Duncan, Robert (Vol. 7)
Duncan, Robert 1919–
Duncan, an American, is considered one of the finest of the Black Mountain poets. His poetry is intensely personal, filled with introverted expressions and reflections. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
In Roots and Branches … [Duncan] displays his vast talent, extending from disciplined academic poetry to the free-swinging, far-ranging methods of the San Francisco renaissance. Whatever his obligations to a literary past, he has developed away from the traditional, arranged it to new sounds…. At the same time, personal experience provides poetic awareness that informs such poetry as the sequence addressed to H. D. If I have more than personal qualifications in my praise of Duncan, it is only because he sometimes stands too clearly between his work and the reader. (p. 47)
Robert D. Spector, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 13, 1965.
It has long been customary to praise a writer for luring his audience into working for him. Following a well-wrought text, readers are prepared to see hints fall and gaps open. If they are, as one says, 'trained' they enjoy completing an author's analogies or connecting his thoughts. But even compliant donkeys want a morsel of carrot to sweeten their task; and even the most difficult poets used to supply some melody or apothegm or delicious sensation to draw one into the activity of perfecting their meaning. Robert Duncan is too high-minded to sully his work with many sweet or nourishing tidbits. As if to set an example, he has said, 'I study out what I write as I study any mystery'. He takes the grandest possible view of a reader's responsibility to live up to an author's expectations. 'You too if you read have written', he says, 'as my poor mind knows not if it has read or written'. Rather than defile our sensibilities with lines of actions or argument, he often presents the verbal materials out of which we may construct the poem of our choice, do-it-yourself kits for the creative audience.
The most tiresome of Mr. Duncan's challenges are old-fashioned experimental work; automatic writing, dada, lists of freely associated phrases beginning with the same words, nursery-rhyme surrealism. Those readers who regard Gertrude Stein as a literary equivalent of the sorcerer's apprentice will wince to find Mr. Duncan producing 'imitations' of her compositions.
Slightly more welcome is another category, namely, poems that seem designed in the mode of Hamlet without the prince. For a poet given to afflatus it is a temptation to overlook the simple incident or passion that has started a rapture or fury, and to convey the high mood in terms of a landscape or a moral principle filling his mind during the experience. So long as his poem draws on conventional, public references, the reader is free to enjoy a straightforward pleasure—provided that the poet's expression is adequate to the planned elevation. But if the references become private or eccentric, the reader meets an emotional gap; he is called upon for a response which the verses hardly justify, unless he can build a bridge with his own more or less suitable associations.
In some poems, especially those written more than twenty years ago, Mr. Duncan makes the link between occasion and excitement traceable enough. For example, his creative imagination gives him a sense of divinity; love makes him happy as a god; poetry seems a way both of making love and of receiving Apollo's love; the beloved seems divine; and when the poet loses the beloved, he feels like Apollo mourning for Hyacinthus. This is roughly the plan of 'An Apollonian Elegy'….
In the longest and most complex of his works three elements are mingled without differentiation: a theme the poem is presumably 'about'; other themes or images privately associated with this by the poet; and various perceptions occuring to him while writing the poem—including observations on the act of composition….
Ultimately Mr. Duncan's methods operate best for those who know him well as a friend. Outsiders cannot hope to appreciate the subtleties of his technique because they cannot be sure of his tone, form, or allusions. When the theme of a poem is obvious, as in the witty 'Re', which is about springtime, we may join the smaller circle. Otherwise, we must accept our limitations. Not everyone can live in California.
"Read or Written?" in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 1, 1969, p. 467.
Duncan's metaphysical premisses may be quite unacceptable to us but, as with Yeats, they do not invalidate the poetry. He has always believed in a transcendant reality and in a "continuity of spirit in the universe." The whole of creation is charged with meaning….
In his early poems, the Miltonic cadences and the habit of straining after absolutes take the edge off his directness. But the authoritative tone of voice and the sensitivity to detail combine to compel our attention, even when he is adopting an orphic stance, as in "An Apollonian Elegy." Though he is less economical with words than he became later, he depended on verbs rather than on adjectives, achieving great muscularity and flexibility. In "Heavenly City, Earthly City" his mind throbs painfully with longings for eternity and the pain leaves a clear residue in the rhythms. He has quoted Ezra Pound as saying "I believe in technique as the test of a man's sincerity"; the proof of Robert Duncan's sincerity is the relationship he has achieved between the pulse of the sensation and the pulse of the line. (p. 84)
Ronald Hayman, in Encounter (© 1970 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1970.
We have poets writing now whose language can attain to the power of prophecy but whose vision cannot. The first lines of Robert Duncan's "Up Rising" exemplify the problem:
Now Johnson would go up to join the great simulacra of men,
Hitler and Stalin, to work his fame
with planes roaring out from Guam over Asia….
"Up Rising" in its entirety reaches unusual rhetorical heights. And yet there is something off-putting about a poem which straightway insists on an equation of Johnson with Hitler. Many of us, while holding no brief for Johnson, may still not think of him as being quite in Hitler's league. It is too bad that this should be one of Duncan's major premises, for it means that the poem will fade as its occasions do; it is less likely to escape the mid-'sixties in the way that [Ginsberg's] Howl does the mid-'fifties. I am aware that it is not the business of a prophet to make nice political distinctions. And yet his message ought to strike us as informed with the abiding clarity of revelation, not the myopia of a past moment of passion. (pp. 50-1)
Robert B. Shaw, "The Poetry of Protest" (copyright © 1974 by Robert B. Shaw; permission granted by Dufour Editions, Inc.), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 45-54.
What are the implications in Duncan of a poem being as much like a collage as a poem can be? First of all, it is a collage with no single dominant feature. In these poems, Duncan is avoiding the central thing, the single meaning; these are poems without souls, only bodily parts. (p. 168)
In the world of Wallace Stevens the process of ordering alternates continuously with that of decreating: he works … between the statue of order and the wilderness of chaos. Duncan on the other hand lives perpetually in the wilderness. He is not, in any case, under any metaphysical pressure to synthesize an order for the wilderness or the slopping sea, for he doesn't belong to that populous school of writers for whom the death of God has left a fragmented universe. He is not at pains, as for instance Stevens and Williams are, to bridge the great gulfs: for him, although the center may be far beyond the sun, the universe is whole. Local unity is a matter of insignificance; Duncan says [in The Truth and Life of Myth], "the meaning and form of any poem is momentous, yes; but has its motive beyond the conscious and personal intent or realization of the poet"…. The ultimate order, to which each poem contributes and of which it partakes, as individual talent contributes to and partakes of the tradition, is a process that may be expressed in Duncan's poems as the Grand Symphony. Within this, all parts of life are accommodated, the fragmentary melodies and, not less, the "resounding chords of wrath and woe" struck by human evil. It is toward this total harmony that each poem remains open accepting whatever may come and foregoing thereby its own perfected individual melody. The most significant feature of the collage poem is that it is without limits: it is open, at one end, so to speak, to quotidian existence and, at the other, to the primordial reality that is without bounds and without breach, being itself an order. Expressions in the poems throughout Duncan's works suggest that the poems have no absolute perimeter. "Surely," he says, in the preface to Bending the Bow, "everywhere, from whatever poem, choreographies extend into actual space," suggesting both the absence of limits to the poem and accordingly its continuity with the real, "actual" space of the world.
The open poem attempts to be spatial. It reserves entrance for the extraordinary, the irrational, and the completely unsought to come insinuating or crowding in. The closed poem on the other hand works in linear time and a form that eliminates the detail irrelevant to its logic or its narrative. Duncan is repelled by excluding form. (pp. 171-72)
In the open collage poem the mind consciously and passively meditates among phenomena, is open to all aspects of truth, and excludes nothing that the spirit purveys; but in the lyric it must act unselfconsciously, cutting, selecting and appropriating what is demanded by the melody on the one hand, and the expression of the mood on the other, assuming most often a strict form, closed to what for its limited purposes is irrelevant, and not saying too much. The lyric is the product of a kind of action that momentarily excludes the rest of the world. As a species of music it naturally depends on time sequence, the medium that the collage poems attempt to break down. Duncan can write lyric poetry in which idea, feeling, and melody fuse into a linear unified statement with no self-conscious qualifications or deliberate dissonances…. But with his commitment to the collage and the principles associated with it, lyric action and local melody are incompatible.
It is possible that he shares with some earlier and older poets the sense that complete and exclusive commitment to the simple, single feeling that lyric demands is not possible for those who bear the burden that broad social and political awareness confers. Blake, Shelley, and Yeats were not so inhibited: in the full consciousness, vivid enough, of social and political evil, they wrote their lyrics. They were also men of action, in some cases single-minded and precipitant. And accordingly they had no scruple in taking the exclusive kind of action that is demanded in the creation of a lyric. The predicament of Duncan, on the other hand, seems to be that of a number of poets of the thirties, C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender, for example, who, conscious of the poverty and hunger in the economic distress of the times, the impotent suffering of the poor, the violence of the powerful, were assailed by a sense of irresponsibility in writing the lyric when so much of the rest of the world made such great appeals to their consciences. (pp. 173-74)
Duncan may be compared with these poets inasmuch as he will not write the perfect lyric, but must corrupt the linear melody for the strategy of the collage, break up thematic unity with elements recalcitrant and untamed, and bring in contemporary horrors. As a poet he is a scholar gypsy, accepting but not bound by old wisdom, open to vision and impulse, eschewing preconceived form, precluded from the action of the lyric, nourishing a strong sense of music in poems controlled by a sense of their existence in space. (p. 174)
A. K. Weatherhead, "Robert Duncan and the Lyric," in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 163-74.