Sonnet 3 (From Dante’s Sixth Sonnet)
by Robert Duncan
When I was invited to consider the role of the volta in poetry, my mind was immediately and perversely drawn to the work of Robert Duncan, which has preoccupied me incessantly for the past couple of years. I say perversely because of all the major American poets of the postwar period that occur to me—Frank O’Hara, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, to name one trinity—Duncan’s poetics is possibly the least indebted to the qualities that I associate with the turn, at least at first glance. Where a poet like Ashbery astonishes his reader constantly with his wit, practically line by line, Duncan seems to use no wit at all—if by wit we mean that capacity for joining unlike things in a flash of fire that only seems inevitable after the dazzle fades. Duncan, the “derivative” poet, arriving very late to the party of High Modernism, is not at all metaphysical in T.S. Eliot’s sense of the famous “dissociation of sensibility” that requires the poet to “become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning” (Kermode 59). This violent dislocation—call it the extreme volta—is indeed characteristic of modern and contemporary poems which, by their startling juxtaposition of unlike elements from wildly different discursive regimes, whipsaw the reader into admiration, or better, recognition: these poems, at their best, present readers with an uncanny experience of what postmodern life is really like, ready simulacra of the operations of distracted minds half-distressed and half-relieved by the tendency of such turns to pull down all hierarchies. The twists and turns taken by a figure like Popeye, in Ashbery’s supremely witty sestina “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” are made to undercut the possibilities of Romantic resonance and heroism that the poem ironically invokes, and if there is melancholy in this there is also a certain giddy relief, a grounding in groundlessness: “’But what if no pleasant / Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country’” (105, italics in original).
For Duncan, “metaphysical” is not a derogatory epithet but a simple descriptor of the territory disclosed by poems: they discover as Dante discovered “by the sweetness of his language… the evocation of the supreme sweetness he knew to be the order of all orders in his universe” (Fictive Certainties 142). What fascinates me in Duncan is less the turn of his line than the turn of his poetry as a body away from the reductiveness of ideology critique and toward what Ezra Pound called the spirit of Romance, which for Duncan evokes “a sweetness and an ardor all but heretical in the poetics of our own day” (147). To do this, Duncan risks what he calls “muddle and floaty vagaries” (65) in writing esoteric poems that insist on the inseparability of the literal forms of words and the Word, the Logos: poems that perform experience rather than representing it. Duncan’s turn, broadly, from mimesis toward a form of metaphysical rhetoric makes him strange, an outlier to the main stream of innovative poetry that seems, in part, to flow from him (i.e. Language poetry). But this strangeness is what makes him irresistible, a tonic, a pathway into and through the Modern toward poetry as high adventure, as physical as it is metaphysical.
That is why I want to say a few words about Duncan’s “Sonnet 3 (From Dante’s Sixth Sonnet),” part of a series of “sonnets” (claimed to be such primarily by their titles: “Sonnet 1,” “Sonnet 2”), freely adapted from or inspired by Dante. This particular sonnet is a very loose translation of Dante’s “Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io,” an invitation to a voyage that brings two other poets, Duncan’s close friends and rivals, inside the poem’s charmed circle.
This poem enchants me, is in fact intended as an enchantment: an incantation that brings the inner circle of the San Francisco Renaissance aboard a “fairy ship” sailing on the breath of music, away from the ordinary heterosexist grind of “life dimmd” and from the history of contention among three strong egos (the three poets disagreed violently: Spicer could be vicious to those he loved most, and Duncan nearly broke with Blaser over the latter’s translations of some poems by Gerard Nerval1). But even as the poem expresses its utopian aspiration for an ideal community of poets (as in the poem’s other famous English translations, by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Dante Rossetti), it complicates and reflects back on such a wish. A poem that has been translated by such forebears, translated again, bears its own special reflexivity: the echoes of Rossetti and Shelley remind us of Duncan’s quasi-Nietzschean belief in the eternal return of fundamental archetypes, “the order of all orders” made manifest by the magic of poetry, the sorcery that turns “our mortal heads” away from ordinary concerns: “life dimmd in the light of that fairy ship.” In that sense the poem’s turn comes, explicitly, right there in the second line; the rest of the sonnet is devoted to exploring the consequences of the “great thing” that the poem imagines. The volta of this sonnet comes not at the sestet, as in the original: in Dante’s poem the female beloveds of the poets are introduced at this point; but Duncan, Blaser, and Spicer are gay men, and their beloveds appear abstractly as “Those youths we have celebrated to play Eros / And erased to lament in the passing of things.” The possibility of a turn on the sestet is further obscured by the fact that it is actually a septet, and by the enjambment of the second strophe that hides Dante’s turning point, “And” in the third strophe. The only other possibility of a turn, then, comes in the final three-line strophe, which itself represents a partial turn back to the literal sense of Dante’s poem:
e quivi ragionar sempre d’amore,
e ciascuna di lor fosse contenta,
sì come i’ credo che saremmo noi.
and there discourse always of love,
and each of them happy,
as I imagine we too should be. (my translation)
The first two lines of Duncan’s final strophe are very close to Dante’s; only the last line returns us to Duncan’s theme of transport, not into the ideal but away from “what he was”: the false self from which each poet has been lured by what Rossetti called “the boat of love.” Duncan’s “fairy ship,” with its competing, complementary names (that do not reference love but rather deception and vanity) functions as a sort of alluring trap—the glamor of the poetic image, perhaps, driven by “music as if it were our will.” That “as if,” however, places the music of poetry outside of and beyond willing, just as the poets who sail with Duncan shed all “memory of ourselves” in favor of “the poets we were / In certain verses,” verses that confused the ground of “lusts and loves” the face of an archetypal “Lord or Magician of Amor’s likeness.” Amor, the terrifying god of Dante Alghieri’s La vita nuova, who commands the beloved to eat the poet’s heart, is conflated here with the magician or wizard, “il buono incantatore,” of Dante’s original poem (the word incantatore set to rhyme with amore and including, of course, canto, or song). Duncan’s sonnet is slippery then with turns or half turns, turns among its varying translations and between the enchantments of a wizardly Love that can scarcely be trusted for the poem’s brief duration. Duncan characteristically withholds from the reader any single “aha!” moment of surprise: the poem, hardly one of his most complex, layers sinuously upon itself, presenting its fantasy as fantasy, a paradoxical wish-poem that charms by virtue of its velleity.
In a 1974 letter to John Felstiner, Duncan wrote “The sonnet ‘form’ i.e. the shape of the sonnet conveys as such the classical mode of stillness—we read it as such” (n.p.). Felstiner had sought Duncan’s commentary on a translation he was at the time embarked on of Rilke’s sonnet Archaïscher Torso Apollos, which concludes with perhaps the most famous and most imitated turn in modern poetry: Du musst dein Leben ändern (“You must change your life”). Duncan characterizes this moment in the poem as a “sign”: “the music of the poem projects a vision in being seen, a lure of the god, that is a counterpart of a visionary and oracular dream” (n.p.). The “stillness” of the sonnet, like that of the Greek torso, is paradoxically animated by “the music of the poem,” like the music that drives Duncan’s “fairy ship” into vision: “Whose sails ride before music as if it were our will.” The curious syntax of that line may represent the most mysterious Duncanian turn of all, the turn from the music of words toward the image, for it seems to show how the music of a line of poetry is prior and primordial to the things it mimetically presents to the eye. Music opens the poem and makes “our mortal heads” each glad instead of fearful “To be so far abroad from what he was.” As Felstiner notes, “In Archaïscher Torso Apollos we do not look in order to see. Instead, our look opens us to the gaze of another” (n.p.)
The excessiveness of the lack marking the torso in Rilke’s poem, that eyeless transfixing Other, is transformed by Duncan into an object of desire in “Passages 18: The Torso”: “For my Other is not a woman but a man” (Bending the Bow 65). In “Sonnet 3 (from Dante’s Sixth Sonnet),” however, desire is suspended in the time of loss. For the poem is at its most strained in the moment before the turn back toward Dante, in its penultimate sentence: “And that we might have ever at our call / Those youths we have celebrated to play Eros / And erased to lament in the passing of things.” The wish-sonnet here tips toward elegy, acknowledging the impossibility of the fellowship it imagines and of recapturing “Those youths” (the poets’ own youths? Or young men, objects of desire? Both!). Elegy means consolation, and the consolation suggested here is a curious one. The flip side of Eros is “lament,” a Rilkean word if we recall the “world of lament” created by Orpheus in his great poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”: a world “in which / all nature reappeared,” terribly mirrored in the agony of the poet’s love (Mitchell 51). And so the turn that comes in the final strophe of Duncan’s sonnet is a real turn after all, staining the “themes… of Love” with the darkness of terror and erotic loss, so that the fairy light of the poem, a golden vanity or revolving lure, leads the reader into a far more open and perilous experience than the poem’s rather slight model would seem to promise.
The slippery proliferation of turns in “Sonnet 3 (from Dante’s Sixth Sonnet)”—turns in translation, in tradition, in biography—marks it as a work of open form, an open sonnet: that is, as a poem intended to reflect and interact with experience rather than narrate or represent it. This is the turn of the polysemous, a term that Duncan closely associated with Dante’s visionary qualities, and which stands near the heart of Duncan’s poetics:
“This satisfaction of right understanding is counter to the mode of Dante’s poetry, which is not that of a romance about imaginary beings but of a testimony of visionary experience. The poem insists upon the primal reality of the angel Amor, of Beatrice, of Virgil; and all the polysemous meanings of these persons are also, if the poem be not trivial, polysemous meanings revealed in the poet’s actual life” (Fictive Certainties 56).
It is the polysemous turn in Duncan, anchored in music and in the fourfold levels of interpretation proposed by Dante (literal, allegorical, psychological, anagogical) that seems so strange, so “liberal, radical, pluralistic, multiphasic” (Ground Work 241), so vital to me now.
1For a complete account, see Andrew Mossin, “In the Shadow of Nerval: Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and the Poetics of (Mis)Translation,” Contemporary Literature 38.4 (Winter 1997): 673-704.
Ashbery, John. Selected Poems. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Duncan, Robert. Fictive Certainties. New York: New Directions, 1985.
—. Ground Work: Before the War, In the Dark. New York: New Directions, 2006.
—. Roots and Branches. New York: New Directions, 1964.
Felstiner, John, and David Goldstein. “The Lure of the God: Robert Duncan on Translating Rilke.” Jacket 31 (October 2006): http://jacketmagazine.com/31/duncan-rilke.html.
Kermode, Frank, ed. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975
Mitchell, Stephen, editor and translator. The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Joshua Corey is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Severance Songs, which won the Dorset Prize from Tupelo Press and was named a Notable Book of 2011 by the Academy of American Poets. He is the editor, with G.C. Waldrep, of the poetry anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, published by Ahsahta Press. He lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches English at Lake Forest College.
†In the version of the poem we have linked to, there is an error in the first line of the final stanza. The word “love” should be capitalized. For a more accurate version of the poem, please see the print version, found in Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches, New Directions, 1964.