cover image The Collected Early Poems and Plays

The Collected Early Poems and Plays

Robert Duncan, edited by Peter Quartermain. Univ. of California, $49.95 (875p) ISBN 978-0-520-25926-3

The University of California Press continues its monumental program of restoring Duncan’s complete works to prominence with this volume, which follows his prose work The H.D. Book and Lisa Jarnot’s groundbreaking biography of Duncan, collecting all his poems and drama through mid-century, marking the first phases of his work. Duncan is a complicated figure in 20th-century American poetry, a direct heir to the high Modernists, especially Ezra Pound; friend and co-conspirator to East Coast figures like Charles Olsen and Robert Creeley; but also perhaps the central presence and master of the San Francisco Renaissance scene that gave rise to Jack Spicer, another poet who, like Duncan, is just now having his legacy re-evaluated by poets and academics. Duncan’s poems are long, discursive, and disjunctive, often difficult, and relentlessly beautiful, mixing a kind of transcendent romanticism with an experimental flare for wild associative leaps, as if the poems of William Blake or Coleridge were written by a soberer post-WWII poet. Early allegorical pieces (“We have gone out in boats upon the sea at night;/ lost, and the vast waters close traps of fear about us”) give way to poems of urban homosexual eroticism and pain: “Among my friends love is a payment./ It is an old debt for a borrowing foolishly spent.” The hundreds of pages that follow draw together too much to list, but everything seems to be here, laying the groundwork for a major career: the last poems in the volume, from Letters (1958) point the way toward the expansive books—The Opening of the Field, most notably—for which Duncan is still best known. We can see him stretching toward those upcoming poems: “In the before streets, the streets occurrd./ A mind, crowded to be seen. A maker/ occurring only to the created.” (Dec.)