Robert Duncan Duncan, Robert (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Duncan, Robert 1919–

Duncan is an American poet, critic, playwright, essayist, and editor. He is one of the best known of the Black Mountain Poets, and the influence of this group is felt throughout his work. The projectivists' concern with modes, forms, and measure in poetry informs all Duncan's verse. However, the tendency of the projectivists to add private perceptions not necessarily relevant to the thematic development of a poem has caused some critics to label his verse obscure and difficult. Duncan's poetic language is characterized by his love for word play and his unique syntax. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Warren Tallman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The subtlety [of Duncan's 'Strawberries Under The Snow', in his The First Decade,] is in the tempo, which quickens then slows then quickens again; and it is in the repetition of words and phrases, a shutting movement that creates lingering effects as the ear hears again in a new phrasing what it had heard shortly before. All is precise yet almost dreamy, accurate yet enchanted…. Duncan is [near] the visual directness Blake achieves when, 'On a cloud I saw a child', or the equally direct speech of Yeats, 'Come away Oh human child/To the waters and the wild', instances in which highly sophisticated adult minds move into perfect balance with beautifully unsophisticated childhood. In 'Strawberries Under The Snow' Duncan achieves such balance. But his poem is very different from Blake or Yeats because his language is different, in a modern mode. (pp. 71-2)

As his life in poetry unfolds he assimilates innovations of all the important Modernists…. Duncan's poetry testifies to a constantly growing and deepening belief, derived most directly from Ezra Pound, in the supreme importance, the reality of language. Language as he understands it is at once the raw material and the natural habitat of poetry, a kind of universe that is subject to the same laws and opportunities as the human, natural and supernatural worlds.

He for instance often denies that he is a poet at all, but not from modesty. The more completely he can relinquish merely personal claims the more fully he can enter into offices of the language. Hence his view of Walt Whitman as 'the president of regulation', the chief officer of the language rather than the chief poet of America. (p. 72)

Now a chief value of The First Decade and Derivations is as history, a record of how Duncan's increasingly full and passionate devotion to language occurs. The First Decade shows his progress from early poems through to the first decisive demonstration of his powers, in 'Medieval Scenes' (1947) and in his major work of that period, 'The Venice Poem' (1948). The overall form of this 26-page poem is musical, four movements. Occasional strains from TS Eliot enter, but Duncan's melodic sense is essentially improvisational, subtler than the impressive but conventional, even constricted, music of 'Four Quartets'. The more direct influence is Pound, whose instructions to younger poets, circa 1948,...

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Dolores Elise Brien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Duncan is a poet "in the American spirit," a traditionalist, as he himself clearly recognizes, with a remarkable affinity to the romanticism of Emerson and Whitman…. In the poetry and prose of Duncan one discovers Emerson's poet-priest inserted into the twentieth century, a poet who is one of Emerson's "representative men." (p. 308)

[As] early as 1954 Duncan realized that he was, in truth, an Emersonian, and proposed then that by enlarging the "vision of our genius" to include the relationship with Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne and Dickinson, "the full promise of our rebirth in Poetry would be released." The poet, as Duncan came to understand and to accept after a long personal struggle, takes his significance, not from himself alone, but also from the relationship to the poets of the past.

Duncan's capacity to assimilate ideas from other poets and writers caused him much anxiety and led him at one time to question seriously his worth as a poet…. His fear of succumbing to … romantic excesses is evident in the self-mockery present in many of the earlier poems, such as "Imaginary Instructions."… (pp. 308-09)

Having learned [, however, from Charles] Olson that wisdom is something quite different from "the goal of poetry," Duncan ceased indulging in self-deprecation and gave up the struggle for spurious "originality." He resolved the problem of "imitation" by admitting to its necessity, and even its desirability, asserting at the same time that no imitation is strictly possible. Each poem is the fruit of the poet's participation in the universal creative process, forming his identity and experience, tracing his personal "signature." In this sense he brings forth a new form which is at once distinctly his own and yet not his own, but part of an eternal form forever in process.

Duncan's understanding of the making of poetry and of the poetic vocation has its origin in a personal cosmology which astonishingly resembles the cosmologies of Emerson and Whitman. With them he shares a syncretic world-view which is capable of absorbing and reconciling the variety and contradictions of appearances. Since time and space can be transcended, so too can history and geography be transcended. (pp. 309-10)

Consciousness of participation in the universal mind is, for Emerson, a source of strength for the individual, and a cause of self-reliance which is nothing more than reliance on the divinity immanent in the soul. For Duncan as well it is a source of wonder that there should be this unending flow of love circulating throughout the commune of the spirit. Such consciousness makes it possible to give and to receive from those who...

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Karl Malkoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The movement from Imagism to Objectivism to Projectivism—summarized by Olson in the term Objectism—has been characterized by an increasing awareness of the implications of poetic techniques. Pound often says he is doing one thing and does another; Williams pinpoints the movement's basis, a new relationship between the self and the world; Olson explicitly asserts a new version of the self, one that plays down the traditional role of consciousness. But our survey is not complete without adding a footnote provided by Robert Duncan.

In his essay "Notes on Poetics Regarding Olson's Maximus," Duncan reinterprets Pound's "logopoeia" as "not only a verbal manifestation, but a physiological manifestation." Taking this into account, he formulates his account of the genesis of the poem as follows:

The coming into life of the child: first, that the breath-blood circulation be gaind, an interjection! the levels of the passions and inspiration in phrases; second, that focus be gaind, a substantive, the level of vision; and third, the complex of muscular pains that are included in taking hold and balancing, verbs, but more, the movement of the language, the level of the ear, the hand, and the foot. All these incorporated in measure.

The organic metaphor, seeming to obscure, is itself telling; the poem is born the way a human being is born. In addition to sight and...

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Robert C. Weber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[For] Duncan "the beauty of a poem is a configuration … that leads back into or on towards the beauty of the universe itself." This process in poetry leads to the production of the poem of resonance in which meanings, far from arising gratuitously [as some critics suggest], slowly build in a process of accretion. To understand the building process one must be aware that the idea of configuration is central to Duncan's poetics since for him the idea of a poem evolves organically from a particular locus "in relation to its environment of language and experience." Elements in the poem grow out of their relationship to each other as predicated upon their relationship to an order beyond the limits of temporal perception. This is the poem of resonance, a poem in which each element is charged with meaning reinforcing and extending each other in an ever-widening gestalt. (p. 67)

Unlike "The Structure of Rime," an earlier open series which has as its central focus the growth and education of the poet, "Passages" is not structured according to any perceivable organization. Instead, it receives its impetus from whatever is the poet's concern at the particular moment of composition. "The poem is not a stream of consciousness," Duncan says, "but an area of composition in which I work with whatever comes into it." There is no goal, no desire, no margin to this series, for the individual poems are part of a larger series mirroring in apparent discord the underlying harmony of the universe. As a result, whatever is at hand, whether the poet's memories, ideas, awareness of persons or things, or reading, can enter the field; and as the "poet works with a sense of the parts fitting in relation to parts of a great story that he knows will never be completed," he creates picture after picture of man's nature. Such a composition can never be completed since man is continually changing; each "Passage" then is a fragment of the whole composition. (pp. 67-8)

The form of the individual poems in this series is the collage. Although Duncan had been approaching a theory of the poetic collage with such poems as "Pindar," "Apprehensions," and "The Structure of Rime," it is not until Bending the Bow that he uses the collage to illustrate what had been a growing conviction for him; that is, the poet must be completely free from preconceived ideas, whether structural or thematic, and must allow the internal forces of the composition at hand to determine the final form. The collage allows Duncan the freedom from external restraints and makes possible the infusion of a great many diverse materials; controlling the whole, then, is not the individual bias of the poet, but his compliance with instinctually felt forces. Thus, within the body of the poem there are no contradictions, no extraneous materials, since everything is bound in the total unit. The collage, in effect, is the vehicle for a Heraclitean perspective, one that would recognize the divine Law and sense the harmony of the universe in accordance with that Law….

Duncan's attempt to find what he calls "the most real form in language" often results in a poem-collage that seems little more than a collection of purely personal allusions drawn from whatever he happened to be reading at the time of composition. However, central to his poetics is the idea "that the order man may contrive or impose upon the things about him or upon his own language is trivial beside the divine order or natural order he may discover in them." As such, his poems are apprehensions of a transcendent reality, and the images, allusions, metaphors provide resonances or glimpses of the unity beyond the present…. Whatever enters the poem-collage, then, does so according to a pattern—an order, or theme—beyond temporal limitations. (p. 68)

"The Fire" is only one part of the Grant Collage; taken as a whole the thirty plus sections of "Passages" represents Duncan's attempt to awaken the public to ideas which express the man's commonality. While the "Fire" is essentially a negative vision, it is a critical part of Duncan's search for the nature of man since he cannot ignore...

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Charles Altieri

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Where most postmodern poets are content to render dramatic instances of the mind satisfied in process, Duncan has grander ambitions. His aim is to reinterpret the aesthetics of presence in terms that can recover the contemporary significance of the Romance and hermetic imaginative traditions…. [Duncan] conceives myth as a [highly] abstract and philosophical venture. The mythic poet, he argues, cannot simply be open to the present; "he must reflect himself upon that which he is a reflection of." Thus the poet must take on the difficult task of making poetry of reflective thought and the emotions it can create. (pp. 150-51)

When critics notice [Duncan] at all, they comment on his weaknesses as a...

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