Ian W. Reid: On "Up Rising"

It is only one of several "Passages: which explore the meanings of evil and of war. "Passages" 22 to 27 were indeed first printed separately under the title Of the War, while the same preoccupations extend into almost all those written subsequently and into some that happened to precede. "The Multiversity," for instance, is dominated by huge shapes of evil: "hydra," "dragon"--and "worm," which brings to mind not only the sinister image of dark corruption in Blake's "Sick Rose" but also the monstrous fiends of Anglo-Saxon and Norse myth, the wyrm and the miðgarðsormr. ("Mid-earth," incidentally, in the first of the "Passages," is miðgarðr; the second mentions a "worm," obviously no diminutive creature of the soil; the thirteenth imagines a fire-ravaged countryside like that caused by the dragon in Beowulf; and there are other references which similarly prepare us for this mythological view of warfare.) It is in "The Mulitversity" that the etymological significance of "evil" is elicited, "referrd to the root of up, ever." Though it may come near to moralistic diatribe, this poem is not inveighing against individuals; the sources of disorder are

 

not men but heads of the hydra

        . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                over us

 

--over us: that attempt to superimpose, to regulate from above, is the root of all evil.

What needs to be emphasized, then, in a proper reading of those "Passages" that follow on from "The Multiversity" is that while they do give vent to a vehement sense of outrage at American belligerence in Asia they are not ultimately "about" that topical situation. To see them in a contemporary context alone is to misread radically. It is unsurprising that James F. Mersmann finds difficulty in coming to terms with Duncan's poetry of the ‘60's in his book Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry against the War, since he makes the initial mistake of supposing that Duncan's work is or ought to be "protest poetry." True, Mersmann does recognize (despite his book's subtitle) that Duncan is neither "merely against this war in particular" nor "indiscriminately against all war in general"; but he cannot fully accept Duncan's position, and his uneasiness at the mythologizing impulse of "Passages" leads to some misinterpretation. The fact is that these are not anti-war poems but war poems, studies in struggle. While the Vietnam conflict is of course substantially present there, a ganglion of pain, it becomes simply the most salient manifestation in our day of an abiding social and spiritual reality which brings to poetry a mythic dimension. War, Duncan writes, is like love and poetry in that it expresses "the deepest forces and cleavings (adherences and divisions) of Man’s hidden nature"; and this conviction was operative in his work many years before Vietnam gave it a new focus. The fine long 1951 poem "An Essay at War," taking the Korean struggle as its immediate point of reference, is a set of variations on the same central motifs that move through the later "Passages." Even before then the preoccupation with war is discernible. Looking back on his earliest writings from the vantage-point of the mid- '60's, Duncan remarks in the preface to The Years as Catches:

The War itself and the power of the State I dimly percieived [i.e., already by the ‘forties] were not only a power over me by alos a power related to my own creative power but turnd to purposes of domination, exploitation and destruction.

It is in this light that we should read "Up Rising" and "The Soldiers": not as wishing simply to repudiate other men’s combative attitudes but as wishing to recreate, or discover the creative essence of, the antagonism that Duncan finds endemic in man and the universe. A poem of the '50's, probably his best-known work, had spoken of a decline in the life of the American polis, depicting modern presidents as rancorous, but adding:

 

                                            I too

that am a nation sustain the damage

    where smokes of continual ravage

obscure the flame.

 

The same willingness to acknowledge in his own pulses and in the poem's impulses something of what he finds monstrous in the abuse of political power gives to these "Passages" a referential range beyond mere invective. Only a superficial look at "Up Rising" could lead one to regard it as no more than a tirade against the Johnson administration, though it does incorporate that. What is it that "rises up" in the poem? Not only the overweening arrogance of a president whose "name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors" but also the fear of "good people in the suburbs" as they pile food on their barbecue plates; not only the waves of bombers but also the "deep hatred" of the new world for the old, or for any alien culture; not only the zeal of the "professional military" for victory but also the surge of infantile fantasies of destruction; not only America’s present passion for dominance but the half-buried guilts of its past, summed up by the historian Comager (in a phrase Duncan cites) as "Americans unacknowledged, unrepented crimes." "The Soldiers" took more than a year to compose, and during that lapse of time (reflected in the arrangement of poems in Bending the Bow, where thirty pages of other matter intervene between 25 and 26) some of the imagery enunciated in "The Multiversity" and "Up Rising" shifted again into a slightly different key. A contrast develops between the "first Evil," "that which has power over you," and its positive counterpart, the spirit which can

 

                fight underground

                                the body's inward sum,

        the blood’s natural

uprising         against tyranny

 

The first Evil, the primeval power over us, the embodiment of the blind coercive force "spreading his 'goods' over Asia," is Ahriman, the god of darkness who in Zoroastrian mythology contends with Ormuzd, god of light, for possession of the Mundane Egg. The "blood’s natural/uprising" is in part Duncan’s own heightened blood pressure, a condition for which he was receiving medical treatment at that time, just as the image of America tossing and turning in "fevers and panics" recalls the earlier poem "Shadows", in which the poet lies febrile like the ailing king of Grail legends, emblem of a waste land. That identification recurs in "Stage Directions":

 

And from the dying body of America I see,

or from my dying body . . .

 

There is a difficulty inherent in the rhetorical language of these war poems. Duncan himself is aware of it. Remarking that in them he seems unable "to move outside the almost hypnagogic high tone."

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Ian W. Reid: On "Up Rising" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert J. Berthoff, Ian W. Reid Criticism Target Robert Duncan
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous
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