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Preface to Robert Duncan:
A Descriptive Bibliography

by Robert J. Bertholf

Insofar as the world of poetry is an insistently human one—or, better, one in which the human lives at the edges of its own perception, in the common event of all else—there can be that disparity of response and use which must often make us recognize with a bitter disappointment how meager our responsibility has proved. There is no leader of this world, in the political sense of authority. But if one can hear Blake's proposal, "The authors are in eternity . . . ," then that which has been so given, having no content in possessional time, will find place in person, as agency or instrument, so that he or she becomes voice for and of many, however single in fact.

Poetry is primary community, primarily communal. It does nothing, so to speak, because it is issue of all, and cannot be constrained to any one facet or preferred disposition of circumstance, because it moves and is moved with all. That is why one cannot be by definition a "good" poet, unless one speaks of the limited factor of performance—which, though practiced with brilliant intent and consummate resourcefulness, is still a given, found only by chance, never bought, sold, or bargained for. In this world, both timeless and only this very moment, there is a seemingly endless polyphony of voices, of all ages, places, times, and situations—all pleasure, all despair. It is as vulnerable as a hallucination, because it and all the world that keeps it a very literal physical company have, paradoxically, no defense against thought, especially that which has lost its

Robert J. Bertholf, Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986).


feeling for the human, the music specific to a body which the mind might still recognize.

I must therefore put as simple testament not only my own deep respect for Robert Duncan, my own dependence on him as a brother in this art and as a teacher, as that person of my own imagination who is what a poet might be—but also make clear in this manner of emphasis that Robert Duncan has been that poet of my generation who brought the communal world of this art forward again, who broke down the specious and often hostile habits of those uses of a poetry which would turn it to profit, to personal law and order, to investments of self-approval, while denying it any power of initiating wonder, and final value that might matter. The reader now considering by means of this immensely useful listing of publications, together with some clear history of their circumstance of printing, what has been the practical pattern of Robert Duncan's life as a poet will very soon discover it has only that of the practice of a poetry, but not simply his own—as might be said of something bought and paid for—nor another's, if that one were to be only its prior owner. He has long insisted that language and the poetry it sustains, of all human things, are common, demand a common ground. As he says in respect of Whitman:

Speech itself, nowhere other than common, every where the source from which we derive our individuality.

("The Adventure of Whitman's Line," Convivio , ed. John Thorpe, 1983)

It is now, happily, a common information that his use as source, as primary connection, for the poets of his world makes a geography far more ample than any of their particular intents, habits, or even accomplishments might describe. For example, only in the world of his generative and abiding transcendence of mundane literary categories could Henry Miller, Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, Anaïs Nin, Louis Zukofsky, Denise Levertov, William Everson, myself and many, many others even begin to find room. As Whitman, he is originally and definitively American, defines a continuing person so here . But just as a science will engage a universe from a single instance of its manifest presence, so this poet reads the particular sounding syllable, the suddenly discovered congruence or discord, as expanding of all relation:

From the seed of first light the galaxies move out to the extremities of imagined time and space; Lucifer "falling" is the circumference or boundary of the need of Creation.

("Introduction," Bending the Bow , 1968)


The characteristic release of such power is an extraordinary intellectual energy, which can make of the seeing of the world, or, more aptly, its apprehension by whatever means we humanly can recognize, a vast and yet particularizing place of our lives with all else relating, a factual living tissue of those bounds/bonds.

So one may speak of him, however ineptly. One wants to make clear the size he constitutes, both in thinking and in practice, the parallels, variously, with Whitman, Dante, to an imagination which can bear, in birth and death, such human scale and occasion, go with it to whatever end. Therefore I cannot believe that he has ever once turned from this art and its commitments, however difficult its demands have proved. Yet to emphasize such a Puritan measure is also beside the point. No delights could ever have been more, as any reader or hearer of his poems well knows. Because such work as his is all a life, a world, and in it, miraculously, all opens, is possible, is there, or not there, meets with limit, breaks apart—to live.

Buffalo, N. Y.
February 28, 1984


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