A Tribute to Harry Duncan, Man of Letters

Sewanee Review, Winter 1998

The State of Letters

Mr. Duncan, who was distinguished by his contributions to American poetry as printer and publisher, died in April of 1997 at the age of eighty. He had published the work of nearly one hundred poets, including Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, W.C. Williams, Marianne Moore, Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, James Merrill, and Richard Wilbur. His elegant and spare designs, handsome typography, laid paper, and superb hand-printing made beautiful books, objects of value never precious in the wrong way. His books embody the life of poetry that appears in and through the vehicle of distinctive and enduring craftsmanship.

In The Printed Book in America (1977) Joseph Blumenthal declares with the authority gained from over a half century of experience: "The typographic design of Cummington Press books is a compelling and dramatic simplicity. Eminently readable, Duncan's volumes show the respect for the written word of a sensitive poet turned skillful printer."

One could trace the development of American poetry since the late 1930s by following Harry Duncan's list at the Cummington Press and at Abattoir Editions, beginning with Lowell's Land of Unlikeness and running through books by Stevens and Williams and Tate to more recent titles by Frederick Morgan, Laurence Leiberman, W. S. Di Piero, Dana Gioia, William Logan, and David Middleton. That Tate, one of Duncan's greatest admirers, did not write about his impact on American poetry is unfortunate. But Duncan's contributions to letters did not go unnoticed.

In 1989 W. Thomas Taylor (Austin, Texas) published A Garland for Harry Duncan, an anthology of contempory poetry by fifty-eight hands whose work had been published under one of Duncan's imprints. Included in the book is Richard Eberhart's "Remembering":

                 I recall the rain or sun
                 Of historic Cummington,
                 Dazzle of print, paper white,
                 His work an elegant sight,

                 And delights to think of lost times,
                 Of found lines and rhymes.

Also appearing in that lovely book is John Finlay's tribute: "He crafts a print and page that gird/ the poem's grace and make it manned." There Charles Martin writes: "Design,/ Whether we find it legible or not,/ Reveals itself in what is taken out."

Harry Duncan was himself a sure poet, forging translations as well as striking verse of his own. He exercised severe critical judgment about his own work as well as that of others. "I ws impressed, and still am," writes Richard Wilbur, "by the simplicity and firmness of his aesthetic judgment." Duncan, Wilbur adds, "was, in short, a perfectionist, as demanding of himself as of others. I'm sorry that his bracing intolerance has passed out of this world."

Would that poetry had more people such as James Laughlin and Harry Duncan enhancing and elevating the office of poetry through their devotion to its intelligent publications and promotion. Duncan, like the unnamed scholar in David Middleton's "The Enclosed Order," served "the old estate," what Tate called the Republic of Letters.

Let the last words come from Ben Howard's Lenten Anniversaries (Cummington Press, 1990):

                 Surely you understand
                 that hankering for lost
                 or forlorn courtesies,
                 that thirst for civility.
                 Is that what inveigles us,
                 time and again, to write
                 and print what can't survive
                 indifference, neglect,
                 and quick remaindering?

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