L I S A   J A R N O T




Eight: Return to the Field


By mid-August 1958, Duncan had re-envisioned and revised the opening poem of The Opening of the Field. Originally titled "Having Been Enraged By John Davenport," the poem was now called “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” In the piece, he came to incorporate the three main themes of the book: the field, the law, and the dead. Initially, The Opening of the Field had been imagined as a tribute to the orders of angels, but Duncan soon realized it to be instead a book meditating on these three specific themes. In a letter to Robin Blaser, written on August 6, 1958, Duncan said:

...I found myself driven back to a condition previous to all skills in dealing with the open SOMETIMES I AM PERMITTED TO RETURN TO A MEADOW and after at least a dozen copies in full mistrust of all in the mind that wants to "direct" a poem, to make it consequential came through in four days work with the enclosed mistrusted still almost beautiful pseudo-casual opening.1

Having recognized that the meadow of the first poem was a foreshadowing of the larger field represented by the book as a whole, Duncan sought to tie the book together with its opening piece. In an application to the Guggenheim Foundation earlier in 1958, he had explained that the field was of a three-fold nature, "known intimately as the given field of my own life, intellectually as the field of language (or spirit), and imaginatively as the field given to Man (of many languages)."2

The field of "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" also had its primary sources for Duncan in the Zohar and in the memory of the reoccuring childhood dream of a great catastrophe. As "the field given to Man" it was the field of Mechpelah, described in the Zohar in a commentary on the deaths of Abraham and Sarah. In this section of the Zohar, Chapter “Haye Sarah,” God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would be buried beside Adam and Eve in the secret field of Mechpelah. God had "folded" the field so that The Cave of the Adam was no longer visible to humankind. It was here that God led Abraham and Sarah at their appointed time to die. Duncan, in a lecture on The Opening of the Field in 1959, said "the meadow is the place where one enters the gate of otherness, other world."3 Or, as it is related in the Zohar: "The term Mechpelah belongs properly neither to the cave nor the field, but to something else with which both were connected. The cave belongs to the field, and the field to something else. For the whole of the Land of Israel is folded up beneath it...".4  Throughout The Opening of the Field , the theme occurred. In "Yes, As A Look Springs To Its Face" Duncan wrote:

"This is the place," Abraham said.
The field and the cave therein arose.5

In "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," Duncan combined the story of the Adam with a personal story— the recurring childhood dream about a catastrophe, a flood. In the dream, Duncan was engaged in a game "of ring a round of roses." Crowned king by a group of children he was playing with, he ascended to his throne, and at this point he sensed the imminent disaster. Duncan traced the game itself to Celtic tradition, and began to gather information from Lewis Spence's Myth and Ritual in Dance, Game, and Rhyme. It was a photograph from Spence's book that Jess included in his design for the title page of The Opening of the Field . This source is also made reference to later in the collection in "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," where:

On the hill before the wind came
the grass moved toward the one sea,
blade after blade dancing in waves.

There the children turn the ring to the left.
There the children turn the ring to the right.

Duncan's interest in Celtic myth came partly from the fact that he knew his biological family, the Duncans, to be of Celtic origin. He used the game in this poem to springboard to two other ideas— that of "the lady" and that of "the dead." For the Celts, the Queen Under the Hill was Brigit, for whom fires were burned in worship. As noted in The Golden Bough, "like Minerva, Brigit was a goddess of poetry and wisdom...Brigit was the patroness of bards, physicians, and smiths."7  Secondarily, Duncan saw this Lady as Persephone of Greek myth, the Queen of the Dead. At this point in the poem, he created a composite "Lady" of at least three myths– the Celtic Brigit, the Greek Persephone, and the Christian Mary, (with further manifestation as Eve and Sarah), and as Duncan pointed out in a lecture in 1959, she was also Morgan Le Fay of Arthurian legend.

From here Duncan focused on another of the main themes of the book— the dead. The attention to the dead in the later sections of the book came out of Duncan's idea that "within all things, within our lives, within the poem, within the field that the book referred to, the dead lie, and that all things may be conceived of [as] a monument to those dead."8 In the poem "Under Ground," he again wrote:

In the poem determining the hue of words
the dead also are rememberd9

He began this thread in the opening poem, and the Zohar played a role in his visualization of the dead who are a part of "the very meadow that Abraham found, that was the gate to paradise, that was the burying place of the four who would then be the ancestral spirits–the forming of a square–of the Jews."10 Duncan again brought to the foreground his peculiar curiosity about Jewish culture. He started to voraciously read texts of Jewish mysticism at the age of thirty-three—the age that Orthodox Jews are first permitted to read the Zohar—and he included fragments of that text throughout The Opening of the Field.

When speaking of the theme of the dead in "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" he said: "the field folded not only hides the gate of paradise, but hides the ancestors, the dead ones, so that eventually in the book the dead appear."11 The Adam is the first of the dead, and the most significant, in that, as Duncan wrote, "in religion they tell us that the Adam split apart into all of mankind. And this is called the Fall."12 Working off a pun regarding the splitting of the Adam and the splitting of the Atom— “the Fall” became a personal and/or universal apocalypse, but also represented a Darwinian falling into form– "wherefrom fall all architectures I am/I say are likenesses of the First Beloved..."13 This primordial human architecture was again referred to later in the book, in a poem called "Bone Dance":

it's the hidden urgency we beggd to sind to us
that were a gathering of his children, bone
of his bone.14

"A Poem Beginning with a Line By Pindar" brought into play the dead of another place. Duncan considered it to be the otherworldly presence of Pindar that made the line of the translation "The light foot hears you and the brightness begins"15 take on some other meaning. In one telling of the story, Duncan noted that while reading the Wade-Bowra translation of Pindar's Odes late at night, he found himself transfixed upon what he saw as an awkwardness in the text, and subsequently, hearing footsteps in the hall outside his door, became convinced that there was in fact a supernatural presence in the house. As he said in a lecture at the Berkeley Conference in 1965:

“Who is it that goes there where I hear a tread and I can't see you yet” belongs to some world which the dead readily inhabit...Pindar's going to carry me through this and reveal something in something the way that Virgil carries Dante through Hell.16

Coinciding with the theme of the dead was the theme of the law, and an uncovering, for Duncan, of what he saw as the hidden laws of form in the field of language as well as in the field of all of life's activities. Duncan's interest in the systems that pervade and explain all parts of sentient experience entered into this theme of the book. As the dead stood outside of the poet's experience, the law stood outside of the poet's immediate intent and control, as a force to be recognized and acknowledged and sometimes even celebrated. As he said in the essay “Toward An Open Universe,” “The order man may contrive or impose upon the things about him or upon his own language is trivial beside the divine order or natural order he may discover in them.”17 Charles Olson also spoke of a “law” and “obedience” in his pivotal 1950 essay “Projective Verse”, a text Duncan was well familiar with. In Duncan's "The Law I Love Is Major Mover" the same thought echoed:

Hear! Beautiful damned man that lays down his law lays down
himself creates hell...18

Hence, the poet was permitted into a field of language, "a made place", as is clear in "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow."

Correspondingly, in the Zohar, the field of Mechpelah was the place where Abraham was permitted to see the Adam, but also intrinsically connected to the law was the idea of permission as granted by the Lady, in her incarnation as Brigit, or the muse. The Lady who is first present in "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," and later in "The Structure of Rime" poems was the spirit through which the law was enacted and where the poet was granted permission to enter the place of the poem. In the poem "The Law I Love is Major Mover," the Law was described thus “She is fair, whom we, masters, serve.”19 Duncan further complicated his definition of the Lady in her manifestation as the law, explaining that, “In "The Structure of Rime," [in] the grandmothers and the appearance of the sentence— the sentence is certainly the Queen, the sentence in the sense of "The Law," is certainly the "Queen Under the Hill" of the first poem.”20

Here again, Duncan worked from the pun on the sentence as a linguistic structure and the sentence as a mandate of the law. In addition to the Lady, there were several other voices that dictated the law throughout The Opening of the Field — the Christos, Saint John, Pindar, Duncan's poetical masters and the unnamed dead who spoke as disembodied voices, set off with italics and quotation marks at various points in the book.

A fascination with law in Duncan's work was not particular to The Opening of the Field, but rather formed one of the points from which Duncan structured his whole poetics. Two key texts along these lines were Darwin's The Origin of the Species and Harvey's The Circulation of the Blood. He read the law as a scientific phenomenon, as well as a metaphysical one, the latter being a preoccupation that came from parents' hermeticism.

Over the course of the three years during which Duncan wrote The Opening of the Field , he also came to recognize a set of formal considerations for what he would later refer to as his "life's work." It was after the reworking of "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" that he decided he would no longer revise any poems, and that the initial writing of each piece would demand a wholehearted attentiveness and commitment to the information being presented to him as a writer at the time of the initial writing. In a sense, he saw himself as a channel through which the poem ran. He said of this decision: "I had suddenly come to a fullness of responsibility where I would have no rejectamenta and where I would have to run the risk of including all that I did."21 Along with this, Duncan remained attached to the serial form that had been a major consideration of the Berkeley Renaissance. As Jack Spicer wrote in a letter to Robin Blaser:

The trick naturally is what Duncan learned
years ago and tried to teach us— not to search
for the perfect poem but to let your way of
writing of the moment go along its own paths,
explore and retreat but never be fully realized
(confined) within the boundaries of one poem.22

This engagement with boundaries, orders, cosmologies, and even seriality came partly from Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality , which Ducan read several times over the course of thirty years. He took reading notes on Process and Reality in his notebooks during 1957, 1968, 1978, and into the early 1980s. The first set of notes in 1957 came during Olson's lectures on Whitehead in San Francisco. Duncan spoke of the serial form of his own work in this way. The Opening of the Field was conceived of

…as a large composition in and of itself...Whenever I was in a poem I knew that other poems would take part and would have already been other parts of the universe.23



previously unpublished materials courtesy the Jess Trust



back to issue two



1 RD to Robin Blaser, 6 Aug 1958 [Ironwood]

2 RD. Guggenheim Application, 1958

3 RD. Lecture, The Opening of the Field

4 Zohar. 128b.

5 RD. OF 60.

6 OF 68

7 Fraser, Vol. II, 240

8 RD. Field lecture.

9 OF 80

10 Field Lecture 1959

11 ibid.

12 ibid.

13 OF 7

14 OF 77

15 OF62

16“The Psyche Myth and the Moment of Truth,” Berkeley, 1965

17 RD. Fictive Certainties. “Toward an Open Universe”

18 OF 11

19 OF 10

20 Field 1959

21“The Psyche Myth and the Moment of Truth”

22 Manroot, 1974/75, 114

23 Field Lecture, 1959


[ page 1 of 1 ]