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Robert Duncan

1919–1988

Born on January 7, 1919, in Oakland, California, Robert Duncan began writing poetry as a teenager in Bakersfield, when a high school teacher encouraged his creative endeavors. In 1938, after two years at University of California, Berkeley, Duncan moved to New York and became involved in the downtown literary coterie that had sprung up around Anaïs Nin.

While in New York, Duncan took an active role in emerging arts movements, following the works of the Abstract Expressionists, the development of Pablo Picasso's brand of modernism, and the emergence of an American Surrealism as seen in the works of his acquaintances Roberto Matta and Hans Hoffman. During this time, Duncan launched the Experimental Review with Sanders Russell; Duncan and Russell published the work of Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Durrell, and other writers in their circle.

Duncan returned to Berkeley in 1946. The poetry scene there was developing into what would soon be called the San Francisco Renaissance: Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser were together devising their concept of a "serial form" for poems linked by repeating themes, images, and phrases, while Kenneth Rexroth was holding his literary and anarchist meetings, which Duncan, Blaser, and a host of others attended.

In 1947 Duncan met Charles Olson, and over the years that followed the two developed a relationship rooted in their literary interests. Olson introduced Duncan to Robert Creeley and, in 1956, invited Duncan to teach at Black Mountain College. During his time at Black Mountain Duncan composed most of the poems in his first mature collection of poetry, The Opening of the Field. Indeed, Olson's theory of "projective verse" and "open forms," which propose a poetry shaped by the poet's "breath" rather than by the traditional rules of meter and rhyme, seem to have directly influenced Duncan's "grand collage" concept of verse. Duncan, in effect, took Olson's idea of "breath" one step further, presenting the poem as a "compositional field" to which the poet might bring whatever he or she pleases.

Duncan's rather spiritual upbringing shaped the scope of the poet's work. After his biological mother died giving birth to him, Duncan was adopted by a couple who practiced theosophy, an occult religion popularized in the late nineteenth century by a controversial figure who called herself Madame Blavatsky (W. B. Yeats was a follower of theosophy, in its early stages). Theosophy, which promotes belief in reincarnation and an "essential oneness" of spirit, draws from world religions and philosophy. Duncan's adoptive parents, spiritual-seekers who seriously pursued their interests in enlightenment, selected Robert based on the configuration of his astrological chart. Duncan took his parents' beliefs quite seriously; the occult, in particular, informed both his poetry and theories of poetics throughout his life.

Despite his affiliation with several major movements in American poetry of the fifties and sixties, Duncan forged a style uniquely his own. Utilizing archaic diction and spelling, and complex repetition of phrase, Duncan creates a poetic space both ethereal and obsessive. Throughout his life Duncan became increasingly interested in the writing process, striving to write poems of a purely organic form. His most famous poem, the central piece of The Opening of the Field, provides a commentary on Duncan's work as a whole, and serves as a precursor for his work to come:

OFTEN I AM PERMITTED TO RETURN TO A MEADOW as if it were a scene made-up by the mind, that is not mine, but is a made place, that is mine, it is so near to the heart, an eternal pasture folded in all thought so that there is a hall therein that is a made place, created by light wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Duncan died on February 3, 1988.


A Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Early Poems (1939)
Heavenly City Earthly City (1947)
Poems (1949)
A Book of Resemblances (1950)
Medieval Scenes (1950)
Fragments of a Disordered Devotion (1952)
Letters (1953)
Selected Poems (1959)
The Opening of the Field (1960)
As Testimony: The Poem (1964)
Roots and Branches (1964)
Medea at Kolchis: The Maiden Head (1965)
A Book of Resemblances Poems (1966)
Of the War: Passages (1966)
Bending the Bow (1968)
Derivations: Selected Poems (1968)
Names of People (1968)
Play Time Pseudo Stein (1969)
65 Drawings, A Selection . . . from One Drawing Book (1970)
Poetic Disturbances (1970)
A Prospectus for . . . Ground Work (1971)
Caesar's Gate Poems (1972)
Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly (1972)
A Seventeenth Century Suite (1973)
An Ode and Arcadia (1974)
Dante (1974)
Selected Poems (1977)
Medieval Scenes (1978)
Ground Work: Before the War (1984)
Ground Work II: In the Dark (1987)
Selected Poems (1993)

Prose

A Great Admiration: H. D./Robert Duncan Correspondence (1992)
A Selected Prose (1995)
Writing A Composition Book Stein Imitations (1964)

Drama

Faust Foutu: An Entertainment in Four Parts (1959)

Essays

Fictive Certainties: Essays (1979)

Letters

The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (2003)

Robert Duncan
Photo credit: Patricia Layman Bazezon

By This Poet

5

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind, 
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart, 
an eternal pasture folded in all thought 
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light 
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am 
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved 
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words 
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing 
east against the source of the sun 
in an hour before the sun's going down

whose secret we see in a children's game 
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow 
as if it were a given property of the mind 
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

My Mother Would Be a Falconress

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.

She would bring down the little birds. 
And I would bring down the little birds. 
When will she let me bring down the little birds, 
pierced from their flight with their necks broken, 
their heads like flowers limp from the stem?

I tread my mother's wrist and would draw blood.
Behind the little hood my eyes are hooded.
I have gone back into my hooded silence,
talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.

For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me, 
sewn round with bells, jangling when I move.
She rides with her little falcon upon her wrist. 
She uses a barb that brings me to cower. 
She sends me abroad to try my wings 
and I come back to her. I would bring down 
the little birds to her
I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly.

I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood, 
and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying. 
She draws a limit to my flight.
Never beyond my sight, she says.
She trains me to fetch and to limit myself in fetching.
She rewards me with meat for my dinner.
But I must never eat what she sends me to bring her.

Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me, 
always, in a little hood with the bells ringing,
at her wrist, and her riding 
to the great falcon hunt, and me
flying up to the curb of my heart from her heart 
to bring down the skylark from the blue to her feet, 
straining, and then released for the flight.

My mother would be a falconress, 
and I her gerfalcon raised at her will, 
from her wrist sent flying, as if I were her own 
pride, as if her pride
knew no limits, as if her mind 
sought in me flight beyond the horizon.

Ah, but high, high in the air I flew. 
And far, far beyond the curb of her will, 
were the blue hills where the falcons nest. 
And then I saw west to the dying sun--
it seemd my human soul went down in flames.

I tore at her wrist, at the hold she had for me,
until the blood ran hot and I heard her cry out,
far, far beyond the curb of her will

to horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world where
   the falcons nest
I saw, and I tore at her wrist with my savage beak.
I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight,
sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist,
striking out from the blood to be free of her.

My mother would be a falconress,
and even now, years after this,
when the wounds I left her had surely heald,
and the woman is dead,
her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart 
were broken, it is stilld

I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.

Achilles' Song

I do not know more than the Sea tells me,
told me long ago, or I overheard Her
     telling distant roar upon the sands,
waves of meaning in the cradle of whose
     sounding and resounding power I
slept.

                              Manchild,     She sang

--or was it a storm uplifting the night
     into a moving wall in which
I was carried as if a mothering nest had
     been made in dread?

the wave of a life darker than my
     life before me sped, and I,
larger than I was, grown dark as
     the shoreless depth,
arose from myself, shaking the last
     light of the sun
from me.

                              Manchild,     She said,

Come back to the shores of what you are.
Come back to the crumbling shores.

     All night
The mothering tides in which your
     Life first formd in the brooding
light have quencht the bloody
     Splendors of the sun

and, under the triumphant processions
     of the moon, lay down
thunder upon thunder of an old
     longing, the beat

of whose repeated spell
     consumes you.

                              Thetis, then,
     my mother, has promised me
the mirage of a boat, a vehicle
     of water within the water,
and my soul would return from
     the trials of its human state,
from the long siege, from the
     struggling companions upon the plain,
from the burning towers and deeds
     of honor and dishonor,
the deeper unsatisfied war beneath
     and behind the declared war,
and the rubble of beautiful, patiently
     workt moonstones, agates, jades, obsidians,

turnd and retrund in the wash of
     the tides, the gleaming waste,
     the pathetic wonder,

words turnd in the phrases of song
     before our song ...or are they

beautiful, patiently workt remembrances of those
     long gone from me,
returned anew, ghostly in the light
     of the moon, old faces?

For Thetis, my mother, has promised
     me a boat,
a lover, an up-lifter of my spirit
     into the rage of my first element
rising, a princedom
     in the unreal, a share in Death

*

Time, time. It's time.

The business of Troy has long been done.

Achilles in lreuke has come home.

And soon you too     will be alone.

--December 10, 1968

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