Go write yourself a book and put
therein first things that might
define a world:
In 1985, Robert Duncan received one of the strangest literary prizes ever offered: the National Poetry Award. It was strange because it was created specifically for Duncan in recognition of his long and distinguished career. And instead of a large cash award, the poet was presented with a small Goya etching purchased with funds contributed by poets from around the world. Accompanying the prize was a booklet containing hundreds of testimonials from those poets, including remarks from longtime associates like Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and William Everson but also from poets whose work would seem the opposite of Duncan's. Marvin Bell, for instance, testifies that for him, Duncan is ". . . the poet of ardor, encompassing the sheerest beauty, the widest myth, and the most exactly drawn intimacies." Robert Bly states that "In Robert Duncan's best poems we feel an intelligence alert to every event he has lived." Marge Piercy speaks of Duncan's ". . . deep sense of the history of poetry and of the spoken word, a consciousness that reveals itself freshly again and again in his work." And the 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner, Carolyn Kizer, states that had she been on the jury, "I would have given it (the Pulitzer) to Robert Duncan."
Kizer's remark was particularly significant given the fact that Duncan's major new collection from New Directions, "Groundwork: Before the War," had failed to win any prestigious national prize that year, nor did it receive extensive coverage in the press. "Groundwork" had broken a self-imposed 16-year silence during which time the poet refused to publish a new collection. In an era when literary reputations are hard-won and fiercely protected, such a decision seemed bizarre to say the least. Duncan's gesture, made in 1968, came at a moment when his international reputation was at its height, due to the appearance of "Bending the Bow," a work that criticized American involvement in Southeast Asia in an oracular rhetoric worthy of Blake:
Now Johnson would go up to join the great simulacra of men,
Hitler and Stalin, to work his fame
with planes roaring out from Guam over Asia,
all America become a sea of toiling men
stirrd at his will, which would be a bloated thing,
drawing from the underbelly of the nation
such blood and dreams as swell the idiot psyche
out of its courses into an elemental thing
until his name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors
But along with such jeremiads could be found passages of great lyric beauty:
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.
As the book makes clear, the bent bow of the warrior is also the stretched string of the poet's lyre, an unlikely likeness that could well stand for Duncan's work as a whole.
Until the appearance of "Bending the Bow," Duncan had been primarily associated with Black Mountain poets like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov and with the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s. But this new book with its complex mythological poetics and its powerful anti-war polemic spread his fame well beyond such group identifications. Given this belated recognition, Duncan's decision not to publish seemed like a form of literary suicide. Why did he do it? His stated reasons were that he wanted a period of time to write without thinking about "the book" and the market considerations attendant to publishing. But implicit in his response was a long-held belief in poetry as a vocation in which one is "called" to write beyond any consideration of individual artifacts or objects. If, to his readers, such justification seemed overly theoretical, it was not uncharacteristic for a poet known for unpredictable gestures, a poet whose definition of "responsibility" was "the ability to respond." For Duncan not to publish was to keep himself open to possible responses.
Duncan stuck to his word and, outside of occasional poems in magazines or small chapbooks, he did not publish a new collection until "Groundwork." This book, printed on oversize pages and copied directly from the author's original typescript, gathers together powerful new works like "The Dante Etudes, a Seventeenth Century Suite" and new sections from his ongoing series, "Passages." These long series continue his earlier mytho-poetic concerns but in a rhetoric somewhat chastened by self-reflection:
\o7 I do not as the years go by grow tolerant
of what I cannot share and what
refuses me. There's that in me as fiercely beyond
the remorse that eats me in its drive
as Evolution is in
working out the courses of what will last.