Robert Duncan Duncan, Robert (Vol. 1) - Essay

Duncan, Robert (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Duncan, Robert 1919–

American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)

Since he was a boy, [Duncan] has enjoyed a considerable reputation among readers and writers of what is still unfortunately termed the avant-garde. From San Francisco and from Black Mountain College his personal influence on young writers has spread far and wide. Today he ranks with Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, as one of the leaders of the New Poetry—so recently discovered by the media….

Of the postwar poets—[the] new generation of experiment and revolt—Robert Duncan is one of the most accomplished, one of the most influential….

It's a little awesome, reading these poems [in The Opening of the Field]. They have a noble gravity about them that we don't expect from our contemporaries; they have a deep sonority and a steady pace, like the plain-song processional, "Media Vitae." It is not solemnity of subject, although many have that too, but a kind of inner life attitude of immense seriousness and devotion. At the same time the poems have a strangely uncontemporary worldliness, as though they had been written by one of those dignified and accomplished literary men-about-town of the Victorian era—Monckton Milnes or Walter Bagehot. It's not just dignity; perhaps it's wisdom. Wisdom is a virtue, like courage and magnanimity, that we have long since lost the habit of expecting from literary people, so it's hard to recognize it when it appears.

The previous generation of experiment and revolt had tended to treat the work of art as a construct rather than a communication. Duncan comes to poetry seeking the communication of an organic wisdom, as in the act of love. This is poetry which transcends the existentialist dilemma, a gift of the self to the other. Hence its religious, or specifically its reverent, tone, because it does, in poetic act, what the philosophers of personalism and communion discuss. It is responsible, as only the work of art can be and, alas, so seldom is.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his Assays (© 1961 by Kenneth Rexroth; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1961, pp. 237-39.

Robert Duncan is certainly one of the most unpityingly pretentious poets I have ever come across, even down to his past participles, which for no particular reason that I can see he spells without e's. As he keeps telling us, he is a mystic, which of course allows him to say anything in any order. Sometimes I am glad that he has given himself this freedom, but more often I feel suicidal about it. When it doesn't fail him and ravel out into quotations, Duncan's wide-eyed dreaminess is often wonderful in individual lines and phrases, but the poems themselves are drifting conglomerations which could be shuffled and dealt again as different poems with results equally good and bad. Most of them are crammed with the deadweight "filler" that inspired poets fall back on when inspiration has failed and pride, or something equally vitiating, bids them pretend that it hasn't….

[Duncan's] symbolistically ecstatic universe is vague, but it is real enough in its way, in the fashion in which dreams would be real if they occurred in words instead of images. The best thing in it is Duncan's ingenuousness, which shows through the sloppy rhetoric and the undigested quotations and the false mystery-mongering like the sun through clouds….

Duncan has the old or pagan sense of the poem as a divine form of speech which works intimately with the animism of nature, of the renewals that believed-in ceremonials can be, and of the sacramental in experience; for these reasons and others that neither he nor I could give, there is at least part of a very good poet in him, somewhere and somehow; there would have to be to get anything memorable said through the heavy traffic of his influences.

James Dickey, "Robert Duncan" (1962), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 173-75.

[Robert] Duncan tends, as does Olson, to look away from the meaning of the word in order to concentrate, with the sinister eye, upon its other properties; and this process is perhaps what he means when he says, "one may lose sight of the target in order to gain insight of the target." But "meanings and functions are intimately related" so that the performance of words as physical entities in the dance is only artificially separable from their performance as meanings. As meanings, they point to things; and it is from the presentation of things—the presentation of things to be felt as contacts, one must add—that intuitive ideas arise. Duncan speaks of the "potencies in common things" and of "'princely manipulations of the real.'"

A. Kingsley Weatherhéad, in his The Edge of the Image: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Some Other Poets, University of Washington Press, 1967, p. 242.

Duncan, who is perhaps one of the most astute observers of the malpractices of Western governments, power blocs, etc., who is always on the human side, the right side of such issues as war, poverty, civil rights, etc., and who therefore does not take an easy way out—in his poems at times does bow out, does confuse with his mélange of incisive politics and weak philosophy.

Harriet Zinnes, "Duncan's One Poem" (© 1969 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Fall, 1969, pp. 317-20.

No poet today is more frequently—or for that matter, more justly—identified with … the Williams-Pound tradition than Robert Duncan. He has moved from group to group, influencing and being influenced in turn, acting as a sort of poet-catalyst whose personal chemistry is the sort that is just right for making things happen. And, though not a great originator nor a leader of movements, he has made them happen in the subtle ways of a gentle, generous man.

Bruce Cook, in his The Beat Generation (reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook; © 1971 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1971, pp. 126-27.