The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

“Circulations of the Song” is a long poem divided into twenty-two stanzas of various lengths. There are 306 lines in this highly developed irregular ode. The title suggests circular as well as cyclic patterns among the stanzas, while the subtitle (“After Jalal al-Din Rumi”) indicates the model that Robert Duncan is using, that of thirteenth century Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi. Rumi, as he has been known for centuries, was one of the founders of a sect of the Sufi religion called the Dancing Mevlevi Dervishes; he was also one of the supreme poets of Persia. He had been a sober and strict theologian and preacher of the Sufi religion until he fell in love with a young man named Shams al-Din, who became Rumi’s “beloved.” After that transforming experience, Rumi began composing ecstatic odes, which were accompanied by dancing and music from the reed pipe and drum.

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The subject of Duncan’s poem is his longtime companion, artist Jess Collins. Duncan used the term “beloved” in many of his poems, but it is in this poem in which he most clearly identifies Jess as the beloved, though he does not use his name. The mood of the poem is ecstatic declamation, as Duncan seeks to find images and metaphors that can adequately express his devotion to Jess. Each major section is built around metaphors and image clusters that Duncan used throughout his poetic career, such as the tree and leaves, the stars, water wells, speech itself, sexual orgasm, the mythic fall, and the power of Hermes in his role as alchemist and gnostic guide. The poem concludes with the metaphor of the house, not only as a Jungian symbol of the psyche but also as the domestic household that he and Jess created in a world hostile to homosexual unions.

Many motifs surface as the poem moves along, some coming from Duncan’s other major collections of poems, such as the fields and meadows of his early collection The Opening of the Field (1960) as well as trees, roots, leaves, and branches from his second collection, Roots and Branches (1964). Stanza 19 (none of the stanzas are numbered in the poem) features the bow of Eros, a principal motif in Duncan’s third major collection, Bending the Bow (1968). All these motifs come together and flower in his final collection, Ground Work: Before the War (1984), in which “Circulations of the Song” was first collected. In this volume the earth is a collective metaphor for all of Duncan’s work.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688

The formal requirements of the ode determine the structure of this long, complex poem, but the ecstatic, declamatory tone is taken from Rumi’s odes in honor of his young lover, Shams al-Din. Duncan could not find a poetic tradition in Western literature that could serve as an adequate model for the ecstatic, visionary utterances of love that combine both human and divine aspects, a condition he saw as an expression of the “sublime.” The search for the “divine beloved” does appear in highly sensual images in the Song of Songs, but that work stands out from the other, more somber books of the Old Testament. Duncan’s poem opens with the assertion that the beloved can never be found and attained in reason or intellectual pursuits. Duncan, like his great model, William Blake, believed that reason, without imagination, was essentially destructive: “If I do not know where He is/ He is in the very place of my not knowing.” Only when the seeker abandons all rational pursuits does he have a chance of attaining union with the object of his love. Yet what leads him to love is passion guided by the imagination.

Each stanza entertains possible avenues to the beloved and displays Duncan’s ingenious use of parables—sometimes quite similar to Rumi’s—to articulate what is basically impossible to express: the depth of his devotion to Jess, who embodies the divine beloved. “The Mind is that fathomless darkness” which leads to nothing but the enemy of love: the self. Duncan gives direct credit to the odes of Rumi in stanza 7 when he states: “The rest is an Artesian well, an underground fountain//Rising thru me/ the circuit Jall al-Dn Rm/ in which at last! I come to read you, you/ come to be read by me.”

Stanzas 14 through 17 trace the process of Duncan “falling” in love with Jess, a happy fall that saves him from his dangerous lean toward solipsism: “I am falling into an emptiness of Me,” an emptiness that ensures that he will never “return into my Self.” One of the requirements that Rumi records throughout his ecstatic love poetry is the necessity of abandoning the self and using the alchemy of divine love to attain union with the beloved. Yet only by becoming a servant of both human and divine love can he find true satisfaction. The fire of that love comes from the heart of the lover, and Duncan expresses its effect in unmistakably alchemical terms: “Molten informations of gold/ flood into my heart, arteries and veins,/ my blood, racing thruout with this news,/ pulses in a thousand chemical/ new centers of this learning.” He directly quotes Rumi on the beloved—“He has climbed over the horizon like the sun”—and refers to Rumi’s text as the agent of this love: “a wave of my own seeing you/ in the rapture of this reading.”

In the final stanzas, Duncan identifies Jess as Eros, who wounds him with his arrow of love, an allusion to Bending the Bow’s use of the myth of Eros and Psyche as an example of the mystery of love. Duncan invokes Hermes and his “gnostic revelations” as the hidden source of both divine and sensuous love. Duncan’s attainment of the beloved is demonstrated in serpentine images from the Garden of Eden, images that proclaim the mythic Fall as a victory, rather than a defeat, for the initiates of Dionysus, who celebrate in “the honeyd glow of the woodwind dance/ singing.” The dance, a favorite metaphor of Duncan’s, proclaims the full integration of the divine and the human in natural process and change. The final stanza commemorates the establishment of the House; that is, the household—one of Duncan’s favorite words—of the love between Jess Collins and himself. Their household becomes “the Grand Assemblage of Lives,/ the Great Assembly-House/ this Identity, this Ever-Presence, arranged//now in the constant exchange/ renderd true.” Jess as the divine beloved has enabled Duncan to establish an actual place in the world of process and change, anchored always in the “sweet constancy” of their shared lives.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

Bertholf, Robert J. Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986.

Bertholf, Robert J., and Ian W. Reid, eds. Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. New York: New Directions, 1979.

Duncan, Robert. Interview. In Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews, edited by Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.

Faas, Ekbert. Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1983.

Johnson, Mark. Robert Duncan. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

O’Leary, Peter. Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Sagetrieb 4 (Fall/Winter, 1985).

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