountain    hanging in the air 
no one may lift   from me.    In youth 
I think now   this fathering shadow    fell forward 
from every glance drawing to ward me alarms,
    turnings, alternate engagements, what compels. 

It is a heavy light shining I am speaking of. 
Visibly I am moving over to the other side of the picture. 
An old man’s hand fumbles at the young man’s crotch. 
An old man’s body is about to tremble.   The painter
is almost cruel in his detail to make clear 
this shaking.     I am talking of a voice shaking (Duncan, Collected Later Poems, 643).

In the derivative background of ‘An Alternate Life’ we can perhaps sense the late Wallace Stevens: The Rock, published shortly before his death in 1955, especially ‘The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain’. In a mode reminiscent of Stevens’ elegiac late style, in which he examines resolutely the ‘dwindled sphere’ of mortality (504), Duncan’s ‘An Alternate Life’ imagines the carrion flies that attend the end of a poet’s life. ‘La politique des vieux (the politics of the old)’, Duncan calls this autumnal theme, admitting that ‘je suis maintenant / dans le foyer de cet âge (I am now / in the foyer of that age)’ (Collected Later Poems, 645). Duncan was fifty-six years old in 1976 and would continue to write up to his death in 1988. Yet he had arrived in Australia, as Edwards later recalled, ‘ready for a new beginning. Not the kind of new beginning a younger poet might be hoping for: he was looking for access to the poetry of his later years – Early Senilities was a book title he joked about as following on from Ground Work (1984’ (email: 18/5/2021). Within ‘An Alternative Life’, the encounter with Edwards casts in ‘almost cruel (…) detail’ the differences between the young poet and the ‘old man’s body’. ‘So many alternate lives have died in me’, Duncan laments (645). Meeting Edwards is imagined one such ‘incident (…) in an alternate life’ (645).

Earlier, I singled out Stevens’ ‘The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain’ because it speaks to counterintuitive causality operative in Duncan’s poem. In Stevens, the older speaker recalls writing a work so authoritative as to escape the treachery of time; a work that not only describes its subject (‘a Mountain’) but supplants or takes the place of it: ‘there it was, word for word (…) / he breathed its oxygen’ (Stevens, 512). ‘An Alternate Life’ is a third version of Duncan’s come-on to Edwards that we have encountered, after the predictive ‘PrePreface’ and Edward’s own retrospective account. Yet, as in the Stevens’ poem, ‘An Alternate Life’ is, in a paradoxical sense, causally prior to the other two encounters. The poem which came afterwards, seems somehow to proceed the event: it is through the retrospective illumination of the poem that Edwards’ ‘PrePreface’ is clarified; and it is because of the poem that Edwards recounts to Duncan’s biographer the events described in it. By this, I do not mean to suggest that the poem provides an unassailably accurate historical record; drawing attention to the line ‘an old man’s hand fumbles at a young man’s crotch’, Edwards is clear: ‘That didn’t happen’ (Jarnot, 342). Yet it does suggest the often-messy ways that poems influence, enliven, and cohabitate the same reality as their authors. Straddling the border between truth and falsehood, the poem occupies the liminal space in which essential gossip thrives.


‘The story of the American poetry in Australia,’ writes Philip Mead, tends to rely on ‘first-person expressive accounts of authorial influence’. That is, the history of Australian poetry in the 1960s and 70s is frequently told through subjective narratives that tend to repeat and become familiar: ‘stories about first reading Ginsberg, Duncan, Olson, O’Hara, Ashbery, Guest, Dorn, Berrigan, Rich (…) the ecstatic initial reception of Allen’s The New American Poetry’ (‘American Model II’, 170). Forbes’ peon ‘To the Bobbydazzlers’ represents the archetypal telling of this story, and we might also count Robert Adamson’s ‘The Flow-Through’ (2001) as an intimate telling of the same story:

                                             The mix of sweetness
and a ferocity that could burn holes
was what I admired most about (John Ashbery’s) Some Trees – 
These poems were places I made friends in.
I remember (John) Tranter standing in a classroom
reading them, his laughter edged with
with irony and kindness. Ashbery days (Mulberry Leaves, 43).

Recounting a similar narrative of discovery in ‘For the Little Magazines’ (1977), Nigel Roberts shifts from the first to second person, as if to suggest that he is telling the collective story of his generation:

on the endpapers of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry / wrote that we had not come / to praise or putdown Henry Lawsons ghost / or to dance on Ern Malley’s grave / but TO BE / WITH POETRY (In Casablanca for the Waters, 28)

These narratives are characteristic of the way the Generation of ‘68 is memorialised by poets and academics alike. But, by focusing on readerly, to the exclusion of visitor connections, existing histories of American influence in Australia tend to have a flattening effect, ignoring the complex ways that – even when cultural relations are imbalanced – influence rarely flows just one way.

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