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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739

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Robert Duncan’s subtitle for his study of myth, An Essay in Essential Autobiography, serves to describe the work’s general form. About halfway into this small book, however, Duncan steps outside the flow of his thinking to comment on how the piece is being written and his uncertainty about its contents:The voice, I felt, was not yet in the words, or I couldn’t hear it. Nowhere in what I was doing did I feel right about the thing having begun; everywhere it was about to begin; I did not have the “opening” words. For the essay must move, I knew, as the poem moves, from the releasing pattern of an inspiration, a breathing.

Such reflection distinguishes Duncan’s essay from the formal essay, which is written with such care as to assure the reader that the author knows exactly where he is going. Duncan admits to composing a poet’s essay, or one sustained by an elusive muse. The subtitle also announces the personal character of the work, and the essay includes lengthy narrative of autobiographical details, along with quotations from Duncan’s previously published poems. This blending of forms—essay, personal narrative, poetry—marks the work as modern. Yet the admitted recourse to “inspiration” places the writer in an ancient context. The essay is traditional in its development of a theme, modern in its author’s admitted anxiety about what is being said, and primordial in its acknowledgment and acceptance of help from outside: “They came, the words that keyed in the work of this paper, not in my own writing, but in an early poem of Denise Levertov’s.”

The Truth and Life of Myth was taken from a paper Duncan presented to a 1967 conference in Washington, D.C., on religion and myth in poetry. Its central concern is to illustrate Duncan’s absolute reliance on myth for inspiration when writing poetry. The first of the essay’s three sections includes Duncan’s recollections of his childhood impressions while listening to stories and poems and analysis of how these readings formed his consciousness. The topic Duncan discussed in 1967 was in line with theological and philosophical issues of the time, and his essay serves as a defense of poetry against attitudes then current. Early in the essay Duncan quotes a statement made by Rudolph Bultmann: “Modern man is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete.” (Bultmann advocated “demythologizing” Scripture to keep the modern mind, which was scientific and unsentimental, from embarrassment when confronted by Scripture.) Duncan’s discussion of the so-called modern mind and the “sentimental” poetic mind is at the core of the essay.

The audience addressed in the essay would include Duncan’s fellow poets, who were typified during the 1970’s as seeking inspiration through mysticism and Oriental religion. Yet the essay reflects the “spirit of the times,” generally described as pragmatism. Pragmatism speaks to the poet with a voice “that has again and again, sneering or pitying or condescending, reproved the poet for his pathetic fallacies, his phantasmagoria, his personifications, ecstatic realizations, pretensions.” Duncan’s audience of doubters includes literary critics, who sneer along with Bultmann at the poet’s ascription of deep meanings to common experience.

The essay’s second section argues that the last two thousand years of world history have been a stage on which mythological stories have been acted out, reacted against, rejected, and reaffirmed. Duncan discusses the history of Christianity, with special attention paid to Saint Francis and Ignatius of Loyola, the founders of lasting movements whose original inspiration was reversed by followers who were not living the same “story” as their founder. This section also introduces what Duncan calls the “retraction of sympathies,” by which he means the overestimation of reasonableness. Duncan shows how this “retraction” occurred, and how it is a criticism of mythological thinking that even he as a follower of myth can understand. Duncan shows how mythological thinking carried out in the real world by religious enthusiasts created a nightmare from which men defended themselves by becoming reasonable.

The essay’s brief third section discusses the poet’s condition, faced as he is with his “inspiration” and his need to participate in primordial reality while remaining wary of the delusions in which he might be trapped. The essay concludes with an affirmation of the poet’s place amid such uncertainty, since that is the only place inspiration will reach him.


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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s, 1979.

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

Duncan, Robert. Fictive Certainties: Five Essays in Essential Autobiography, 1979.

Gunn, Thom. The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, 1982.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, 1979.

Thurley, Geoffrey. The American Moment: American Poetry in the Mid-Century, 1977.


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