Part 9 - Close Reading Robert Duncan's "Just Seeing"

Journal of a Close Reading: “Just Seeing” by Robert Duncan


To prepare for the close reading of a poem by Robert Duncan, I read through The Opening of the Field, the Selected Poems of Duncan, and a collection of ten poems from Jacket online magazine. I wanted to read a breadth of work before I looked at one poem in depth. These readings were not close. The readings were the kind where I picked up on the visceral things: the tone, the surprises or twists of language, the spirit. However, because I did not dwell, I wasn’t meditating on meaning.

Next, I took the one that seemed most central to Duncan’s body of work and read those a little more closely. I either read them aloud or just re-read them. The one that kept coming up “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” was mentioned in Fictive Certainties many times and it was featured in Selected Poems and The Opening of the Field. It was the poetic climax in The Opening of the Field, the featured poem, if you will. It was too long for the exercise of a close reading, but I wanted to spend time on it as a warm up to the close reading because of its aesthetic significance.

I chose to rewrite the entire poem in long hand in a sketchbook journal of mine. During this exercise, I’d say I was most in tune with the visual aspect of the poem, illuminating what I’d previously read, which is that the visual presentation in Duncan’s work is a major factor. This brings a change in the usual meaning of “form” of a poem, because physical shape on a page matters to the poem. Space, word placement, and indentation are all a part of the texture of the poem; therefore, what is there as well as what is not there matters: for rhythm, for meaning, for form. Breaks are not just made vertically; they’re made horizontally. The caesura isn’t a new phenomenon in poetry but the particular spacing across the page, longer than the standard extra space, was something Duncan employed.

I also thought about shifts in the poem as I was rewriting it. There are obvious ones between sections and more subtle ones with in the sections of the poem. This is particularly noticeable with the naming of presidents, in threes, going farther back in time, indicating a shift in discussion of time periods and critique, until he stops at Whitman’s quote about Lincoln.

I rewrote the poem one night while watching CNN’s coverage of the 2008 election. For that reason, the political nature of that section of “Pindar” and its final stanza resonated more than the other sections. After rewriting it, the re-reading in my own hand helped me understand the poem better.

The practice of rewriting other poems is something I’ve done before to help understand the poem better. I’ve heard other people retype a poem of someone else’s if they can’t seem to write anything at that moment – for an exercise. I like rewriting in my own hand for the same reason I like to write my own poems in longhand first – I feel more connected to what I’m writing. I often write out lyrics to songs as a warm up exercise before I write poems.

To end the “Pindar” exercise, I decided to write an imitation poem, but not as long. I mimicked the form of the first section of the poem and drew from the content of the second section (politics) for the substance of the imitation poem. This was the result:

Poem Beginning with a Line from ' A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar'

god-step at the margins of thought
quick adulterous tread at the heart
What is this spiral candlelight inking?
When I map who is who
know the routes of me,
guts ruptured and forcing the dawn

In that poem, Lincoln and Whitman
have a one-sided relationship
felt by descendents. The weathered man
weeping for the ruination

scared and scarred from fated absence
lifted from acts perfunctory yet brave
in America
because then we could be better.

The list in Duncan's poems is uncanny
ringing clear in the summer changings
The meaning pliable and resonant
Hammering words into
my skull, kicking me to see tautology

poets can love presidents
can want from them unreasonable things
eloquence of words make makings of makers
I am singular. I am not alone in this.
I am still alone. That is the longing
of disappointment of expectations
without reality.

However we keep keeping the keepers
Hoping to be kept

He's tall it's the same thing
He loves too much, it's the same thing
That story is tragic but it's the same thing
It's happening now & it's the same thing

No one bothers to care and it's the same thing