Robert Duncan

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Duncan, Robert (Vol. 4)

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Duncan, Robert 1919–

Duncan, an American poet of the Black Mountain school, writes dense and experimental poems in the Christian visionary tradition. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Roots and Branches is characteristic in its title, as in all other respects, of a continuing work which no brief note can report with much accuracy. For one thing, Robert Duncan is of that most rare order of poets for whom the work is not an occasional exercise, nor a demonstration of metrical abilities, nor any other term of partial commitment, however interesting. This book is the eleventh of a sequence, of a life, in fact, which can only be admitted or experienced in that totality….

[Of] the major insistences of his work as one meets with them in this book as well as in every other which he has written, [most] primary is the assertion that what one can say, in any circumstance of poetry, is informed by a "voice" not ours to intend or to decide.

Robert Creeley, "'To disclose that vision particular to dreams'," in Humanist, January-February, 1966.

Complete with footnotes and an allusive richness breathing life into dust, Robert Duncan is truly an academic poet. His lines are the hard-earned result of an intensive classical education of the traditional mode. [Bending the Bow] continues his open series of poems, "Structures of Rime," and begins a new one, "Passages." And there are as well a fine set of disconnected poems. Attacks on President Johnson comparing him to Hitler and Stalin rub shoulders with quotations from Victor Hugo and Jacob John Sessler; the contrast says a great deal about this modern time. Duncan uses the insane rantings against Johnson to show the hollowness of such modern academic "protest" poetry. And they are insane, screaming, pointless, absurd. How rich and true then does his woven texture of the past appear, cool, intelligent, with the curves of marble in every line. How brilliantly he has shown the lie of his angry contemporaries in the classic calm of his inquiring poetic mind.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Summer, 1968), p. civ.

Bending the Bow and Tribunals carry on Robert Duncan's tradition of instant poetry. Coherence and clarity one has learnt to forgo in his work. As for rational syntax, good grammar, and correct idiom, these evidently give way to a higher value, fidelity to impulse, which Mr Duncan mistakes for fidelity to oneself. If such a principle deserved attention, it would still not compensate readers for the tedium produced by Mr Duncan's writing. But not even a façade of integrity appears in the style of these poems. Pastiche, collage, syncretistic pseudo-thought are the deliberate methods he employs.

In a man who finds Boehme as authoritative as Dante, who receives his philosophical principles from both Plutarch and Ezra Pound, one is hardly surprised to discover some degree of moral confusion. But that he should then pose as an illuminatus, through whom the true order of the universe seeks expression, is still remarkable. Probably those admirers who feel puzzled by Mr Duncan's opacity console themselves with a delight in his high-mindedness….

Those who are at a loss for literary reasons to praise Mr Duncan can rejoice in his radical orthodoxy. The tone of anguish, the claim that righteous fury must overwhelm the author's expressive power, the eruptive use of asyndeton and ellipsis, are standard tokens of virtuous character, and Mr Duncan displays them like stigmata.

"Dubious Seer," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), July 23, 1971, p. 855.

Duncan, in so many...

(This entire section contains 2652 words.)

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ways, does battle for us all. His battle for poetry and for the experience of the poem is so determined and so persistent that anyone involved with poetry in the United States today is in his debt….

Perhaps because of this deep responsiveness Duncan has the widest range of concerns and fascinations of all his contemporaries. In some of the Passages there is the Poundian heaviness of encyclopedic reading summaries, but when he became immersed in the Cantos Pound virtually gave up writing anything else. Duncan began the Passages when he was already fully formed as a poet, and they have continued to express his fullest range of subject. The Passages have even opened out into bitter denunciation of America's war in Vietnam….

[But] despite the concern for the present, the searching for theme in the present, it would still be difficult to call him a modern poet. The things that most characterize modern poetry aren't present in his work. He isn't deeply concerned with the image. He is concerned with imagery, but not with imagism. He describes, but he doesn't have the kind of visual realizations that Williams or Creeley or even Olson have. The rhythm of the poetry also has no sense of the breath's measure or limitation. Often the poems have been assembled from groups of notes and their different cadences make it impossible to find a breath rhythm that lies through all of them. It is poetry without a place. Lacking the sentimentality of the 19th Century, the order and precision of the 18th, the religious passion or courtly posturing of the 17th, it has to go back to this point where the medieval and the renaissance mingle, where everything is suddenly being picked up and looked at anew, and for the first time in so many centuries there is no boundary to what can be considered. This is the sense of the ornateness as he fills his poems with objects and attitudes; the reach of the work as he leans out to gather what he can into the image and the idea. He has been displaced, and he has to struggle again and again to find his place anew.

Samuel Charters, "Robert Duncan," in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry Since 1945, Oyez Press, 1971, pp. 47-56.

In [The Truth & Life of Myth, Duncan] tries to make a harmony of all knowledge as he delves into his theme, the mythopoeic nature of poetry. He is a very shaman of the craft, a poet-priest, who sounds unfortunately like a savant among the dullards of his professional tribe. An explicator rather than an illuminator of ideas, he interlards his sentences with fragmented, if choice, examples of his erudition. Nothing in ancient or modern philosophy, eastern or western theology, anthropology or psychoanalysis fazes him. He stands on slippery ground, since his essay abounds in cluttered prose, each sentence loaded with parenthetic quotation. Of his writing he admits, "… my sentences knot themselves to bear the import of associations." He has read widely and deeply; his erudition is so vast, his citations so profuse, the varied strands of his theme become entangled, as he combines them to make a synthesis of his ideas.

I. L. Salomon, "Duncan on Myth," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1973, p. 389.

Robert Duncan is sometimes spoken of as not only the most talented but also the most intelligent of modern poets. Though both claims may be close to the truth, part of the credit for intelligence surely grows out of the unintelligibility of much of his poetry…. [Jim Harrison, in The New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1968, suggests that in] reading Duncan "it simply helps to be familiar with Dante, Blake, mythography, medieval history, H. D., William Carlos Williams, Pound, Stein, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and Levertov." To this list we might add Cabalistic literature, Hermetic writings, Indian lore, The Golden Bough, the pre-Socratic philosophers, Christian mysticism, and the Oxford English Dictionary. Lacking these familiarities the reader can penetrate some distance into the complex syncretism of Duncan only by a dogged persistence….

It is not only that Duncan's mythic foragings are incredibly wide-ranging: gods and goddesses, songs and rituals may with patience be traced down. But more difficult is the aura of the mythic that invades the language at all levels….

From Duncan's redundant mythologies, then, we are not apt to distill any private mystic vision, but perhaps we may discover a private mythos, shaped by the circumstances of the poet's life and time. If it is to be distilled, it will be, one expects, in the alembic of Duncan's poetic—for … it has become evident that the poet's world-view is intimately bound up with his poetic, and that that poetic is inextricably tied to the poet's reaction to the Vietnam War….

Duncan's homosexuality brought him to poetry as an area of freedom, a private order that demanded no revolt—society and its systems could be disregarded. Moloch need not be bearded, he could be ignored. But not easily ignored—for the early poems are haunted with images of disease, self-doubt, loneliness, and isolation. But they are a beginning toward the mature poetic of Duncan, exploring the possibilities of love and growth, and finding in eros and the beloved a step on the ladder toward the Primal Eros and the Beloved.

Love is the first interest of Duncan: he sees his own life as a struggle to learn to love, and the life of the universe as an unfolding toward the Perfect Form of Love. Love is the one Law (Gospel, "God-Spell") written in all things, but a law that is brought to flower only with great travail….

Duncan is painfully aware that the love he is able to give is not worthy of the word (or Word), not equal to his idea of what Love participating in Primal Love should be….

Duncan's is, of course, an organic theory of poetry—few poets today do not claim that sobriquet for their poetic, though it often means only that they do not impose strict traditional forms upon their work…. But Duncan's organicism goes beyond Emerson's "ask the fact for the form" or Creeley's "form is the extension of content." It not only claims that the poem unfolds according to its own law, but envisions a compatible cosmology in which it may do so. It is not the poem alone that must grow as freely as the plant: the life of the person, the state, the species, and indeed the cosmos itself follows a parallel law. All must follow their own imperatives and volition; all activity must be free of external coercion. But first the poem….

In his ideas of cosmic order, Duncan appears to be a Platonist by natural inclination, an Aristotelian by choice, and an evolutionist (Darwin/Chardin) by desire and necessity of circumstance…. [Concerning] the bodilessness of his poetry, he tends to deal with the material world as though it were but a copy of the divine eidos and interesting chiefly as the metaphor or signature of the spiritual. He does so in spite of his intentions and assertions to the contrary. With Aristotle he insists, however, that this world is the real world, and that its Form is innate rather than remote…. The real world, he adds, is the source of all our knowledge and devotion; we take our revelation from it, and it is not to be despised as it was by the Gnostics. The actual, the literal, is the primary ground out of which we create the linguistic, the universal….

Duncan is not unaware that the Greek kosmos meant "order," and his own poetry takes its dramatic center in the tension between order and disorder, kosmos and kaos. The manner in which these seeming polarities are related is perhaps the knottiest critical problem his poetry poses. In ordering chaos one creates cosmos and participates in the original work of the Grand Designer. Yet Cosmos is for Duncan not an eradication of Chaos, but an awakening of and an awakening to the harmony with which Chaos is already suffused. His poetry intends not an ordering of experience, but an experiencing of its order. The divine harmonies with which Chaos is pregnant are of an order different from our human order, and it is precisely for this reason that the poet must, so to speak, keep his hands off his poem….

The order that men would impose upon chaos would resemble a gridwork of regular lines—a graph-paper sky (or a rectangular and "level" breadboard). But nature supplies the body's needs by an altogether erratic (seemingly) branching of arteries; and the tree spreads its branches through the chaos of monotonous air with an order that is excitingly disorderly. For Duncan, such is the difference between life and death. The dead matter of the universe science dissects into tidy stackables; the living significance of creation, the angel with which the poet wrestles, is a volatile whirlwind of sharp knees and elbows threshing with a grace beyond our knowledge of grace….

The poem, one's life, the life of the cosmos, the dance of things in time, have no plan or end or pattern or goal, other than the imperatives of the unfolding law of their own activity in space and time. The only law the dance has is love of the Dance itself, which in practice means love of all persons and objects that are a part of it. Evil is that which is antagonistic to the dance, the resistant medium through which the dance honeycombs its erratic patterns. Life, Poetry, Godhead is the light coming out of darkness, cosmos radiating through chaos, the God's eye opening in the murky ambience….

There is in Duncan's work none of the intense visceral experience of the war's suffering that we find in Levertov, but instead a remoteness and grandeur like that in Milton's battle on the plains of heaven. Duncan does not experience the war but repeatedly attempts to place it in its large spiritual perspective. His protest and the war fall into the patterns of the classic struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. Perhaps it is already clear that it is not war itself that Duncan considers evil, but rather its coercive implications in modern times….

All hatred and all evil, Duncan believes, grow out of a failure of the imagination to put together a condition in which love can function….

Duncan's virtues as poet are also his shortcomings—the mythic and cosmic perspective allows him to transcend narrowness and hatred, but fails to communicate vividly to any sizable audience….

In summary: Duncan believes that paradise is a matter of the here and now in the community and free volition of man; that the City of God is hidden in the cities of man; that love is evolving naturally out of hatred like a God's eye opening in darkness, but needs a total freedom in which it may grow; and that not death but coercion and loss of community are the real evils of war. Duncan's outrage, then, is not merely against [the Vietnam] war in particular, and yet not indiscriminately against all war in general. But it is unlikely that any modern war can ever again meet the conditions of community and free volition that would justify it—and so Duncan's reservations are in a way academic. Nevertheless, they are exactly the reservations we should have expected him to make. A poet of Duncan's mythological mind could hardly be expected to relinquish from his cosmology all possibilities of heroic combat against the monsters of evil. It is only that in an increasingly sophisticated world both St. George and the dragon must inevitably play out their drama under new forms. The "irreal"—that level of spiritual reality one step beyond our commonplace awareness—has new weapons: the actual hallucinogens that expand consciousness, the new music, and the new morality, the new spirit of poverty and anti-materialism, and the new adventures in nonviolence. Duncan's own protest against coercion and lovelessness grows directly and spontaneously from his poetics and biography and is but one manifestation of a truly different kind of consciousness, either a very old or a very new spirituality.

James F. Mersmann, "Robert Duncan: Irregular Fire-Eros Against Ahreman," in his Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry Against the War, University Press of Kansas, 1974, pp. 159-204.


Duncan, Robert (Vol. 2)


Duncan, Robert (Vol. 7)