Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 739 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.