Robert Duncan: Man of Many Thoughts

The Scribe's Thesis (detail) by Pablo Lehman, cut paper, 2012

The Scribe’s Thesis (detail) by Pablo Lehman, cut paper, 2012

“When I first decided to be a poet— it came as a conviction that this was to be my work—this itself was a disordering of the world and its orders in which I had been raised. My father had been an architect and, until he died, when I was sixteen, I had been preparing to enter that world… One could not earn a living at poetry. Writing poems was not such a bad thing, but to give one’s life over to poetry, to become a poet, was to evidence a serious social disorder…

This is a quote from Robert Duncan, one of the major writers in the postwar San Francisco Renaissance movement. He became a leading practitioner of an open form of poetry, a practice that is more common now.

In this same essay, “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife” (from Collected Essays and Other Prose, University of California Press), Duncan writes, “Poetry, as an art, provided a dimension that I could not see in architecture, where every building was completed in itself; for in writing I came to be concerned not with poems in themselves but with the life of poems as part of the evolving and continuing work of a poetry I could never complete—a poetry that had begun long before I was born and that extended beyond my own work in it. The quality I strove for in each poem was not the quality of that poem as a thing in a commodity culture but the quality of the work itself present in the poem. I strove for the quality of my participation in the art…”

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One Response to Robert Duncan: Man of Many Thoughts

  1. Duncan was a stellar poet, with tremendous sensitivity and a sharp mind, and also capable of political satire on a high order: he has a poem about a stroke suffered by President Eisenhower that is as cunning a comment on US politics as I’ve ever read. He also had a great poetic ear. “The quality of the work itself, present in the poem.” That’s a true test for any poet.