Robert Duncan Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Duncan American Literature Analysis

The key to understanding the complex poetry and poetics of Duncan can be found in his attitude toward his role as a poet, which for him was identical with his humanity. The primary task of both the poet and the man can be seen most clearly in Duncan’s definition of the word “responsibility.” Instead of giving the reader the standard dictionary definition of the word, he breaks it down etymologically—-that is, into its most original and, therefore, obvious parts: “response-ability; or, keeping the ability to respond.”

His role or function is to respond to any and all movement or activity of the spirit: emotions, feelings (however small they may appear), hunches, impulses, daydreams, memories, echoes, verbal puns, and linguistic reverberations and resonances. Duncan’s consciousness includes experiences of any kind because everything is eventual grist for his comprehensively Romantic imagination. He is, in short, open to all influences, and it is no accident that his first major volume of poetry was titled The Opening of the Field.

No other American poet of the twentieth century took his or her vocation as a poet as seriously as did Duncan. He viewed it as a literal “calling” to serve the imagination, much in the mode of the medieval knight pledging his love and obedience to his lady. For Duncan, “the Lady,” the feminine creative element in a Jungian sense, the White Goddess as creator and destroyer that poet Robert Graves studied for years, is one of many embodiments of the imagination that Duncan located himself within and spoke from each time he wrote.

The principal vehicle through which he activates his participation in this archetypal source is language itself. Language is the key in two ways. He speaks it, and it speaks through him as poet; it is the order within which he experiences consciousness, both individual and universal, and also the agency through which he makes contact with his own and the collective unconscious. All of his major books of poetry can be understood as attempts to deepen and refine his commitment to his poetic office as embodied in language.

Because Duncan was raised in a family that believed in the basic fundamentals of theosophy—that spiritual worlds do exist and influence everyone’s lives—he sees his poetic office as thaumaturgic or magic. A thaumaturge is a wonder worker, a caster of spells, a word with which Duncan frequently puns, reminding his reader that the present limited use of “spell”—as a correct or incorrect spelling of a word—is a far cry from its older and much more important meaning as creating a condition of magic. As a verbal magician, he wishes to transport readers to spiritual orders or realms of which they are not conscious, even though they are available if one possesses the right vision.

Duncan’s whole poetic project is to exhort his audience to attend to the source of reality as it is embodied in language, to pay attention to the dynamics of the linguistic structures in which everyone is involved on a daily basis. His spiritual orientations would suggest, for example, that Christianity drastically limited the scope of spiritual enquiry when it proposed Jesus Christ as the one and only designation for “the Word.” Duncan would urge one, rather, to see that “the Word” is obviously about “words” and the unique structures they generate, known as language.

One of Duncan’s spiritual sources over many years was his persistent study of certain Hebrew mystical texts such as the Kabbala and the Zohar. One of his important early works, Letters: Poems MCMLIII-MCMLVI (1958) came out of a deep examination of the Zohar, a work in which ancient scholars searched the letters of the alphabet for their secret revelations. So Duncan’s poems in Letters refer not to correspondence but rather to meditations and exercises on the letters of the alphabet, the most basic elements of language itself, possessing their own creative powers that, with time and devoted concentration, can reveal mysteries of the cosmos.

Because he trusted in the ability of language to reveal mystery, he went back to language’s source, its individual letters, and examined how they are arranged and rearranged to “spell” out meaning. He found that the method used in the Zohar gave him “a new picture of language in which the letters of the Logos dance”; he quite consciously used the same method in Letters.

In 1966, Duncan published a group of poems actually written between 1939 and 1946, calling it The Years as Catches: First Poems, 1939-1946 (1966), and wrote an introduction in which he explained their influences and origins. He openly confessed that his etymological studies of words contribute heavily to the content of his poetry. The word “catch” contains various levels of interpretation, such as viewing his art as a “net of catches,” fishing around hoping to “catch” something, and what “catches” him at work or “catches” his ear.

His influences in the early poems are fairly obvious: John Milton, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Laura Riding. More notable, however, is evidence that his imagination was, and remained throughout his life, very process-oriented. The process of poem-making becomes a part of the subject matter of most of his major poems from these early works onward. The interplay generated between and among the various voices in the poem creates the tension that energizes the poem’s movement, but instead of moving toward an orderly resolution or poetic product, the poems expand into multiple perspectives much in the manner of the Cantos of Ezra Pound (1917-1970).

The first volume of Duncan’s poetry that drew national attention and critical acclaim was The Opening of the Field, a book which many critics believe to be Duncan’s finest single collection. It contains three poems that have been frequently anthologized and are viewed as typical Duncan poems: “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” “The Dance,” and “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar.” He also initiated, in the volume, a series of open-ended prose poems which constitute an ongoing discussion of the procedures of the poetic imagination and their relationship with the evolution of Duncan’s interconnecting theories of rhyme and measure. The first thirteen of an eventual twenty-nine sections appear in this volume. The major themes that will he developed in all of his subsequent work are present here.

The title of the work, The Opening of the Field, encapsulates the direction and scope of the collection. The individual poems are all interconnected by the possibilities of the activity of language when it is permitted to operate in an open field. The title and the organization of the work are direct responses to the kind of collection of individual poems that most poets had been producing during the post-World War II era. These poems were highly crafted, closed systems, which the poet-critics involved in the so-called New Criticism were producing.

Just as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) opened up the possibility of an American poetry recalling and rekindling the open-form tradition of Walt Whitman, so Duncan’s first major work exhorted American writers not to limit themselves to imitating conservative British models but to permit expansion into American and continental European literary, artistic, and musical expressions. He also revealed his sources as coming out of a wisdom tradition of Gnosticism, hermetic and alchemical texts, and theosophical lore.

Indeed, the first poem in the collection, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” presents virtually all the motifs that Duncan would develop during the remainder of his poetic career: origins, permission, fields and meadows, the Lady, dreams (the genesis of this poem was in a dream), boundaries, architecture, the Beloved, the Dance, and—most important—the poetic process itself.

Another project that The Opening of the Field initiates in its open organization is the possibility of an intertextual reading of many of its poems. One can read “A Poem Slow Beginning” as a gloss or comment on the first poem in the book, but “A Poem Slow Beginning” can also be read as a single poem with its own inner structure and thematic development. Both readings are valid; however, as this poem rests between the first two crucial “The Structure of Rime” sections and the next five, one can also view it as an example of what Duncan has been theorizing about in the first two and as a logical preparation of what he is about to discuss in the next five.

The next major volume that refines Duncan’s highly complex poetic project of embodying the theme of process by enacting the dynamics of process itself is the highly romantic Roots and Branches, an obvious outgrowth of the poetic field of his previous book. Duncan concentrates on his poetic origins and inspirations, envisioning them as the “roots and branches” of the tree of language. Many of these branches go back to “branches” of study that helped formulate his mythopoeic imagination as a child, such as songs, fairy tales, myths, and the “old lore” that his spiritualist parents avidly studied.

The language of this book is highly charged, almost baroque in its testings of the boundaries of expression. The long poem “Apprehensions” is not only one of his greatest poems but is also another example of how the poem’s title simultaneously comments on and enacts the process of “apprehending” the cosmic event in the individual event.

Roots and Branches also includes, in keeping with Duncan’s continuous return to origins, a number of blatant poetic imitations of his acknowledged literary masters. He writes sonnets based on Dante, poems imitating Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Latin poet Ovid, ballads that were obviously influenced by one of his contemporaries, Helen Adam, and a theosophical drama called “Adam’s Way.” In short, he wants to show his literary “roots” and their multiple “branchings” throughout his poetic career.

Duncan’s next major collection is called Bending the Bow. The title continues the organic metaphor from the “field” in the first book to the “roots and branches” of his second to the “bow” carved from the wood of the tree of language into an instrument of war or into a bow across which stretch the strings of the lyre or harp that the ancient bards strummed as they...

(The entire section is 4363 words.)