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.