The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 688 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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).