The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This is an “open” poem drafted according to new writing principles developed in the mid-twentieth century, aimed at breaking up the repetitive structures of argument and discourse in so-called closed or conventional poetry. Content of various sorts flows into the poem constantly, demanding close attention to the winding course of its plot. The advantage of openness is the unpredictability of outcome that keeps the reader guessing at each new turn in the poem. This mode of suspense depends on the poet’s ability to synthesize all that is introduced into the argument.

The ode, ancient or modern, is a form in which a poet takes up the theme of death and allows the mind to wander over many experiences before responding. The Romantic ode explores the emotions aroused by reaching middle life, as in William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.” Robert Duncan is thinking in particular of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” with its theme of eternal innocence and desire set against the ravages of time. Duncan approaches the subject of aging similarly, regarding the innocence and desire of various lovers from his vantage point at a corrupt, degraded moment of history: “Only a few posts of the good remain.”

The poem opens with a “misreading” of a line from an ode by the Greek poet Pindar (522?-443 b.c.e.), known for his sensuous lyricism. In the Pindar line, one hears a light foot with a lover’s expectancy, but Duncan misreads the line as “the light foot hears.” This error generates a new line of thought which the poet then follows through...

(The entire section is 687 words.)