Selected Criticism

Duncan, Robert (1919–1988)
Folsom, Ed
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Robert Duncan taught at the Black Mountain School in North Carolina and was associated with other Black Mountain poets like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, who generated a movement known as "projective verse." Projective verse was conceived as a kind of "breath poetics," in which the poetic line is determined by the poet's breathing instead of by any imposed conventions. For these poets, Whitman with his long free-verse lines was the obvious precursor. Duncan's various books of poems, including The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), and Selected Poems (1993), all owed something to his understanding of Whitman, and he articulated his debt to Whitman in two essays published in Fictive Certainties (1985).

In those essays, Duncan speaks of "the adventure of Whitman's line" and sees Whitman's "great insight" as the development of a "new line" that derives from his "ideas of democracy, of faring forth where no lines are to be drawn between classes or occupations, between kinds of intelligence, between private and public" (Fictive 203). Duncan continually seeks a connection with Whitman, both formally ("Let me join you again this morning, Walt Whitman, . . . even now my line just now walking with yours" [Fictive 207]) and spiritually ("It is across great scars of wrong / I reach toward the song of kindred men / and strike again the naked string / old Whitman sang from" [Opening 64]). Like Hart Crane and other twentieth-century American poets who have carried on a dialogue with Whitman, Duncan's concern is both to extend Whitman's inventions and to delineate the unsettling developments in American culture since Whitman's time.


Duncan, Robert. Fictive Certainties: Essays. New York: New Directions, 1985.

———. The Opening of the Field. New York: New Directions, 1960.

———. Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1993.

———. A Selected Prose. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Johnson, Mark, and Robert DeMott. "'An Inheritance of Spirit': Robert Duncan and Walt Whitman." Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. Ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Ian W. Reid. New York: New Directions, 1979. 225–240.


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