The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

“Up Rising,” in the tradition of all good political poetry, casts its shadow onto public discourse in ways that are both instructive and artistic. The poem extends to slightly over two pages of free verse. In a play on words, the title resembles the single word “uprising”—evocative of political insurrection—yet because it is written as two words, it suggests the ominous emergence of dark, sinister forces in America that are the foci of the poem’s meditation.

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The first line mentions “Johnson,” a reference to Lyndon Baines Johnson, United States President from 1963 to 1969. The poem declares that Johnson will arise “to join the great simulacra”—empty images—of such men as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and “to work his fame/ with planes roaring out from Guam over Asia.” This reference to America’s bombing of Indochina during the Vietnam War is Robert Duncan’s rationale for equating Johnson with two of the century’s most brutal, prodigious mass-murderers. Duncan’s negative reaction to the Vietnam War is the poem’s unifying element.

Duncan portrays Johnson as a megalomaniac, with “all America” subjected to his “will,” which Duncan labels “a bloated thing,” perhaps a tick, parasitically sucking “blood and dreams” from the nation. The poet notes that Johnson’s “fame” is such that “his name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors.” Duncan also implicates “the professional military,” who are said to be “thinking/ to use him [Johnson] as they thought to use Hitler” in their lust for war.

Here begins a long incantatory passage, taking up most of the poem, on “the mania,” which Duncan equates with “the ravening eagle of America.” In an unfolding chain of juxtapositions, Duncan implies that the national symbol has been transformed into “the ominous roar in the air,/ the omnipotent wings,” a reference to American war planes with “the all-American boy in the cockpit.”

To show the horrific perversion that he believes “the mania” has wrought, Duncan uses sexual innuendo in his condemnation when he speaks of the pilot “loosing his flow of napalm.” The product of phallic weaponry is not a life-giving force but a fluid that sticks to human skin as it burns. Pleasure has become “the torture of mothers and fathers and children,/ their hair a-flame, screaming in agony.”

In a long Whitmanesque passage, Duncan speaks of this mania as having “raised from the private rooms ofbusinessmen,/ from the council chambers . . ./ from the fearful hearts of good people in the suburbs . . ./ raised thishatred of Europe, of Africa, of Asia,/ the deep hatred for the old world . . ./ and for the alien world.” Duncan’s point is that Americans have come to hate the foreigner, the “other,” and because of “the mania”—“this black bile” which “takes over the vanity of Johnson”—their solution is to kill the objects of this hatred.

In the poem’s final lines, Duncan brings the devil into the equation, stating that “the very glint of Satan’s eyes . . ./ now shines from the eyes of the President.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

Two highly distinctive features of “Up Rising” are its long lines and its declamatory language, both of which locate the poem in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. Whitman was profoundly influenced by the orators of his day, and Ginsberg made a reputation for himself as a spellbinding reader. “Up Rising” is the kind of poem whose cumulative power and effect are significantly magnified by reading it aloud. The reason for this can be summed up in one word: syntax. The poem is written as a single sentence, within which there are four independent clauses that vary greatly in length, from five lines to more than forty. The first spans nine lines, with the subject and verb in the poem’s opening line: “Now Johnson would go up to join the great simulacra of men.” The ensuing eight lines consist of a series of phrases and subordinate clauses that establish a seductive declamatory rhythm.

After the connective “And,” the second independent syntactical unit, six lines long, similarly begins with its main subject and verb, “men wake.” Again, several appended phrases follow. With the third clause, however, a long cumulative incantation of argumentative detail that takes up the bulk of the poem, Duncan breaks this subject-verb pattern. The first line of the passage, “But the mania, the ravening eagle of America,” contains the subject, “mania,” but fifteen lines of verse ensue before the first of the compound verbs, “has raised,” is encountered. There follows a series of four long prepositional phrases, all beginning with “from,” and an interjected passage of prose, before the verb’s direct object, “entity,” is reached. The clause continues for ten more lines, using the same pattern of rhythmically interrupted syntactical flow.

The effect of this kind of sentence structure, which Whitman employed, especially in “Song of Myself,” and which Duncan has mastered admirably in “Up Rising,” is hypnotic. It lends a primal, almost primitive legitimacy to Duncan’s political position, as though it were grounded in natural law. This significantly strengthens the poem’s argument.

Curiously, as though the poem were becoming too hypnotic, Duncan interrupts the verse with a sizable chunk of prose, striking a kind of rhythmic balance. Coming as it does immediately after Duncan’s accusation of America’s universities and corporations—whose scientists have developed “the atomic stockpile; the vials of synthesized diseasesand the gasses of despair”—the passage is also an appropriately prosaic mirroring in language of the scientific method.

Duncan’s single-minded, uncompromising damnation of the Vietnam War builds up to an emotionally cathartic series of images in the poem’s last clause. The nation has a “swollen head,” and “from the pit of the hell of/ America’s unacknowledged, unrepented crimes,” Duncan sees the “glint of Satan’s eyes”—as riveting and hypnotic as the language and rhythm of the poem—shining out of Johnson’s.


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Last Updated on May 7, 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).

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