A Search in Obedience: On the Collected Works of Robert Duncan

By Bruce WhitemanDecember 28, 2013

Robert Duncan by Peter Quartermain and Robert Duncan

“WRITING IS FIRST A SEARCH in obedience.” So Robert Duncan wrote in a poem composed in 1956 and collected in 1960 in his book The Opening of the Field. Obedience seems at first blush such a strange word for a poet to choose, with its overtones of parenting, of sadistic sexual practice, even of fascism. It is complicit with the social contract if nothing else; if poets avoid getting arrested and pay their taxes most of the time, they usually have an argumentative, if not antagonistic, relationship with the norms of social behavior. Duncan, for one, defined himself politically as an anarchist, and his open homosexuality also placed him outside one major societal norm. So why obey anything, especially in writing, where freedom, if it exists at all, is best experienced?  Isn’t poetry a meeting of the spirit and the language, untrammeled if not uncontrolled?

Duncan invokes “obedience” in another poem from the same collection, “After Reading Barely and Widely,” which he wrote after reading a collection of Louis Zukofsky’s shorter poems:

Poetry, that must touch the string
for music’s service
is of violence and obedience a delicate balancing.

In this context, “obedience” seems less worrisome, for it is clear that Duncan is referring to a poetic strategy in which the poet is led through the composition of a poem rather than leading himself. This is the by now very familiar aesthetic practice that became known as “open field” or “open form” poetry, after Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” from 1950 and Duncan’s own pivotal book The Opening of the Field. In open field poems, the poet is “obedient” to language and the poem finds its own unique form in the act of writing. Obedience to the language in Duncan’s case meant intense listening to vowels especially, and he often spoke of vowel tone leading as a central principle of poetry. “In the traind [sic] ear variations will be playd [sic] upon a vowel sound which introduces the poem,” he wrote in an undergraduate literary magazine at Berkeley in 1948. He continued: “An initial tone once sounded carries over in the mind as a base tone throughout the time of the poem.” At this level of attention, open form poetry is not formless at all (a complaint often raised by conservative critics and poets) but possesses the “in-formation” of a musical composition. The title poem from a later Duncan collection, Bending the Bow (1968), exemplifies his attention to sound:

We’ve our business to attend Day’s duties,
bend back the bow in dreams as we may
til the end rimes in the taut string
with the sending.

This poem alludes to Orpheus at its conclusion and Heraklitos in passing. Odysseus’s bow is surely in Duncan’s mind as well. In other words it has high aspirations despite its equally important emphasis on the real world of the day (coffee cups, the act of writing a letter, and so on). But at the level of moment-by-moment form, it is attentive to vowels (note the long “a” especially of “day” and “may”) and consonants (the “b” in particular of “business” and “bend back the bow”). “Rime” (as he usually spells it) in Duncan’s work usually has to do with connection and harmony rather than with rhyme in the usual meaning of sonic consonance (although there is a good deal of internal rhyme in the passage quoted above, not to mention the end rhyme of “string” and “ending”), and it comes, as he puts it here, from “attending” to “Day’s duties,” which I take to mean the poetic work in which he is engaged. What Duncan calls obedience, Hart Crane called an “extraordinary capacity for surrender.” Robert Creeley said simply, “you write / the words you are given to.” The poet is obedient to the poem’s commands.

Before Duncan published The Opening of the Field and established himself as one of the major open form poets (indissolubly linked with the Black Mountain poets Olson and Creeley, although he taught at Black Mountain College only for a summer at the very end of its existence) he wrote almost 20 years of work which on the whole may be characterized as rhetorical and romantic. One of the best read poets in literary history, Duncan had an extraordinary memory; his early work is rooted in innumerable sources ranging from Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and H.D. to less likely influences, including George Barker, Dylan Thomas, Laura Riding, and Charles Henri Ford. These are all poets to whom Duncan paid homage in an introduction he wrote in the 1960s for The Years as Catches, the collection in which he openly recognizes, perhaps a little bit solemnly, that his early poems are indisputably part of his life’s work. That early body of poetry has now been collected and edited as the second volume in a continuing series (The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan) that began in 2011 with The H.D. Book and will be followed by other volumes devoted to Duncan’s later poetry, his prose writings, and more. Peter Quartermain, an emeritus professor of English at the University of British Columbia, has edited both The Collected Early Poems and Plays and the forthcoming Collected Later Poems and Plays, which the University of California Press will publish in October.

Duncan’s mature poetry is “difficult.” It ranges widely over several disciplines in addition to poetry — classical studies, politics, religion, myth, aesthetics, philosophy — and often into the obscurest corners of these subjects. The poetry of the books that precede The Opening of the Field is far less allusive, and yet it is arguably as difficult in its abundance of personal reference, of emotional obscurity or indirection. Looking back at the poetry he wrote in the 1940s and early 1950s, Duncan himself was concerned about what he called the “very disturbing poetics” underlying the work, of “empty, or, rather, cloudy pretensions.” The pretensions might be explained as unassimilated devotion to Duncan’s “masters” (a word he uses often), or in general terms as a devotion to a kind of rhetoric that can sound hollow and antiquarian, worn out even. One of his best-known poems of that period, “Heavenly City, Earthly City,” begins in this way:

Beauty is a bright and terrible disk.
It is the light of our inward heaven
and the light of the heaven in which we walk.
We talk together. Let our love leaven
And enlighten our talk! O we are dim.
We are dim shadows before our fiery selves.
We are mere moments before our eternities.

It is hard to hear this as “modern” poetry at all. The romantic vocabulary, the conventional poetic devices (assonance, rhyme, alliteration), and the rhetorical sweep (“O we are dim”) all mark it as deeply out of its time (1947) and without obvious debts to Eliot or Pound or Williams, even to Yeats. Any creative writing teacher, confronted with the line “We are mere moments before our eternities,” would bring a blue pencil into action and scribble something about vagueness in the margin (“Be more specific!”). Other lines in the poem fall into a metric regularity that Duncan would later eschew (“The heart in the darkness of the city sings. / It answers the song of its source, the sun.”) Duncan was almost 30 when he composed “Heavenly City, Earthly City,” and it is clear from the poem and others of that time that he was captivated by an uncommon view of the poet and poetry that was vatic at heart, “a dramatic projection and at the same time a magic ritual,” as he would put it in 1966, looking back on his early poetics.

Duncan did not leap from the romantic diction of “Heavenly City, Earthly City” directly to the postmodernism of his open field poetics. Indeed the transformation that occurred in his writing was, for the most part, wrought with deliberation and a great deal of labor. Hundreds of pages of poetry in The Collected Early Poems and Plays comprise a record of this extraordinary evolution, a kind of poetic individuation (to use Jung’s term) that was consciously made. In his short preface for Caesar’s Gate, a collection of his poems written in 1949 and 1950 (1955), Duncan uses the word makaris, a word known to most poetry readers from the title of William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makaris,” where it means makers or poets, in which Dunbar remembers all the dead poets of his time and place. (Jack Spicer, Duncan’s friend and associate in the Berkeley Renaissance, would later publish a small book with this title.) “In devotion to the art,” wrote Duncan in the same passage, “we shape ourselves.” And this self-shaping in poetry is at the center of his search for the poet he would become in the years leading up to his 1960 collection. Duncan’s psychological recognitions (which in truth ran more towards Freud than Jung) led him to the idea of play, and its role in self-understanding. In the early 1950s he wrote a large number of experimental texts under the influence of Gertrude Stein, pieces of which were published in books such as Names of People, Play Time Pseudo Stein, and Writing Writing. These imitations seem to have been written in order to free his sensibility from its romantic inheritance, or so they sound now. These lines from “A Song Is a Game,” for example, sound as though they are by a poet who would not even recognize “Heavenly City” as a poem:

Naked as a word
Sound as a bird
Ten foot high to be heard.

Spelling is hard
but only the absurd renders
Rendering absurd.
Naked as a ward.
Sound as a bard.

Here the rhyme seems childish and playful, unselfconscious in a manner that Duncan would never have espoused earlier, indeed would probably have looked down on, in spite of his admiration for Laura Riding’s verse. He is obsessed by the music of language, and how music as an art depends much more on repetition than modern poetry does. He explores at length how music can carry a poem even when its semantic content is minimal or deliberately withheld, or simply fantasticated:

Make a donkey park to arrest. Four four. Making a donkey park to arrest him. Remake or donkey a park to arrest. Park make a donkey or the rest. The feel of the make, a ark or a rest. Make king donkey park or our rest. Four and four.

This kind of semi-nonsense worked for Duncan as a kind of ear-cleansing exercise. (It would also have echoes in Spicer’s later work in a line like “Sable arrested a fine comb” from the “Love Poems” section of his book Language, a book which also includes a poem written against Duncan.) He practiced it for several years, and its cumulative effects on his style are obvious in the last of his early books, a collection entitled simply Letters, by which Duncan meant primarily not missives, but the literal letters of the alphabet.

The poems in Letters are clearly poised between Duncan’s earlier, more traditional verse, and the subsequent poetry of The Opening of the Field. In the preface he writes about “the desire for a new order.” In fact the Preface itself teeters on the brink of incomprehensibility, while the poems, paradoxically, are more lucid, almost aggressively lyrical:

Is there another altar than the fact we make,
the form, fate, future dared
desired in the act?

Words can drop as my hand drops (hawk
on wing
weight and
to conquer inarticulate love
leaving articulate

the actual mountain.

Some of the poems in Letters are in prose (Duncan had been reading prose poems at the time of working on this book), in anticipation of the series that would become a significant part of future books, “The Structure of Rime.” Although he wanted his title to alert the reader to his poetic emphasis on the building-blocks of language (Alpha to Omega, he said), many of the poems are dedicated to poets whose work was influential in the poetics he was elaborating during the 1950s, so in that sense the poems are also “letters” in the epistolary meaning. The poets — Olson, Creeley, Michael McClure, Denise Levertov and others — would remain important to Duncan throughout his career.

At over 800 pages of poetry and notes, The Collected Early Poems and Plays is a huge book. It is, in Quartermain’s words, a reader’s edition, meaning that it is not a critical text much less a variorum edition. All the same, Quartermain has thought carefully about copy text, resulting in a scrupulous and reliable text of Duncan’s early work. For the first time, a number of now scarce books has been made available again, along with hitherto uncollected poems, allowing us rare insight into Duncan’s early phase. In his notes, Quartermain gives us the gist of a book and its larger framework, and lets us deal with individual poems without the kind of intense editorial intervention that sometimes mars scholarly editions of poetry through over-direction in the theatrical or controlling sense. This is especially striking in a poet who was so “derivative” (the adjective is Duncan’s own), and it will be interesting to see how Quartermain deals with the later poetry in the next volume of this impressive series.


Bruce Whiteman is a Canadian poet who lives in Grinnell, Iowa. His most recent books are a collection of poems, The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books I-VI (2006) and a translation of Tiberianus' Pervigilium Veneris (2009).

LARB Contributor

Bruce Whiteman is a Canadian poet who lives in Toronto and writes full-time. His most recent books are a collection of poems, The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books I-VI (2006), and a translation of Tiberianus’ Pervigilium Veneris (2009).



LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.