Worlds Out of Worlds: A Look2 Essay on Robert Duncan
Early in his career, Robert Duncan introduced himself to two editors by writing, “all that I aspire to do is communicate somehow my psychic experiences—as the young druid poets and those who wore the cloak of blue feathers in Ireland and all poets must do.” In comparison, contemporary cover letters seem positively self-effacing. On trips to the grocery store, Duncan sometimes donned a black cape he’d bought in Spain and drew stares as he gestured wildly in supermarket aisles. His poetry, similarly outlandish at times, also has drawn some skepticism; Allen Ginsberg once labeled him “that nasty aesthetician.” His jubilant aesthetics, however, at their best weave an incantatory spell that is hard to resist.
His readings—which sometimes went on for hours as the audience raucously shouted for encores—captivated even dubious listeners. The poet Carol Bergé wrote that she arrived at a seminar “convinced that nothing Duncan has ever written is worth a damn, and that he is personally not merely a bore, but an offensively affected bore.” She went on to say that, although she hated being wrong, Duncan had proved to be a “vitally interesting lecturer” with a “warmth and projection of personality which sweeps one along until one forgets to be annoyed.”
Many contemporary readers and editors have continued to take a similarly skeptical view of Duncan’s work, and he remains slimly represented in anthologies and university curricula. Some of his poems branch off into rough-hewn exclamations, scattered across the page and seemingly half finished, while others wildly declaim in the voice of a mage. The vagaries of his style can leave some readers disoriented.
Duncan did indeed revise less and less as his career went on, claiming that his new poems were his revisions, his attempts to reenvision the same ideas again and again. As a child he was told by theosophist parents that, in a former life, he had drowned in the destruction of Atlantis and now was doomed to die in another apocalypse, full of fire this time. Although he later abandoned his belief in the literal truth of these tales, his early immersion in apocalyptic beliefs may have made him less inclined to brood over revisions and more inclined to think about poetry’s power to form and inform the mind. (Anthologies wouldn’t be much help on an ash-strewn postapocalyptic wasteland.) He was obsessed and enchanted by the vision that language could join the mind to the world around it and, in so doing, create a small stay against loss. When asked why he wrote poetry, he replied, “I write for the fucking stars.”
As well as grappling with the metaphysically transformative powers of poetry, Duncan helped shape the aesthetics of several poetic and social movements. He played a noteworthy role in the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement, publishing an essay called “The Homosexual in Society” in 1944, an impassioned argument that the fight for gay freedom had to be framed as a universal “battlefront for human freedom.” Hailed by Kenneth Rexroth as one of the most influential midcentury poets, Duncan was a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance. Directing the State College’s reading series allowed him to influence significantly—and sometimes impishly—the Bay Area’s poetry scene. Charles Olson claimed him as a protégé, and teaching at Black Mountain College put him at the heart of the Black Mountain School. Duncan’s most groundbreaking book, The Opening of the Field, arose, in part, out of his response to Olson’s theories about projective verse and composition by field. It was followed within a decade by Bending the Bow and Roots and Branches, books that earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as grants from The National Endowment for the Arts.
He was suspicious, however, of success. He despised careerism and famously vowed not to publish for fifteen years, during which time he supported himself through prolific lecturing and visiting professorships. Ground Work I: Before the War finally came out in 1984 and won the country’s first National Poetry Award. His final book, Ground Work II: In the Dark, was published to wide critical acclaim four years later in February 1988, the same month Duncan died.
University of California Press now has launched the ambitious project of reprinting, in six volumes, Robert Duncan’s complete works. The H.D. Book—an unfinished and previously unpublished manuscript, which began as a tribute to the poet H.D. and became a sprawling treatise about poetry, psychology, and mysticism—appeared in 2011 and is the first volume in this series. Writing for The New Republic, Jed Perl gave the book a rave review: “[p]ublished a half-century after it was written, The H.D. Book reads like a clarion call. At a time such as ours, when artists are either embattled or co-opted, either locked away in some ivory tower of their own invention or overtaken by market forces and political forces, Duncan argues for the most strenuous artistic ambitions as a dynamic democratic possibility.” The promise that five more volumes of Duncan’s work are to be reissued (or printed for the first time) invites another look at some of the poems that initially established his reputation.
Duncan’s preoccupation with the transformative powers of language was a reflection, in miniature, of the stories about Atlantis and metamorphosed worlds that had filled his childhood. Armed with a birth chart that the astrologer had given them, his parents had spent months sifting through orphanage records, hunting for the corresponding baby who would reveal the secrets of Atlantis to the modern world. One day, Duncan’s mother went into a pharmacy and lamented her unsuccessful quest. Duncan’s aunt overheard her complaining at the counter. Tentatively, she divulged that her sister had delivered a son on December 7 before dying from childbirth complications. The baby was now waiting for adoption; she couldn’t remember whether he’d been born at dawn. He had been, and his parents finalized the adoption and took him home.
Early on, Duncan developed a passion for poetry. When he showed his aunt a poem he’d penned, she sighed and said, “This is very lazy of you. You have been a poet already in so many lives.” His poetic vocation predated, apparently, the disaster in Atlantis.
Duncan’s imagination was fueled by the elaborate, occultist mythology that filled his childhood. At night, he slept in an herbarium next to a wall of potted plants while listening to his family telling tales of Isis and Osiris. His parents explained to him that while he slept, his soul wandered off and traveled among the stars, visiting other worlds. His aunt said that the soul was like a swarm of bees: while he dreamed, beelike parts of him bumbled off to feed on fields of helium.
Although Duncan eventually abandoned the doctrines he was raised with, he remained fascinated by myths, and images of Atlantis infuse his work. Even after he stopped believing in the literal truth of these stories, their metaphoric richness entranced him. He professed the somewhat mischievously lavish belief that poetry could graft the world onto the soul—and vice versa—writing that “the soul and the world are one in a third hidden thing, in imagination of which the work arises.” (In other words, poetry-making is the closest we’ll come to being able to pack up a soul-suitcase.) He claimed that this unity was forged because “the path poetry creates between reality and the soul is the path of a conversion.” Within “conversion” we hear the word verse, which means “turn.” Verse, like the equations scrawled by Medieval alchemists, aims to turn one thing into another. What could have been more comforting to a man raised with prophecies of doom than the idea that language could mold the precarious material world into something more imaginatively durable?
In “The Ballad of the Enamord Mage,” one of the central poems in The Opening of the Field, Duncan writes in the voice of a magician. His lifelong partner, the collage artist Jess Collins, painted a striking portrait of Duncan titled “Enamord Mage.” Like the shamanic Irish poets in their cloaks of blue feathers, Duncan saw bardic and magical traditions as closely aligned, and in the most essential sense of the term, Duncan is a metaphysical poet. In his poetry, the physical world continually opens out into visionary realms, realms both prefigured by the material world and contained within it. The feet of his verse don’t stay planted on the earth for long; his poetry shuttles back and forth between the earth and the heavens, the mind and the magical, the mundane and the prophetic.
In “The Structure of Rime I,” he writes, “In the feet that measure the dance of my pages I hear cosmic intoxications of the man I will be.” The present is a prophecy of what will come and words are the instruments of creation. He often used magic as a metaphoric vessel for conveying the generative powers of words since, in the world of magic, words—spells and incantations—have the capacity to conjure transformations.
As a child, Duncan accompanied his mother to occultist meetings, waiting in an anteroom while his parents and their friends went into an inner chamber behind a bead curtain which, his mother told him, was the Veil of Isis. Waiting outside this bead curtain fascinated him as he wondered what hidden truths were voiced behind it. In The H.D. Book, he wrote that he was still entranced with “the movement of meaning beyond or behind meaning, of shifting vowels and consonants—beads of sound, of separate strands that convey the feeling of one weave.”
In “Ballad of the Enamord Mage,” his vision of worlds lurking inside other worlds and of meanings swaddled in metaphors is a more mature version of his childhood conviction that something strange and worth hearing lurked just out of earshot behind the rattling beads. Apocalypse, at root, means to uncover something. As an adult, he shed his concern with the specters of primeval floods and modern mushroom clouds; the apocalypse he was interested in was the careful poetic uncovering of what is contained in the world words attempt to mimic.
Duncan used etymology—itself a record of language’s metamorphoses—to explain his conception of the poetic image. He delighted in the fact that the words fay and fairy were related to the old German word fôgjan, “to join or fix” and talked about the “casting of an image” as if images were spells. He claimed that the image itself was “fay…at once an apparition and a joining of two into one.” The poetic image is a temporary illusion evoked in the mind; at the same time, it is the enduring, written representative of the imagination. In this poem, the stanzas in the mage’s voice alternate with short refrainlike stanzas from the perspective of a writer, all of which begin with the word “I.” Interestingly, if one joins this “I” with the “mage” for whom the poem is titled, one creates the word image, a linguistic joining that unites the magical with the individual, the immortal with the transitory.
At the end of the poem, the mage tells us, “Worlds out of worlds in magic grow.” This promise—encapsulating, as it does, both loss and redemption—is both consoling and troubling. The poem, worth quoting in full, maintains a tone of saddened wonder:
How the Earth turns round under the Sun I know,
And how the Numbers in the Constellations glow,
How all Forms in Time will grow
And return to their single Source
Informed by Grief, Joy, insatiable Desire
And cold Remorse.
Serpents I have seen bend the Evening Air
Where Flowers that once Men and Women were
Voiceless spread their innocent Lustre.
I have seen green Globes of Water
Enter the Fire. In my Sight
Tears have drowned the Flames of Animal Delight.
I, a poor writer, who knows not
where or wherefor my body was begot.
In a World near a City in a green Tree
I was once a Bird shot down by Thee.
And Thou, Beloved, shot from Thy young Bow
An Arrow from which my Blood doth daily flow
And stoppd the Song
That now I sing Thee all Night long.
I, turning my verse, waiting for the rime,
that know not the meaning of my name.
In a place where a Stone was hot in the Sun,
I was once a Mage, dry as a Bone,
And calld to me a Demon of myself alone
Who from my Thirst conjured a green River
And out of my Knowledge I saw Thee run,
A Spring of pure Water.
I, late at night, facing the page
writing my fancies in a literal age.
How all beings into all beings pass,
How the great Beasts eat the human Grass,
And the faces of Men in the World’s Glass
Are faces of Apes, Birds, Diamonds,
Worlds and insubstantial Shapes
Conjured out of the Dust—Alas!
These things I know.
Worlds out of Worlds in Magic grow.
I, mortal, that live by chance,
and know not why you love,
praise the great wheel where the spirits dance,
for by your side I move.
Through the poem’s chronicling of transformation, certain elements return again and again. The green globes of water are echoed by the green tree, again by the green river, and finally by the grass in the last stanza. Duncan was an ardent admirer of Whitman, and the phrase “human grass” calls to mind Whitman’s famous lines, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” One form transforms into another. Similarly, the mage’s flowing blood morphs into the image of the running river described in the next stanza. What is human slowly merges into the grass and rivers of the surrounding, endlessly shifting world. The comparisons and juxtapositions of poetry allow the conflation of one thing with another—poetry, in this case, is the representative of imagination, that “hidden thing,” which, Duncan claimed, allowed the soul and the world to be joined together into a single entity.
Through the minutiae of the poem’s language, Duncan also unfolds the idea that certain elements remain constant in the midst of transformations. In the first stanza, “forms” becomes “informed,” a linguistic transfiguration which imitates the idea that, though a thing will not remain the same, it will contain what it was. Similarly, when Duncan writes “Flowers that once Men and Women were / Voiceless spread their innocent Lustre,” we hear echoes of the word lust in “lustre.” Lust has been rendered innocuous in the chilly bodies of flowers, though it still maintains a faint shimmer—lustrous—that foreshadows the glowing “flames of animal delight.” The very sounds in this passage repeat, subside, and return: the s weaves serpentlike through the lines.
Duncan continually plays with double meanings and with the idea that one image can carry multiple implications. The archer who shoots the bird calls to mind both love—and the birth it allows (think of Cupid)—and also the death caused by an arrow wound. Because of this arrow, the mage’s blood flows. In this image, blood is gushing out of a lethal injury, or else this very wounding has allowed his blood the necessary ability to flow; “blood flow” is, after all, what the body needs to continue living. Similarly, in a musical sense, the word stop can mean either to silence a song or to allow a note to sound—one stops a hole on a wind instrument to create a desired tone. The same phrases conjure both cessation and continuation.
Duncan was born (according to the charts his astrologer used) in Sagittarius, sign of the archer. The italicized lines that immediately precede this stanza call up the circumstances of his birth and adoption: “I, a poor writer, who knows not / where or wherefor my body was begot.” The human bewilderment of the lines—sharply contrasted with the lavish, all-knowing voice of the mage—makes them moving. In the end, we don’t know much—for all our attempts to create meaning through astrological maps or poetic images.
This ignorance doesn’t preclude, however, a certain agency in the writer that mirrors, in its small way, the powers of the mage. The phrase “turning my verse” recalls the mage’s declaration that he knows “[h]ow the Earth turns round under the sun.” Likewise, the “numbers” glowing in constellations recall the metrics of poetry. The poet, like the mage, turns one thing into another.
The next refrain also recalls Duncan’s adoption and the changing of names that accompanied it: “I, turning my verse, waiting for the rime, / that know not the meaning of my name.” The meaning of his name was, indeed, various and shifting—he was born Edward Duncan, and when his parents adopted him, they changed his name to Robert Edward Symmes. After studying at Berkeley for two years, Duncan was drafted into the army in 1941. He was sent home, however, with a dishonorable discharge after declaring his homosexuality. When he left the army, he changed his name to “Robert Duncan”—a combination of his birth and adoptive names—signaling a break with his family and their increasingly traditional beliefs. Based on an astrologer’s recommendation, the Symmeses, had moved from Oakland to Bakersfield when Duncan was a young boy. Transplanted into suburbia, his parents had stopped attending séances behind the Veil of Isis and had taken up botany as a hobby. Their beliefs had become increasingly aligned with those of their Christian neighbors. When Duncan was discharged from the army and moved to New York to pursue poetry, the doubleness of his name became symbolic for him of the fact that his identity contained two family heritages. He also, puckishly and lavishly, delighted in the fact that he literally saw double—a skiing accident had left him with double vision when he was a toddler. (Duncan once described meeting a drunk Kerouac who tried to gaze deeply into his eyes, only to fail entirely because Duncan’s eyes diverged so dramatically and Kerouac couldn’t choose which eye to stare into.) All his life Duncan cherished this injury as a dizzying emblem of the fact that appearances are changeable and that the truth of what we see is multiplicitous.
The year he began The Opening of the Field Duncan was also voraciously reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Thinking about the track of evolution provoked him to compare it to poetry: “What if poetry were not some realm of personal accomplishment…But a record of what we are, like the record of what the earth is…left in the rocks, left in the language?” The ending of “The Ballad of the Enamord Mage” echoes the idea of evolution—men and women are not themselves alone; they are informed by the forms of the creatures from which they evolved: “And the faces of Men in the World’s Glass / Are the faces of Apes, Birds, Diamonds…” Humans didn’t evolve from birds, but Darwin did theorize that language evolved from singing—a theory tacitly posited by legions of avian-obsessed poets before him.
Duncan was fascinated by the sixth-century Welsh bard Taliesin who, in one of his most famous poems, chronicles the many different forms he has inhabited and which have informed him:
I am a wonder whose origin is not known.
I have been in Asia with Noah in the ark…
Taliesin suggests that he is privy to and part of a collective, shape-shifting consciousness. Duncan argues, based on this quotation, that “the individual psyche was taken to recapitulate the psychic life of his species; the deepest psychic resources to be found in the collective unconscious.” He relates Taliesin’s shamanlike vision of an enduring generations-long memory to Freud’s theory about the indissolubility of memories within an individual; Freud argues in Civilization and Its Discontents that “nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish…everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain circumstances of being brought back to light.” Thus, no experience or memory is fully lost; they persist, though they may, at times, be hidden, just out of sight, but neither gone nor unreal.
“Ballad of the Enamord Mage” is, in fact, remarkably similar to the Taliesin poem in which he catalogs the different shapes he’s taken—from a harp string to a grain of wheat to a raven. Both poems attempt to formulate a magical consciousness, which experiences multiple incarnations and which, in so doing, becomes a keeper of collective memory. The speakers of both poems repeat “I know” again and again; knowledge, they suggest, in the end, comes from the way one thing subsides into another.
Duncan’s poem glorifies both limits and a vision of the infinite. The bewildered speaker moves beside the all-knowing spirits at the end of the poem: “I, mortal, that live by chance, / and know not why you love, / praise the great wheel where the spirits dance, / for by your side I move.” Even in ignorance, the speaker has agency; he can move, and he can move beside—just in sight of—the spirits who could, presumably, if they chose, solve all the mysteries that plague him. (Alternatively Duncan’s “you” refers to a beloved the speaker moves beside—a mortal, limited human he’s lucky enough to have the chance to know—Duncan insists once again on meaning’s ability to oscillate.) Poetic image comes from the joining of the powerless speaker with the all-knowing mage, from the casting of inert, written words into a living imagination, from the fay act of fastening one thing to another.
By the time The Opening of the Field was published in 1960, Duncan had been in a relationship with the collage artist Jess Collins for nine years. Jess (he abandoned his last name after becoming distanced from his family) had trained as a nuclear physicist and had worked briefly on the Manhattan Project. He became, however, increasingly dismayed by the development of the bomb and dreamed one night that the world would end in nuclear annihilation. The dream was so realistic that it prompted Jess to quit his job and, freed from worrying about retirement savings, he enrolled in art school. (Despite their shared concern about fiery apocalypses, Jess and Duncan’s mother didn’t get along—he succumbed to asthma attacks whenever he saw her.)
Jess’ theories about collage influenced Duncan’s poetry, and he began to write poems that were collagelike assemblages of gathered quotations and images. He insisted that Jess design the cover for The Opening of the Field. When the publisher suggested a different book jacket, he wrote back angrily, saying that Madison Avenue art could not do justice to the vision of “nature” presented in his book. His choice of the word nature is interesting, since few of the poems depict nature—in the traditional sense of the word—in any detail. When an interviewer characterized many of Jess’ early works as “landscapes,” he replied, “Well, I would say it’s a landscape as a field of imagination. I see landscape, particularly in the early work, as a matrix for the imagination.” Duncan’s work in this collection also strives—particularly in the title poem—to use minimalist evocations of scenes as a way of mapping how the imagination works.
The book’s first poem begins in its title, a stylistic doubleness, which presages the poem’s obsession with the pesky and consoling duality of things:
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 the heart…
The meadow is almost like a scene made up by the mind. In other words, it’s so similar to dreamed-up worlds that going there is like tunneling into imaginative realms. Landscape stands in for imagination. The mind in question doesn’t belong, however, to the individual poet; it is—perhaps—similar to the collective memory spun in the Taliesin verses Duncan loved. The land and memory—the mind and the world—merge, become the same; the two join into one.
Many of the poem’s most memorable images are drawn from a nightmare that haunted Duncan as a child. In the dream, he stood in a field and watched the swaying grass, which—for some reason—seemed horribly sinister to him. From the field, he climbed down into a cave, and a wall of water suddenly obliterated everything. When, in terror, he ran to his parents, they assured him that the dream was merely a memory of dying in Atlantis.
Later, Duncan would muse that Persephone is the redemptive force in the underworld cave. In his nightmare, he had not seen the “maiden” because he had stood “in her place or in her way.” His phrasing is interesting—perhaps he, as the poet, takes the role of Persephone and acquires the ability to, Orpheus-like, lure life out of death. But Duncan claims that he is “in her place or in her way”; the phrasing suggests that, alternatively, her powers of renewal are blocked by his mortality. Orpheus only can get so far before he turns back into a man who’s impotent against limit, and all Persephone’s generative magic, blocked by mortality, can do nothing.
Though Persephone was absent from the dream, Duncan describes a Persephone-like figure in the poem:
She it is Queen Under the Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.
Duncan’s lines mirror, on a syllabic level, the expansion and folding he evokes—the stanza’s second line bulges out, twelve syllables long, and then the next line, “that is a field folded,” is exactly six syllables. He’s taken the field of words and folded it precisely in half. The alliterative half rhyme of “field folded” heightens the line’s sense of compact cohesion.
Battalions of words containing, like Russian dolls, other words inside them swarm around the queen. Spells are the generative part of magic, and the Gospel of John relates how a Word called the universe into being. If words can create worlds, then words containing other words will conjure a succession of changing worlds—much like the worlds that the mage witnesses growing out of other worlds.
The undertone of sadness in much of Duncan’s poetry comes from the realization that words must create new realities because the reality of each moment is ending even as we observe and catalog it. In The H.D. Book he reflects that, “In the melody we make, the possibility of eternal life is hidden, and experience we thought lost returns to us.” Part of what gives his poetry its emotional force is the tension between the fact that the speaker of these poems can create an eternal, magical world but cannot quite inhabit it. For all its bardic bravado, Duncan’s poetry is moving because its speakers admit doubt. Duncan reveled in weaving grandiose claims about the redemptive power of art, but he also admitted the limits of his own mind. In “Where It Appears” he wrote these lines:
as if I could cast a shadow •
to surround •
what is boundless •
as if I could handle • this pearl • that touches
upon every imagination of what
I am •
wrong about the web, the
reflection, the lure of the world
What is boundless cannot be contained; it is only the “as if” of the imagined poem that enchants us, for a moment, into thinking that it could be. Duncan creates a body of poetry that presents two views at once: worlds will rise out of worlds, but—at the same time—we get one life, one reality.
The tone of the next passage about Duncan’s Atlantean nightmare is ambiguous:
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.
Is the poet consoling himself by insisting that whatever menace he fears is impotent as a dream? Or is he suggesting that all of this—the poem, the world, the redeeming Queen—are insubstantial as a dream? Duncan won’t let us have it just one way. Likewise, the grass blowing toward the source of the sun is both cheerful and sinister. The sun, like Persephone, brings life back to the fields after a long winter. On the other hand, since the sun’s heat is created through nuclear reactions, the source of the sun is the same force Jess feared would annihilate the known world.
The image of the children’s game further conflates menace and renewal. Their circle dance is cyclical and, as such, is an emblem of continuity. At the same time, the roses they’re blithely singing about are a metaphor for sores created by the plague, and the famous rhyme ends with “ashes, ashes we all fall down,” a phrase that evokes both the ancient fear of plague and the modern terror of nuclear disaster.
Shortly after The Opening of the Field appeared, Jess did a painting called If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink in which children dance in a circle while a mushroom cloud rises behind them. Since Jess and Duncan collaborated so closely, Jess’ overt juxtaposition of nuclear disaster with the children’s game reinforces the idea that anxieties about atomic threats lurked behind Duncan’s lines about the source of the sun.
The poem ends with some of the most moving lines in Duncan’s work, moving not least for their simultaneous ambition and humility:
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.
The sadness of the phrase “as if” mellows the poem’s triumphant finale. We know that only within the bounds of the poem—within the bounds of the imaginative “as if”—will the mind hold fast against chaos. Outside the poem, all bets are off. And yet, the speaker is allowed over and over to return to this meadow. After the earlier allusions to Persephone, one could think of this moment as an ascent out of the underworld. The speaker, like Persephone, comes back again and again to the living fields. The redemptive, chaos-quelling powers of this meadow are, however, largely made up in the mind. The consolation Duncan offers is that these powers are no less real for being imagined and crafted.
Robert Duncan’s poetry constitutes a sprawling, incantatory, sometimes visionary, sometimes impenetrable opus. The aesthetic philosophy that left his most indecipherable poems languishing as half-finished utterances also—in many ways—created the the urgent, spellbinding power power that lures readers back to his best poems again and again. To a mind shaped early—as Duncan’s was—by apocalyptic prophecies, aesthetic perfection and critical reception are pleasant but ultimately redundant and transient; what matters is how poetry can form and inform us.
From a critical vantage point, Duncan’s interest in magic and the occult can seem quaint and eccentric, but he took his place among a number of twentieth-century poets—Yeats, Hughes, and Merrill, to name a few—who used the trappings of the occult as a way of metaphorically grappling with poetic and metaphysical questions. Like Ted Hughes, Duncan was interested in early bardic traditions and studied them with the aim of restoring certain things to contemporary poetry that he believed had been lost or neglected. He borrowed the all-knowing voice of the mage from Taliesin’s early Welsh verses, a multiplicitous voice that suggested that poetry was one way of joining the individual’s limited, mortal perspective to a vaster, collective vision. Like the early bards, Duncan also reveled in the beauty and incantatory power of words—in their ability to weave aural spells—and he gave readings that lasted for hours as the audience shouted out for encore after encore. (He was never, however, stodgily reverent about poetry—when two people walked into one of his readings half-dressed and very drunk, Duncan brushed aside protests, saying, “Nakedness and wine have always been part of poetry.”)
Both Allen Ginsberg and Jack Spicer ridiculed him for his uncompromising insistence on poetic beauty, but—to Duncan—the sheer beauty of language and image were the elements of poetry that could enchant. Enchantment was what he sought. He gently mocked Madame Blavatsky, the exulted nineteenth-century faux-mystic who wrote “transcriptions” of her visions, which—unfortunately for her reputation—were nearly identical to pages of books she’d read, but he admired, nonetheless, her recognition that “society itself was in need of some release of vital powers.” With delight, he quoted one of Blavatsky’s letters, in which she claimed, “I live in a kind of permanent enchantment.” Duncan’s poetry aims to enchant us, to call us into a perennial engagement with the world around us. It provokes us to entertain his idea that the imagination and world can fuse, shape, and inform each other. The word enchantment, of course, comes from “song”; permanent enchantment is, for Duncan, the ability to participate in the song that keeps going, that gets passed down through the transforming generations.
Katherine Robinson’s poems and fiction have appeared and are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Hudson Review, Poet Lore, Measure, The Common, and other journals. She holds an MFA from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives and teaches in Baltimore.