Robert Duncan's Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Kabbalah and Rime in Roots and Branches

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Author: Burton Hatlen
Editor: Michelle Lee
Date: 2007
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 75. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,386 words

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[(essay date 1990) In the following essay, Hatlen explores Duncan's association with Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg and details how Duncan's poetry differed from theirs.]

Robert Duncan, more consciously and more articulately than any other writer since Yeats, consistently argued that poetry itself has become the true heir of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Since Darwin, religion has generally devolved into one or another variety of pseudo-science: thus we see on the one hand the liberal transformation of religion into a psychodrama, and on the other hand the claim of the fundamentalists to offer an objective body of knowledge about the world, no less scientific than the information offered by officially certified biologists et al. What both the demythologizers and the fundamentalists have left out is, simply, magic; and it is the magical dimension of religion that poetry has, partly by default, inherited. By magic I mean a recognition that the boundary between self and world is fluid, so that a change in one necessarily changes the others, and an active search for ways to initiate and control this process. A threatened religion retreats into dogma, and in our time dogma has become the enemy of magic. Dangerously, dogma has also increasingly allied itself with the state, so that in the U.S.S.R. a state-enforced scientific dogma has made war on the will of human beings to come together in communities that nurture self and mutual transformation, while in the West religious dogma has sought state authority to annual the powers of love and sensuality. Thus was born Moloch, the state armored in dogma. Thus too a magical poetry inevitably locates itself "outside," in more or less overt opposition to Moloch.

As Dante and Milton and Blake discovered, in the poem dogma turns into story; rather than demanding assent, the poem invites participation. Committed from early youth to the principle of philosophical anarchism, Duncan affiliated himself with a poetic tradition descending through these poets and sought to create a poetry that would dissolve the dogmas through which the modern state seeks to legitimate itself. In his quest for an anarchist poetics, Duncan's career was interwoven with those of two fellow anarchists, Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg; and some of the differences between Duncan's work and that of these two poets may help to bring his magical strategies into focus.

Rexroth, the grand panjandrum both of the San Francisco anarchist movement and the San Francisco Renaissance, wrote a poetry that seeks to reproduce as precisely as possible the cadences of plain speech. At the center of Rexroth's poetics is a Buberesque sense of an I addressing a Thou, which is, however, usually not God but rather another human being. In such a dialogic relationship, Rexroth believes, the person comes into being, and personhood itself negates the power of Moloch. Ginsberg, for his part, sought to defeat Moloch by annointing himself a prophet: he would bring down Moloch through a direct rhetorical assault. Duncan, like Rexroth, sought to defend the "helpless little happiness...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420075226