The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687

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.

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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 four numbered sections, each organized around the premise that what is meant by love is the mind’s longing to flesh itself in a material form, or for the body to embrace the immortal ideal with its aging flesh. Mind and body are the ultimate lovers whose passion is never satisfied, and which art celebrates in the guise of male and female figures.

Duncan considers various depictions of classic lovers; after Pindar, he turns to Francisco Goya’s portrait of Cupid and Psyche, which he interprets as “carnal fate that sends the soul wailing.” Soul and mind are interchangeable terms; carnal fate is the eventual death of the body. Part II begins by noting that the gods prevent aging in these lovers; they are principles, or archetypes, more than figures representing actual life. Psyche, whose name stands for mind (as in psychology) “is preserved.” Mind is eternal, its powers passing from one generation to the next, while the body lives, dies, and is buried. Hence, the “old poets” have died but their minds live on in texts.

Duncan shifts from ancient poets to American presidents, sarcastically referred to as the “Thundermakers,” the opposite of poets in their self-interest, their violent political goals. The succession stretches back from Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his second term of office as the poem is being written, to Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, who came to power after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Duncan is thinking of Walt Whitman’s lament for Lincoln in his poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” in which the themes of love and death emerge.

The mind knows mainly despair in its life as spirit; it witnesses death in all its forms, Duncan says in part III. This brings Ezra Pound to mind, who wrote The Pisan Cantos (1948) at the close of World War II and lamented the death of all his friends in Europe. He, too, writes of profound despair at the breaking up of a cherished ideal. Part IV returns to the footfall, now equated with the presence of any image in the mind waking it to the world around it. Other ill-fated lovers are introduced—Jason and Medea who turn against each other over the “golden fleece,” and Orpheus and Eurydice, separated by the underworld. The poem closes on the image of sacred mountains where spirit is enshrined in nature, the religious form of expressing the mind’s yearning to embrace the physical world.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

Duncan tells the reader in his prose note in part IV that Pindar’s art is “mosaic,” composed of small units of language instead of being a “statue,” composed of one material in a single form. This is an apt description of the ode in general, made of smaller thoughts joined by perceptual links to form a larger recognition. Duncan’s poem shifts back and forth between pithy lyrics rich in metaphor to longer, digressive passages in which he lists items under a general heading, as with the American presidents who form a monotonous tradition of warriors linking periods of war.

Duncan was a careful student of sacred literature, and he copied many of its devices into his poems. Among liturgical techniques is the chant, with its repetitive syntax, which Duncan reproduces here to create a sense of magic and incantation and to remind readers of one of his poetic sources, the poetry of Walt Whitman, which also used repetitive phrasing throughout Leaves of Grass (1855). Repetition is found in prayer, lamentation, spells, children’s songs, even states of madness, and thus leads to the threshold of the inner realm of dreams and spirits. Set against this tendency is the more prosaic language of political diatribe against the presidential line, with its strident tempo and anger.

Notable are the indented passages emphasizing the lilting rhythm of song, or used to “map” the process of ideation as Duncan struggles to clarify his understanding of love. In other passages, the language is compressed to gnomic density as Duncan reworks ancient myths. In part III, dedicated to the experimental poet Charles Olson, Duncan imitates Olson’s method of spacing out lines and letting paragraphs loosely sprawl; the language here forms complex echoes as it recalls not only Olson but also his mentor, Pound, as it quotes directly from passages of The Pisan Cantos. Here, too, style advances argument; drawing on the words of other poets is a merging of spirits (minds) as all despair over the fate of Eros and the body.

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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Themes