Bending the Bow

Born in 1919 in Oakland, California, Robert Duncan began writing poetry as a teenager when a high school teacher encouraged his creative endeavors. In 1938, after only two years at the University of California in Berkeley, Duncan set off for New York where he became involved with the vibrant downtown literary coterie that followed the works of the Abstract Expressionists, Picasso and his brand of modernism, and the emerging American Surrealists. Duncan co-founded the Experimental Review before returning to Berkeley in 1946, at the outset of the San Francisco Renaissance.

In an essay on Duncan, Michael Palmer praises "the exploratory audacity of [Duncan’s] work, by the manipulation of complex, resistant harmonies, and by the kinetic idea of what Duncan called ‘composition by field,’ whereby all elements of the poem are potentially equally active in the composition as ‘events’ of the poem."

During his most prolific writing period, Duncan published three collections—The Opening of the Field in 1960, Roots and Branches in 1964, and, most notably, Bending the Bow in 1968—all three volumes contain the most accomplished of his mytho-poetic poems. In Bending the Bow, the remarkable combination of images and voices is most apparent in a poem such as "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," which begins:

My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when I'd turn my head.

My mother would be a falconress,
and she sends me as far as her will goes.
She lets me ride to the end of her curb
where I fall back in anguish.
I dread that she will cast me away,
for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.

Duncan's peers, who included Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley, along with the many dynamic literary movements he was involved in, helped shape his poetics. However, his spiritual upbringing was also deeply influential. After Duncan’s mother died during his birth, he was adopted by a couple who practiced an occult religion known as theosophy. With reincarnation among its articles of faith, theosophy sees every event in life as cosmologically significant and unified with all others. The influence is evident in much of his work, including the title poem of Bending the Bow and selections from the series "Passages."