Collage illustration of the poet Robert Duncan.

Few poets were as central to the postwar American poetry scene as Robert Duncan. He was a key figure of both the San Francisco Renaissance and the Black Mountain poets and carried on long (if sometimes combative) correspondences with avant-garde writers such as Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov. Though much celebrated, he has become something of a cult figure since his death in 1988, with a smaller (though no less passionate) readership than some of his peers. It’s easy to see why. Influenced by high modernists such as Ezra Pound and outsider artists such as William Blake, Duncan filled his poems with allusions, private symbols, and expressionist syntax that can make them feel hermetic. This may be, in part, because he was literally raised to be esoteric: his adoptive parents practiced Theosophy and were convinced he had been a poet in his past lives in Atlantis. Despite his work’s difficulty—Duncan himself described it as “polysemous”—it is rife with immediate pleasures, especially musical ones, and guided by an encompassing faith in poetry’s spiritual power. This chronological selection, which includes several lesser-known poems, offers entryways into his work and provides helpful context for the seminal poems he produced from the 1960s on.

Words Open out upon Grief
First published in Poetry magazine in 1958, this lyric bridges the gap between the more traditional lineation and situations of early work like “Passage over Water” and the “shape-shiftings” of his later poems. In this meditation on language and its limitations, Duncan offers readers clear characters and even a few conclusions: poetry can’t feed our “hungers”; it grows from them and can help us explore them, in all their “unreason.” But he also proceeds from that same “unreason,” prioritizing “melody” and momentum over rules of syntax and usage. What he loses in lucidity, Duncan makes up for in density: His poems are objects of “grandeur,” in love with sound and full of puns, paradox, and synesthesia.

Poetry, a Natural Thing
In this piece from his landmark collection The Opening of the Field (1960), Duncan presents two “pictures” of the mind that provide insight into his larger project. The first, of the salmon swimming upstream, suggests his poetry is one of process—“striving” and “inarticulate,” it’s more about the journey toward knowledge than knowledge itself. For Duncan, that journey is cyclical, a perennial quest for one’s origins, akin to the salmon’s migration back to where it spawned. The second picture here, of the “forlorn moose,” is an oblique defense of how Duncan makes that journey, of his “extravagant” style. The quotes he inserts are from a rejection letter he received from John Crowe Ransom, a poet who advocated for plainer, more “natural” diction. Duncan’s point is that his work, like a fish ladder or a painting of a moose, is no less natural for being “contrived.”

Two Dicta of William Blake: Variations”
Duncan once declared that he was “not an experimentalist or an inventor, but a derivative poet,” a contention borne out by this allusive poem from Roots and Branches (1964). It proceeds, of course, from two statements by William Blake, whose visionary work was a major influence on Duncan. But the poem bristles with many other “derivations.” Some are made only in passing—a nod to John Keats’sbright star,” for example—or are cited directly in the poem, such as Duncan’s praise of his friend Charles Olson. But other connections are subtler, more genetic, influencing the poem’s music or thinking. Duncan’s assertion here that “what I am is only a factor of what I am” sounds like a line from Wallace Stevens but more broadly expresses T.S. Eliot’s conception of literary tradition and the individual writer’s relationship to it. Indeed, the very idea of being “derivative” comes from Eliot, though Duncan adds a Whitmanesque eroticism to it. Indeed, for all its intertextual pyrotechnics, this is essentially a love poem.

Such Is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing
Duncan was avant-garde not only in poetry but also in public life: with the publication of his essay “The Homosexual in Society” in 1944, he became the first prominent American to come out as gay. Many of his poems openly explore and wrestle with gay identity, including this powerful meditation on shame and the closet from his 1968 book Bending the Bow. The speaker here laments a time he was unable to declare his love for another man, wondering if this “long ago” refusal still shapes his current relationships. Such honest, aching, and ornate treatments of queer life continue to shape the work of contemporary poets like Carl Phillips and Ocean Vuong.

The Fire
Written at the height of the Vietnam War, this ekphrastic poem, also from Bending the Bow, offers a glimpse of Duncan at his most formally and thematically radical. As he aged, he began to push against the boundaries of the individual poem, often working in sequences that stretched across multiple books. In this poem from one of those series, “Passages,” Duncan practices what he called “composition by field,” measuring his lines against the space of the page and the sweep of his utterance, rather than conforming to traditional English prosody or forms. This enlarged canvas permits an enormous range of material, allowing Duncan to mix myth with art criticism, historical incident with visionary lyricism. At the burning heart of this collage is a fiery critique, one that aligns America’s contemporary politicians—Eisenhower, Nixon, Goldwater—with Satan himself.

My Mother Would Be a Falconress
If this poem’s central conceit gives it a clarity and order that’s unusual in Duncan’s work, it also retains his signature musicality. The sestina-like repetition here not only imitates the movements of the falcon, the bird’s continual departure and return, but also underscores the give-and-take between the mother and child at the poem’s center. Such conflict is rooted in Duncan’s biography: he had a strained relationship with his adoptive mother, Minnehaha Sims, whose wishes he often failed to fulfill. But certain words here—abroad and mission—also suggest resonances with a larger conflict, the war in Vietnam, with the son standing in for a soldier or pilot and the mother, America.

from Dante Études, “Book One: We Will Endeavor
In 1968, near the end of a tumultuous and career-defining decade, Duncan swore off publication for 15 years. His next books—which formed the two-part magnum opus Ground Work—were the last he completed before he died and among his most critically lauded. In these final works, Duncan continued his epic “Passages” and “Structure of Rime” sequences while embarking on new projects. This poem is the first from a sequence in dialogue with a 14th-century treatise Dante wrote on vernacular language. Duncan presents these pieces as musical “studies” or “sketches,” and they often feel drawn from a notebook, as if his earlier, more subterranean conversations with literary tradition are playing out in real time on the page. But this late work also marks a return to “a place of first permission” in more literal ways, referencing not only the “personal / science fictions” of Duncan’s mystic parents but also thinking more generally about how children learn to speak. Its ending makes an implicit—and moving—argument for the “hermetic talk” of Duncan’s own work, and for a verse that proceeds from a deeply individual sense of language we develop from birth.

Originally Published: October 23rd, 2018

Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.