Saturday, February 27, 2010

Selected Poems

Duncan, Robert. Selected Poems. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Co., 1997.

Duncan's Selected Poems begins with his earliest pieces (1939) and traces his career as a publishing poet through his final book, Ground Work II, which appeared in print in 1987. Much of his early writing establishes its foundation in ancient myths, religious stories, and classical literature, whether they be selections from Medieval Scenes, or later poems such as “Dante Etudes.” Reliance on the re-telling of these narratives, wherein “Again his words come into ours and...draw us back/ into the orders” (130), acknowledges that we should “remember this time for it returns/.../ with new faces” (134); in other words, Duncan understands history as repetition, articulated most eloquently in the arts; it is merely the proper names in the stories that have changed. As such, classical and mythological allusions function as a reminder of this fact. As far as aesthetics, Duncan experiments most radically within his collection Letters. Liberal use of white space, non-normative stanza breaks and indentation, coupled with the inclusion of lists, footnotes, and non-grammatical syntax can be found throughout. Moreover, the poet explores language at the level of individual words and their vocalizations; or, as Duncan writes: “Why knot ab stract/ a tract of mere sound/ is more a round/ of dis abs cons/ t r a c t i o n/ —deconstruction—/ for the regarding of words” (41). Other aesthetic variants employed by Duncan are: the prose poem (in the Steinian lineage) constructed around hyperbolically repetitive Cubist word combinations, which can be found in A Book of Resemblances and Writing Writing, as well as accumulation through the serial poem. His two longest poems are “The Structure of Rime” and “Passages,” both which span the course of several books. The culmination of these strategies serves to create “a disturbance of words within words/ that is a field folded” (54) in an effort to produce a “voice/ shaking, in the throes of the coming melody,/ resonances of meaning exceeding what we/ understand, words free from their origins” (128). Once the origins of words have been dislocated from the words themselves, writers can “come again and again to their few words,/ not of what they think they are saying// but of the thing they are telling, the mode” (86). And this mode, for Duncan, is pure musicality, or “the sounds/ that the lips and tongue/ and tunings of the vocal chords/ within the chamber of the mouth and throat/ can send upon the air” (140).

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