(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Structure of Rime” sections of Duncan’s books were never gathered together in one specific volume, and their author never wished them to be. Indeed, Duncan wrote them as a series of ongoing prose-poem discussions of his poetics. The initial thirteen were interspersed throughout his first major collection, The Opening of the Field, the next seven were included in Roots and Branches, while five appeared in Bending the Bow. Three appeared in Ground Work, with one final section in Ground Work II.

These highly complex open-form prose poems demonstrate Duncan’s adherence to the poetry of open forms—that is, the more open the field of possibilities, the more inclusive it becomes. He also firmly believed in poet Robert Creeley’s brilliantly comprehensive definition of both “form and content” when Creeley expanded upon poet Charles Olson’s statement that “form is never more than an extension of content,” a proposition that arguably closed the pedantic discussions over such obvious matters.

These multiphasic works, along with many essays and the new formalistic ground broken with his “Passages” poems, both define and demonstrate Duncan’s original ideas on what constitutes a long poem. Most major American poets from Whitman to the present had come to terms with the demands of the long poem: Ezra Pound in the Cantos, Robinson Jeffers in The Women at Point Sur (1927), Olson in The Maximus Poems (1960), Hart Crane in The Bridge (1930), and many others. Duncan, however, produced not one but two major poetic sequences, which he interweaves throughout all of his work in a DNA-like configuration. On several occasions, they actually become part of each other’s process.

To further complicate the situation, Duncan has stated that neither “The Structure of Rime” nor “Passages” can be called “long poems”: They are “large” poems. He questions the whole definition of what “long” means in regard to poetic form, explaining quite lucidly that his two works are “serial” works involved in the process of poem making. They are not a chronology or journey; their activity participates in neither a linear, circular, nor cyclic progression. They constitute exactly what Duncan proposed in his first book: a field, a large canvas or configuration that gathers meaning as it accumulates items. With the addition of each section, the area begins to radiate a kind of energy field, a field of memory which resonates correspondences which grow exponentially, as additions accumulate. The field expands and enlarges as new combinations of patterns or motifs appear, and these, in turn, begin to interconnect multiphasically.


(The entire section is 1127 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bertholf, Robert J. Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986.

Bertholf, Robert J., and Ian W. Reid, eds. Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. New York: New Directions, 1979.

Duncan, Robert. Interview. In Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews, edited by Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.

Faas, Ekbert. Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1983.

Johnson, Mark. Robert Duncan. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

O’Leary, Peter. Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Sagetrieb 4 (Fall/Winter, 1985).