On Robert Duncan, 'The Opening of the Field'

Re Opening

The poems in Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field were written between 1956 and the beginning of 1959, the final two referring to events of 1958: the publication of Louis Zukofsky’s Barely & Widely and, on October 13, the US release of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Duncan appears to have known since his teens that he was going to write a major work, a mature writing that would propose a poetry on the scale of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Charles Olson’s Maximus, and Zukofsky’s interrupted project “A”. [1] The Opening of the Field and the four books that follow are that work.

Duncan took care to set the stage for the best possible reception of this project. He gathered his early writings, those composed up to 1950, into a Selected Poems as part of City Light’s Pocket Poet Series in 1959. Works written between 1950 and 1956, the poems ultimately gathered in the Fulcrum Press edition of Derivations, were issued for the most part as a series of chapbooks, some published by Duncan himself through his press Enkidu Surrogate. But, as he acknowledged in a list of “Books by Robert Duncan” in the Selected Poems, The Field (Poems 195659), was unpublished, and for much of 1959 had no good prospects for finding a publisher. Duncan had had an agreement with Macmillan that had come apart over his insistence that the book’s cover use the artwork created for it by his lover Jess, a homey sketch with a collaged photograph of children playing a circle game.

That Duncan had even thought to turn to a New York trade publisher is telling. He was notoriously fussy with his publishing, not permitting Ferlinghetti to reprint Selected Poems, insisting that the first volume of Ground Work be set in Courier to capture the “true copy” of his typed originals. [2] After contemplating publishing The Field himself, Duncan finally let Donald Allen — with whom he was in constant correspondence over the subject — take the project on as a Grove Press Evergreen Original. It came out in October of 1960 with Jess’ artwork used as the frontispiece, and a clever Roy Kuhlman cover design that used the photo of the kids under an abstract “falling leaf” pattern. Both the title and author’s name are in what I believe to be Robert’s own handwriting.

Although the Duncan I first met in Jack Gilbert’s class in 1966 argued adamantly against all forms of revision, the title of this volume changed between 1959 and 1960. There were also changes in the poems and in their order. “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” the book’s first poem, had originally been titled “Having Been Enraged by John Davenport.” [3] But this was to be the start of a great project, and Duncan wanted very much to get it right.

He was very conscious that he was proposing a writing that could be as continuous as The Cantos. But like Zukofsky and Olson before him, Duncan also found the need to break down parts within. Each of the five books that make up this unnamed project can be read as collections of discrete poems. In addition, two very different ongoing sequences — The Structure of Rime and the Canto-like series Passages — are woven in throughout. In 1974, when I wrote in an essay on The Opening of the Field for John Taggart’s issue of Maps devoted to Duncan, that Duncan might issue these two sequences as separate volumes, Duncan replied — in an annotated copy of my essay he gave to the Australian poet Robert Adamson — that Structures and Passages belong to the books in which they appear as is! They have never been issued separately, though in fact both would make great little books on the scale of Spring & All, say, or Tender Buttons. The Structure of Rime as an individual book would have made Duncan’s role in the formal elaboration of the American prose poem apparent, something for which he has never received sufficient credit. [4]

1960 was also the year of The New American Poetry, which also was why Duncan was in constant contact with Allen. To hear Duncan tell it years later, Allen had been little more than Duncan’s apprentice in the creation of that anthology — and some of the women not included there have concluded that its sexual politics do indeed reflect Duncan’s influence. But what interests me today is just how much Opening of the Field was itself no less of a power play than the anthology. One thing is clear: Duncan worked hard to reconfigure our understanding of the American poetry landscape at the exact moment he was trying to launch his defining project,

a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

 


[1] It had stalled in 1950 after number twelve. Zukofsky would not pick it up again until 1960.
[2] When the paper the original typesetting by David Melnick proved unable to produce a clean enough image for offset printing, the entire volume was typeset a second time.
[3] The British literary critic of the 1950s, not the Puritan founder of New Haven, CT, though Duncan possibly had that echo in mind.
[4] Duncan had written published prose poems as far back as 1940’s “Toward the Shaman,” and pioneered the letter-as-prose-poem mode that Jack Spicer would make famous in After Lorca. In some important ways, Duncan is the bridge between the high modernist experiments on the part of Stein & Williams and John Ashbery's Three Poems in the early 1970s.