A Philosophical Poet


by David Shapiro
Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 48 pp., $4.00

Robert Duncan has been publishing, with little renown, for more than fifteen years. Nominally attached to the Black Mountain school, he is indebted primarily to the technique of Williams and superficially to the esthetics of Olson. Covered with the measles of multiple allusions, haphazardly read in everything from the classics to the Surrealists or the theosophists, Duncan’s intellectual growth resembles a convolvulus spreading its tendrils across a floating world, catching a bit of information here, an insight there.

In much the same way, as man can be considered always more than the sum of his thoughts, so the majority of poems in Roots and Branches appear to be always more than the poems themselves, each of them part of an evolving process, anti-scientific in temperament, yet strangely scientific in method. That is to say, all statements remain more or less relative, awaiting the “corroboration” of further statements, and just so all significations seem tentative. Thus emerging only to be expunged, Robert Duncan’s microscopic particulars extend backwards and forwards, within and without, entertaining a moment-by-moment accretion and subtraction. On the subjective level, a kind of libidinous drift; on the objective one, a philosophic monologue.

He is, I think the most unusual (though not necessarily the most idiosyncratic) of practicing poets. Inevitably, he is also one of the most difficult. Through his constant experimentation, his occasional homemade spellings, his “programmatic” search for a psychic clarity, for a cleansing power, he can be, as they say, queerer than God. But he is also one of the most rewarding, and not only as a stylist. Much of his subject matter curiously parallels, probably unintentionally, certainly unsystematically, the concerns of Heidegger and Whitehead. More on that later. Here now, in a form which Williams abhorred because, as he said, it “does not admit of the slightest structural change,” one of Duncan’s simplest, most personal (though, it should be stressed, least typical) poems, an elongated sonnet:

Now there is a Love of which Dante does not speak unkindly,
Tho it grieves his heart to think upon men who lust after men and run—his beloved Master, Brunetto Latini, among them—
Where the roaring waters of hell’s rivers
Come, heard as if muted in the distance, like the hum of bees in the hot sun.

Scorcht in whose rays and peeld, these would-be lovers
Turn their faces, peering in the fire- fall, to look to one another
As men searching for an other in the light of a new moon look.
Sharpening their vision, Dante says, like a man seeking to thread a needle,
They try the eyes of other men
Towards that eye of the needle Love has appointed there
For a joining that is not easy.

It is “confessional,” yet surprisingly innoculated against the virus of special pleading or stridency usually infecting such utterances, so that even the riskiest phrases (especially “a joining that is not easy,” which could no doubt produce a smirk) seem…

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