Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Permission of The Meadow: Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow"

Robert Duncan [1919-1988] was an important figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, who also had important literary connections to Black Mountain, the Beats, gay literary issues, etc. By any measure, Duncan was a large figure, encompassing many interests and passions, which are reflected in his work. Nevertheless, his popularity and official position in the post-War pantheon of American poets, remains relatively obscure. His work isn't exactly hermetic, or syntactically abstract, but his style is predominantly romantic, and it speaks to rather special interests and may occasionally seem obscure in its references--at least to the contemporary reader. His collected works are presently being published by the University of California Press. 

Though I have never been a great fan of Duncan's work, there are a handful of his poems which I feel belong among the best poems of the 20th Century. "My Mother Would Be Falconress" would be one, and another, the first poem in his collection The Opening of the Field [Grove Press, 1960] below--are two such. As you will note, the evident title is grammatically the first line of the poem, an affectation that I find interesting, as if the music of the title were subsumed into the lyrics of the whole poem, rather than being a separate announcement of its subject-matter or content. The title thus acquires a refrain-like familiarity which it would not otherwise have. 

Duncan's childhood was in several ways unusual. You can read the bare facts on his Wiki article. Duncan was a precocious child, who grew up in an atmosphere of seances, meetings of the Hermetic Brotherhood. Books in the home included the Occult. The household was permeated with Theosophical notions and practice. His deep memory of the mysteries of religion and philosophy, encountered at an early age, were intimately bound up in the organic birth and growth of his consciousness, and, later, his sexual awakening and sense of identity. Duncan tended to see the development of his sense of his place in the world as pre-ordained or destined; and his work serves as a kind of exploration of the structure of that ordination, as an unfolding drama of his own connection to the larger forces at work in the universe. Formally, his work seems to flow out of the Romantics--Shelley, Blake, for instance--though he thought of his work as emerging from the Modernist tradition of Eliot, Pound, H.D., Zukofsky. To the ordinary reader, his work will always seem superficially to harken back to an earlier epoch, pre-scientific and mystical, even primitive. Duncan himself was well aware of these apparent contradictions, and sought to reconcile them in his work. 

This poem struck an immediate chord in me when I first read it, not because it spoke to any philosophical issue or ontological preoccupation, but because it addressed what I regard as a universal fact of human consciousness, the sense of conceptual uniformity of existence, a sense which many people have from an early age, often associated with their earliest experiences of reading, though there are other kinds of experience which may offer similar kinds of apprehension of wholeness, or oneness, or unity of being.  

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,   
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,   
an eternal pasture folded in all thought   
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light   
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved   
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words   
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing   
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down

whose secret we see in a children’s game   
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow   
as if it were a given property of the mind   
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,   
everlasting omen of what is.

The first eight lines (including the title) have a nearly perfect rhythmic pacing. The repetition of the phrase "made place"--which both is ("mine"), and is not ("is not mine"), the speaker's, has a lyric purity which captures the sense of the magic of early childhood reading. Our first experiences of reading, of entering into a story through the spell of language, is a common ritual shared by all children who are read to, or learn to read, from an early age. This sense of enchantment encompasses much of our early imaginative context, and continues to dominate our deepest emotions and memories throughout our lives, giving them an almost sacred quality in the kingdom of our mind. ( Which is one reason children's literature exerts such a strong influence over us, and why juvenile hybrids, like those of Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis, or JK Rowling, are so popular.)  

The meadow, for me, as a symbol or scene of "the made place" is a safe, contained enclosure, within which inquiry, play, discovery and attention can occur. One is "permitted" to return to it, at any time, to the delight and mystery of the world which reading (the portal) reveals. The meadow is then "an eternal pasture folded in all thought." This suggests that the mind itself is the meadow, where this folding takes place--in the same way that earth is turned and cultivated. The folding and enfolding suggests the wrapping and re-wrapping, the turning and mixing and churning of thought itself. The meadow is a sacred place, sacrosanct and inviolable, yet complex and convoluted.  Inside the pasture (or meadow) is a hall, inside an "architecture"--perhaps the architecture of the memory and experience of the speaker. Nested inside this architectural space, appear the First Beloved, beholden to "the Lady" who is "Queen Under The Hill" "whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words/that is a field folded." This female figure stands over the shadowy scene, "a disturbance of words within words/that is a field folded." The "words within words" (an etymological hall of mirrors?) is a metaphor for the mystery of appearances, and the deceptive, endlessly intriguing maze that is language, weaving spells and conjuring ghosts and expanding boundaries of understanding and awareness. This female figure stands as a kind of guardian over the meadow (or field), though what her design may be, or what she stands for, is unspecified.   

And yet, "it is only a dream" made by the imagination, "grass blowing east against the source of the sun in an hour before the sun's going down." Sunset, "whose secret we see in a children's game of ring a round of roses told." The nursery rhyme--an echo perhaps of T.S. Eliot's garden paradox in "Burnt Norton" [Four Quartets, 1935]--evokes the musical trance of innocence locked in the past, forever stuck in the circularity of familiar repetition, of history repeated, enacted, re-enacted. 

"Often I am permitted to return to a meadow/as if it were a given property of the mind." And indeed, it seems that the return to the meadow, through the portal or medium of language, is permitted as often as we wish, to recapture its reassuring sanctuary against "chaos" "that is a place of first permission"--our original innocence, or our earliest memories of the magic spell wound inside our minds through the alchemy of the incantation (the grammar of consciousness). 

The symbolic significance of the First Beloved, the Lady, the Queen Under the Hill, is kept intentionally vague, I suspect, since Duncan wasn't willing to be more specific about the ultimate meaning of these symbolic references. They could be religious references, from Christianity, or more obscure deistic sources. But it seems less important to the poem's meaning and power--than that they remain as expedient figures in the speaker's own hierarchy of personification. Each reader may have a different version of the specific archetypes from the "meadow" of childhood reading and experience. We all bring our own baggage to the poem. Each of us may have our own particular First Beloved, our own Lady, our own secular deity. But our earliest experiences of language comprise a nearly universal participation--a shared recognition that is more, or less, powerful depending upon how keenly it was felt. 

Every time I begin a poem, or a novel, or a short story--and the same holds true of musical or video works--I have this familiar settling in, a participation in a process whose magic is as dependable and satisfying as going to sleep, or eating a good meal, or having an interesting conversation, or a walk in the woods, or making love to another. Reading itself is one of the arts, as surely as drawing a picture, or hand-writing a letter. We participate in a process which we are permitted to join. And that permission is our birthright as humans, our capacity to use language, an invitation and a timeless welcome.

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