Yah, it ain't new. First published in 1963, to be exact, but I've been putting off Duncan for decades because of my preset, prejudicial, averse mindset stemming from a distaste for, and impatience with, the Olson influence, that Black Mountain fraud who mystified and conned generations (with, in many quarters, only a small let-up even today) into swallowing a sour mishmash of scattered allusions, lumpy prose sprayed like a cat's territorial markings on most every page, and turgid narrative which boasts a name or place in the time it takes to tag it, then flees to the next billboard.
But this is a review (of sorts) on Bending The Bow, so I'll abstain from the popular Olson/Duncan/Bowering sport of making a spiritual tessellated stained glass dome of luminary (by back-and-forth backpatting) luminosity of the initiate legions, which only seems to create worth by the hushed evocative tones its communal practitioners proceed with, rather than any convincing evaluative analysis.
Robert Duncan's Bending The Bow begins with a post-volume introduction (written in 1967) which actually begins: "We enter again and again the last days of our own history ....". Now, Irving Layton frequently penned prefaces, for over three decades, to his multiple volumes of poetry by linking the upcoming contents to contemporary political realities. Layton's pro-U.S. gov't views on Viet Nam have long been derided, and Duncan, here, takes the popular stance, as was the case with Lowell, Bly, and many other American poets, of passionate opposition to the war. Fair enough. But poetry is supposed to be concerned with proportion, with truth in its minutest particulars, so "being on the right side" means nothing when such frantic hyperbole is standard issue. OK, again, it's a prose intro, so let's turn to the relevant text in the poetry:
"robot service in place of divine service;/the Good Word and Work subverted by the Advertiser,/He-Who-Would-Avert-Our-Eyes-From-The-Truth."
That hysterical stump-waving scrawl comes from "Passages 26: The Soldiers", and is not replicated faithfully as to typographical integrity, but then I'm not going to the trouble of entering, pasting, and transcribing the exact layout here. (It's not that much different, in this case.) Which brings me to the next annoyance with this book: if Olson's "projective" verse excited and "opened up" possibilities for poetic form (I'd say poetic shape, but that's a large argument for another time), then Duncan, here, has run amok to the extent that one gets dizzy from trying to figure out the speed, pace, dynamics, emphases, pause length (the big "period" which is explained in the intro is ludicrous -- how long is the pause? And should it be flexible, or should we have a second-hand stiopwatch at the ready?), not to mention the meaning attached to the scores of degree of indentation.
There is a full page of prose explication before the two-page "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" which doesn't cancel the obnoxious didactic meandering by the ploy of a different title ("A Lammas Tiding"). And the poem? Apparently, it's an important one in the Duncan canon, so I'll quit taking apart "minor works", as the frequent counter-criticism goes, and deal with this one.
This is a brilliant poem. It's, for Duncan, a rare lyrical success. But, rare for any poet, it enacts and sustains a deep, complex universal psychological intransigence, that of the sensitive youth (boy to mother, specifically) who needs his mother's protection while simultaneously despising her for that power and for putting a limit on his necessary flight. The final three lines, even after his mother has died, returns to: "I tread her wrist and wear the hood,/talking to myself, and would draw blood".
The high rhetoric of Duncan's long poems with big themes aren't even a footnote to those of Hart Crane, a poet who closely resembles Duncan in tone and epic concern. Where Crane could also be embarassing in his emotivity, his strangely anguished feeling over slight events and stock characters, he could also craft gorgeous lyrics, whether or not their scope called for the formal richness. Duncan, however, is a prescriptive poet, but what's worse, one whose answers are cliches, are simplistic, however well-meaning they are.