Robert Duncan Duncan, Robert (Vol. 2) - Essay

Duncan, Robert (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Duncan, Robert 1919–

American avant-garde poet of the Black Mountain school. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Robert Duncan is a poet of cosmic consciousness whose mystical raptures transport him into areas of spirit where the Many are One, where all forms have their Original Being, and where eternal Love encompasses all reality, both Good and Evil. As a visionary, he has a bridge-building, time-binding, and space-binding imagination….

That God should be Love seems absolutely necessary to Duncan's imagination, perhaps because of his horror of appearances and his need for an ultimate positivism….

Fortified by this vision of ultimate Love, Duncan can face and endure the contradictions, delusions, and evils of the world. It is not surprising that he sometimes sees his experience in terms of crucifixion….

[The] God of light and love is one of Duncan's three major subjects, the other two being the imagination and poetry. Sometimes the three are bound in so close a relationship that they seem interchangeable: aspects of the same reality. There is a touch of Wallace Stevens in Duncan's easy transitions from the subjective to the objective, in making God an expression of the poet's imagination in some contexts, and, in others, the poet's maker.

Stephen Stepanchev, "Robert Duncan," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 145-51.

Robert Duncan is probably the figure with the richest natural genius among the Black Mountain poets. His work lacks Creeley's consistent surface simplicity and Olson's familiar cluster of localist and radically critical attitudes, and is consequently less well known than their writings. Also, it is cluttered by certain 'interferences,' partly stylistic and willful, partly related to his mystical and private attitudinal assumptions. The most interesting of his pieces have been collected in two books, The Opening of the Field (1960) and Roots and Branches (1964). Though it seems clear now that Duncan's art is to some degree self-defeating, one has only to leaf through these books to find poems and passages that mark him as a modern romantic whose best work is instantly engaging by the standards of the purest lyrical traditions….

[Much] of his work is touched off by his own and others' thinking about the nature of artistic process; Duncan is in many ways the most intellectual of our poets from the point of view of the effect upon him of a wide, critically intelligent reading. He shares with Malraux the belief that art is not the imitation of nature but her rival, though his insistence is deliberately oriented toward the irrational in a way that Malraux would perhaps find abhorrent. What they would agree on is the fertile significance of the insight that the realm of art is a 'made' reality….

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 179-84.

The publication of [Robert] Duncan's book, Bending the Bow, is an event exceeding questions of quality. I cannot imagine my friends, the poets who gather to dismember each other, asking of this book, as they would of the others in this review, those narrower in scope, smaller in style, "Is it good or is it bad?" The question doesn't arise; not because Duncan is a good poet, though he is superb, but because the comprehensiveness of his imagination is too great for us. Here is an event; for the present our only question is, can we respond to it?—can we respond adequately to its most important feature, a new open sequence called Passages? We are given the first thirty sections of it, from which we see immediately resemblances to Pound's Cantos, but also differences, and the differences are the more salient. Duncan has learned from Pound's failures. First, he has learned to incorporate expressly public materials into his poem without rant or prosaism, by concentrating upon principles rather than upon case histories and the interpretive particulars of argument. Thus he can continue his poetic discourse on the law, for instance, begun in earlier poems. Indeed, almost anything goes into the Passages without disturbing their texture. Now that we see it done, it looks simple, but how long has it taken to learn the trick? Fifty years? Seventy-five? Secondly, already we see an emerging coherence, or unity, in the Passages that the Cantos never attained….

I do not mean to suggest that Duncan has no defects of his own. His language evinces neither the pungency nor the versatility of Pound's. His tone is a prevailing lyrical-elegiac, sometimes too carefully weighted. His imagination, though encompassing an immense cultural range, works through large associations rather than in particularities, so that we have in the Passages a plainer, blurrier fabric than the thousand-pictured tapestry of the Cantos. Maybe in the long run we shall see these defects as crucial; this is a recognizable danger. But for the present I read the Passages not only with admiration and envy, and not only with a responsive depth of feeling, but with a wondering intuition that new force and clarity have come into the poetic imagination of America. When I reflect that Duncan, although he has already written a great deal, is only now … riding the crest of his power, and that he still has years to go, the future of our poetry looks much more attractive to me than it has at any other time since the generation of the elders desisted.

Hayden Carruth, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1968, pp. 401-03.

Robert Duncan … began to write in the late 1940's under the influence of Eliot. His work is within the long tradition of Christian religious and visionary poetry. Yet so "open" is it in its attitudes as well as in its forms that much of it would suffer no distortion if it were described as an expression of "Christian Transcendentalism." As Duncan himself has put it in a recent poem, "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," he wishes to "reach toward the song of kindred men/ and strike again the naked string/ Old Whitman sang from."

Hyatt H. Waggoner, in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, Mifflin, 1968, pp. 623-24.

Reading Robert Duncan's three books—two new and one reissued—we have the opportunity to chart the development of a master. It is strange that … this mastery has been so often treated as "experiment". Duncan himself says, "I am not an experimentalist or an inventor, but a derivative poet", on the back cover of Roots and Branches, yet the flap of Derivations says, "This second volume covers his most experimental and prolific period." And there have been many critics and reviewers who, faced with what is clearly the work of a richly gifted man, admit this work with the qualification that it is experimental. This is a subtly derogatory word and may be taken to be a euphemism for that work which cannot be called "serious"….

I see in the exquisite beauty of Duncan's work the configuration of the true poet who has wrought it. A man who at first fought doggedly with that work so that it would make sense of, and bring some order to, his life; but the development of this work admits a graph of surrender to the fact that the writing of poems brings order to, and makes sense of—only the poem…. Duncan is in service and bondage to The Art of Poetry, so that his very career is an affront to those who conceive of this art as a "part of" their lives….

I think that for Duncan there is no understanding or recognition of the real unless it can be so seen in the language of the poem. This book, Roots and Branches, along with the one published previously to it, The Opening of the Field, display the great power of the poet, a full use of those materials tested in fire in the poems written between 1949 and 1956. The poems show a strength and beauty which place them among the major literature of this time.

Gilbert Sorrentino, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1970, pp. 114-16.

[Duncan] is a man of many skills with a full orchestra of poetic instruments at his disposal. In addition there is a great deal going on in his poetry, intellectually as well as, shall we say, imagistically. Duncan is given to spending a whole season mining a philosophical attitude or a symbolic system in series of poems derived from the Kabbalah or the I Ching or Alfred North Whitehead or Rosa Luxemburg or whomever. A great deal of the material of his poetry has since become very fashionable, but … he was using it long before other people.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, pp. 165-66.

[Robert Duncan's "essay in essential autobiography," The Truth & Life of Myth,] is maddening, irrational (in both the best and worst senses of the word), entertaining, and absolutely essential in understanding Duncan's poetic vision….

[His] emphasis on subjectice feeling [in this essay] goes far toward explaining some of the apparent arbitrary associations in Duncan's poetry. He trusts the spirit in each of us to make these leaps felt, yet he could hardly care less about the rationale behind our appreciation of them.

Particularly in his discussion of mutation and myth he attempts to get at the source of myth, the well spring, the root of power. He consults dictionaries for the meaning and development of words, just as he tries to trace patterns of development in his own life. And he is unashamedly (a word he would hate me for using in this context) Wordsworthian….

One comes from [this essay] to Duncan's other work with a new sense of awareness. His references to Love and Amor no longer seem mere imitations of medieval verse but attempts to trace the vitality of a myth in a culture basically unsympathetic to it. And while I confess I am still unable to approach the work in the spirit in which it was written, this book does make Duncan's vision more vital. In fact, [The Truth & Life of Myth] may be the best single introduction to his poetry.

Victor Contoski, "The Truth & Life of Myth," in Minnesota Review, Fall, 1972, pp. 127-28.

Duncan's achievement is to have provided an accessible theoretical context, a coherent ordering of seemingly irreconcilable aspects of the modern experience. Tribunals is consciously and consistently difficult, too difficult to be dealt with fairly here. The reader may not share Duncan's idealism, but at least he leaves the poem with more than an introduction to the poet's idiosyncracies. Because Duncan alludes to an external and communal, if not common, body of knowledge, we can bring our intelligence to bear on the problems posed in the poem and come away with an inkling of how they may be managed.

Duncan does not write in an "open idiom". Where the younger generation is unassuming, quotidian, and rambling, he is prophetic, abstract, structured, and he takes himself and his task very seriously. But because his poem concerns itself with objectively shared experience, it yields the patient reader more in its own rarefied way than a tautological surrealism ever will, no matter how "simply" expressed. American is a vital language, and a responsibly handled colloquial style can lead us to insight. But writing and reading are work, and the poet who fails to provide his audience with a way of putting his poems to use is wasting his own time as well as ours.

Jonathan Galassi, in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1973, p. 348.