Freedom's Form: Robert Duncan's "My Mother Would Be a Falconress" and the Metrical Code


Among the American poets who wrote free verse from the 1950s through the 1980s, Robert Duncan is uniquely the musician. Unlike his friends Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov, he did not compose his verse as if, as Creeley put it, “form is never more than an extension of content.” Although he wrote poems strongly critical of American institutions, his prosody was not forged in the cauldron of political and social protest in the way that Allen Ginsberg’s and Amiri Baraka’s were, and, arguably, Adrienne Rich’s came to be.

No, Duncan differs from them all in the quality of his poetic ear and his search for a means of poetic composition that approached that of music. Listen closely to these two readings of “My Mother Would Be a Falconress.”

It’s as if you’ve entered an echo chamber. The poet repeats words like “blood,” “hood,” “mother,” “falcon,” and “little” with differing emphases. He repeats and varies lines and phrases in a chant-like way that gathers aural force by referring backwards. In 1983, he told a class that he taught on the poem at the University of Maine that: “My poetry has been described as ‘free verse written without rhyme or measure. But this is just the contrary to where my poetry goes.” Instead, he sought “a feeling of the internality of a piece…If you recognize that you've heard a sound before (in a poem), you'll have the feeling that you expected that sound.”

Although “Falconress” seems to take form as it goes along, the density of its repetition marks it as highly formal—though not in the way of poems composed in preconceived meters. Instead, the ghosts of various meters appear and disappear. There are highly stressed, alliterative, Anglo-Saxon-like lines (“bring back / from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize") ; iambics (“I tread her wrist and wear the hood”); and abounding anapests (“For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me”). And just as they make a music within the poem itself, these bits of meter resonate with other verse—the witches’ chants in Macbeth, say, the vigorous anapests of Robert Browning, or Hopkins’s “The Windhover”--which is, after all, a falcon.

Duncan’s tendency to echo past cadences springs directly from that of Ezra Pound. But Duncan turns his master’s political swords to ploughshares. Unlike the fascist, belligerent Pound, Duncan was a peace-loving anarchist. Like many other poets of the turbulent 1960s, Duncan wrote poems against the Vietnam War and stood in clear alignment with the Black, Gay, and Women’s Liberation movements.

Despite those allegiances, his view of how poetry should interact with politics was complex. This we can see in his revision of the word “gerfalcon”—a species of the bird—to “gay falcon” in the second line of the poem. Duncan said he made the change in light of “the new homosexual liberation front.” But he also had a broader cultural meaning in mind for “gay.” “Poetry owns this word and eventually we will have to be sure that it again means what it meant, which is ‘free,’" he said.

The tensions between Duncan’s Medievalism and his Modernism, between gay and straight life, and between the liberation movements and a broader humanism are dramatized in the rhythms of his poetry. Further, the way his meters tell a story in “My Mother Would Be a Falconress” and in his verse overall make them excellent candidates for illumination by Annie Finch’s Metrical Code. Indeed, the unique musicality of his work demands a place for it in the history of American free verse that Finch narrates in The Ghost of Meter. By Duncan’s time, American free verse had resolved much of the struggle between iambic and trisyllabic rhythms that Finch unearths particularly in the work of Emily Dickinson. Indeed, at least through the 1980s, free verse became so dominant among American poets that the struggle could seem quaint.

Except in Duncan’s work. Traces of the conflict in Dickinson’s verse pitting tetrameters derived from the church hymnal against the culturally patriarchal pentameters of English poetry—can be found in "Falconress." By my count, there are 36 tetrameter lines and 18 pentameter lines, with the rest ranging between dimeter and octameter.

Further, Duncan's struggle to resolve his antinomies shows up in a metrical tension like that which Finch finds in Dickinson. He best reveals his musicianship in lines in which he plays trisyllabic and iambic meters off against each other. “My mother would be a falconress, ” the poem starts, with a strong beat in the second foot of an iambic tetrameter line. “And I,” the next line begins, with another strong beat that carries over and strengthens the iambic rhythm hovering in the relatively weak final stress of “falconress.” Balancing the iambic mother-falconress is “her gay falcon,” rendered as an anapest in the second foot.

For their part, the poem’s anapests embody a vigor matching the outward and upward movement of the falcon’s quest for freedom, as in “flying up/to the curb/of my heart/from her heart…” It’s a meter that Browning uses in “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” to mimic a horse’s gait: “I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; / I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three.” Duncan’s anapests, however, embody emotion as well as motion. He can use them, for example, to dramatize the violence of the conflict between his antagonists : “I tear/at her wrist/with my beak/to draw blood

But if anapests can enact youthful rebellion, its iambs can evoke the comfort of authority. They can provide a release of tension, suggesting the sense of relief a child might feel when its frightening new impulses are restrained by a parent. We can hear this soothing iambic music in the fourth stanza:

I tread my mother's wrist and would draw blood.
Behind the little hood my eyes are hooded.
I have gone back into my hooded silence,
talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.

One stanza later, a regular tetrameter line calms the anxiety triggered by the boundless freedom promised by a bird’s ability to fly: “She draws a limit to my flight.” Iambs can thus represent a coming to ground for Duncan. In a single line of perfectly regular iambic pentameter, “It seemed my human soul went down in flames,” this free-verse poet portrays a Miltonic Fall with masterful control and detachment. This is the climax of the poem, dramatizing how sublime ultimate freedom can seem — and how terrifying its mortal consequences inevitably are.

If, as Finch tells us, meter in a free verse poem “can function like a language, carrying different information at different points in a poem,” what does the metrical language of “My Mother Would Be a Falconress” tell us? One thing it certainly tells us is that traditional meters can be broken up and juxtaposed in non-traditional ways that nonetheless resonate with the best verse of the past. Another is that free and formal verse may not be the polar opposites they are too often taken to be. Rather, in the hands of a master like Duncan, a variable form can make a music out of freedom, and freedom can extend the scope of form.

David M. Katz's most recent book is Claims of Home, Poems 1984-2010, published in 2011 by Dos Madres Press in Loveland, Ohio. Poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Criterion, Paris Review, The New Republic, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, Notre Dame Review (both print and online), The Cortland Review and Podium, the online publication of the 92nd Street Y, and will appear in PN Review (U.K.) and The Raintown Review. His first book of poems, The Warrior in the Forest, was published by House of Keys.

Among the American poets who wrote free verse from the 1950s through the 1980s, Robert Duncan is uniquely the musician.