Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1127
“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.
In the first “The Structure of Rime,” Duncan locates his primary task as a poet, “which is first a search in obedience” to language, a pledge that will, if he is steadfast, enable him to create himself out of words: “In the feet that measure the dance of my pages I hear cosmic intoxications of the man I will be.”
He further creates, in the next several sections, a mythological figure he calls the “Master of Rime,” who engages him in a discussion of the nature of poetry and of time as destroyer, finally defining for Duncan the “Structure of Rime”: “An absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance establishes measures that are music in the actual world . . . the actual stars are music in the real world. This is the meaning of the music of the spheres.” Duncan employs the first principle of alchemy throughout much of his poetry: “As above, so below,” an orientation that enables him to view physical reality as an allegory of invisible worlds which only those possessing a spiritual vision can apprehend.
Throughout “The Structure of Rime” series in The Opening of the Field, he mythopoeically creates a world of his own and peoples it with figures from world mythology and theosophic lore: Adam and Eve; the garden with the cosmic ash tree, Yggdrasil, bleeding language from its branches; and the dance of the Heraclitean Fire whose “tongues” also speak. Duncan then catalogs other figures, transforming their traditional roles into linguistic tasks; he transforms Chiron, the guide to Hades, into a syntactical grammarian.
The natural cyclic movement of water from river to clouds to rain becomes a metaphor for the process of the activity of language. The poetic impulse becomes a fish in the sea of language, then a gopher and a snail struggling to create for themselves homes in the chaos of nature, as archetypal memories erupt from beneath the earth and break the rocky surface. All these events remind the world of its origin, the sun, which subsequently became the source of people’s first religions and humanity’s attempt to use language to express that ineffable relationship.
As everything is perceived, named, and measured in language, it is evident that Duncan’s use of the term “rime” refers to much more than similar sounds at the end of lines of poetry. Rather, “rime” designates any and all reiterations or repetitions that appear in these works and form a structure or pattern of some kind which, in short, humanizes the vast, unnameable void with language. Duncan can only experience his world if he can imagine it in terms of linguistic or musical orders, scales, or measures. His poetry contains its own measures, which are divided into rime and rhythm—both measurable and, therefore, knowable.
The remaining sections of “The Structure of Rime” further delineate their basic motifs throughout the rest of Duncan’s work. “The Structure of Rime XIV” in Roots and Branches, however, appears as section 5 in a long poem called “Apprehensions,” functioning as an active unit of both the single poem and a section of the series “The Structure of Rime.” The combination works well because “Apprehensions” concerns itself with memories of Duncan’s childhood, especially the spiritualist influences of his parents. He also delves into the history of his grandfather’s family and their migrations from the east to the northwest to the west, and how those patterns become a cave of remembrances and, therefore, a “cave of rimes!”
Mythological figures from German folklore appear by way of composer Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (1882) and its Grail quest as it moves through the poetry of French poet Paul Verlaine, resurfacing eventually in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). True to Duncan’s obsession with origins, he finds himself in the company of the originators of “sexual wound literature,” Isis and Osiris. All the wounded figures in these legends could be cured if a questing hero, usually an innocent fool, speaks the loving and, therefore, “healing” words. The words must take the form of a question, and Duncan again locates the hidden and healing word “quest” within “question.” The answer is in the “question” itself, because reality is always a matter of language continuously probing its sources for meaning.
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