Analysis of Robert Duncan’s Poems

Of the many metaphors that Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919 – February 3, 1988) applied to his poetry—and very few poets have been so perceptive and articulate about their own practice—those dealing with limits, boundaries, and margins are numerous and permit a coherent if partial survey of his complex work. Such references are frequent in his poetry and are rooted in his life and his way of seeing. Living in San Francisco, at the edge of the North American continent, Duncan was acutely sensitive to the centrifugal pressures of his culture. Having been an adopted child, his identity and very name were under question during his early years. As a gay man, he felt distanced from “the accepted paradigms and conventions of the Protestant ethic.” As a Theosophist, his way of thinking had been influenced by similarly unconventional assumptions. His very vision blurs distinctions and identities: He was cross-eyed, a way of seeing that he eloquently explored in such poems as “A Poem Slow Beginning” and “Crosses of Harmony and Disharmony,” and that he relates to Alfred North Whitehead’s “presentational immediacy.”

Duncan referred to himself as “the artist of the margin,” and the term is basic to an understanding of his vision and poetics. Although the concept can be traced to a number of eclectic and overlapping influences, William James’s Principles of Psychology (1890), with its theme of the fluidity of consciousness, provides an instructive point of departure. For James, with his great interest in the “penumbra” of experience, “life is at the transitions.” As he says in “A World of Pure Experience,” “Our fields of experience have no more definite boundaries than have our fields of view. Both are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops and that continuously supersedes them as life proceeds.” For Duncan as for James, life is at the edge, at the point of relationship, surprise, novelty—at the transgression of boundaries. Conceiving the universe as a constant rhythm between order and disorder, both writers (with Whitehead and John Dewey) maintained that order develops. Rejecting the extreme poles of a world of mere flux without any stability and a static world without crisis, such a worldview embraces the moment of passage as that of most intense life. Appropriately, Duncan’s major ongoing poem is entitled the “Passages Poems.” Primary here too is John Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” an acceptance of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Indeed, Duncan defines Romanticism as “the intellectual adventure of not knowing.”


Duncan was fully cognizant of the implications that such ideas have for his poetics, scoffing in The Truth and Life of Myth at the “sensory debunkers” who “would protect our boundaries, the very shape of what we are, by closing our minds to the truth.” The poet’s charge is to challenge the boundaries of convention, with direct impact on his poetry’s form: “Back of each poet’s concept of the poem is his concept of the meaning of form itself; and his concept of form in turn where it is serious at all arises from his concept of the nature of the universe.” Duncan’s poetry challenges the boundaries of conventional ideas and conventional forms. He speaks of his poetry as a collage, an especially appropriate form for a poetry that incessantly interrogates boundaries, edges, identities. “The great art of our time,” he says in “The H. D. Book,” “is the collagist’s art, to bring all things into new complexes of meaning.”

The theme appears early in his work, developing in the poems of the 1940’s and 1950’s. From the first decade, in “Heavenly City, Earthly City,” the poet as a “man in the solitude of his poetic form/ finds his self-consciousness defined/ by the boundaries of a non-committal sea.” He apostrophizes the Pacific Ocean as an “Insistent questioner of our shores!” “A Congregation,” similarly, sounds early poetic concerns of field, order, disorder, and fragmentation. In “The Festival,” the fifth poem in Medieval Scenes, a strong early series, Duncan uses the motif of the dream to explore the unclear distinctions between wakefulness and sleep and, by extension, between ecstasy and madness, inspiration and inflated foolishness, the unicorn and the ass.

A pervasive concern with boundaries and limits is apparent in “The Venice Poem” (1948), Duncan’s first indisputably major poem. In this work, based on Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, Duncan relates Berkeley to Venice and links his own lost love and self-questioning to the frustrations of Othello and Desdemona. The awareness of limits and edges crystallizes in a description of an image’s coming into being: “She hesitates upon the verge of sound./ She waits upon a sounding impossibility,/ upon the edge of poetry.” The final poem collected in The First Decade, “The Song of the Borderguard,” announces by its very title Duncan’s increasing awareness of transgressed boundaries: “The borderlines of sense in the morning light/ are naked as a line of poetry in a war.”

The 1950’s were productive years; poems written during that period include those published in Derivations; Writing, Writing; and Letters. Although many of these poems are all too explicitly derivative, Duncan reprints them as testimony to his roots and his past. In his 1972 preface to Caesar’s Gate, Duncan does not use Ezra Pound’s term periplum, but his description of the writing conveys something of the sense of a poetry “fearfully and with many errors making its way . . . seeking to regain a map in the actual.” The first poem collected in Derivations, “An Essay at War,” opens with a description of the poem “constantly/ under reconstruction,” as “a proposition in movement.” The poem contrasts the foolish ad hoc “design” of war itself with the imperfect pattern or design of a poem true to a changing experience. The preface to Letters argues that a poet’s process is one of revision and disorganization, which takes place at the threshold. “I attempt the discontinuities of poetry,” he announces, opening gaps that “introduce the peril of beauty.” Although cynics assume that such poetry must be inflated or impossible and traditionalists abhor his assumption of a godlike role, Duncan answers both in deft lyrics such as “An Owl Is an Only Bird of Poetry,” whose sure and witty inclusiveness articulates both design and disorder. Two poems near the end of Letters, “Changing Trains” and “The Language of Love,” specifically employ the imagery of border crossing and entering new territory, clear harbingers of Duncan’s major phase.

Although the early books are significant achievements, Duncan’s reputation rests primarily on three major books of poetry published in the 1960’s, The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow. Each is a unified whole rather than a collection of poems, and each manifests and extends Duncan’s use of the theme of boundaries and margins.

The Opening of the Field

The terms of The Opening of the Field are proposed in the title, and the book’s first and last poems reveal Duncan’s awareness of beginnings and endings as they affect this book and much more. “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” establishes the basic metaphor of the book, of poetry as an entry into a field of essences, “a scene made-up by the mind,/ that is not mine, but is a made place,/ that is mine.” Granted entry into this field of poetic activity, the poet participates in the grand poem through his individual poems. Within this meadow, “the shadows that are forms fall,” and in an act of faith (“as if”), the poet accepts it as a “given property of the mind/ that certain bounds hold against chaos.” The poems seem to delineate boundaries or fields of order against chaos, but they only seem to do so because in the larger view that Duncan has of poetry and the universe, chaos or disorder are parts of a larger order. The real boundary of this poem, then, is between a state of awareness and its absence. Delineating that boundary, or more fundamentally recognizing the difference, is the responsibility of the poet. In the “disturbance of words within words,” the poet’s poems are constructs, architectures, flowers that turn into “flames lit to the lady.” The limits and definitions of physical reality must give way before the reality of the visionary imagination.

Duncan returns to these images—indeed he never leaves them—in the final poem of this book, “Food for Fire, Food for Thought,” in which he self-consciously comments on the paradox of a last poem in an open poetics: “This is what I wanted for the last poem,/ a loosening of conventions and a return to open form.” The attempt to define or limit is frustrating and necessarily progressive rather than definitive. The activity, however, is the poet’s preoccupation: “We trace faces in the clouds: they drift apart,/ palaces of air—the sun dying down/ sets them on fire.” Fire is the concluding image, again transformed into a flower, as an “unlikely heat/ at the edge of our belief bud[s] forth.” In these two poems and those in between, Duncan explores the shifting borderlines between essence and form, childhood and adulthood, flame and flower. Even as Leonardo da Vinci did, he sees “figures that were stains upon a wall” as he operates “at the edge of our belief.”

The Opening of the Field includes “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” perhaps Duncan’s best-known poem. Beginning with a misreading of a line from the third Pythian Ode, the poem then proclaims his recognition of a “god-step at the margins of thought.” The poem is a mosaic or collage of images playing between light and dark, Cupid-sensuality and Psyche-spirituality, East and West, past and present, and it cannot be summarized here. The fourth section begins, “O yes! Bless the footfall where/ step by step the boundary walker,” echoing the footstep of the poem’s opening, and informs and clarifies the poet’s memories and experiences. The poet, as a boundary walker, must be attuned to the elusive image or inspiration, even to a felicitous misreading of Pindar.

Other poems directly addressing the theme of boundaries include “After Reading Barely and Widely,” a book by Louis Zukofsky, and the series “The Structure of Rime,” in the second of which the poet interrogates the nature of poetry. “What is the Structure of Rime? I asked,” and he is told, “An absolute scale of resemblance and disresemblance establishes measures that are music in the actual world.” Such a recognition of pervasive correspondences and rhymes inspires confidence in the face of difficulties and risks inherent in such poetry. In the eighth of the series, the poet is permitted to crawl through “interstices of Earth” in realizing the possible “from a nexus in the Impossible.” The entire series, continuing in subsequent books and intersecting at times with other series, addresses major questions of poetry and reality.

Roots and Branches

Again, Roots and Branches enunciates in its title the basic metaphor of the book, “the ramifications below and above the trunk of vegetative life.” The title lyric, one of Duncan’s best, describes his delight in a monarch butterfly whose flight traces out an imaginary tree, “unseen roots and branches of sense/ I share in thought.” The poet’s epiphany, inspired by the correspondence between his spirit and the beauty of the common butterfly, denies yet another boundary respected by common sense, that between physical reality and a transcendent reality. Frank in its Romantic idealism, the poem evokes an Emersonian wonder at the harmony of physical and spiritual facts for a modern audience every bit as skeptical as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s neighbors.

Roots and Branches closes with a more extended sequence of poems, the memorable series “The Continent,” in which Duncan directly names and accepts his role as “the artist of the margin” who “works abundancies” and who recognizes that the scope of poetry “needs vast terms” because it is “out of earthly proportion to the page.” On the literal level, Duncan calls for a long poem that will, like Whitman’s, be creative and have “vista.” Metaphorically and more significantly, he is calling for a poetry on the edge of consciousness, an expanding awareness of “marginal” realities, an openness to unusual or unconventional apprehensions. Unlike the coastal resident’s awareness of the alien or the other, “The mid-Western mind differs in essentials.” Without Buddhist temples or variant ways of seeing, midwesterners “stand with feet upon the ground/ against the/ run to the mythic sea, the fabulous.” This is not praise for Antaeus.

The poem continues, describing a sparrow smashed on a sidewalk. More than an allusion to William Carlos Williams’s famous poem, the passage illuminates the difference between having a perspective in space and time and being “too close/ for shadow,/ the immediate!” The central image of the poem, the continent, itself examines horizons, especially those between shore and land and night and day. The closing sections link such imagery with Easter (evidently the time of the actual writing of the poem) and its denial of any clear distinction even between life and death.

Far from fragmenting our beliefs and dissociating our sensibilities, such a vision asserts the oneness of things: one time, one god, one promise flaring forth from “the margins of the page.” In the apparent chaos of flux and change—“moving in rifts, churning, enjambing”—both continent and poem testify to a dynamic unity. Again, at the border, at the edge of meaning, like Christopher Columbus one finds not the abyss but new worlds.

“Apprehensions” is a poem closely related to “The Continent.” The central theme is again that which “defines the borderlines of the meaning.” The opening chord, “To open Night’s eye that sleeps in what we know by day,” announces the familiar concern with overcoming common sense and sensory limitations, and with the assertion of paradoxical oneness. Quotidian preoccupations obstruct people’s perspectives and limit their perceptions. In sharp contrast, the “Sage Architect” awakens “the proportions and scales of the soul’s wonder” and lets light and shadow mix. The poem is a song to apprehension— both fearful and perceiving—of excavation of boundaries, resemblances, rhymes. The central apprehension is of concordances that overcome people’s limited sense of shifting time, place, and boundaries in favor of an overriding order.

Bending the Bow

Continuing his development, Duncan followed four years later with yet another major book, Bending the Bow. In his introduction, he discusses his poetry with his accustomed insight, beginning by criticizing the Vietnam War, which, “as if to hold all China or the ancient sea at bay, breaks out at a boundary we name ours. It is a boundary beyond our understanding.” Captured by a rigid form, by a fixed image of oneself, one is unable to adapt to new conditions and insights. In contrast, the pulse of the poet in moments of vision “beats before and beyond all proper bounds.” The book’s title establishes the contrasts of bow and lyre, war and music, Apollo and Hermes, whose tension generates this book’s field. Duncan speaks of the poem not as a stream of consciousness but as an area of composition in which “the poet works with a sense of parts fitting in relation to a design that is larger than the poem” and which he knows “will never be completed.”

The title lyric develops the bow and lyre analogy, articulating the central Heraclitean themes of design, connection, and unity in diversity: “At this extremity of this/ design/ there is a connexion working in both directions, as in/ the bow and the lyre.” As Duncan explains in “Towards an Open Universe,” the turn and return of prose and verses of poetry are phases of a dynamic unity, like the alternation of day and night or the systole and diastole of the heart. The focus of his poetry and poetics remains on the intensity of the point of transition.

While “The Structure of Rime” continues in this volume, a new series, the “Passages Poems,” is also introduced, beginning with a telling epigraph: “For the even is bounded, but the uneven is without bounds and there is no way through or out of it.” The first passage, “Tribal Memories,” invokes “Her-Without-Bounds,” and the importance of margins, borders, and boundaries continues. Describing “Passages Poems” in his introduction, Duncan states that “they belong to a series that extends in an area larger than my work in them. I enter the poem as I entered my own life, moving between an initiation and a terminus I cannot name. This is not a field of the irrational; but a field of ratios.” Among the poem’s many concerns are those ratios or correspondences, and some of the most provocative insights derive from the poetic theme of margins and transitions. “The Architecture, Passages 9” demands recesses so that “there is always something around the corner.” In “Wine, Passages 12,” the poet celebrates even as he is threatened by “the voice/ . . . the enormous/ sonority at the edge of the void.” In “In the Place of a Passage 22,” the poet prays for passage in “the vast universe/ showing only its boundaries we imagine.”

Like “The Structure of Rime,” “Passages Poems” is an exciting achievement. Like most long poems, it resists the sort of cursory treatment that consideration of space dictates here, and the project may well be victimized by the “magnificent failure” syndrome so characteristic of criticism of American literature. Certainly it is ambitious, as Duncan acknowledges in “Where It Appears, Passage 4”: “Statistically insignificant as a locus of creation/ I have in this my own/ intense/ area of self creation.” Even here, the telling conditionals of “as if I could cast a shadow/ to surround/ what is boundless” indicate Duncan’s full, continuing, double-edged apprehension of his enterprise and its risks.

Ground Work: Before the War

Ground Work: Before the War, published fifteen years after Bending the Bow, carries on the concerns of the three major collections of the 1960’s. If there had been fear of a possible waning of Duncan’s powers, these were unjustified. The architectonics of this large volume are highly complex, though one can easily discern a moving back and forth between familiar modes: the large-scale “grand collage” manner of the ongoing “The Structure of Rime” and “Passages Poems,” and sequences of smaller, more private and sentimental lyrics, such as the most delicately rhymed “Glimpse.” Both kind of workings, however, involve Duncan’s familiar subject matter: revelation, knowing, the “rimes” that the poet worries out of his sympathetic readings of the past masters (“A Seventeenth Century Suite” and “Dante Études”), as well as what George Butterick has called “protest against the violation of the natural order by systematic viciousness.” The short lyrics seem a clear relief after the violent engagements with the political disasters of the time, as chronicled in the Tribunals section of “Passages Poems,” and in what is Duncan’s and, maybe, the age’s best political poem: “Santa Cruz Propositions.” The volume ends with “Circulations of the Song,” a deeply moving love poem originating in the poet’s reading of Jal3l al-Dtn Rnmt’s work and celebrating the years spent with the painter Jess Collins, the “constant exchange” and the shared dance of the hearth-work: After the “Inferno” of the war poems, a kind of “Paradiso” has been achieved.

This delicate point of equilibrium, however, cannot last: It belongs to that specific book, that momentary configuration; the work, the oeuvre goes on, disrupting the gained Paradiso, as intimations of physical disease and death enter Ground Work II, the next and final volume of Duncan’s late work, subtitled In the Dark and published just months before the poet’s death. Even here, however, there is no weakening of Duncan’s powers: The grand sweep of the late set of “Passages Poems” entitled “Regulators” is ample proof of the poet’s unrelenting energy and vision. Duncan’s long illness enters the preoccupations of the book—“my Death/ rearranged the date He has with me”—without ever being able to overcome that realm of the imagination from which the poet drew his breath and strength.

Duncan’s Art

It is another measure of Duncan’s stature and complexity that all his work is of a piece and should be read entire. A single lyric, for example, can be read by itself, or as part of a longer series in many cases (several lyrics are parts of more than one series). It must also be seen as part of the book in which it appears, since Duncan has carefully ordered his collections, and as an integral part of Duncan’s canon. Finally, as he says in his introduction to The Years as Catches, “Poems then are immediate presentations of the intention of the whole, the great poem of all poems, a unity.” Appropriately, even the boundaries of his poems are fluid and dynamic.

In his pervasive border-crossing, Duncan brings his readers news of an other that is shut out by conventional boundaries. With his artful disclosures, his imaginative vision transcends false, self-imposed constrictions. His art ultimately dissolves the very restraints and boundaries he recognizes in the act of transgressing them, and it thus weds humans to nature and to other humans, a familiar but rarely realized ideal of art.

Major Works
Plays: Faust Foutu: An Entertainment in Four Parts, pb. 1959; Medea at Kolchis: The Maidenhead, pb. 1965.
Nonfiction: As Testimony: The Poem and the Scene, 1964; The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” 1965; The Cat and the Blackbird, 1967; The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography, 1968; A Selection of Sixty-five Drawings from One Drawing-Book, 1952-1956, 1970; Fictive Certainties, 1985; The Last Letters, 2000; The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, 2004 (Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi, editors).

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.
Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Duncan, Robert. Interview. In Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews, edited by Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.
Ellingham, Lewis. Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1998.
Everson, William. The Last Letters. Berkeley, Calif.: Oyez, 2000.
Faas, Ekbert. Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1983.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Black Mountain Poets. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
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.

Categories: Literary Theory

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Your feedback helps improve this platform. Leave your comment.

%d bloggers like this: