Section A: Books & Broadsides
Described by Kenneth Rexroth as “one of the most accomplished, one of the most influential” of the postwar American poets, Robert Duncan was an important part of both the Black Mountain school of poetry, led by Charles Olson, and the San Francisco Renaissance, whose other members included poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. A distinctive voice in American poetry, Duncan’s idiosyncratic poetics drew on myth, occultism, religion—including the theosophical tradition in which he was raised—and innovative writing practices such as projective verse and composition by field. During his lifetime, critics such as M.L. Rosenthal heralded him as “the most intellectual of our poets from the point of view of the effect upon him of a wide, critically intelligent reading.” Duncan’s work drew on a wide range of references, including Homer, Dante, and the work of modernist poets such as H.D.
In some pages from a notebook published in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Duncan stated: “A longing grows to return to the open composition in which the accidents and imperfections of speech might awake intimations of human being… There is a natural mystery in poetry. We do not understand all that we render up to understanding… I study what I write as I study out any mystery. A poem, mine or another’s, is an occult document, a body awaiting vivisection, analysis, X-rays.” The poet, he explained, is an explorer more than a creator. “I work at language as a spring of water works at the rock, to find a course, and so, blindly. In this I am not a maker of things, but, if maker, a maker of a way. For the way is itself.”
The goal of composition, he wrote in a Caterpillar essay, was “not to reach conclusion but to keep our exposure to what we do not know.”
In 1938, after two years at University of California, Berkeley, Duncan moved to New York and became involved in the downtown literary coterie that had sprung up around Anaïs Nin.
While in New York, Duncan took an active role in emerging arts movements, following the works of the Abstract Expressionists, the development of Pablo Picasso’s brand of modernism, and the emergence of an American Surrealism as seen in the works of his acquaintances Roberto Matta and Hans Hoffman. During this time, Duncan launched the Experimental Review with Sanders Russell; Duncan and Russell published the work of Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Durrell, and other writers in their circle.
Duncan returned to Berkeley in 1946. The poetry scene there was developing into what would soon be called the San Francisco Renaissance: Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser were together devising their concept of a “serial form” for poems linked by repeating themes, images, and phrases, while Kenneth Rexroth was holding his literary and anarchist meetings, which Duncan, Blaser, and a host of others attended.
In 1947 Duncan met Charles Olson, and over the years that followed the two developed a relationship rooted in their literary interests. Olson introduced Duncan to Robert Creeley and, in 1956, invited Duncan to teach at Black Mountain College. During his time at Black Mountain Duncan composed most of the poems in his first mature collection of poetry, The Opening of the Field. Indeed, Olson’s theory of “projective verse” and “open forms,” which propose a poetry shaped by the poet’s “breath” rather than by the traditional rules of meter and rhyme, seem to have directly influenced Duncan’s “grand collage” concept of verse. Duncan, in effect, took Olson’s idea of “breath” one step further, presenting the poem as a “compositional field” to which the poet might bring whatever he or she pleases.
Despite his affiliation with several major movements in American poetry of the fifties and sixties, Duncan forged a style uniquely his own. Utilizing archaic diction and spelling, and complex repetition of phrase, Duncan creates a poetic space both ethereal and obsessive. Throughout his life Duncan became increasingly interested in the writing process, striving to write poems of a purely organic form. His most famous poem, the central piece of The Opening of the Field, provides a commentary on Duncan’s work as a whole, and serves as a precursor for his work to come:
“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.”
Bertholf, Robert J. ROBERT DUNCAN: A DESCRIPTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY
Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1986
Clay, Steven and Rodney Phillips. A SECRET LOCATION ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980
New York: New York Public Library / Granary Books, 1998
Johnston, Alastair. A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE AUERHAHN PRESS & ITS SUCCESSOR DAVE HASELWOOD BOOKS
Berkeley: Poltroon Press, 1976
Johnston, Alastair. A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE WHITE RABBIT PRESS
Berkeley: Poltroon Press in association with Anacapa Books, 1985
Lepper, Gary M. A BIBLIOGRAPHICAL INTRODUCTION TO SEVENTY-FIVE MODERN AMERICAN AUTHORS
Berkeley: Serendipity Books, 1976