The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The five poems whose group title is Tribunals form part of a much longer sequence called Passages. The publication of Passages spans several books by Robert Duncan. He began to compose them in 1964, and a considerable number of them can be found in his 1968 book Bending the Bow. The poems in Passages are open in form, built up of phrasings defined by various lengths of white space, and usually several pages in length. They tend to “cluster,” so that, as with Tribunals, thematic as well as formal considerations help unite a small group, defining that group as distinct within the entirety of the production. Duncan had been a longtime associate of the poet Jack Spicer, whose five-, six-, and seven-poem clusters came to be called “serial poems,” and that term seems to fit Tribunals. Although there is no sequential matter that binds the poems together, there are identities of scale and tone.

In Tribunals, these identities are grand, making this group perhaps the greatest of the groupings that constitute Passages. From the first lines of Passages 31, “The Concert,”

Out of the sun and the dispersing stars go forth the elemental sparks, outpouring vitalities,stir in the Saliter of the earth a living Spirit,

to the final lines of Passages 35, “Before the Judgment,”

Children of Kronos, of the Dream beyond death, secret of a Life...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Duncan spoke of his methods of composition on many occasions, and he was, even among poets, unusually aware of what he called “the adventure of forms.” William Carlos Williams, earlier in the twentieth century, scoffed at the term “free verse,” pointing out that since verse is always a measure of something, it can never be truly free. Williams labored throughout his life to find a measure that would reflect the realities of the era in which he lived, even as the sonnet had in Elizabethan times. He took the modernist destruction of traditional conventions in poetry not as an end in itself, but as an invitation—an obligation!—to find new forms “more consonant with the day.” Robert Duncan was among those poets who took upon themselves Williams’s task. The seriousness and meticulousness of his approach is reflected not only in his poetry, but also in his writing about it, and even in his correspondence. In a preface he wrote for an issue of the magazine Maps that was devoted to his work, Duncan told of his frustration in endeavoring to persuade the publisher and printer of Tribunals to respect the poet’s directives, to bring the typeset version into alignment with the poet’s typed original. “Faced with the problem presented inpage proofs where the measured spaces in which intervals in the poem were articulated were lost where the stanza or section ended at the bottom of a page,” Duncan writes, “I saw that a symbol was necessary to make the count clear.I was willing to pay for these symbols to be made; but at the last it was the...

(The entire section is 648 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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).