Poetry News

Ange Mlinko Discusses Robert Duncan at The Nation

By Harriet Staff

Keeping up with all things Duncan, we take a look at Ange Mlinko's article on Robert Duncan at The Nation. Mlinko begins by describing the peculiar gaze Duncan developed after an accident at the age of 3 when he "slipped in the snow in Yosemite while wearing sunglasses against the glare; they shattered, and the injury resulted in strabismus—a condition in which the eyes cannot focus on the same object." She goes on to discuss Duncan's unique vision:

Duncan’s visual disability provided him with a trope—not just for his ability to see beyond appearances, but for seeing two worlds at once, one quotidian, the other mythical. Perhaps more than any other American poet except Ezra Pound, Duncan claimed as grist for his art the entire myth-hoard: Greek, Sumerian and Egyptian gods; the Bible; Kaballah; fairy tales and folklore. He also unashamedly imitated canonical literary works by the Elizabethans, the Metaphysicals, Dante, Whitman. By so doing, he guaranteed a degree of alienation from the “make it new” poets (acolytes of the avant-garde) and the “make it prudent” poets (acolytes of the New Critics), and anyone who believed in general that poets ought to “make it plain-spoken.” Though in his later years he was a notable public figure, touring colleges on the reading circuit and as a visiting professor, his poetry remained at once exhilarating in its scope and frustrating in its obscurity. “Apparently, if he cannot find a connection between his personal experience and his reading he does not find the experience worth the making of a poem,” huffed one critic in 1964.

But since his death from kidney failure in 1988, at the age of 69, Duncan’s prestige as a cult poet has not diminished. His longtime publisher, New Directions, has kept his books in print for decades. In 2004, Stanford University Press published his 800-page correspondence with the poet Denise Levertov (who once served as poetry editor of this magazine). Last year, the University of California Press published Duncan’s monumental poetics, The H.D. Book, and this year it’s bringing out The Collected Early Poems and Plays as well as Lisa Jarnot’s biography of the poet. The expanding bookshelf of Duncania serves as a reminder of why he remains a unique resource to American poetry: Ariadne-like, he feeds a line backward into the labyrinthine history of human imagination. His source materials provide a curriculum of great books in literature and religion—from the Zohar to the Oz books—undreamt of in the philosophy and pedagogy of Mortimer Adler.

Mlinko goes on to discuss a few of the contradictions that made Duncan a complex and unique figure:

He was politically an anarchist, but easily irritated by the cultural and political orthodoxies of the American left. He was unflappably, openly gay, having broken ground with his 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society,” which appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics, but rejected the “gay writer” label. He abhorred groupthink. When asked late in his life about the Language Poets, he remarked, thinking of their mixing of poetics and French linguistic theory, “They’re like a crowd of mosquitoes off there in somebody else’s swamp.” He preferred Elizabeth Bishop’s company to her poetry (she introduced him to pot brownies) but adamantly stood apart from most of his popular contemporaries. After a William Snodgrass reading, he complained to Levertov: “I loathe these personal problems that have no deep root but are all social currency—case history of a social worker. Wld. as soon attend divorce court.”

Surf over and read the rest.

Originally Published: September 25th, 2012