Poetry Wednesday: Duncan

“These    are

the passages  of thought

from the light air”

Duncan. Ground Work

Duncan is a challenging poet to nail down. Officially a SF Renaissance poet, he never fit it perfectly with anyone. He famously avoided publishing anything for decades, working instead on his masterpiece Ground Work. It’s a stunning work, a work of a master of his craft no longer burdened with anything but his art. He’s able to pull expertly from every tradition, easily diving into metaphors of foreign tongues and unfamiliar mythos.

Unfamiliar, that is, to everyone else. Duncan understood poesis, making meaning through poems. The shift of language or culture was less important to him than the subtle shift of understanding that poetry could achieve. Unlike other poets I’ve written about, Duncan never got the popular following. In many ways, though he was admired and loved by other poets, he never fit into the same artistic sphere as the other poets who were drawn to him. He was cynical of publishing and promotion, and shunned the crowds that were drawn to his peers in the SF scene and the Black Mountain poets.

Strangely, this lack of engagement with the world was a source of permanent frustration by much of the external world that he wished to remain apart from. His political friends always attempted to understand his desire to keep the political and the poetic separated, and he lost some close friends and colleagues when he tried to insist on the distinction. A spiritual person, raised by Theosophists and dedicated to the mystery of life, Duncan must have felt overwhelmed and hemmed in by political talk. He saw in it, perhaps, a hardness that would crush the poetic.

In his poems, at least, the concrete was his enemy. His poems that resonate with me are light, experimental, and untouched by lengthy exposition. Take one of his finest from Ground Work II, Supplication;

         “Let me have the grace

for I would mind what happens here.”

Contrasting it with another good poem, A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar (reprinted in its entirety below), it’s magnificent in its simplicity. It”s as long as the latter poem, but filled with simple lines, airy spacing, dialogue that drifts between tense and person; it’s marvelous. When he decides to become more concrete, a good poem emerges… but something is lost. A questioning of the mythos, a critical eye towards the poem. In Supplication, he ponders “The very doubt of living upon which Life/from its initial darings cast itself abroad.” Not until the end of  A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar does he allow that fanciful wondering, reminding us that “We have come so far that all of the old stories/whisper once more.”

That is the Duncan at peace with his own power. The Duncan that can accept the weight of the old stories without any ballast at all.

A Poem Beginning With A Line From Pindar


The light foot hears you and the brightness begins
god-step at the margins of thought,
quick adulterous tread at the heart.
Who is it that goes there?
Where I see your quick face
notes of an old music pace the air,
torso-reverberations of a Grecian lyre.

In Goya’s canvas Cupid and Psyche
have a hurt voluptuous grace
bruised by redemption. The copper light
falling upon the brown boy’s slight body
is carnal fate that sends the soul wailing
up from blind innocence, ensnared
by dimness
into the deprivations of desiring sight.

But the eyes in Goya’s painting are soft,
diffuse with rapture absorb the flame.
Their bodies yield out of strength.
Waves of visual pleasure
wrap them in a sorrow previous to their impatience.

A bronze of yearning, a rose that burns
the tips of their bodies, lips,
ends of fingers, nipples. He is not wingd.
His thighs are flesh, are clouds
lit by the sun in its going down,
hot luminescence at the loins of the visible.

But they are not in a landscape.
They exist in an obscurity.

The wind spreading the sail serves them.
The two jealous sisters eager for her ruin
serve them.
That she is ignorant, ignorant of what Love will be,

serves them.
The dark serves them.
The oil scalding his shoulder serves them,
serves their story. Fate, spinning,
knots the threads for Love.

Jealousy, ignorance, the hurt . . . serve them.


This is magic. It is passionate dispersion.
What if they grow old? The gods
would not allow it.
Psyche is preserved.

In time we see a tragedy, a loss of beauty
the glittering youth
of the god retains—but from this threshold
it is age
that is beautiful. It is toward the old poets
we go, to their faltering,
their unaltering wrongness that has style,
their variable truth,
the old faces,
words shed like tears from
a plenitude of powers time stores.

A stroke. These little strokes. A chill.
The old man, feeble, does not recoil.
Recall. A phase so minute,
only a part of the word in- jerrd.

The Thundermakers descend,

damerging a nuv. A nerb.
The present dented of the U
nighted stayd. States. The heavy clod?
Cloud. Invades the brain. What
if lilacs last in this dooryard bloomd?

Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower—
where among these did the power reside
that moves the heart? What flower of the nation
bride-sweet broke to the whole rapture?
Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson
hear the factories of human misery turning out commodities.
For whom are the holy matins of the heart ringing?
Noble men in the quiet of morning hear
Indians singing the continent’s violent requiem.
Harding, Wilson, Taft, Roosevelt,
idiots fumbling at the bride’s door,
hear the cries of men in meaningless debt and war.
Where among these did the spirit reside
that restores the land to productive order?
McKinley, Cleveland, Harrison, Arthur,
Garfield, Hayes, Grant, Johnson,
dwell in the roots of the heart’s rancor.
How sad “amid lanes and through old woods”
echoes Whitman’s love for Lincoln!

There is no continuity then. Only a few
posts of the good remain. I too
that am a nation sustain the damage
where smokes of continual ravage
obscure the flame.
It is across great scars of wrong
I reach toward the song of kindred men
and strike again the naked string
old Whitman sang from. Glorious mistake!
that cried:

“The theme is creative and has vista.”
“He is the president of regulation.”

I see always the under side turning,
fumes that injure the tender landscape.
From which up break
lilac blossoms of courage in daily act
striving to meet a natural measure.

III (for Charles Olson)

Psyche’s tasks—the sorting of seeds
wheat barley oats poppy coriander
anise beans lentils peas —every grain
in its right place
before nightfall;

gathering the gold wool from the cannibal sheep
(for the soul must weep
and come near upon death);

harrowing Hell for a casket Proserpina keeps
that must not
be opend . . . containing beauty?
no! Melancholy coild like a serpent
that is deadly sleep
we are not permitted
to succumb to.

These are the old tasks.
You’ve heard them before.

They must be impossible. Psyche
must despair, be brought to her
insect instructor;
must obey the counsels of the green reed;
saved from suicide by a tower speaking,
must follow to the letter
freakish instructions.

In the story the ants help. The old man at Pisa
mixd in whose mind
(to draw the sorts) are all seeds
as a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
had part restored by an insect, was
upheld by a lizard

(to draw the sorts)
the wind is part of the process
defines a nation of the wind—

father of many notions,
let the light into the dark? began
the many movements of the passion?

from east men push.
The islands are blessd
(cursed) that swim below the sun,

man upon whom the sun has gone down!

There is the hero who struggles east
widdershins to free the dawn and must
woo Night’s daughter,
sorcery, black passionate rage, covetous queens,
so that the fleecy sun go back from Troy,
Colchis, India . . . all the blazing armies
spent, he must struggle alone toward the pyres of Day.

The light that is Love
rushes on toward passion. It verges upon dark.
Roses and blood flood the clouds.
Solitary first riders advance into legend.

This land, where I stand, was all legend
in my grandfathers’ time: cattle raiders,
animal tribes, priests, gold.
It was the West. Its vistas painters saw
in diffuse light, in melancholy,
in abysses left by glaciers as if they had been the sun
primordial carving empty enormities
out of the rock.

Snakes lurkd
guarding secrets. Those first ones
survived solitude.

holding the lamp, driven by doubt;
Eros naked in foreknowledge
smiling in his sleep; and the light
spilld, burning his shoulder—the outrage
that conquers legend—
passion, dismay, longing, search
flooding up where
the Beloved is lost. Psyche travels
life after life, my life, station
after station,
to be tried

without break, without
news, knowing only—but what did she know?
The oracle at Miletus had spoken
truth surely: that he was Serpent-Desire
that flies thru the air,
a monster-husband. But she saw him fair

whom Apollo’s mouthpiece said spread
beyond cure to those
wounded by his arrows.

Rilke torn by a rose thorn
blackend toward Eros. Cupidinous Death!
that will not take no for an answer.


Oh yes! Bless the footfall where
step by step the boundary walker
(in Maverick Road the snow
thud by thud from the roof
circling the house—another tread)

that foot informd
by the weight of all things
that can be elusive
no more than a nearness to the mind
of a single image

Oh yes! this
most dear
the catalyst force that renders clear
the days of a life from the surrounding medium!

Yes, beautiful rare wilderness!
wildness that verifies strength of my tame mind,
clearing held against indians,
health that prepared to meet death,
the stubborn hymns going up
into the ramifications of the hostile air

that, decaptive, gives way.
Who is there? O, light the light!
The Indians give way, the clearing falls.
Great Death gives way and unprepares us.
Lust gives way. The Moon gives way.
Night gives way. Minutely, the Day gains.

She saw the body of her beloved
dismemberd in waking . . . or was it
in sight? Finders Keepers we sang
when we were children or were taught to sing
before our histories began and we began
who were beloved our animal life
toward the Beloved, sworn to be Keepers.

On the hill before the wind came
the grass moved toward the one sea,
blade after blade dancing in waves.

There the children turn the ring to the left.
There the children turn the ring to the right.
Dancing . . . Dancing . . .

And the lonely psyche goes up thru the boy to the king
that in the caves of history dreams.
Round and round the children turn.
London Bridge that is a kingdom falls.

We have come so far that all the old stories
whisper once more.
Mount Segur, Mount Victoire, Mount Tamalpais . . .
rise to adore the mystery of Love!

(An ode? Pindar’s art, the editors tell us, was not a statue but a mosaic, an accumulation of metaphor. But if he was archaic, not classic, a survival of obsolete mode, there may have been old voices in the survival that directed the heart. So, a line from a hymn came in a novel I was reading to help me. Psyche, poised to leap—and Pindar too, the editors write, goes too far, topples over—listend to a tower that said, Listen to Me! The oracle had said, Despair! The Gods themselves abhor his power. And then the virgin flower of the dark falls back flesh of our flesh from which everywhere . . .

the information flows
that is yearning. A line of Pindar
moves from the area of my lamp
toward morning.

In the dawn that is nowhere
I have seen the willful children

clockwise and counter-clockwise turning.

Robert Duncan

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