Last reviewed: June 2018
January 7, 1919
February 3, 1988
San Francisco, California
Shortly after Robert Duncan’s birth on January 7, 1919, to Edward Howard Duncan and Marguerite Wesley Duncan, his mother died, and he was adopted by a family of theosophists. From 1936 to 1938, Duncan attended the University of California at Berkeley. After moving to New York, Duncan became part of the literary circle of Anaïs Nin, which included Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. He was married for a short time to Marjorie McKee.
Robert Duncan was the United States’ first avowedly gay poet. In 1944 Duncan’s brief essay “The Homosexual in Society” appeared in the journal Politics. His career suffered both immediate and long-term damage, not only because of his frank admission of his sexual orientation but also because of his forthright criticism of the gay establishment. It was only after large numbers of gay people began to acknowledge their sexuality publicly in the 1970s that Duncan was recognized for his pioneering courage. When he returned to Berkeley in 1945 to study Renaissance culture—having already been introduced to Kenneth Rexroth, the central figure of the San Francisco poetry scene—Duncan fell in with fellow students and poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. He had already written Medieval Scenes, and he soon produced The Venice Poem (not published until 1975).
The year 1947 was extremely important for Duncan’s career. In the summer he visited Ezra Pound, who was incarcerated in a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., for his support of the Fascists. Later, back on the West Coast, Duncan fell under the powerful influence of the poet, scholar, and anthropologist Charles Olson. In 1951 Duncan and painter Jess Collins established a household together, and Duncan’s work began to show the influence of abstract expressionism, romantic art, and collage. Subsequently, Duncan became associated, through Olson, with the poets at the experimental Black Mountain College, including Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner, Ed Dorn, and John Weiners. Duncan’s aesthetic was also profoundly influenced by Olson’s essay “Projective Verse.” The general literary ferment of the 1950s led to his three major books of poetry: The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow.
The Opening of the Field displays both Duncan’s virtuosity and his debt to Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, H. D., Louis Zukovsky, and Charles Olson. The central poem in this collection, “Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” includes references not only to the Greek poet named in the title but also to Goya’s painting Cupid and Psyche, twentieth century American politics, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. “The Structure of Rime,” which begins in The Opening of the Field, is a long poem on aesthetics that is continued in Roots and Branches, Bending the Bow, and Ground Work: Before the War. Roots and Branches presents an imposing range of forms, topics, and influences. Duncan draws on a wide variety of myths, including Egyptian (“Osiris and Set”) and Welsh (“From the Mabinogion”), as well as on Dante, Wagnerian opera, and theosophy. Also evident in this book is the presence of the Romantic poets, particularly William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Besides continuing “The Structure of Rime,” Duncan also addresses two long poems to H. D. “A New Poem,” written for former classmate and fellow poet Jack Spicer, provides a brief summary of Duncan’s poetics, in which language transcends any personal or national use, revealing the poem’s unique mythical power. The title poem of Bending the Bow plays upon the dual meaning of “bow” as weapon and as musical instrument. This paradox stands for Duncan’s relentless exploration of the meaning of his art. In this book he extends that exploration into Eastern philosophy and Symbolist poetry. The product is more experimental in form.
Duncan’s publications of the 1970s, as per his announced intention, were largely limited to reprints, collaborations, and material other than poetry. He continued to write poetry throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, but he wanted his work to stand the test of time before he published it. In 1970, for example, Black Sparrow Press published A Selection of Sixty-five Drawings from One Drawing-Book, 1952–1956, and the Sumac Press reprinted The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography in 1973. Many of Duncan’s books, throughout his career, were issued by small presses, a fact which makes them difficult to obtain for readers who do not have a large research library at their disposal.
Duncan’s last major work of poetry, Ground Work, was published in two volumes: Ground Work: Before the War (1984) and Ground Work II: In the Dark (1987). The text of these volumes was offset from the author’s typescript to ensure exact reproduction of margins, spacing, and typography. The poetic sequences “The Structure of Rime” and “Passages” are continued in Ground Work, and new sequences also appear. The influence of Dante is even more apparent here than in Duncan’s earlier work, given the presence of “Dante Etudes,” a sequence of forty poems. The medieval Persian poet Rumi is also a significant presence. The two volumes of Ground Work represent Duncan’s work between 1968, when Bending the Bow was published, and 1984, when he suffered a kidney collapse. He wrote very little between that time and his death in 1988, at age sixty-nine. He was survived by his longtime companion, the artist Jess Collins.
Duncan is one of the masters of “spontaneous poetics,” an approach to composition that discourages revision. Duncan’s method, influenced by his poetic contemporaries and by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and the composer John Cage, amounts to an evolutionary theory of poetry. This method also applies to Duncan’s critical writings, such as “The H. D. Book,” an appreciation of the modernist poet that appears only in numerous fragments published in magazines. Duncan, then, is important as an innovator in form, both in theory and in practice. His poems evince the attention he paid to typography as well as integrating his drawings and collages to signify his interest in other means of expression. Beyond this, it is possible to view Robert Duncan as the father of the postwar American gay poetry scene, one of the richest traditions available to contemporary poets.