The Pasteurization of Andrew Duncan

Abena Sutherland


Andrew Duncan's technosocial, ardently philological body of poetry criticism - a mass of reviews and two books - I find to be an amalgam of the beguiling, naive, under-achieving, funny, brilliant and infuriatingly sloppy (this review of Trevor Joyce). Then there is mercurial diverse information ("the history of anything at all is the real history of particular poems and of all poems", 'Response to Steve Clark's "Prynne and the Movement"') and, of course, the signature appeals to "deep politics". It is as if Duncan's style constantly loses traction and thus throws itself sideways, leaving parallel tracks with a lot of uncouplings, diagonals and swirls between.


A particularly good example of his criticism, in miniature, is his December 2002 Jacket 20 review of Holman, Macdonald and Marriott, entitled 'Pfleumer's rolled gold'. The piece is like a hymn to the time of reading. The first thing is a scientifiction myth (as Latour might call it) of my poetry enthusiasm's origin,

In the 1920s, Fritz Pfleumer (a freelance inventor) was working on a way of depositing gold on the tips of cigarettes (an accessory of the time) that would not come off on the lips of the gratified consumer, to leave a dead Pharaoh-like image. Having become expert on depositing metal solutions onto plastic backing, he invented recording tape. This chance find appears here because it resonates, for me, with the poetry I like: a thin film of something precious and oral, where painstaking technical changes open up startling futures.
The glamorous stock market and the languid fund manager, ahead of the game, enthused by the products of high-tech start-ups, gold - or that which is far thinner than gold - on his lips? The idea of recording tape here also illustrates what is at once a naive idea of rhetoric, elucidated in full during his discussion of Macdonald -

The feedback loop between perception and muscular response action takes place in time, which is why we can detect flaws in the loop (slight oscillations of a barrel that is supposed to be steady). All psychological activity is rhythmic and takes place in the time dimension; it is behaviour in time (responses, updates to internal models, persistence of impulses) which qualifies individual minds. A poem is an externalisation of a neurological state, and presumably we are reading the various loops in the poem as indices of the brain which produced it.
(it's the certainty of the last sentence here which collapses down what could have been a profound question on the origin of style), and an endlessly elastic basic move of transference, which is what Duncan's criticism does all the time: this concept onto there, and does it record over? Often it does, and we have the spectre of a critic who, refreshingly or is it tediously, keeps building a new framework again every few paragraphs, leaving behind a trail of entangled frames - some gilded, others for flogging. Or then again, as Duncan says at the end of this piece, "One of the most basic tasks of a reviewer is to create new vocabulary, so that we can discuss the poets who matter to us without using the old, inaccurate, vocabulary." Vocabulary for Duncan presumably gets inaccurate as new forms or massifications of style are made.

The idea of a neurological tape recording: perhaps constant advance in the technology of scans, for example magnetic resonance imaging, will soon reveal the new vis-po?


That Peter Dale Scott is a poet in addition to his admittedly fascinating "deep" JFK scholarship only brings in more reasons for Duncan to mention him. Perhaps Ehrenzweig's The Hidden Order of Art, which Duncan says in his interview at Signals magazine he is reading "again", is the aesthetic equivalent of Deep Politics and the Death of JFK. The idea of recording tape is also one which appears in the rhetoric of Peter Dale Scott whenever he talks of different "tracks" through the vast and semi-submerged archive of memos, documents and oral history which is his research area - diverging and disintegrating tracks within the CIA over Cuba, and so on. The deep historian tries to trace them and hear what they say, thin as they may be; what they say will, so it goes, and tracked properly, then be of great importance to under-standing history.


Duncan, ever enthusiastic, wants to find why this poetry is really exciting but that isn't; ideas about the socialised power of hierarchical regimes of knowledge gnaw away in Duncan's outlook, and these thoughts don't quite resolve into a critique of prestige given off on the field of cultural production, for though he seems sympathetic to Bourdieu, Duncan is not one to rigorously follow through any form of philosophy (or indeed anti-philosophy); he's too busy with poetry. His strong and amusing dislike of various strands of poetry (never quite what you think) already makes his work reflexive because you could get positively enthusiastic about anything - perhaps that pile of matchsticks over there - so not getting enthusiastic over certain signs burns the just sensibility and changes everything.


In a sudden hymn-like conclusion to 'Pfleumer's rolled gold', a rhetoric perhaps spilled out from the often hieratic Marriott under review, Duncan rather beautifully reflects,

I regret knowing the work of most modern English poets so well, having analysed it so much; these writers offer me pure time, in the sense that the pattern of their work is genuinely uncertain, and I can face uncertainty without being blocked by memory. Characteristic of work I like (and this would apply especially to Holman, Marriott and Macdonald, as to a few others of their generation) is its grasp of time, so that external events disappear, and while inside the work one seems to have endless time to notice things.
The nature of this "uncertainty" - and perhaps Raworth's Eternal Sections are an ideal example - is a pure thing, a form of sleep, perhaps an ecstatic form. But the writing which does this is also constantly calling the Duncan-reader back to the "external" world, by the historicity of language and piled referential accretions of grammatical space among other interpellations.


"I don't have the ability to imagine 1000 species of moths," Duncan admits in the Signals interview, talking about his book The Imaginary in Geography, "but I can imagine the map of Indo-European languages." It is in geolinguistics, taking a turn from Cavalli-Sforza, that "so many different planes coincide in a fascinating way - a shimmer effect which I can't resolve." Trying to decipher (resolve) a vast, deep shimmer, the deep poet and critic at his illuminations, like the missing or hidden puzzle Latour invokes, "According to some physicists there is not enough mass in the universe to balance the accounts that cosmologists make of it. They are looking everywhere for the 'missing mass' that could add up to the nice expected total." Latour's cheeky answer, for sociologists, is that the technology of the door is where that mass is to be found: "Walls are a nice invention but if there were no holes in them there would be no way to get in or out –they would be mausoleums or tombs." Tombs, then, not dissimilar to Duncan's interview plaint, "Cambridge students of 22 or 23 now are writing poems exactly like Cambridge poetry of 1977. Just as bristly, just as few doors and windows. Flawless black cubes." Are they? Duncan's certainty sets off an alarm and at such moments in his criticism a specious genealogy of cartooned styles may tend to override his art-historical geography or prosopographic critique, and this reader finds that it's time, for now, to get up and go.

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