Because of his erudition, his sense of poetic tradition, his mastery of a variety of poetic forms, and, most important, his profoundly metaphysical voice, Robert Duncan is a major contemporary poet. “Each age requires a new confession,” Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, and Duncan presents his era with a voice it cannot afford to ignore. He was recognized with a Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize (1957), the Levinson Prize (1964) from Poetry magazine, and the Shelley Memorial Award (1984). Ground Work: Before the War was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won a National Book Award.
Although Duncan called himself a derivative poet, revealing his penetrating readings of Dante, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Shakespeare, William Blake, and others, at the same time he generated contemporary visions, Emersonian prospects of discovery and renewal. An impressive collection of more than thirty volumes of poetry, drama, and prose constitutes Duncan’s literary achievement. His serious notion of the role of the poet is evident in his many statements about his work, including the prefaces to such works as The Truth and Life of Myth and “The H. D. Book.” Duncan wrote in a wide range of voices, including a bardic, visionary persona of high seriousness and metaphysical concerns, but he never lost his wit and joy in language-play. Not only was he a masterful lyricist, capable of penetrating epiphanies such as “Roots and Branches,” but also he excelled in longer closed forms such as the serial poem (“Apprehensions,” “The Continent”) and the symphonic form of The Venice Poem. Finally, Duncan did some of his finest work in the form that is America’s most distinctive contribution to world poetry in the twentieth century: the long, open-ended poem that can accommodate an encyclopedia if need be. Duncan’s ongoing open poems, “The Structure of Rime” and “Passages,” are in the tradition of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925-1972), William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958), Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (1927-1978), and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1953-1983).