A Little Language

By Robert Duncan 1919–1988 Robert Duncan
I know a little language of my cat, though Dante says   
that animals have no need of speech and Nature   
abhors the superfluous.   My cat is fluent.   He   
converses when he wants with me.   To speak

is natural.   And whales and wolves I’ve heard   
in choral soundings of the sea and air
know harmony and have an eloquence that stirs   
my mind and heart—they touch the soul.   Here

Dante’s religion that would set Man apart   
damns the effluence of our life from us   
to build therein its powerhouse.

It’s in his animal communication Man is   
      true, immediate, and   
in immediacy, Man is all animal.

His senses quicken in the thick of the symphony,
      old circuits of animal rapture and alarm,
attentions and arousals in which an identity rearrives.
      He hears
particular voices among
      the concert, the slightest   
rustle in the undertones,
      rehearsing a nervous aptitude   
yet to prove his. He sees the flick
      of significant red within the rushing mass
of ruddy wilderness and catches the glow
      of a green shirt
to delite him in a glowing field of green
      —it speaks to him—
and in the arc of the spectrum color   
      speaks to color.
The rainbow articulates
      a promise he remembers   
he but imitates
      in noises that he makes,

this speech in every sense   
the world surrounding him.
He picks up on the fugitive tang of mace
      amidst the savory mass,
and taste in evolution is an everlasting key.
      There is a pun of scents in what makes sense.

      Myrrh it may have been,
the odor of the announcement that filld the house.

      He wakes from deepest sleep   

upon a distant signal and waits   

      as if crouching, springs

      to life.

Robert Duncan, “A Little Language” from Ground Work: Before the War. Copyright © 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1982, 1984 by Robert Duncan. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: Ground Work: Before the War (1984)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Robert Duncan 1919–1988


SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

Subjects Religion, Pets, Animals, Poetry & Poets, Relationships, Nature, Arts & Sciences, Language & Linguistics

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Robert  Duncan


Described by Kenneth Rexroth as “one of the most accomplished, one of the most influential” of the postwar American poets, Robert Duncan was an important part of both the Black Mountain school of poetry, led by Charles Olson, and the San Francisco Renaissance, whose other members included poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. A distinctive voice in American poetry, Duncan’s idiosyncratic poetics drew on myth, occultism, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Religion, Pets, Animals, Poetry & Poets, Relationships, Nature, Arts & Sciences, Language & Linguistics


SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.