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This review is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

Works in Progress robert duncan, The Collected Early Poems and Plays, edited and with an introduction by Peter Quartermain (University of California Press) £34.95

For those of us who followed Allen Ginsberg’s career from collection to collection, at least metaphorically slipping those little square City Lights editions into the back pockets of our jeans, the door-stop Collected Poems published by Harper & Row in 1985 felt all wrong. Its 800-plus pages, complete with notes and appendices, presented the once angel-headed hipster as an academician of some sort, pumped full of embalming fluid. And so it must seem with the present volume of Robert Duncan’s early work from between 1939 and 1956, the first volume of a Collected Writings to be published by the University of California Press. The ‘grand collage’ of his eventual works is now to be available as a grand college text, with more than 80 pages of notes. At first heft, it does not really feel like Robert Duncan at all.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whom I can usually forgive a hyperbole, thought Duncan ‘the finest ear this side of Dante’. He has had many distinguished admirers who think him not just good but exceptional. In a short piece Thom Gunn wrote for a tribute that he and I put together for the European Gay Review (vol. 4) in 1989, he named Duncan’s The Opening of the Field (1960) and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (1966) as ‘the only poetic events of central importance to have happened since World War II in English’. A year earlier, in a TLS review (16 December 1988) later collected in Shelf Life, Gunn had been a little more circumspect. The Opening of the Field was, he said, ...


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