In the early 1940s when Duncan wrote “An African Elegy,” a group of poets and critics, who came to be known as the New Critics, helped to determine what kind of poetry would be published and read in the coming decades. Writers associated with this trend in criticism include Allen Tate, R. P. Black-mur, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, and John Crowe Ransom, who edited the The Kenyon Review and whose book The New Criticism (1941) gave the group its name. The members of the New Critics, who were mostly southerners and politically conservative, held formalist views of literature and argued that poems and stories be considered for their inherent value. This meant that literary works should be regarded as self-contained objects, separate from the traditions, histories, and authors that helped to produce them. Though they never established a doctrine as such, New Critics introduced critical principles and terms into the study of literature that remain today. It is ironic that Ransom rejected “An African Elegy” after reading Duncan’s essay on homosexuals in society, for it shows that Ransom did not practice what he preached. By 1959, when Duncan finally published the poem, New Criticism had become entrenched in English departments throughout the United States and helped form the theoretical background against which millions of students would come to learn literature.
At about the same time, in Asheville, North Carolina, a progressive school in the arts was developing. Black Mountain College, founded in 1933, was an experiment in community education and appealed to...
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“An African Elegy” uses symbolic imagery to carry the emotional weight of the poem. Some of Duncan’s primary symbols include the Congo, Africa and African nature, African Negroes, blood, and dogs. These images represent a complex of ideas including the unconscious elements of human desire, the ubiquity and reality of death, and the tenuousness of human identity and of life. In the West, Africa has often been used by writers as a symbol of human beings’ baser instincts and desires. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which presents the Congo as a place of violence, ignorance, and barbarity, is one such example. Many of Duncan’s images, however, are obscure and sometimes inaccessible to beginning readers of poetry. He attempts to use them as pointers to a deeper, more complex reality than that which human beings experience. That reality can only be expressed in images.
Although the poem is called an elegy, its tone shifts between celebration and lament, sometimes approaching a kind of self-destructive ecstasy. The first stanza prepares the reader for this vacillation as it begins with the statement, “No greater marvelous / know I than the mind’s / natural jungle,” and then shifts to a description of the ominous nature of Death’s sounds. Duncan’s archaic spelling, sometimes using t instead of -ed endings for the past tense (e.g., “stopt” instead of “stopped”), his...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1958: Patrice Lumumba founds the Movement National Congolais (MNC), which becomes the most dominant political party of the Democratic Republic of Congo. 1960–1965: Political turmoil engulfs The Democratic Republic of Congo. Lumumba is assassinated by forces loyal to Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko, who eventually takes over the government in 1965. 1971: Seko renames the country the Republic of Zaire and asks Zairean citizens to change their names to African names. 1997: Seko is overthrown by Laurent Kabila and Rwandan-backed rebels, who “re-rename” the country the Democratic Republic of Congo.
2000: Political unrest continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- 1956: Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” is published and embraced by the counterculture. In the poem, Ginsberg calls for America to wake up from its middle-class, sterile slumber that crushes the human soul and to end the “human war” on its own people. 1997: Ginsberg dies at 70. The Beat culture, for which Ginsberg was a central figure, is a historical curiosity and has been reduced to slogans and symbols used in advertising campaigns.
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Topics for Further Study
After researching the basic beliefs of Theosophy, give a report to your class outlining them. Are there connections you can draw between any of these beliefs and Duncan’s poem?
Keep a dream diary for one month, writing down as much and as many of your dreams as you can remember. Then catalog all of the images and stories. Do certain images or stories reccur? What do these images and stories tell you about that month in your life?
Write a poem or story about the creation of the universe using symbols that are personally meaningful to you. Do not worry if these symbols will be accessible to others. Then write a short essay describing why you chose those particular symbols.
Research the use of magic by the Swahili. Do you see any similarities with the rituals Duncan describes in his poem?
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Modern American Poetry sponsors a Robert Duncan web site at http://www.english.uiuc. edu/maps/poets/a_f/duncan/duncan.htm (last accessed April 2001).
Kent State University lists a bibliography of Duncan’s work in its special collection at http://www.library.kent.edu/speccoll/literature/ poetry/duncan.html (last accessed April 2001).
The Theosophical University Press has a glossary of theosophical terms available online at http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/etgloss/ mi-mo.htm (last accessed April 2001).
The American Academy of Poets offers a 1969 audiocassette of Duncan reading from The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow.
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What Do I Read Next?
Robert Bertholf edited a collection of thirty-five letters between Duncan and the poet H. D. in 1991, titled A Great Admiration: H. D. / Robert Duncan Correspondence 1950–1961. Duncan and H. D. admired each other’s poetry intensely.
Ekbert Faas’ biography of Duncan, Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet As Homosexual in Society, provides a detailed biography of the poet through 1950.
Black Sparrow Press published Robert J. Bertholf’s Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography in 1986. The book is difficult to obtain but contains an exhaustive and useful collection of secondary sources on Duncan.
Critics generally agree that Duncan’s 1960 collection The Opening...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bertholf, Robert J., ed., A Great Admiration: H. D. / Robert Duncan Correspondence 1950–1961, Lapis Press, 1991.
Bertholf, Robert J., and Ian W. Reid, eds., Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous, New Directions, 1979.
Cirlot, J. E., A Dictionary of Symbols, Philosophical Library, 1971.
Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now, Straus & Giroux, 1968, pp. 173–77.
Duncan, Robert, “Pages from a Notebook,” in The New American Poetry, edited by Donald M. Allen, Grove Press, 1960, pp. 400–07.
———, Selected Poems, edited by Robert J. Berthoff, New Directions, 1993.
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