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Robert Duncan's Life and Career


Paul Christensen

Duncan, Robert Edward (7 Jan. 1919-3 Feb. 1988), poet, was born Edward Howard Duncan in Oakland, California, the son of Edward Howard Duncan, a day laborer, and Marguerite Pearl Carpenter, who died at childbirth. His father could not afford to keep him, and he was adopted in August 1919 by Edwin Joseph Symmes, an architect, and Minnehaha Harris, who renamed him Robert Edward Symmes. After a psychiatric discharge from the army in 1941, the poet made a composite of his previous names to form the present one.

Duncan's foster parents were devout Theosophists and chose their adopted son after consulting horoscopes and astrological charts relating to his birth; he was told he was descended from a line after the destruction of Atlantis and was fated to witness a second death of civilization by fire and holocaust. Duncan grew up in an atmosphere of seances, meetings of the Hermetic Brotherhood, and a library of occult literature. His childhood dreams were carefully interpreted by his parents; following an accident on the snow at age three he was cross-eyed and saw double, a fact that seemed to confirm the "double vision" of his parents' world. The twinning of objects in his sight later entered his poetry as a motif of the dual realities of sight and imagination. As he wrote in Roots and Branches, "I had the double reminder always, the vertical and horizontal displacement in vision that later became separated, specialized into a near and a far sight. One image to the right and above the other. Reach out and touch. Point to the one that is really there." Both his adoption and his accident figure richly in his poetry as signs from a spiritual world whose minglings and interplay with the physical realm form the whole of reality and the subject of his writing.

Duncan entered the University of California at Berkeley on a scholarship in 1936, a year after his adopted father's death. While there, he drifted to the political left and began writing poems on social issues and class conflict. His circle included several young women who encouraged his poetry and rebellious spirit. Under the influences of Mary and Lilli Fabilli, from a family of crop pickers in the San Joaquin valley; the poet and painter Virginia Admiral; Pauline Kael, the movie critic; and Ida Bear, a writer, Duncan thrived as storyteller, poet, and fledgling bohemian. By his sophomore year he quit attending required military drills and dropped classes he no longer enjoyed.

In 1938 he quit Berkeley presumably to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he visited briefly and fled after a heated argument with faculty over the conduct of the Spanish Civil War. He joined his male lover, an instructor whom he had first met at Berkeley, in Philadelphia, but the relationship suffered from the tensions of life "in the closet" and ended after two years. It was the first of several long-term relationships. From there Duncan wandered to Woodstock, New York, to join a small commune run by James Cooney, whose magazine, The Phoenix, was dedicated to the writings of D. H. Lawrence. As assistant and contributor, Duncan came into contact with Henry Miller (1891-1980), Anas Nin, and other bohemians. Both Miller and Nin praised Duncan's early prose, but his pagan lyrics soon offended Cooney's literary tastes.

In 1941 he was drafted and sent to San Antonio for training. After a month of boot camp he declared his homosexuality and was discharged. "I am an officially certified fag now," he told friends.

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In 1943 Duncan had tired of male lovers and turned to Marjorie McKee for his first sexual encounter with a female. They married soon after and then divorced several months later following an abortion. A year later, after a brief sojourn in Florida, he became a gigolo in New York, he later told interviewers. As editor of the Experimental Review at Cooney's farm in New York, Duncan had corresponded with the California poet Kenneth Rexroth. When Duncan returned to San Francisco in 1945, Rexroth, the "father" of the San Francisco renaissance, befriended Duncan and introduced him to the poetry of Edith Sitwell and H.D. The latter was a lifelong influence on him and the subject of his massive critical project, the H.D. Book which appeared in magazines over the years.

Duncan's essay "The Homosexual in Society" appeared in the August 1944 issue of Dwight Macdonald's journal, Politics. The article identified the plight of the homosexual with that of the Negro and the Jew in contemporary society and denounced not only the persecutors but the cult of homosexual superiority that rejected the straight world. Social redemption lay in inclusiveness and love, he argued, as he regrounded his poetry in an ever-widening context of rejected experience. His cause as poet was to denounce "dead Christianity," the prejudices against minorities and sexual freedom, and the exploitation of the working classes.

By the mid-1940s Duncan had consolidated in himself the lore and experience of the social outsider. Rather than style himself an antihero or social rebel, however, through his poetry he sought the general reader, whom he wished to serve as intermediary of larger but forbidden worlds. Duncan rejected the notion of a small, elite audience of initiates for poetry; the goals of art were to raise awareness and compassion in the mainstream audience, a concern formed in him from his earliest days with the Fabilli sisters and the political ferments of Berkeley.

Duncan returned to Berkeley to study medieval and Renaissance literature (1948-1950) following the publication of his first book, Heavenly City, Earthly City (1947). He enjoyed functioning as shaman of an emerging literature grounded in magic, polytheism, and sexual diversity, and he cultivated the role in weekly salons of the Moon Society. It was this Duncan, borne into the living room on pillows, that Charles Olson rebuked in his essay "Against Wisdom as Such" (1954). But the serious work continued. As Duncan wrote in The Truth and Life of Myth, "The poetic imagination faces the challenge of finding a structure that will be the complex story of all the stories felt to be true, a myth in which something like the variety of man's experience of what is real may be contained." Duncan found such a structure in "The Venice Poem" of 1948, his first successful attempt at a large, dynamic sequence drawing on myth (Henri Rousseau's painting The Dream and Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements). Poetry was akin to collage in its gathering of many sources, including other poetry, to form its visionary whole.

In 1951 Duncan met his lifelong lover, the painter and collagist Jess Collins, with whom he lived in San Francisco. Collins provided illustrations for many of his books, and the collage mode was central to both artists.

"The Venice Poem" set the form and methodology of all his succeeding work and its sequential movement anticipated the style of other major texts of the postmodern revolution, Charles Olson's "The Kingfishers" (1949) and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1955). Duncan was at the center of the San Francisco renaissance; his connections to Olson and Black Mountain College, where he taught in 1956, put him at the center of the Black Mountain movement as well. In 1952 Duncan began publishing his work in Origin and Black Mountain Review, the organs of the Black Mountain group. In the winter of 1956-1957 he served as assistant director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University.

His reputation as a major poet was established in the 1960s in three collections, The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), and Bending the Bow (1968), which contain many of the enduring masterpieces of mythopoeic verse. Duncan was a master at analyzing his own creative process in such poems as "The Song of the Borderguard," "An Owl Is an Only Bird of Poetry," and "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." These and other poems welcomed the eruption of creative imagery that seems at first chaotic but forms its own underlying coherence through Duncan's lyric syntheses. Indeed, the central thrust of his poetry is that the welter of voices and images in the mind springs from the self's limpid coherence; nature's plenty is unified by its own organic processes that the poems reenact and celebrate.

The concept of unity within diversity is tested to its limits in two long sequences that unfold from Roots and Branches and carry on into later books: "The Structure of Rime" and "Passages," with the latter evolving into its own separate sequence in Tribunals (1970). Both are lyric collages drawing on many subjects and the theme of war in the Vietnam era. Duncan vigorously opposed the war in "Passages" and interpreted it through a mythological perspective. In 1968 he explored the use of myth in the essay The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography.

The 1960s brought him considerable recognition, including the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize (1961), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1963), the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1964), and three writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1985 he received the National Poetry Award.

After publication of Bending the Bow in 1968, Duncan renounced publishing as a distraction to his work and vowed not to publish a new book for fifteen years. True to his word, Ground Work: Before the War did not appear until 1984, followed by Ground Work II: In the Dark (1987), the last of his major collections. After a long struggle with kidney disease and dialysis treatments, Duncan died in San Francisco.

Duncan's critical reception has been mixed and often hostile. Yvor Winters rejected his lack of "moral fiber"; James Dickey declared him "unpityingly pretentious"; and A. R. Ammons found his work too studied. But a host of other critics writing in the wake of postmodernism hailed him as a major voice of the era. His work embodies the restless spirit of midcentury, with its exploration of sexuality and religion and its need to investigate the hidden corners of the psyche.

Most of Duncan's papers are housed in the Poetry/Rare Book Collection, State University of New York, Buffalo, and in the Archive for New Poetry, Mandeville Department of Special Collections, University of California, San Diego. Bibliographies of his work include Robert J. Bertholf, Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography (1986), and Willard Fox, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, and Robert Duncan: A Reference Guide (1989).

Duncan's juvenilia are collected in The Years as Catches: First Poems, 1939-1946 (1966). Early work is also collected in Caesar's Gate: Poems, 1949-50 (1955, repr. 1972); The First Decade: Selected Poems, 1940-1950 (1968); and A Book of Resemblances: Poems, 1950-1953 (1966). Derivations: Selected Poems, 1950-1956 (1966) follows the course of Duncan's literary assimilations. His plays include Faust Foutu (1959, repr. 1985) and Medea at Kolchis: The Maiden Head (1965).

Interviews with Duncan include Steve Abbott and Aaron Shurin, "Interview: Robert Duncan," Gay Sunshine 40/41 (1979): 1-8; Michael Andre Bernstein and Burton Hatlen, "Interview with Robert Duncan," Sagetrieb 4, no. 2/3 (1985): 85-135; and Ekbert Faas, "Interview: Robert Duncan," in Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews (1978).

The only biography to date is Faas, Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society (1983), which covers his life to 1950. Good criticism is still sparse, but a useful introduction is Mark Andrew Johnson, Robert Duncan (1988), and a collection of essays edited by Bertholf and Ian W. Reid, Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous (1979). Special issues of journals on Duncan include Ironwood 22 (1983), Maps 6 (1974), and Sagetrieb 4, no. 2/3 (1985). Nathaniel Mackey's "The World-Poem in Microcosm: Robert Duncan's "The Continent,"' ELH 47 (1980): 595-618, gives a perceptive analysis of Duncan's lyric method. Obituaries are in the New York Times, 4 Feb. 1988, and the Los Angeles Times, 4 Feb. 1988.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


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