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Robert Duncan


It’s hard to justify a $50 book nowadays. Unless you’re a scholar looking to pore over every character in an author’s archive, a volume of collected work can easily overwhelm. Is there a non-academic audience for a tome like The Collected Early Poems and Plays by Robert Duncan (University of California Press)? I can’t speak for the market, but as a young poet scrambling through the poems of the past, as well as the growing morass of contemporary offerings, I finished this beast of a volume feeling refreshed.

It’s clear that UC Press has a plan for Duncan’s collected works, which are stylistically in tune with The H.D. Book. While poems often share pages, pages rarely feel overwhelmed. Economy of space is understood. This book feels like a chronological collection of published and uncollected works, so we are given a particularly instructive timeline of Duncan’s growth as a poet.

The breadth of that poetic growth is in itself a fantastic teacher. Duncan burst out of the gates hungry, publishing as an undergrad beginning to engage with the politics and metaphysics he would engage with throughout his career. But his line is inquisitive rather than didactic; he chose not to build a pulpit, but to immerse the reader in his investigations. The Years as Catches then shows, if anything, that all poets must start somewhere, and it’s comforting to see the seeds from which Duncan’s poetic dexterity would grow, while at the same time appreciating that this is the work of a young man with much to learn. In every stanza, his potential glimmers: an inexperienced poet, winding his way through language until his own voice emerges.

It does so quickly, as Heavenly City, Earthly City slips into the picture and Duncan more fully embraces his political opinions. His voice takes shape, as does the melody within his lines, and, along with the poet, we learn the strength of verse as a spoken activity. Melodious, rhythmic, and willing to take risks linguistically and stylistically, the book moves into Medieval Scenes with the assuredness of a man who more fully finds his footing after every line.

Duncan—and by extension this volume—really begins to shine with A Book of Resemblances. The strength of this book, and the argument for the price tag, is not only the accessibility of all of Duncan’s work between two covers, but the process of working along with the poet as he searches for his ultimate expression. He earns the poems in Resemblances, which sing and swell and traverse emotional and metaphysical landscapes. But these poems were not born out of a black hole. Duncan climbs to this height, and ever higher, throughout these pages and those in the next volume. The true joy in reading a poet like this is the journey. Duncan walks with Pound, Williams, and Stein as influences, wearing them proudly on his poetic and fanciful flights through drama and poetry. If ever there was an argument for an oeuvre, this is it.

More capable writers have written about Robert Duncan and the circumstances surrounding The H.D. Book, notably the poet Lisa Jarnot whose review I highly recommend. It’s impossible not to concur with her on every point with regard to this, but I can’t speak to such a deep relationship with Duncan. As such, The H.D. Book, for me, was more a lesson on how to read poetry, perhaps at the most extreme.

Divided into three books, the short history of The H.D. Book is a somewhat common tale. One of those pieces that a writer is constantly writing, editing, tinkering, refining, adding to, etc., thus never really receiving a “finished” stamp of approval. Which is the exact way for a book like this to evolve, as it is essentially a record of Duncan’s two-step with poetry. This dance began with H.D. early in his life, and as such, she is present through all his thoughts on poetry and vice versa. Everything Duncan has pondered in poetry must first pass through H.D., not so much as a gatekeeper, but rather like a pair of glasses that put verse into focus for him. Thinking back onto my own experience with poetry I can (and often have) pointed to that first instance of poetic reception, the poet and poem that cracked the walnut of possibilities open. Like a scientist, or a theosophical philosopher scientist, Duncan approaches his walnut from every conceivable angle, often at the exact moment he conceives of each individual angle.

Which of course lends to the overwhelming magnitude of this tome, part of the multi-dimensional narrative going on here. A conversation in constant engagement was never meant to be read a second time. But how could this book have been anything other than what it is? There is no editing Duncan’s thoughts, references, asides, clips of Randell Jarrell and Pound and Williams and Eliot in turn faulting and praising and (ultimately) faulting H.D. again for her digressions against the flow of the academic canon. Duncan comes out firing in H.D.’s honor, though is not a qualifier by any means, casting no stones but rather approaching each point respectfully and discussing it through other evidence, references, and inferences.

The H.D. Book is larger than H.D. or Duncan then, a treatise on reading itself, as something between academic decoding and personal interaction between reader and text. Neither Duncan nor I seek to disparage criticism or academia, but this book doesn’t fill the needs of that style of literary interaction. Rather Duncan is writing down what he researches, thinks, and dreams about while working through H.D. and modernism in general. Book 1 is more akin to the historical reading of H.D. and greek mythology, working through the symbology she presents. For me, Book 2 was more engaging in that it investigated H.D.’s work directly and it was cross-pollenated with and within the work of Williams, Pound, and other and (post-)Imagists. Here we think along with Duncan, dive deep into quotes and references within and between sentences. It can be dazzling just by the enormity of his inquest, and rather than trying to take stock of his many references and asides, I took in this book as a direct call to knowledge.

In terms of describing this book as an argument for reading, though, I was primarily entranced by Duncan’s graciousness and patience. Even taking as long as I did to read this book I felt rushed, as every sentence was a thesis, an argument for the poetic and real legitimacy of the verse of not only H.D. but in many ways the 20th century as a whole. I wouldn’t know where to begin to quote from the book as it itself is comprised of so many quotes, inter-connected thoughts, and seemingly simple.

If nothing else, reading The H.D. Book has left me feeling something of a failure for not engaging so intimately with this art as Duncan had. Which is far from what Duncan would have wanted, I believe. This book is critical but suspicious of academia and the idea of “canon”. He was vested in readability but couldn’t help himself with regard to the density of his work, but such is the price of passion, and this book is the image not only of passion but of poetry’s impact on passion. It’s a life-long affair, and we are lucky to have this collection of thoughts. Though daunting and challenging, they’re intimately readable and inspiring for a poet such as myself. Trust no writer with a shelf that lacks this book, and spare the time to let Duncan show you that to write you must love to read.