January 12, 2009

The Poetry of Robert Duncan

Last week was the birthday of the remarkable, yet remarkably little known poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988). A defining member of the San Francisco Renaissance, along with Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, among other greats. I encountered Duncan’s work during my Jr. year at Naropa University and have been a fan ever since. Just this week I grabbed his book, Bending the Bow off my shelf and thumbed through to find the poem of the same name...

Bending the Bow
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. Reveries are rivers and flow
where the cold light gleams reflecting the window upon the
surface of the table,
the presst-glass creamer, the pewter sugar bowl, the litter
of coffee cups and saucers,
carnations painted growing upon whose surfaces. The whole
composition of surfaces leads into the other
current disturbing
what I would take hold of. I’d been…(read on)

Duncan always had a precise cadence. Developed by exacting line breaks and punctuation, the poem reads like a dream or a voice drawing the reader into deep trance. Although Duncan’s vocal style never had the power of Ginsberg or Amiri Baraka, his words are best spoken aloud (as is the case of any poem). So if your curious to hear him, check out his reading of My Mother Would Be a Falconress, I think you’ll find the power lies in the exact nature of his words and rhythms rather than in his shear instrumental force, but see for yourself. And for anything poetic including recordings of Duncan’s Poems and Lectures check out the Naropa Archive Project, one of the largest collections in the country.

Often I am Permitted to Return to the 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.

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.
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