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On June 3, 1956, Robert Duncan, nearly six weeks into his teaching stint at Black Mountain College during its final year of academic operation, wrote to Denise Levertov that in the month that had intervened between his previous letter to her “I have written or finishd writing ‘The Origins of Old Son’ which has some nice songs and to my ears right now one beautiful speech partial dythyrambic. But perhaps the busy inertia of the classes in poetics – well, ‘busy inertia’ could also be ‘disturbing excitement of’ because in the process I am stultified by wrestling with tekniks beyond my own practice.”[1] “The Origins of Old Son” is a turbulent play, to be sure, with lots of word play, expressive tics characteristic of Duncan’s work during this period, and a strange array of characters, including Medusa and a god-like but hampered “Birddoll.” It is possible that this play was an attempt to create something to counterbalance the intensities of the poetics classes he was teaching, the ones causing him to wrestle with techniques beyond his own practice. Though Duncan never indicates which of the speeches from the play was beautiful and dithyrambic, I suspect he means Medusa’s initial incantation:

Monstrous.  Woe.  Shame.  Disease.

All ancient things recoil.
The proto-lick-it babe in his tree’s swaddlings pees
        beginnings,
philo-suffier, and says WET comes first,
        the elemental stream is wet, I bet.

Remorseless snakey rain begot
snake hair downrunnings. Cold and hot
        first quantities were.
Shame.  Disease.  Fear.  Wrath.

Toward the end, this first speech of Medusa’s shifts into a mode of nursery-rhyme nonsense, fixing on this primordial babe’s lack of potty training:

His teary begins         his dry ends meet
when eda puddle faeces sphinx.
He grows, she shrinks.
He lies, she growls and dies.

Woe.   Shame.   Disease.

When he pee please to stutter starter,
all dragon truth crawls down his wall
	to lizard size.

Old Son’s first words in the play, said right after Medusa concludes her speech, are: “He pee. He pee. He pee. He pee”. Which prompts Grandma (the third of the four characters in the play) to announce, “Lord, he’s wet his cantos!”

Duncan met Olson in Berkeley in 1947 when Olson was on a trip out to the West Coast; he stopped in Berkeley to research the California Gold Rush. Kenneth Rexroth had recommended Olson meet Duncan.[2] It seems clear, in retrospect, that these two poets recognized in each other kindred realities, articulated soon after, and for a generation quite forcefully, in Olson’s “Projective Verse,” published in 1950. Duncan seems to have related to that statement for the rest of his life, as well as to Olson’s thought and poetry, too. But where Olson’s sense of literature and literary tradition might be understood as canonical and archaeological, Duncan’s sense was more experimental and eccentric. Which is to say there was always a tension of taste and knowledge that stretched between them, even as they depended on each other’s friendship. In 1954, Duncan wrote to Olson, in reference to a recent commentary on The Cantos that had been published, “All the academy that despised here my ardent consultation of the Cantos (as a breaking up into movement of the old log-piles) now address themselves to sorting, identifying, deifying the old log piles to spite the energy set thereabout to break it up. Only Stein remains freshly disreputable. And the ‘objectivists,’ ‘dadaists’ and ‘surrealists’ (of the absolute order – Breton, Tzara, Magritte, Peret) indigestible to the professional readers.”[3] Into the Poundian pedagogical world of Olson’s Black Mountain, Duncan delivered freshly disreputable doses of Stein, Dada, and Surrealism. This, I think, is part of what is happening in the strange, antic, infantilizing, satirical stage show of “The Origins of Old Son.”

The play was performed in 1956 at Black Mountain. When Duncan arrived at the once thriving and sprawling campus for his first visit in 1954, he found it in a state of perilous disarray and decay. It was winter then; the students were sparse and the faculty fewer. Duncan found the place “run down.” “We stayed in the so-called Gropius building, which by that time was a derelict piece of modernism – nothing looks more run down than an art moderne building ten years later.” By the time he arrived to teach during the spring and summer of 1956, the school was a ghost of its earlier glory. “By spring, 1956, when I actually taught there, the large dormitory building was not too bad to live in, but the school was very noticeably derelict. One had only to walk about to find deserted laboratories with broken glasses, and splendid kiln equipment which had just gone to ruin.”[4] Vincent Katz describes how those grim last days of Black Mountain were alleviated by Duncan’s theater productions, “which got everyone collaborating again, in a new way, yet with some of the old Black Mountain spirit.”[5] On the play’s typescript, given to Olson, Duncan wrote an inscription that reads: “inscribed to Charles, who – as here – provides the fulcrum for what ever practices out of a geometry this imaginary one might move a real world by – RD 56.”[6]

Playwriting played a recurrent role in Duncan’s creative activities of the 1950s and early 1960s. During this time, in addition to “The Origins of Old Son,” he wrote, among other dramas, Faust Foutu, Medea at Kolchis (also performed at Black Mountain), “A Play with Masks,” and, notably, “Adam’s Way, A Play on Theosophical Themes,” which is the one dramatic work of Duncan’s that made its way into the poetry books of his major period. Most of these plays read like a mash-up of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially the Bottom parts, with elements of Stein, Dada, Surrealism, and nursery rhymes, pulled off with the dramatic flair of Helen Adam’s ballads. Clearly, Duncan put a lot of energy into these plays, including their performance. In February, 1966, there was a “concert reading” of “Adam’s Way” at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for which Duncan prepared extensive “Narration” notes, meant to be read as prologue, commentary and amplification of the recitation of the play itself.[7] But it’s just as clear that most people don’t think of Duncan as a dramatist, and I suspect that most of his dedicated readers think of his playwriting as much as a curiosity as a contributing force to his poetic powers.

How should we think, then, about “The Origins of Old Son”? I’m inclined to expand on Vincent Katz’s description that Duncan’s plays at Black Mountain were intended to get people collaborating and to infuse new energy into a dying system. I doubt Duncan intended this play (or any of the others he staged at Black Mountain) to revive the institution in any way; he could tell that it was dying. I suspect, instead, that he was taking advantage of the potential of Black Mountain’s transitory and liminal twilight moment: using parody to summon absurd and mythical truths. Charles Olson is the Old Son who is portrayed as a giant baby, whose powerful protectress is a nonsense-spouting, malapropism-and-pun uttering Grandma, who hides Old Son from the appearance of a mysterious, Jehovah-like Birddoll, described by the Grandma as “the Lowerd Almighty.” (And who may be a representation of Olson’s mentor Edward Dahlberg (KAPT, 546).) There’s the celebration of a Catholic mass in the play, presided over by the theologically versed Medusa (she makes a speech about agape). And there’s a sense of the transformation of Old Son – who says “Fee Fie Foe Fum” at one point – from a giant baby into a giant man. It’s unclear whether Olson played Old Son when this was staged, but who else could have filled this role? Hijinx and parody in full view, Medusa’s and Old Son’s final speeches are nevertheless exemplary of Duncan’s poetic powers, which, in 1956, were at the beginning of their most memorable expression:

MEDUSA:
I am no One then. I am terrible Earth.
All who go forth by day return to me.
Out of my dead come all flourishings,
all green irruptions, white or orange interruptions.
There is no measure but by the foot that
lifts from me or returns to me. See,
the farmer plants his good seed,
broods good thots above his plot,   a father
comes into the precincts of the Great Mother,
his crop prospers. Yet all things
are dragon teeth sown,  grown from Earth that resists man.
The Medusa is true face of the good Earth
in farce forced, but crownd queen
by human will that radiates like snakes.

It’s May. It May be. The farce has force that drive the, disorderd,
heat comes. These first ones, following the Old Way, across continent
came, and sang a hot time to the old town. That was a Mountain. In
the beginning. Carried on their backs. Badman, Mountain backd was
maybe. Man. Was May then, and dangled columbine, secreted violet,
let loose confusions of dogwood. Old-Son is Sun of the Old Way, the
way across. Repeated in the yoga demonstrating firewalker, these first
ones crossd eighteen thousand years, campd with the Persians. And
effeminate trousers invaded manly diaperd Mediterranean greece. Drank
with the Scythian breeders of horse fermented mare’s milk from the
civilized skull. May then, may be month of Hearts, that was first a
Grail, the cup that held holy blood. A skull. A beaming skull…

Duncan’s satire in this play is fully hibernal: the cycle of life it represents is coming to an end. The dragon’s teeth have been sown in the ground where they wait through the winter to sprout – a farce forced but necessary. Just so, a beaming skull becomes the cup of life for Old Son – portent of a new life.

[1] Robert Duncan to Denise Levertov, June 3, 1956, in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 38.

[2] See Tom Clark, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 125.

[3] Robert Duncan to Charles Olson, June 17, 1954, in “Robert Duncan on Charles Olson: Eleven Letters,” edited by Robert J. Bertholf, Sulfur 35 (Fall 1994), p. 89.

[4] Robert Duncan to Ann Charters, June 9, 1969, quoted in Vincent Katz, “Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art,” in Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, ed. Vincent Katz (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), p. 211.

[5] ibid., 215.

[6] Robert Duncan, typescript, “Origins of Old Son,” Charles Olson Research Collection, Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

[7] See “Narration for concert reading of ‘Adam’s Way’” in Audit/Poetry 4.3 (1967), pp. 24-30.

[Text copyright Peter O’Leary, 2010. Photo of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Ruth Witt-Diamant, L-R, sourced from The Poetry Center of San Francisco. Order The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985 online from Small Press Distribution, Amazon, or postage paid by ordering directly from the press. Further discounts are available by subscription to Kenning Editions. See also the Duncan Symposium sponsored by the Chicago Poetry Project, April, 2010.]

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