Robert Duncan Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Is the caption “The Structure of Rime,” applied to Robert Duncan’s collective writings on the art of poetry, misleading in its scope?

Examine the unusual (that is, unexpected in their context) words in the poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” beginning with the word “permitted.” What do such words contribute to the poem—especially to the tone?

Considering Duncan’s interpretation of responsibility as “the ability to respond,” what evidence do his poems furnish of his capacity to respond to a variety of subjects and influences?

What is Duncan’s concept of spirituality? What religious and philosophical traditions contribute to it?

How can careful attention to the diction of Duncan’s poems contribute to a person’s understanding of the subject of etymology?

By what techniques does Duncan overcome his reader’s possible reluctance to commit to and enjoy a long poem?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Besides the poetic oeuvre, Robert Duncan produced a limited but essential corpus of essays concerning both his own work and life, and the work of those other writers important to him. Although The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography (1968) was published separately, it also opens the volume of his collected essays, Fictive Certainties (1985), and constitutes a major touchstone for an understanding of Duncan’s work. “Towards an Open Universe” and “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife,” also gathered in the same collection, are essential statements on poetics and politics. “The H. D. Book,” first conceived as a study of the poetry of H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), became an encyclopedic investigation of mythopoesis and modernism, eighteen sections of which appeared in magazines during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Other titles include The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (1965) and As Testimony: The Poem and The Scene (1964). Duncan is also the author of two plays, Faust Foutu: An Entertainment in Four Parts (pb. 1959) and Medea at Kolchis: The Maidenhead (pb. 1965). Duncan was a spell-binding reader of his own work as well as a truly phenomenal raconteur: A multitude of tapes preserved either in private hands or in university archives bear witness to this, and future transcriptions of his talks and interviews will provide major additions to, and commentaries on, the oeuvre as it now stands.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Because of his erudition, his sense of poetic tradition, his mastery of a variety of poetic forms, and, most important, his profoundly metaphysical voice, Robert Duncan is a major contemporary poet. “Each age requires a new confession,” Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, and Duncan presents his era with a voice it cannot afford to ignore. He was recognized with a Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize (1957), the Levinson Prize (1964) from Poetry magazine, and the Shelley Memorial Award (1984). Ground Work: Before the War was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won a National Book Award.

Although Duncan called himself a derivative poet, revealing his penetrating readings of Dante, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Shakespeare, William Blake, and others, at the same time he generated contemporary visions, Emersonian prospects of discovery and renewal. An impressive collection of more than thirty volumes of poetry, drama, and prose constitutes Duncan’s literary achievement. His serious notion of the role of the poet is evident in his many statements about his work, including the prefaces to such works as The Truth and Life of Myth and “The H. D. Book.” Duncan wrote in a wide range of voices, including a bardic, visionary persona of high seriousness and metaphysical concerns, but he never lost his wit and joy in language-play. Not only was he a masterful lyricist, capable of penetrating epiphanies such as “Roots and Branches,” but also he excelled in longer closed forms such as the serial poem (“Apprehensions,” “The Continent”) and the symphonic form of The Venice Poem. Finally, Duncan did some of his finest work in the form that is America’s most distinctive contribution to world poetry in the twentieth century: the long, open-ended poem that can accommodate an encyclopedia if need be. Duncan’s ongoing open poems, “The Structure of Rime” and “Passages,” are in the tradition of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925-1972), William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958), Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (1927-1978), and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1953-1983).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979. If Altieri’s self-defined critical categories of “postmodern” and “immanentist” seem open to debate, this is a groundbreaking book that offers insightful analyses of both the philosophical strictures and the post-Poundian poetics underlying the work of some of the major poets to emerge in the 1960’s (chapter 4 deals more specifically with Duncan’s work).

Bertholf, Robert J. Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986. Contains photographs of many of Duncan’s books, broadsides, illustrations, and drawings.

Bertholf, Robert J., and Ian W. Reid, eds. Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. New York: New Directions, 1979. Collects a variety of essays, including some by contemporary poets.

Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Although only chapter 4 (“Cave of Resemblances, Cave of Rimes: Tradition and Repetition in Robert Duncan”) of this study of poetics and community in the Bay Area is specifically centered on the poetics of Robert Duncan, the book as a whole is an invaluable guide to the social,...

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