5 of the Best Robert Duncan Poems with Their Meaning

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Robert Duncan was an American poet whose works have influenced a generation of poets. Born in 1919 in Oakland, California, he spent most of his life in Western parts of America.

His dedication to poetry (which started during his teenage years) made him a key figure in the San Fransisco Renaissance of poetry and arts. Duncan was a prominent name in the American poetry scene. 

To celebrate the talented and influential poet, we have decided to find five of his best poems that everyone should read, along with the meaning of the poems. So let’s get started with the best Robert Duncan poems that reveal his poetic brilliance. 

My Mother Would be a Falconress

My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when I'd turn my head.

My mother would be a falconress,
and she sends me as far as her will goes.
She lets me ride to the end of her curb
where I fall back in anguish.
I dread that she will cast me away,
for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.

She would bring down the little birds.
And I would bring down the little birds.
When will she let me bring down the little birds,
pierced from their flight with their necks broken,
their heads like flowers limp from the stem?

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.

For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me,
sewn round with bells, jangling when I move.
She rides with her little falcon upon her wrist.
She uses a barb that brings me to cower.
She sends me abroad to try my wings
and I come back to her. I would bring down
the little birds to her
I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly.

I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood,
and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying.
She draws a limit to my flight.
Never beyond my sight, she says.
She trains me to fetch and to limit myself in fetching.
She rewards me with meat for my dinner.
But I must never eat what she sends me to bring her.

Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me,
always, in a little hood with the bells ringing,
at her wrist, and her riding
to the great falcon hunt, and me
flying up to the curb of my heart from her heart
to bring down the skylark from the blue to her feet,
straining, and then released for the flight.

My mother would be a falconress,
and I her gerfalcon raised at her will,
from her wrist sent flying, as if I were her own
pride, as if her pride
knew no limits, as if her mind
sought in me flight beyond the horizon.

Ah, but high, high in the air I flew.
And far, far beyond the curb of her will,
were the blue hills where the falcons nest.
And then I saw west to the dying sun--
it seemd my human soul went down in flames.

I tore at her wrist, at the hold she had for me,
until the blood ran hot and I heard her cry out,
far, far beyond the curb of her will

to horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world where the falcons nest
I saw, and I tore at her wrist with my savage beak.
I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight,
sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist,
striking out from the blood to be free of her.

My mother would be a falconress,
and even now, years after this,
when the wounds I left her had surely heald,
and the woman is dead,
her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart
were broken, it is stilld

I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.

It would be criminal to summarize the complex meaning and the philosophical elements of the the poem “My Mother Would be a Falconress” in just a few words. We are tight on the word count, but we’ll try our best. 

“My Mother Would be a Falconress” is told from the perspective of a falcon who is used to bringing down small birds and prey and is controlled by his “mother.”

She feeds him, controls him, and tells him what to do. While the falcon calls the woman “mother”, he is more of a slave to her. And this restriction soon starts to break.

We see this falcon trying to question her mother, dream about a free land, and then finally attack her to break free. 

But in the end, even after when the mother is dead and cold in the grave, the influence she had on the falcon still lives, and it still affects him. 

We’ll write a complete article on this poem about the meaning and analysis of this poem, discussing the underlying concepts in the poem. 

Childhood’s Retreat

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree   
out of blue sky    the wind   
sings loudest surrounding me.

And solitude,   a wild solitude
’s reveald,   fearfully,   high     I’d climb   
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing,   part     daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world,   part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar   
all voices and scenes come back

—the barking of a dog,   autumnal burnings,
far calls,   close calls—   the boy I was
calls out to me
here the man where I am   “Look!

I’ve been where you

most fear to be.”

“Childhood’s Retreat” is another poem that seems very simple in its literal form, but the metaphorical part of it hits like a train. The theme of the poem is aspirations, dreams, and the will to achieve them.

Duncan remembers this place that he would visit as a young teenager when he was changing, and so was the way he viewed the world around him. 

This was the time when he would aspire to do great things, dream to achieve big things, and become someone he always wanted to be. 

But now, after turning into an adult, the young version of him calls out saying that “I have been where you most fear to be”, or in other words, “I can dream and aspire, something you fear to do.”

Poetry, A Natural Thing

Neither our vices nor our virtues   
further the poem. “They came up   
      and died
just like they do every year
      on the rocks.”

      The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
      to breed    itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.

This beauty is an inner persistence
      toward the source
striving against (within) down-rushet of the river,   
      a call we heard and answer
in the lateness of the world
      primordial bellowings
from which the youngest world might spring,

salmon not in the well where the   
      hazelnut falls
but at the falls battling, inarticulate,   
      blindly making it.

This is one picture apt for the mind.

A second: a moose painted by Stubbs,
where last year’s extravagant antlers   
      lie on the ground.
The forlorn moosey-faced poem wears   
      new antler-buds,
      the same,

“a little heavy, a little contrived”,

his only beauty to be   
      all moose.

“Poetry, A Natural Thing” is about the art of poetry, or more like the need for poetry to come out for the deeper depths of our emotional furnaces. 

Why do people write poetry, how do they come up with it, and what compels them to write, all of these questions are answered in this poem, very poetically. 

“Poetry, A Natural Thing” is the most poetical description of the reason people write poems. It is short, simple, and connects directly to the heart.

A Little Language

I know a little language of my cat, though Dante says   
that animals have no need of speech and Nature   
abhors the superfluous.   My cat is fluent.   He   
converses when he wants with me.   To speak

is natural.   And whales and wolves I’ve heard   
in choral soundings of the sea and air
know harmony and have an eloquence that stirs   
my mind and heart—they touch the soul.   Here

Dante’s religion that would set Man apart   
damns the effluence of our life from us   
to build therein its powerhouse.

It’s in his animal communication Man is   
      true, immediate, and   
in immediacy, Man is all animal.

His senses quicken in the thick of the symphony,
      old circuits of animal rapture and alarm,
attentions and arousals in which an identity rearrives.
      He hears
particular voices among
      the concert, the slightest   
rustle in the undertones,
      rehearsing a nervous aptitude   
yet to prove his. He sees the flick
      of significant red within the rushing mass
of ruddy wilderness and catches the glow
      of a green shirt
to delite him in a glowing field of green
      —it speaks to him—
and in the arc of the spectrum color   
      speaks to color.
The rainbow articulates
      a promise he remembers   
he but imitates
      in noises that he makes,

this speech in every sense   
the world surrounding him.
He picks up on the fugitive tang of mace
      amidst the savory mass,
and taste in evolution is an everlasting key.
      There is a pun of scents in what makes sense.

      Myrrh it may have been,
the odor of the announcement that filld the house.

      He wakes from deepest sleep   

upon a distant signal and waits   

      as if crouching, springs

      to life.

Another great poem about the philosophical aspects of language, talking, and communication. The line that stands out the most in this poem is “ though Dante says that animals have no need of speech and Nature abhors the superfluous.”

The implication is that language is not necessary to communicate. How animals and humans communicate, and how they are able to understand the beautiful notes of music and harmony.

Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,   
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,   
an eternal pasture folded in all thought   
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light   
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved   
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words   
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing   
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down

whose secret we see in a children’s game   
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow   
as if it were a given property of the mind   
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,   
everlasting omen of what is.

A place that exists in someone’s imagination, a beautiful serene space that brings calmness. This poem is about how the poet finds peace in a made-up place. 

Duncan is a creative behemoth and his creations form vivid images in our minds. Reading this poem, it is hard not to think about our own meadows created by us to find some respite amidst the rush. 


Duncan’s poems have a unique quality to them; they deliver heavy philosophical messages in poetically wrapped packages that flow in so swiftly and easily. Which one was your favorite among the five poems presented here? Let us know in the comments section. And keep reading poetry!

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