Ground Work

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Robert Duncan has a unique mythopoetic vision of the world. Not only does he refer to a vast range of mythology, ranging from Assyria through Homeric Greece, the Ionian philosophers and Pindar to the Renaissance, the English Metaphysicals and Arabic poetry to the present, but he also seems to believe in it—or at least he finds its reality more palpable, more solid, than that of the ephemeral present. The only other American poet who has such a single-minded devotion to myth is, perhaps, Jerome Rothenberg. Structuralists, followers of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and folklorists also attribute great value to myths, but unlike them Duncan is not interested in the study of the past. Poetry and myth are almost synonymous for Duncan. Although the myths are ancient, he associates them with creation, with ceremony, dance, and finally the act of writing. He uses myth for present purposes: for transforming the world—or at least, as much of it as possible—into an inspired act of creation and poetry. This procedure is repeated in poem after poem, with the result that the mythopoetic world, by sheer force of repetition and the urgency of invocation, assumes greater force and reality than the world of ordinary, or “normal,” reality. In the process, Duncan’s own language becomes archaic, and the reader becomes accustomed to words such as “reigneth,” “giveth,” “slumb’ring dark,” “twixt,” and “Courts of Love.” Duncan’s syntax becomes deliberately nonconversational; for example, “O Muses, aweful and brilliant in your drawing us toward that grace in which the spine is curved into life to sound its depth in fame,” or: “O mighty worm that in the Cocoon of What is slumbers!” (“The Museum”). In “Santa Cruz Propositions,” mythical beings such as Thetis, Hermes, and Chaos take on a palpable, emotional existence in the present:

—Worlds, Seas, Tides of the Sun and the Moon,Titanic Storms of Being—Hells, then!(This First Water may have been Fire)enormous predications of the Godsand, afterwards, Divine Powers—godsdaimons, presences of living things,fountains, trees, great stones, hearth flames—Heaven.

The figure who presides over Duncan’s immersion in texts from the past is Ezra Pound. Pound is directly addressed here (sometimes as E. P.) or invoked, becoming himself a near-mythical authority who sanctions the poetic act. In “For Me Too, I, Long Ago Shipping Out with the Cantos,” Duncan explicitly acknowledges this debt: my soul aroused to go forth on the godly sea, Pound then heroic,/ setting keel to breakers, our keel,/ the roar of surfs upon alien shores our boundaries

In an unexpected manner, Duncan’s poetry illustrates the continuity of the modernism of Pound, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot. “Modernism” is a convenient term to package a variety of tendencies coexisting during the period from 1910 to 1940 that assumed protean forms; one of its major aspirations, however, from beginning to end, was literary erudition. As a young graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Pound conceived the ambition to become the most widely read poet writing in English, who knew more works of literature in more languages than anyone else. Eliot, too, wrote what one critic has called “the poetry of learning.” Joyce, also, became a great artificer of myth. The continuity of this aspiration in the present can be clearly seen in Duncan’s poetry. He does not pursue learning for its own sake, or knowledge of literature, but rather the authority inherent in myth. Duncan is acutely aware of this continuity, and he stresses it in “Transmissions”:

Creeley and Ihaving that injunction from Poundto direct into specifying energiesthe thrill of an other waysoverpowering sensation

While improvising a variation on a poem by Ben Jonson, Duncan suddenly exclaims, “Whatever after Ezra Pound would I do with that?” In another poem he suddenly recalls, “’God,’/ E. P. writes, ’the architectural fire,/ pur texnon.’” Duncan helps one to recall that the literal term “modernist” does not strictly apply to Pound...

(The entire section is 1867 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1330.

Village Voice Literary Supplement. November, 1984, p. 5.