Robert Duncan: “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow”
I first read Robert Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” on a beautifully permissive afternoon in the spring shade of leafy deciduous trees on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. It was 1989. I was finishing up a year as a visiting student, elated by the transformative power of poetry, which I had been studying all year. By good fortune I had Jim Powell as my teacher; a small group of us were sitting outside in a circle for his weekly seminar in 20th-century American poetry. Powell, who was from the Bay Area, had been a member of Duncan’s Homer group, which met regularly in Duncan’s San Francisco Victorian for the sole purpose of reading Homer’s Iliad line by line. As an adherent and innovator of what his friend Charles Olson called Projective Verse, Duncan favored a poetry that was breath-based, rhythmical, even ritually incantatory. To Duncan’s imagination, the poem was an archaeological record of language, and he was reverent to the point of obedience toward its ancient, mythical pronouncements.
That afternoon on the open field of Reed College’s front lawn, Powell was following Duncan’s lead, initiating us into the mysteries of Duncan’s poetry as he recited this poem and we listened to its mesmerizing cadences:
Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow
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
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
The opening line serves as both a title and a summoning—in an incantatory sense—to enter the world of Duncan’s imagination. That world isn’t Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and Duncan isn’t Gene Wilder, surrounded by sugar-craving children and Oompa Loompas, singing “Pure Imagination” (“If you want to view paradise / simply look around and view it”). Instead, it’s an ambiguous place, neither made up by the mind (“as if it were a scene made up”) nor belonging to the poet, but an actual “made place” that he claims as his own. In Duncan’s alluring off-rhymes (mind and mine), we hear the poem’s tensions: mind versus heart, heart versus thought, made-up things versus eternal things. Also hidden in the poem’s title is its most important opposition: permission versus restriction. Why is Duncan permitted to return to this meadow only “often”? And why is he summoning us to this place?
The word summon comes from two Latin roots: the prefix sub-, which means “under” but includes a sense of secrecy, and the verb monere, which means “to advise or warn.” Of what permissions and restrictions does Duncan’s poem secretly warn? The poem’s fourth stanza offers clues and serves as a touchstone for me about what poetry is. In their divine pronouncement, these lines are as enduringly oracular as they are mythic:
Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.
It’s here that Duncan indicates the holy source of his poetic feeling (the mythic “Lady” who is the candle of his flame), and the myth through which he imagines her, namely the “fall.” (I’m reminded here of the cherubim posted at the entrance to the Garden of Eden at the end of Milton’s Paradise Lost, when God boots Adam and Eve out into the world to fend for themselves, and posts two angels of flame with swords made of fire at the entrance back into the garden.) By repeating the unusually formal word “wherefrom” in the third and fourth stanzas, Duncan underscores the origins of his inspiration and generates verbal tension. He also suggests the pleasure of its release by placing the verb of his sentence before its subject. (Properly speaking, Duncan’s sentence should read: “All the architectures that I am fall from . . .”) Why speak so awkwardly? By doing so, Duncan strings together the thumping rhyme of fall and all, so that his pronouncement (including the biblical flourish I am) is both mythic and oracular. The summons of the poem brings the poet before the dream, as if before a court of law, where he’s compelled to bear witness to the vexed source of his creative power.
Expanding the early scene in this poem, Duncan then introduces two terms crucial to understanding how he relates to this “meadow”:
She it is Queen Under the Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.
His mythical Lady (“Queen Under the Hill”) is served by hosts who are a disturbance that language makes within language, imagined as folds within a field (or a field, impossibly, folded back on itself). The Lady’s aura is disturbing, a word that originally meant “to throw things into disorder.” Hosts echoes the biblical heavenly hosts: angelic multitudes warring for God. Duncan may also be making a pun on the eucharistic bread of Christian rites; that host derives from the Latin hostia, for victim, a notion complementary with the disturbance of these factions warring for the Lady.
As creative as he was contentious, Duncan writes in “Pages from a Notebook” (first published in 1953, when he was just 34 years old): “I make poetry as other men make war or make love or make states or revolutions: to exercise my faculties at large.” While most might think of fields and meadows as pastoral places, Duncan imagines the meadow here as an apocalyptic battlefield wherefrom his poetic purpose emerges, and where he launches his most lasting salvos against the swarming, disturbing hosts of the Lady that he is duty-bound—or permitted—to serve.
In religious terms, as in Duncan’s poem, initiation is what intercedes between restriction and permission. Rites of initiation provide for the passage from an unbounded but unconcentrated role within a religious culture to a more bounded but intensified role. Such rites are typically harrowing ordeals of divination, in which the initiate comes into his or her own knowledge and power. When Duncan wrote “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” in 1956, he was 37 years old and on the threshold of what he would come to refer to as his major work, namely the poems comprising his great trilogy of the 1960s, The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots & Branches (1964), and Bending the Bow (1968), along with the two volumes of Ground Work, both published in the 1980s. In this sense, it’s possible to read Duncan’s poem as the record of both his and then our initiation into the disturbing, war-torn but power-laden field he had begun to identify in his work.
The real work of transformation begins at the poem’s midway point, where it undergoes a dramatic shift in perspective, from the poet musing on the present nature of this “scene made-up by the mind” to its peculiar origins:
It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down
whose secret we see in a children’s game
of ring around of roses told.
In Duncan’s dream state, children dance death’s jig, “Ring around the Rosie,” commemorating the Plague. When Grove Press first published The Opening of the Field in 1960, it included a frontispiece (actually a rejected cover illustration) of a collage drawing by Jess, Duncan’s domestic partner, depicting children dancing in a ring. Duncan was insistent that this image appear in the book in some form. Children dancing to ward off the Plague are emblematic of the powerful influence that imagination both coaxes (permits) into being, and protects (restricts) against. (“I had caught the poetic mode of being,” Duncan once wrote in an essay, “a contagion, and came down with poetry.”)
The dream Duncan commemorates in this poem is real, reflecting his own initiation into poetry. In The H.D. Book, Duncan’s unfinished prose magnum opus, which is an amalgam of memoir, reflection, poetic analysis, and archetypal and Freudian psychology, the poet relates a recurrent dream he had as a boy, in which he comes upon an expansive field where children are dancing in a ring. Before long, the grasses mysteriously and ominously bend in Duncan’s direction, indicating to him that he is “It.” The dream then shifts to an underground throne room in which Duncan recognizes that he should occupy the empty throne up on the dais, at which point the cavern where the throne sits begins to flood and the dream goes black.
Duncan’s parents, theosophists who had adopted Duncan as an infant, taught him that this dream was a memory from his previous lifetime, when he had lived (and been a poet) in Atlantis. He himself took it, intuitively, to be the prophetic authorization for the poetry he would write, a visionary and catastrophic clairvoyance of the work to come. Duncan’s dream encodes mysterious knowledge that the poet expects himself to decipher; partially, this includes knowledge of his own doom. Every initiation, at least metaphorically, involves a death, or a precognition of it. It’s why the vision of the Lady is disturbing in the poem; Duncan recognizes, one way or the other, that she brings him news of his own demise, in a disturbing roil of “words within words.”
For this reason, the final five lines of the poem, echoing its opening, are a haunting premonition:
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
The repetition of the poem’s first line is crucial: a sounding out of the poem’s limits, this time with an added sense of wariness. Note the jarring conditional of the line immediately following: “as if it were . . .” The line “that certain bounds hold against chaos” turns the poem on its heels, inverting its pastoral prospects into something much more menacing.
Try reading the line aloud: it’s not easy. Each word demands its own space, pressing out a protective bubble against the chaos crushing into it. Omen is the operative word in the last line: a prophetic sign, an augury, for good or for evil. The poem’s final words, what is, echo the earlier I am, “wherefrom fall” all shadows. Shadow and chaos are bounded by the poet’s expansive imagination, over which he’s not the controlling agent; rather, he is its obedient servant, permitted from time to time to enter into and elucidate its mysteries but, like a dutiful priest or shaman, bound by his sense that this knowledge exceeds him, that its nature is overwhelming, and that the augur of the poem is as uncertain as it is true.
“In the world of saying and telling in which I first came into words,” wrote Duncan in “The Truth and Life of Myth,” his “essay in essential autobiography” published in 1968, “there is a primary trouble, a panic that can still come upon me where the word no longer protects, transforming the threat of an overwhelming knowledge into the power of an imagined reality.” “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” is a poem in which the word no longer protects either Duncan or the reader. Nevertheless, the poem summons you to keep coming back to its invented reality, each time permitting you to glimpse the disturbing knowledge hidden in the folds of its bounded fields.
Peter O’Leary was born in 1968 in Detroit, Michigan, and earned a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His recent books of poetry include The Phosphorescence of Thought (2012), Luminous Epinoia (2010), Depth Theology (2006), and Watchfulness (2001). He is the author of the critical study Gnostic Contagion:...