The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711

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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 beyond our lives,   having their perfection as we have. . . come into these orders as they have ever come, standas ever, where they are acknowledged,against the works of unworthy men,   unfeeling judgments and cruel deeds,

the tone is sublime, the scale, large. Duncan had the habit in his compositions of incorporating passages from other authors, and among those cited here is Hesiod, a Greek poet of the Homeric Age, whose Theogony and Works and Days Duncan had been reading at the time. Other identifiable sources include Aurora (1634), by German mystic Jakob Böhme; the essay “Projective Verse,” by Duncan’s older fellow-poet Charles Olson; works by Antoine Court de Gébelin, Gérard de Nerval, and pioneering American geographer Carl Sauer; the Inferno (c. 1320) of Dante; and the Hell Cantos of Ezra Pound. Citation on such a scale, and over such a range, can suggest a whole world, and that is precisely Duncan’s intention, although the “wholeness” remains an ideal, and the actuality is rent—two nations riven by the Vietnam War in a world that is filthy with self-interest.

Duncan was among the many who opposed America’s intervention in Southeast Asia—the previous group of Passages, “Of the War,” demonstrates this clearly—so it is understandable that the poems of this group offer glimpses of a nation on the verge of civil war and confront the question of good and evil with an immediacy matched only, in American poetry, by Pound’s Cantos (1917-1970). The problem for the poet (or anyone) who looks into Hell is the fascination that horrors exert—the hypnotic power of evil. Dante knew this, and he created a Vergil to be his guide through the Inferno, “Dante being so drawn into a fascination by the controversies of that place,” as Duncan writes, that he needed the idea and figure of the older poet to remind him to stop staring. Duncan makes use of this recollection to keep his own poem moving, remembering that there could be no evil without a corresponding good. The good entered these passages in various ways: as sensual, essential pleasure (for example, in “Passages 34, The Feast,” which consists in large part of a recipe for preparing leg of lamb); as art (as in Passages 33, with its vision of modern art as regenerative even in its dying); and as genetic, a genetically encoded ability to tell evil from good.

There are passages of great sweetness, serenity, and simplicity throughout, providing relief for the darker portions—the denunciations of corrupt public figures, “bosses and war-mongerers”; the litany of terrible dreams endured by president, poet, soldier, protestant; the wretched facts of war, with its maimings and wholesale murders. The overall effect, as the reader moves through this “free” yet carefully meted-out verse, with its long, mellifluous or shuddering lines made of aurally precise phrases, is of the mind confronting the worst and surviving, in some essential fashion, unscathed.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

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 printer’s distaste for how it would mar his typography that carried the day.” Duncan decided to circulate photocopies of his own typed, true-to-impulse work among friends and private subscribers. He published no books for fifteen years, and when Ground Work (1984) was finally published by New Directions, the text was photocopied from the poet’s typescript.

The phrasings of these poems are breath-based, although they are also derived from mental operations, a matter of pauses for judgment and selection; Duncan, who was unwilling to perpetuate the long divorce between mind and matter performed by Western civilization, found that the twin sources of these hesitations were actually one and the same. Duncan was substantially in agreement with Charles Olson, whose essays on poetry had called for the page to reflect the utterance of the poet in the instant it came to him or her, a compositional move intended to cancel the interference of reflective thought: All such thought should precede the act of composition, Olson believed. What he and others were after was a form of presence; they sought some way through or around the remove of the page and the book.

It must be said that Duncan’s poetry, while admirable in many respects, does not strike one as being as radical as his poetics. The phrasing, while breathtaking, usually falls into standard syntactic groupings. As he remarked once, talking about his tour-de-force poem “My Mother Would Be a Falconress”: “My censor wants to be Modern, but my poor little personality keeps coming out in iambic pentameter!”

The poems of Tribunals, however, are far from mere iambic pentameter, for they reveal a master of metrics at his best, capable throughout of wedding matter to rhythm—or, as the poet himself no doubt would have put it, of discovering in the matter its essential rhythm. The attentive reader cannot help but notice that the poem speeds up or slows down, appears to dance, to amble, to parade, or to hover as the requirements of the subject shift. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the stately tone that Duncan sounds in these poems, conjuring an air of majesty and judgment, charitable and severe by turns, that evokes divine intervention, if only in the reader’s mind.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

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).