Robert Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance

A far less public figure than Ginsberg, but one who had an equally important impact on the development of the New American Poetry, was Robert Duncan. Duncan, who was born in 1919 and attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1930s, was one of the founding members of the "San Francisco Renaissance" in poetry. While the San Francisco poets were by no means a homogeneous group, their shared concerns with the creation of an alternative artistic and literary community and their commitment to a more egalitarian social order resulted in a strong group identity. The poets of the renaissance tended to see the poet's role as that of articulating a social and political vision as well as a purely literary sensibility: Kenneth Rexroth, for example, was a longtime agitator for leftist and anarchist causes and Duncan himselfwrote many poems ofan explicitly political nature. The group was further solidified by an active literary culture in the San Francisco area, including readings at coffeehouses, courses, and seminars at the newly founded Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, and the existence of little magazines such as Circle, City Lights, Ark, and Golden Goose and presses like City Lights Books.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Duncan met the poets who would become his closest literary allies: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov. It was in the 1960s that he published the three volumes that contain much ofhis strongest work: The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow. These volumes introduce, among other poems, the two open-ended poetic sequences that he worked on throughout his later career: "The Structure of Rime" and "Passages." In addition to "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," some of Duncan's most important poems are "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," "Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," "The Fire: Passages 13," "Torso: Passages 18," and "Up Rising: Passages 25." Duncan was unique among American poets in being equally comfortable with traditional stanzaic forms and free-verse or open forms. In Duncan's radically eclectic style, each poem was allowed to achieve its own specific form; according to an aesthetic system he referred to as "grand collage," the poem would collect and arrange various ideas, symbols, myths, and images in a new and complex constellation. In this sense, his poetics are clearly influenced by the model of Pound's Cantos and by Pound's "ideogrammatic method." But Duncan, who described himself as a literary "magpie," derived his idiosyncratic poetics from a wide range of sources, including the experimental modernism of Stein and H. D. and the mythical and prophetic lineage of Pindar, Dante, Shelley, Whitman, Blake, and Rimbaud. As Michael Davidson observes, "many of Duncan's finest poems are readings of other texts, his own poem serving as meditation and transformation."3 Perhaps the most complex example of this "intertextual" writing is "Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," in which he finds aspects of the story of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche in Pindar's first Pythian Ode, Apuleius's The Golden Ass, a Goya painting, a Whitman poem, Pound's Pisan Cantos, and his own dreams.

Duncan addressed a number of the public issues of his day. In "The Multiversity," he defends the free speech movement at the University of California and attacks the administration for its use of authoritarian violence: "the club, the gun, the strong arm / gang law of the state." In "Up Rising" and several other of the "Passages" poems he protests against America's involvement in the Vietnam War. Here he excoriates Lyndon Johnson as a president whose "name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors." Finally, Duncan had the courage to address the issue of homosexuality at a time when openly declaring himself to be homosexual was a professional as well as a personal risk. After he published the essay "The Homosexual in Society" in 1944, John Crowe Ransom decided not to publish an already accepted poem in The Kenyon Review.

In "The Torso," Duncan addressed the question of homosexuality in poetic form:

Most beautiful! the red-flowering eucalyptus, the madrone, the yew Is he . . .

So wouldst smile, and take me in thine arms

The sight of London to my exiled eyes

Is an Elysium to a new-come soul

If he be Truth

I would dwell in the illusion of him

His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body such an idea in man's image rising tides that sweep me towards him . . . homosexual ?

The trees of the opening images suggest the male torso of the poem's title, but the ellipses after "Is he" introduce the topic of male homosexuality on a more pragmatic level that seems to disrupt the lyric effusiveness of the first two lines. The question "Is he a homosexual?" - itself a social cliché - is interrupted by a passage from Marlowe's play Edward II, by the speaker's own romanticization of a relationship ("If he be Truth . . .") and by a description of a sexual embrace. These interruptions serve to elevate the importance of the question "Is he a homosexual" from the level of speculation or gossip to one of mystery or metaphysics. The object of the speaker's love is "a trembling hieroglyph" who later in the poem becomes materialized through the emumeration of various body parts. As Cary Nelson remarks, the italicized word "homosexual," followed by a question mark and placed on its own line, forces the reader to question the use of a single name for such a complex combination of emotions. What does it mean, Duncan asks, to be a homosexual in erotic, interpersonal, historical, sociopolitical, and aesthetic terms? As in so many of his poems, the literary, the personal, and the political are brought together in a weave that reveals new possibilities of meaning.

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