Robert Duncan reading while reclining on soda

Robert Duncan was the first poet I knew, and that made all the difference. We met in April 1967, when I was a first-year student at Pomona College in California and he was there for a week as poet-in-residence. I had never heard of him then, but there was no mistaking this high-pitched, frenetic enthusiast with an encyclopedic mind for anything but a poet. He was unabashedly in love with poetry, solicitous of every vowel and comma, enthralled by the shapeliness of a line and even by the white space beyond it. On our first day in class, he asked for a student poem to work with. I offered one of mine, a fractured portrait of the comedian W.C. Fields, with a heavy debt to the verbal high jinks of E.E. Cummings. Duncan read it aloud, but instead of rendering a judgment, as I expected, he scratched the first three lines on the blackboard and proceeded to fill it with words such as Commedia dell'Arte, Aristophanes, Pico della Mirandola, Picasso, Einstein—many of which were new to me. “These,” he said, “make up the lineage of this poem.” Haloed by chalk dust, he strode back and forth in front of the constellation he had set in motion, pointing out lines of affiliation, evoking a matrix of historical interactions so far beyond my ken it made my head spin. And then he dove down into the words of the poem, consulting the volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary that lined a window ledge, looking for variant usages and plucking out etymologies.

Duncan was quite conscious of playing the role of poet and vamped it for all it was worth. He unleashed gleeful, vatic, conspiratorial verbal rhapsodies that flapped around the classroom like bats, diving and swooping right up to the listeners, giddy but choreographed flights across the length and breadth of human invention. It was as though he had accepted a challenge to practice the art of Emerson, the great Lyceum lecturer of the past century, whose verbal onslaughts could turn conceptions of self and society to rubble—only it was as if Duncan did it on steroids. Ideas popped into his brain so fast they bumped into and elbowed one another while trying to exit his mouth, causing sometimes a stutter and the sense that several lines of thought were spooling simultaneously off his tongue. The topics he ranged through included art, science, the classics, the occult, and the entirety of literary history—and that was just for starters. This went on every afternoon for five days.

***

It’s hard to depict the consequences of the mental explosion inside my head as I tried to understand not only what Duncan had said but what his enactment of the poet meant to my conception of poetry. When I transferred to UC Berkeley the next fall, I ran into him on Telegraph Avenue. To my surprise, he recognized me, and we began meeting occasionally, sometimes weekly, over the next 13 years. This story is by no means unique. Duncan was generous to young poets, both men and women, and though he rarely taught in universities, he believed strongly in poetic apprenticeship. This involved his reading and commenting on one’s poetry (he always seemed to see what I was aiming at better than I did) and his passing along excitement about the poets whose work he studied in depth: the modernists (especially women then out of favor, such as H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) or Virginia Woolf), the Objectivists (who had almost wholly disappeared from sight), and the other members of the Black Mountain cohort with whom he identified. In the Bay Area, he practiced learning and teaching poetry outside institutional settings for many decades. In the 1940s, he joined Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and several other poets in the Berkeley Renaissance, which initiated the postwar poetry avant-garde on the West Coast. In the 1950s, he was a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, which also gave birth to the Beat Movement through the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955, in a venue Duncan founded with his longtime partner, the painter Jess (Collins). Many poets inside and alongside the San Francisco wing of Language poetry sat at Duncan’s feet or at least attended his readings and lectures in the 1960s and 1970s. And in the 1970s and 1980s, he taught a new generation in poetics courses at the New College of California in San Francisco.

His poetics might be thought of as twofold: internal and external. From both perspectives, he viewed a poem as having a life of its own, which called on the poet to join in as an active participant. Internally, he experienced a certain bodily tone, he said, when he felt a poem arriving and knew he had to drop everything else. He would pick up his notebook and begin to write, in an exquisite script, without premeditation, moving from context to context, pulling in passages he copied from his reading, accepting “errors” as he made them for the hidden intent they might reveal. “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” for instance, takes off from his creative misreading of a line in a translated poem, which then opens out into a collage that draws from mythology, painting, the succession of American presidents, the settlement of the American West, and a recurrent childhood nightmare of drowning. At the end of the second of four sections, Duncan speaks of his proclivity to see dark forces within the psyche and beneath the political landscape as well as his hope that new forms of courage will arise:

                        I see always the under side turning,
                fumes that injure the tender landscape.
                        From which up break
                lilac blossoms of courage in daily act
                        striving to meet a natural measure.

Externally, he considered himself a “derivative” poet, in the sense that he constantly cited other texts, both poetry and prose, as a way of transacting with the greater world of culture. In this case, the lilac blossoms recall Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” but the poem is replete with words and images from a multitude of sources. When writing poetry, Duncan was as much a creative reader as a creative writer, and he refused to separate the activities. Both his external and his internal stances involved what he called “obedience” to whatever he felt moving through him. The poem was thus not an object but an occasion or a situation, and Duncan retained a lifelong allegiance to the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, for whom knowledge, action, and creation are always situated and always in process.

The conviction that poetry not only speaks to and of its occasion but also participates in conversations across time and space is one Duncan’s main legacies. In his 1967 essay “Rites of Participation” (later included in The H.D. Book), he conjures an art that would be a “symposium of the whole,” that brings together poetry, the arts, and all human culture throughout time. He has a vision of poetry in which one speaks with and for the human consanguinity with animals and ultimately with all earthly cells—a coming together in “one fate” brought about by the environmental imperatives of the time. To make this fate positive, he yearns for the emergence of an open-ended community that has “gone beyond the reality of the incomparable nation or race, the incomparable Jehovah in the shape of a man, the incomparable Book or Vision, the incomparable species, in which identity might hold & defend its boundaries against an alien territory.” Instead of policing the borders of a restricted community, he would “compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality,” in which “all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and the failure—all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.”

To carry this vision of wholeness and openness into his poetry, Duncan developed forms of collage capable of placing the most diverse materials in contact and conversation. In the series of “Passages” poems, included in his last three books, Bending the Bow (1968), Ground Work: Before the War (1984), and Ground Work II: In the Dark (1988), he constructs collages within each poem and then within the series as a whole, building an open-ended structure in which elements constantly vibrate in harmony or opposition with other elements. In the introduction to Bending the Bow, he speaks of his method as “grand collage,” which is “a poetry of all poetries.” Just as the fragments assembled to compose a visual collage bring with them their original contexts, Duncan’s poetic use of collage invokes not only the entirety of the text from which he selects a passage but also the historical contexts surrounding it and its own intertextual conversations. He describes how this process worked when composing the first section of “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar”:

When . . . reading late at night the third line of the first Pythian Ode in the translation by Wade-Gery and Bowra, my mind lost hold of Pindar’s sense and was faced with certain puns, so that the words light, foot, hears, you, brightness, begins moved in a world beyond my reading, these were no longer words but also powers in a Theogony, having resonances in Hesiodic and Orphic cosmogonies. … Immediately, sight of Goya’s great canvas, once seen in the Marquis de Cambo’s collection in Barcelona, came to me . . .—out of the evocation of the fragment from Pindar and out of Goya’s pictorial evocation to add their masterly powers to my own—the living vision, Cupid and Psyche, were there; then the power of a third master, not a master of poetry or of picture but of story-telling, the power of Lucius Apuleius was there too.

Duncan’s “poetry of all poetries” is a hall of mirrors or an echo chamber of endless reverberations in which he encounters Pindar, Goya, and Apuleius. In this sense, his poetry is as much about how to read poetry or participate in the life of art as it is about a specific subject matter.

This might make Duncan seem a “poet’s poet,” and there is some truth to that characterization. On the other hand, his poetry is anything but dry, for it is fundamentally erotic in the most expansive senses. His subjects are love, sex, spirit, and community as well as their shadows: darkness, war, pain, and death. In Freudian terms, he is the poet of Eros and Thanatos. He felt a deep kinship with Whitman, with whom he shared all these subjects as well as the homoeroticism that each poet boldly avowed, in his own way, nearly 100 years apart.

Duncan’s answer to Whitman’s Calamus poems is in some ways the more startling declaration because it is so explicit. In 1944, he published an essay in the magazine Politics, “The Homosexual in Society,” which, as he reflected later, had the distinction “of being the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author himself was involved.” The purport of the essay, though, is not a justification of same-sex love (which Duncan didn’t think was needed) but a plea for homosexuals and others not to succumb to what we today call “identity politics.” As Duncan wrote, “my view was that minority associations and identifications were an evil wherever they supersede allegiance to . . . the creation of a human community good—the recognition of fellow-manhood.” Having fought valiantly for the view that no one should be reduced to their sexual identification, he felt the brunt of such discrimination when John Crowe Ransom withdrew one of Duncan’s poems from the Kenyon Review because of the essay. Notwithstanding, the essay garnered for the young poet an immediate reputation for bravery, honesty, and self-assurance—qualities that sustained his marriage-partnership with Jess for nearly four decades.

Alongside Duncan’s explicit avowal of homosexuality was his equally assertive support for women writers, especially among the Modernists, whose female members’ careers had been nearly effaced. Almost singlehandedly, for instance, he kept alive the reputation of H.D. at a time when her poetry was virtually unread. He became so deeply invested that he wrote The H.D. Book, a volume of 678 pages, demonstrating how central she was to his conception of poetry and arguing for the signal contributions that she and others, such as Marianne Moore, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Mary Butts, Laura Riding, and Edith Sitwell, made to the Modernist movement that most critics identified exclusively with Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Lawrence, and Joyce. The H.D. Book combines incisive readings of all these writers, both male and female, with an autobiography of Duncan’s growth as a poet. One of his main themes is that poetry acts as spiritual exercise. For this purpose, H.D. is a perfect exemplar, for she, like Duncan, engaged in a lifetime of research into religion and the occult and contended that poetry affects spiritual transactions. To the same extent that he adopts H.D. as a surrogate mother figure, he also recognizes Denise Levertov, his younger contemporary, as a sister, and this resulted in a volume of correspondence that occupies another 857 pages.

Although there are spiritual issues aplenty in the poetics that Duncan and Levertov worked out in conversation, their close-knit friendship came apart over questions about the place of politics in poetry during the Vietnam War. From the beginning of his career, Duncan held out anarchist communalism as his political ideal, and during the 1960s, his political poetry denounced US crimes against humanity in Vietnam. But he broke painfully and decisively with Levertov over what he saw as her subordination of poetry to political protest, for he believed poetry encompasses all of human life, including war, and that to speak for “the whole,” the poet must incorporate—and in that sense accept responsibility for—horrible atrocities.

This returns us to Duncan’s central contention that poetry represents the deepest engagement possible in human life. The Beat poet Diane di Prima had a profound experience of Duncan’s teaching the lesson that poetry intensifies life. In an interview with fellow Beat poet David Meltzer, she recalls, “Robert was probably one of the closest, most intimate lovers I ever had, even though we never had a physical relationship. I learned a lot of different kinds of things from him. One of the things I learned—in a way no teacher of Buddhism ever showed me—was how precious my life was. How precious the whole ambience of the time. A real sense of appreciating every minute.” In relishing each moment, Duncan likewise challenged poets to be responsible for everything that happened in a poem—even things that were not “intended.” A thoroughgoing Freudian, he believed there were no such things as mistakes, coincidences, or chance correlations and that everything humans do is meaningful and revealing. He constantly probed himself, his writing, and everything he read or saw or heard with this same attentive scrutiny, looking for metaphors, correspondences, and other connections that testified to what was happening in the moment, both internally and externally. Like a spiritual teacher, he insisted on a discipline for learning to read his poetry, which in turn would equip readers to see how poetry intensifies experience. Joining Levertov and di Prima, many poets during his lifetime took Duncan as a poetic tutor and many more have done so in the 30 years since his death, including Michael McClure, Jerome Rothenberg, David Bromige, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, Ron Silliman, Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jarnot, and Peter O’Leary. Duncan stands always ready to initiate one into the life of poetry.

***

On the last day of the workshop at Pomona College, Duncan reminded us he had brought copies of his books to sell. I reached into my pocket and found enough change to purchase one. To my delight, he insisted on inscribing the half-title page, drawing a child's sun at the top and then a big circle around the title, The Opening of the Field (1960). At the bottom of the circle were several squiggly lines, maybe to show something hiding under the meadow made by the circle. I think of it as a meadow because in the first poem, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow”—the poem through which generations of readers first enter his poetic universe—there is a “Queen Under The Hill / whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words.” Beneath this drawing, he signed, “Robert Duncan / at Claremont Colleges / April 1967.”

I bore this talisman back to my dormitory and spent the rest of the spring semester, with the help of my roommate, trying to come to terms with this “disturbance of words within words.” We were convinced by Duncan’s verbal pyrotechnics during his week on campus that, like paintings in a Paleolithic cave, the poetry held as yet unimagined treasures of human culture and offered new ways for them to light up our own dark corners. It was damn near impossible, though, to make sense of an entire poem. Sometimes it seemed that comprehension was almost within reach: one of us would fix on a passage that contained something Duncan had discussed, and we were off and running, sure we could prop up the rest of the poem upon this foundation stone. But like wet clay, our sense of the poem sagged, meanings diverged perilously, and finally it collapsed into a formless mass. Even the sense of that initial poem, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” whose title acted as first line, began to slip through my grasp as I continued to read:

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.

Those slippery words mind, mine, made, heart, and thought—how do they overlap and cohere, and how do they split apart? From clues I picked up watching Duncan improvise, I suspected something more was at stake in not understanding his poetry than mere ignorance of the vast historical map over which he hovered. For one thing, these poems did not work like crossword puzzles or codes to crack, which is how poetry was presented in high school. Strange to say, it was as if readers were not meant to fully understand them. The poems stubbornly resisted comprehension, as if understanding were a kind of betrayal of the inner rationale of poetry, a reduction of its constantly renewed potential for meaning. When I acknowledged that incipient quality, though, I still didn’t feel wholly satisfied. What really bothered me was standing outside the circle of the poem, which I wanted to be in so much it hurt. With no obvious logical resolution, the poem acted like a mind-arresting Zen koan or a chafing grain of sand rolling around the clamshell of my brain.

This irritation spread to everything I read because I was always searching for ways to read Duncan. From hearing him talk and then probing his essays, I gathered that to read him seriously, I would have to absorb the diagram of tradition as he drew it. Not only would I delve into books as famously difficult as William Blake's prophecies, Louis Zukofsky’s “A,” Williams’s Paterson, H.D.'s Helen in Egypt, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, and Pound's Cantos, but I would have to regard them as repositories of poetic forms and spiritual lore informing Duncan’s own poetry of all poetries. This was learning as a subtle but potent form of mimicry. If I could read as Robert Duncan, then I might be able to read Robert Duncan. If I could read Robert Duncan, then I might know what poetry requires and what it promises, for I had never encountered anyone so completely at home in it.

Over time, I have come to inhabit Duncan’s perpetually suggestive poetry in my own way and to regard individual poems, such as “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” and poetic sequences, such as the “Passages” poems, as high points in 20th-century American poetry. The crafting of striking images and the courage to bring materials from every realm of human activity and thought into his “derivative” poetry render him essential, both for his own time and for the difficult times in which we find ourselves now. He often declared that starting in 1939, with total mobilization, the United States embarked on a permanent war economy, and it seems that 80 years later we are still inextricably mired. In the midst of his despair over the Vietnam War, Duncan wrote “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” a dream poem in which his mother becomes the commanding muse, and he admits to the violence and willfulness at the core of poetry:

My mother would be a falconress,
and I her gerfalcon, raised at her will,
from her wrist sent flying […]

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.  

This ability to inhabit the grievous condition of war as an intimate feature of poetry is one of the most striking of Duncan’s skills, and it will continue to command readers who demand that poetry challenge everything. More intimately, I still can hear the high-pitched, manic voice that glories in connections of every sort still to be found. In this way, for me and for many other readers, Duncan himself is muse.

Originally Published: January 7th, 2019

Stephen Fredman has written and edited numerous books on American poetry and poetics. The most recent are Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art (Stanford University Press, 2010) and a new edition of Presences, Robert Creeley’s collaboration with the artist Marisol (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). He taught...