Robert Duncan (1919-1988) has long been considered one of the great contemporary lyric poets. He was born in Oakland, California, studied at Berkeley, and moved later to New York City. In 1946, he returned to the west coast and was active in the San Francisco Renaissance, together with poets such as Robin Blaser, Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Spicer. A Selected Prose was published by New Directions in 1995, and a revised edition of his Selected Poems was published in 1997.
Let's begin with the thought that Duncan, in his poetics, embodies a series of paradoxes that at once reflect and reflect upon the antecedent poetics of what he called his "modernist masters." Such paradoxes were what struck me when I first encountered Duncan at the Vancouver Poetry Conference, staged at the University of British Columbia in 1963. I had come to know Duncan's work initially through Donald Allen's pathbreaking anthology, The New American Poetry, then through The Opening of the Field, published by Grove Press in 1960 and finally through a copy of the long out-of-print Poems 1948-49, which I'd found on the back shelves of Gordon Cairnie's Grolier Bookshop in Cambridge. I had been greatly impressed by the exploratory audacity of the 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:
The artist, after Dante's poetics, works with all parts of
the poem as polysemous, taking each thing of the
composition as generative of meaning, a response to
and a contribution to the building form . . . . So the
artist of abundancies delites in puns, interlocking
and separating figures, plays of things missing or
things appearing "out of order" that remind us that
all orders have their justification in an order of orders
only our faith as we work addresses. Were all in
harmony to our ears, we would dwell in the dreadful
smugness in which our mere human rationality
relegates what it cannot cope with to the "irrational,"
as if the totality of creation were without ratios.
(from Bending the Bow, Introduction, p.ix)
Statements such as this appeared to lay the ground for a prosody and poetics in radical opposition to the institutionally dominant Anglo-American formalism of the time, to propose a prosody and a poetics responsive to the most recent developments in music and the visual arts, yet anchored, through Dante and many others, to a "spirit of romance" animating human history.
As an engaged, twenty-year-old student of modernist principles, however, I was disturbed by Duncan's free use of ornament, of archaic diction and grandiose rhetoric, and by the neoplatonic aura surrounding much of the work. (Such "disturbance" is an intentional function of Duncan's poetics as he challenges assumptions and boundaries both to the right and to the left.) At Vancouver, in the freewheeling discussions with Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Margaret Avison, Duncan would continually queer the pitch. Into a consideration of projective verse, he would introduce Mallarmé; at the mention of Whitehead's Process and Reality, he might offer Boehme, William Carlos Williams, Edith Sitwell; to Ginsberg’s proposition of "spontaneous bop prosody" he would counter with the "Law we are given to follow." Thus, even among sympathetic peers (though Ginsberg and Duncan were not often in sympathy), Duncan felt the need to assert the force of heretical opinion, which in turn for him was grounded in the authority of timeless heretical gnosis. The poem was to stand as a "grand collage," a constellation of myriad myths and voices from an eternal counter-tradition, as well as of impulses, accidents and intrusions, disciplined and informed by an attention to the poem's ratios or measures. Into its field, "where sympathies and aversions mingle," closed and open forms, harmonies and disharmonies, the mythic and the mundane, the hieratic and the demotic, were to be equally welcomed. Whence Pound’s plaint, during a visit by Duncan to St. Elizabeth's, that Duncan had put back in everything they had labored so long to take out.
Duncan's project can be seen in part as an effort to make place once again for the artifice, affect, and lore modernism had repressed. However, this was achieved not in reaction against modernism (and certainly not for the sake of decor), but as an extension of its exploratory impulse and a reading or revealing of its progressive, romantic philosophical and aesthetic origins.
Duncan interprets this romantic impulse as an eternal one, alive in the perverse, resistant voices of poets, but equally so in the syncretistic impulse of Hellinistic philosophy, the songs of the Cathars, gnostic texts, Oz, Alice, Freud, George MacDonald, George Herriman, and others. All are threads in the fabric of mythic lore. "Myth," states Duncan at the beginning of The Truth and Life of Myth, "is the story of what cannot be told, as mystery is the scene of what cannot be revealed, and the mystic gnosis the thing known that cannot be known." At another point he writes:
Myth, for Dante, for Shakespeare, for Milton, was the
poet-lore handed down in the tradition from poet to
poet. It was the very matter of Poetry, the nature of
the divine world as poets had testified to it; the
poetic piety of each poet, his acknowledgment of
what he had found true Poetry, worked to conserve
that matter. And, for each, there was in the form of
their work—the literary vision, the play of actors
upon the stage, and the didactic epic—a kind of
magic, for back of these forms we surmise distant
origins in the rituals toward ecstasy of earliest Man.
Once the operations of their art began they were
transported from their sense of myth as literary
element into the immediacy of the poem where
reality was mythological.
(from The Truth and Life of Myth, p.39)
By implication, each poem comes in response to this Traditio and is a kind of "listening in," as well as an ec-stasis or standing outside oneself. It is in this sense that Duncan will refuse the claim of originality and insist that he is a "derivative" poet, a poet of near infinite derivations. The statement is a provocation—another assault on the modernist credo—but it is also evidence of Duncan's subversive playfulness and his delight in demolishing expectations. It would be difficult to imagine a more willfully idiosyncratic position for such a poet at such a time. Yet it is grounded, ultimately, and perhaps once again paradoxically, in his conviction regarding poetry's responsibility toward and derivation from the immediate world, that is, a world of multiple immediacies, socio-political, sexual, psychic and imaginal.
Robert Duncan grew up, the adopted son of a theosophical family, in the town of Bakersfield, California. As Michael Davidson has noted in his book, The San Francisco Renaissance, the interpretive methods of theosophical reading of both text and world deeply influenced the poet's sense of the ways meanings inhere and things correspond:
This charged, participatory act of reading gains definition
through contemporary theories of "open field verse," to be
sure, but for Duncan its origins can be found in the
theosophical tradition that he inherited from his adopted
family. For his parents, "the truth of things was esoteric
(locked inside) or occult (masked by) the apparent . . . ."
Within this environment every event was significant as an
element in a larger, cosmological scheme. Although
Duncan has never practised within any theosophical
religion, he has easily translated its terms into works like
Freud's Interpretation of Dreams . . . Within both
theosophical and Freudian hermeneutics, story is not
simply a diversion or fiction, but an "everlasting omen of
(from The San Francisco Renaissance, p.132)
This childhood also brought Duncan early knowledge of his homosexuality, which would play a central role in articulating the complex thematics of his work. Long before it was safe to do so, Duncan "came out" in both his personal and public lives. In 1944, Dwight Macdonald's Politics published Duncan's still-controversial article, "The Homosexual in Society." This caused John Crowe Ransom to withdraw Duncan's "African Elegy" from its scheduled publication in the Kenyon Review. Many lines of battle were being drawn at once.
My own friendship with Duncan, and with his companion, the painter Jess, dates from the early 1970s. By then the days of the Berkeley Renaissance, with its youthful community around Duncan, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, and the latter days of the much more public San Francisco Renaissance, were over. Jack Spicer had died in 1965. Robin Blaser had moved to Vancouver, where his work in poetry and poetics continued to thrive and deepen. Robert became the central figure in a new, activist poetic community that would emerge in part from the New College of California Poetics Program, of which he was the head. He taught as he spoke as he wrote, leading students on a wild, nonlinear ride "in search of the subject." He was much the same in personal conversation, insistently enthusiastic, combative, heuristic, making associational leaps and challenging you to follow across the open field and, at times, through the dark wood. He waged, intermittently, a visceral, not always coherent battle against the language poets, suspecting them of hidden orthodoxies and of repressing the dimension of Spirit, with that troublesome, rebarbative capital letter. The last afternoon I visited him, the day before his death in 1988, I mentioned that my daughter and I were reading the third volume of the Oz tales together. He paused for a moment, then his face lit up, "Oh! The one with the heads!"
Michael Palmer was born in New York City in 1943, and lived in Europe for several years before settling in San Francisco. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988, published by New Directions in 2001.