The Truth and Life of Myth

by Edward Howard Duncan

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

Duncan’s essay places him with other poets of his generation, writers such as Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg, who turned to earlier civilizations, mysticism, and Eastern religion in search of myths which they found lacking in the American consciousness. American civilization was criticized for any number of evils during the 1960’s—aggression in Vietnam, destruction of the environment, dehumanization of workers, pragmatic affluence—and poets were involved in public protests as well as writing their visions of how life should be lived and what gods deserved reverence. Duncan’s sense of the poet connected to the myth, dependent upon myth, allies him with this movement which was characterized by an emphasis on the primitive and romantic experience of which the modern, rational man was not aware.

This neoromantic movement also went against the poetics of earlier twentieth century poets. Duncan criticized T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound for their excess of rationality, and for worrying too much about being reasonable so as to fit in with reasonable, educated opinion. Also, these poets for Duncan placed too much emphasis on the poem as a work of highly conscious art and not enough emphasis on the meaning given in the poem which a poet cannot assume full credit for stating. Duncan’s experience of hearing a William Blake poem read aloud in the early 1950’s released “the wonder of the world of the poem itself” and broke “the husk of my modernist pride and shame, my conviction that what mattered was the literary or artistic achievement.”

Reading Duncan’s poetry in the light of the poetics he declares in this essay confirms that Duncan practiced what he so passionately advocated. In his poems, mythological persons are characters, and ancient lore impinges on immediate sensation. Speaking to monarch butterflies in the title poem of Roots and Branches (1964), Duncan says; “There are/ echoes of what I am in what you perform/ this morning. How you perfect my spirit!” This book testifies that poetry is not a craft but a presence or a body of some kind, a container like a boat or a lake, in which the poet is held and from which he is asked to speak. The condition is partly a departure from reason, as the poet is open to seizures and being beside himself, overwhelmed by the radiance of vision. Above all, such poetry is religious, harking back to writers such as Henry Vaughn and George Herbert, who spoke prayers to God in the form of poems. A poem celebrating H.D.’s birthday concludes, “Father whose signature is in the chemical bond,/ how long you have searcht for me;/ I am your son.”

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