The Ambassador from Venus
Review by Paul Nelson
Notes on The Ambassador from Venus
Robert Duncan is one of the most important poets in terms of my own poetry lineage. He was the first poetry teacher of Michael McClure, my main influence. His poetics clarified the notion of Field Poetry, which I have found fascinating and very useful in explaining my own practice, having developed a spontaneous mode before reading Duncan and his essays. And the long-awaited Duncan biography by the fine poet Lisa Jarnot (Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus) sheds additional light on what I think made Duncan so important; on his stance toward poemmaking and how to live the life of a poet.
For the uninitiated, Duncan was born in Oakland, California in 1919, orphaned, adopted by a Theosophist family and was one of the leading figures in the vibrant Bay Area poetry scene from the 40s up to his death in 1988. An openly gay man since the 1940s, his knowledge of the history of poetry, linguistics and other arts forms (especially painting and music) continues to be an inspiration for many poets around the world. The bulk of his work remains very fresh and innovative, eternal. His notion of the serial poem, (for which he took credit) and the dual threads of it (Passages, The Structure of Rime) intertwining, is fascinating. Poems such as My Mother Would Be a Falconress and Structure of Rime XXV (The Fire Master) are among the best examples of projective verse.
The Fire Master waits always for me to recall him from a place in my heart that is burnd or is burning. He comes to my mind where, immediate to the thought of him, his rimes flicker and would blaze forth and take over. You too are a flame then and my soul quickening in your gaze a draft upward carrying the flame of you. From this bed of a language in compression, life now is fuel, anthracite from whose hardness the years spring...
Reading the book then, for me, would be a glimpse at the man behind the poems and the poetics and hopefully give me more clues for my own search. I look for confirmations, clarifications and corrections to help my own practice move forward. I have found that by focusing on innovative poets like Duncan, their messages never go out of style. Projective or Organic composition (as Duncan called it in his correspondence with Denise Levertov) may have gone out of fashion with the advent of deconstructionism and the LANGUAGE poetry movement, so I can imagine folks reading this and disagreeing with my notions of the innovative, but it's what I am betting my life on and is the stance that informs this essay. Not so much an essay but a listing of some of the more notable points from the book based on my first reading.