Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ok. A quick note on Robert Duncan.

I've just finished Bending the Bow for the first time, after starting it maybe eight times in the last ten years. At the enthusiastic encouragement of Arlee Christian I decided to give the guy another whirl, having been annoyed in the past by his obsession with myth, archaic spelling, and classical perfection. It worked this time; what a fantastic book.

I think the key was to take Duncan in large doses. Though the book is only 140 pages, it has all the scope and power of Charles Olson's Maximus, which is something like seven times as long, and Duncan manages to achieve it without the boring parts.

(I have to admit that I kind of like the boring parts of Maximus, as a part of the whole experience of reading it over, say, the course of a year).

Duncan's juxtapositions of overwhelmingly beautiful lines on, say, "the constellations of morning" with stanzas on the brutality of the Vietnam war are not only moving, but also thoughtful; it's not a matter of "think what beauty we could have if this mass murder weren't spoiling things," but of a powerful synthetic statement about humanity. "Humanity" doesn't come off here as an abstract quality, but as a word meant to denote the whole history of this animal's attempts to get beyond the stage in which we felt, or feel, the need to destroy each other to survive.

He's so committed, to language and love and life, all those "l"s in their best senses, that it was impossible, after years of skepticism, not to be won over... it being an essential part of this that his technique is really of the highest quality.

I'd like to embark on a more in-depth analysis of some of the poems in the book, but for the moment I'm just going to absorb the experience of finishing it, lie down, and gape.


  • At February 21, 2006 at 8:36 PM, Blogger Ian Keenan said…

    It’s criminal how much Duncan is out of print. There really needs to be a Collected Duncan. Can’t wait for the Lisa Jarnot bio to be done.

    I do have Bending the Bow, and Opening of the Field, both of which I was reading recently; picked them up at a used book store somewhere long ago. Opening of the Field has a few poems one can feel safe contempt for. Bending is a really striking, overwhelming work, though. I look forward to discussing some of them!

    One of the times I saw Creeley he was giving a talk on Duncan. He talked about his living under the stairs, his days as a gigolo, and how his room was always a mess, full of books and sources, and RC’s was always neat. He said that came through with both their poetry. Another story was of a fully improvised rant Duncan did at the MLA conference, which RC says was the only good thing he ever heard at the MLA conference.

  • At February 21, 2006 at 8:46 PM, Blogger andy gricevich said…

    I got my hands on the first half of a lecture by Duncan and Michael Palmer to their students at New College a couple of years before RD died. It's great stuff (which I have permission to share, if you want it); eighty percent of it is basically incomprehensible, and the other twenty percent is brilliant (this all on a first quick reading).

    Yeah, there are some embarassing things in The Opening of the Field. I'm going to give it another whirl, now that I've decided I like his stuff at all...


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