Saturday, July 16, 2005

Poem: Robert Duncan

There are many poems by the self-described "mythological poet" Robert Duncan (1919-1988) that I adore and return to often, including "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," a poem I first encountered in a junior high school anthology (along with works by James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, and Allen Ginsberg). I could not stop thinking about that particular Duncan work back then; there was something so strikingly different about its language, its tone of address, its references and imagery, to most of what I was reading, and what I drew out as the narrative of "My Mother" excited me tremendously. I'd identified, unconsciously really, something analogous in the works of these other poets as well--I would, only half a decade later use an inapt but approximate term like "gay" sensibility, and half a decade more "queer" to describe it--that fascinated me, that I longed not only to understand as to experience. In the Catholic school I attended, at least in the English classes, there was no opportunity to discuss any of this (and I doubt there would be even now).

Where there's a will there's a way. I ended up hunting down information on Duncan (this was before the days of the Web and Google, or even Mosaic), and learned that he was one of the major American experimentalists of the 20th century, and a central figure in the avant-garde poetic scene in San Francisco, particularly what came to be known as the San Francisco and Berkeley Renaissances of the late 40s, 50s and 60s. Among his peers and close associates were his lifelong partner, the artist Jess (Collins), Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Denise Levertov, many other figures in the Black Mountain poetry movement (he taught at Black Mountain College in the 1950s), as well as the young LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), who cites Duncan in the title of his poem "Duncan Spoke of a Process." In the 1970s, he also engaged in a dialogue, sometimes antagonisticaly, with the early Language poets. His poetry extends the formal and thematic range of aesthetic modernism particularly in its foregrounding of archaisms, artifice, affect and myth, often employing exploratory formal structures (like the poems in the series "The Structure of Rime") that Duncan conceptually described under the term "field."

His work also is profoundly spiritual, drawing upon a wide range of traditions, including the theosophical tradition within which he was reared, and also often highly erotic, with its expressions of homoerotic and homosexual desire and love. (Among 20th century American poets he was one of the first to "come out," in his 1944 controversial article "The Homosexual in Society," published by critic Dwight MacDonald in the journal Politics, which led the influential Fugitive poet John Crowe Ransom to withdraw one of Duncan's poems from publication in the Kenyon Review.) Tying these two key elements together is his notion of "correspondences," which links him to predecessors like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Yeats, among others.

The poem below represents a quasi
ars poetica, I think, without declaring itself as such, a lyric exploration of many of the idaes and themes that fill Duncan's poetry, in quintessentially lyric Duncan fashion.


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.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.

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 a round of roses told.

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.

From The Opening of the Field. Copyright © 1960 by Robert Duncan.

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