Robert Duncan: Centenary


2019 was the centenary of Robert Duncan’s birth. Born on January 7th, as a mid-Capricorn, Duncan (a committed Hermeticist) would have heard instant rhymes between his birth and the life to come. Capricorn is shaped after the Sumarian god, Enki. He was the god of intelligence, the “ear” of the Universe. Duncan was to become a poet with a refined ear, developing a complex, open-field poetry, with a visual layout that indicated the voice’s music, the timing of sound, silence, and breath. Being ruled by Saturn, the Capricornian personality is driven by the darker parts of the psyche. This dominates much of Duncan’s poetry, giving it range and melancholic depth. The tone is heard clearly in “Heavenly City, Earthly City (1947) and “Berkeley Poems” (1966):

         The heart in the darkness of the city sings.

         Among my friends, love is a great sorrow,
         It has become a daily burden, a feast,
         A gluttony for fools, a heart’s famine.

Often, this saturnine spirit has been attributed solely to Duncan’s homosexuality. Certainly, there is a basis for that. In his daring self-outing in “The Homosexual in Society”, Duncan was scathing about the levity he found in the gay lifestyle:

       … one found that the group language did not allow for any feeling at all other than this self-ridicule, this “gaiety” (it is significant that the homosexual’s word for his own kind is “gay).

But behind “the love that is a great sorrow” and the “feast” that cannot be enjoyed, is the myth of Tiresias, the poet as prophet, someone who could not enjoy a daily meal because his cornucopia of plenty (another Capricorn image) was snatched away by the Harpies.

At the opening of The H.D. Book, Duncan’s masterwork on poetry— by way of a sustained meditation on the Hermeticism of H.D.— Duncan laments the point at which literary education, if not all education, took the wrong path: it is the point at which “self-improvement” replaced “self-knowledge.” That is a truly saturnine perception, a person might bring Milton’s Il Penseroso to mind: a mind turned to a gloomy Muse and the darkness of the cosmos. Rather than encourage students to venture inwards, like an alchemist, to find the vitriol/glass of vision—Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem— teachers have turned to an outward reality, simply improving an individual for society’s needs.

The image of poet-mentor casts a long shadow over Duncan’s work. And it is the weight of this, rather than his homosexuality, that accounts for the melancholy bass throughout his work. The darkness heard in the early poems expands through Duncan’s open sequence of Passages:

         None will raise his eyes to the stars at night
         Nor take thought if his life light years and the outer reaches
         of Heaven before he was;
         (Passages 17).

Translating from the Hermetica, “The Asklepios”, Duncan envisages the greatest sadness—being an orphan among the stars.  

But set against this darkness is another element of Capricorn: a capriciousness, a tendency to turn, to follow the turnings of poetry, and make the leap from earth to heaven, from dark to light— black ecstasy. Following Agrippa (and Milton), Duncan recognises a divine melancholy in which the fires of vision burn in the name of Love: this is the dark solar solstice, the cosmic turning point, which occurs in Capricorn.

               Under the lemon tree
         as I drowsed on the sun, I heard,
               Lucifer’s Song in Love of His Lord,
         fiery essence, the black desolation
              ascending thru the created hierarchies
         into the light of the Beloved.
         ("Out of the Black").

At the close of Groundwork II, “In the Dark”, his final volume, Duncan returns to a haunting image of Dr John Dee, who was Elizabeth I’s mathematician, astrologer, and architect of Gloriana’s imperial imagination. In an obsidian mirror, a black stone, Dee conversed with angels. And Duncan remembers this:

                                                               … The magic
                   has always been there,           the magnetic purr
                   run over me, the feel as of a cat’s fur
          charging the refusal to feel.     That black stone,
                   now I see, has its electric familiar.

Out of blackness, the energies of magnetic obsidian, comes an energy that defeats ennui or acidia. It is deeply appropriate that Duncan’s work closes with a tribute to Pound, who began Duncan’s lifelong journey into open form— in “That black stone”, Pound’s rose in the steel dust, a metaphor for the energy of the Image, is recast.

Duncan remains one of the most vital poets: and his contribution to “gay” poetics should never be forgotten.


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