Robert Duncan

1919–1988
Robert DuncanHarry Redl

Described by Kenneth Rexroth as “one of the most accomplished, one of the most influential” of the postwar American poets, Robert Duncan was an important part of both the Black Mountain school of poetry, led by Charles Olson, and the San Francisco Renaissance, whose other members included poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. A distinctive voice in American poetry, Duncan’s idiosyncratic poetics drew on myth, occultism, religion—including the theosophical tradition in which he was raised—and innovative writing practices such as projective verse and composition by field. During his lifetime, critics such as M.L. Rosenthal heralded him as “the most intellectual of our poets from the point of view of the effect upon him of a wide, critically intelligent reading.” Duncan’s work drew on a wide range of references, including Homer, Dante, and the work of modernist poets such as H.D. His many books of poetry include Heavenly City Earthly City (1947), The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), A Book of Resemblances (1966), Bending the Bow (1968), and, after a 15-year publishing hiatus, the influential volumes Ground Work I: Before the War (1984) and Ground Work II: In the Dark (1987). His Selected Poems (1993) was published posthumously, as was his volume of collected writings, and personal tribute to the work of H.D., The H.D. Book (2011). A decades-long project that distills much of Duncan’s thinking on poetry, modernism, and the role of the occult in the imagination, The Nation’s critic Ange Mlinko described The H.D. Book as a “palimpsest.” Mlinko noted the importance of book for being “not only revisited and restarted many times over the years, but incorporating different sources from different points in time… Duncan’s roving eye for patterns consistently saw relationships between the new science of his day and the ancient wisdom of the poets.”
 
Duncan was a syncretist possessing “a bridge-building, time-binding, and space-binding imagination” wrote Stephen Stepanchev in American Poetry since 1945. A typical Duncan poem, accordingly, is like a collage, “a compositional field where anything might enter: a prose quotation, a catalogue, a recipe, a dramatic monologue, a diatribe,” Davidson explained. The poems draw sources and materials together into one dense fabric. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Jim Harrison called the structure of a typical Duncan poem multi-layered and four-dimensional (“moving through time with the poet”), and compared it to “a block of weaving… Bending the Bow is for the strenuous, the hyperactive reader of poetry; to read Duncan with any immediate grace would require Norman O. Brown's knowledge of the arcane mixed with Ezra Pound's grasp of poetics… [Duncan] is personal rather than confessional and writes within a continuity of tradition.”
 
Duncan was born in 1919 in Oakland, California. His childhood experiences shape and inform his later poetics. Adopted at an early age by a couple who selected him on the basis of his astrological configuration, his adopted parents’ chosen religion, theosophy, and reverence for the occult was a lasting influence on his poetic vision. Encouraged by a high school English teacher who saw poetry as an essential means of sustaining spiritual vigor, Duncan chose his vocation while still in his teens. He studied at the University of California-Berkeley for two years before leaving California to briefly attend Black Mountain College. Duncan also lived in New York for a period, and made the acquaintance of literary figures like Arthur Miller and Anaïs Nin. Duncan was drafted in 1941, but discharged after coming out as gay. One of the first literary figures to openly acknowledge his sexuality, Duncan’s article “The Homosexual in Society” appeared in the influential journal Politics in 1944. Duncan returned to San Francisco in 1945, where he met Rexroth, Spicer, Blaser and others. He studied Medieval and Renaissance literature at Berkeley. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Duncan was, according to Paul Christensen “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 1951 Duncan met Jess Collins, a painter and collagist. The two remained lovers for the rest of Duncan’s life.

Many of Duncan’s best-known poems were shaped by ideas associated with Olson and the Black Mountain School of poetry. Both “projective verse,” poetry shaped by the rhythms of the poet's breath, and “composition by field,” in which the page becomes a field of language activity beyond its traditional use of margins and spacing, influenced Duncan’s poetry from The Opening of the Field (1960) onward. Generally, Duncan advocated a poetry of process, not conclusion. In some pages from a notebook published in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Duncan stated: “A longing grows to return to the open composition in which the accidents and imperfections of speech might awake intimations of human being… There is a natural mystery in poetry. We do not understand all that we render up to understanding… I study what I write as I study out any mystery. A poem, mine or another's, is an occult document, a body awaiting vivisection, analysis, X-rays.” The poet, he explained, is an explorer more than a creator. “I work at language as a spring of water works at the rock, to find a course, and so, blindly. In this I am not a maker of things, but, if maker, a maker of a way. For the way is itself.” As in the art of marquetry (the making of patterns by enhancing natural wood grains), the poet is aware of the possible meanings of words and merely brings them out. “I'm not putting a grain into the wood,” he told Jack R. Cohn and Thomas J. O'Donnell in a Contemporary Literature interview. Later, he added, “I acquire language lore. What I am supplying is something like… grammar of design, or of the possibilities of design.” The goal of composition, he wrote in a Caterpillar essay, was “not to reach conclusion but to keep our exposure to what we do not know.”

Known for his anarchic political views, Duncan’s work frequently took on political dimensions as well. Books like Bending the Bow and Groundwork I: After the War attempt to trace the difference between organic and imposed order, and the necessity and scope of an individual’s political commitment. In his introduction to Ground Work (2006), the combined edition of After the War and In the Dark, poet Michael Palmer noted of the connections between Duncan’s politics and his poetics: “War will follow war, within and without. Any opposition to the immediate war must acknowledge its various meanings, the forms of contention that for Duncan are also the source of poesis, poetic making and meaning. The poet is everywhere implicated in such human and metaphysical circumstances. He or she cannot stand apart or above. The poem itself cannot preach without betraying its nature; it must enact.” Duncan’s political views on the Vietnam War cost him his friendship with the poet Denise Levertov. Their correspondence is collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (2003).
 
Robert Duncan died in San Francisco in 1988 after a long battle with kidney disease. His papers are housed at the State University of New York-Buffalo. Even after his death, Duncan has continued to exert a powerful and profound influence on the shape of American poetry. The publication of The H.D. Book in particular was heralded as a milestone in both Duncan scholarship and the history of modernism. As Christensen noted, “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.”

 

Career

Poet. Worked at various times as a dishwasher and typist. Organizer of poetry readings and workshops in San Francisco Bay area; Experimental Review, co-editor with Sanders Russell, publishing works of Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Kenneth Patchen, William Everson, Aurora Bligh (Mary Fabilli), Thomas Merton, Robert Horan, and Jack Johnson, 1940-41; Berkeley Miscellany, editor, 1948-49; lived in Banyalbufar, Majorca, 1955-56; taught at Black Mountain College, Black Mountain, NC, spring and summer, 1956; assistant director of Poetry Center, San Francisco State College, under a Ford grant, 1956-57; associated with the Creative Writing Workshop, University of British Columbia, 1963; lecturer in Advanced Poetry Workshop, San Francisco State College, spring, 1965; core professor in the Poetics Program at New College of California, 1980-1986.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • Heavenly City, Earthly City, drawings by Mary Fabilli, Bern Porter, 1947.
  • Medieval Scenes (1947), Centaur Press (San Francisco), 1950, reprinted with preface by Duncan and afterword by Robert Bertholf, Kent State University Libraries, 1978.
  • Poems, 1948-49 (actually written between November, 1947 and October, 1948), Berkeley Miscellany, 1950.
  • The Song of the Border-Guard, Black Mountain Graphics Workshop, 1951.
  • The Artist's View, [San Francisco], 1952.
  • Fragments of a Disordered Devotion, privately printed, 1952, reprinted, Gnomon Press, 1966.
  • Caesar's Gate: Poems, 1949-55, Divers Press (Majorca), 1956, 2nd edition, Sand Dollar, 1972.
  • 1953-56 Letters, drawings by Duncan, J. Williams (Highlands, NC), 1958.
  • Selected Poems (1942-50), City Lights Books, 1959.
  • 1956-59 The Opening of the Field, Grove, 1960, revised edition, New Directions, 1973.
  • 1959-63 Roots and Branches, Scribner, 1964.
  • Wine, Auerhahn Press for Oyez Broadsheet Series (Berkeley), 1964.
  • Uprising, Oyez, 1965.
  • Of the War: Passages 22-27, Oyez, 1966.
  • A Book of Resemblances: Poems, 1950-53, drawings by Jess, Henry Wenning, 1966.The Years as Catches: First Poems, 1939-46, Oyez, 1966.
  • Boob, privately printed, 1966.
  • Christmas Present, Christmas Presence!, Black Sparrow Press, 1967.
  • Epilogos, Black Sparrow Press, 1967.
  • My Mother Would Be a Falconress, Oyez, 1968.
  • 1952-53 Names of People, illustrations by Jess, Black Sparrow Press, 1968.Bending the Bow, New Directions, 1968.
  • The First Decade: Selected Poems, 1940-50, Fulcrum Press (London), 1968.
  • Derivations: Selected Poems, 1950-1956, Fulcrum Press, 1968.
  • Achilles Song, Phoenix, 1969.
  • Playtime, Pseudo Stein; 1942, A Story [and] A Fairy Play: From the Laboratory Records Notebook of 1953, A Tribute to Mother Carey's Chickens, Poet's Press, c.1969.
  • Notes on Grossinger's "Solar Journal: Oecological Sections," Black Sparrow Press, 1970.
  • A Selection of Sixty-Five Drawings from One Drawing Book, 1952-1956, Black Sparrow Press, 1970.
  • Tribunals: Passages 31-35, Black Sparrow Press, 1970.
  • Poetic Disturbances, Maya (San Francisco), 1970.
  • Bring It up from the Dark, Cody's Books, 1970.
  • A Prospectus for the Prepublication of Ground Work to Certain Friends of the Poet, privately printed, 1971.
  • An Interview with George Bowering and Robert Hogg, April 19, 1969, Coach House Press, 1971.
  • Structure of Rime XXVIII; In Memoriam Wallace Stevens, University of Connecticut, 1972.
  • Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly, privately printed, 1972.
  • A Seventeenth-Century Suite, privately printed, 1973.
  • Dante, Institute of Further Studies (New York City), 1974.
  • (With Jack Spicer) An Ode and Arcadia, Ark Press, 1974.
  • The Venice Poem, Poet's Mimeo (Burlington, VT), 1978.
  • Veil, Turbine, Cord & Bird: Sets of Syllables, Sets of Words, Sets of Lines, Sets of Poems, Addressing... , J. Davies, c. 1979.The Five Songs, Friends of the University of California, San Diego Library, 1981.
  • Towards an Open Universe, Aquila Publishing, 1982.
  • Ground Work: Before the War, New Directions, 1984.
  • A Paris Visit, Grenfell Press, 1985.
  • The Regulators, Station Hill Press, 1985.
  • Ground Work II: In the Dark, New Directions, 1987.
  • Selected Poems, edited by Robert J. Bertholf, New Directions, 1993.
  • Ground Work, combined edition of Before the War and In the Dark, introduced by Michael Palmer, New Directions, 2006.

PROSE

  • Writing Writing: A Composition Book of Madison 1953, Stein Imitations (poems and essays, 1953), Sumbooks, 1964.
  • As Testimony: The Poem and the Scene (essay, 1958), White Rabbit Press, 1964.
  • Six Prose Pieces, Perishable Press (Rochester, MI), 1966.
  • The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography, House of Books (New York City), 1968.
  • Fictive Certainties: Five Essays in Essential Autobiography, New Directions, 1979.
  • Selected Prose, New Directions, 1995.
  • The H.D. Book (The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan), edited by Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman, University of California Press, 2011.

PLAYS

  • 1959-60 Faust Foutu: Act One of Four Acts, A Comic Mask, 1952-1954 (an entertainment in four parts; first produced in San Francisco, CA, 1955; produced in New York), decorations by Duncan, Part I, White Rabbit Press (San Francisco), 1958, reprinted, Station Hill Press, 1985, entire play published as Faust Foutu, Enkidu sur Rogate (Stinson Beach, CA), 1959.
  • Medea at Kolchis; [or] The Maiden Head (play; first produced at Black Mountain College, 1956), Oyez, 1965.
  • Adam's Way: A Play on Theosophical Themes, [San Francisco], 1966.

OTHER

  • The Cat and the Blackbird (children's storybook), illustrations by Jess, White Rabbit Press, 1967.
  • The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, edited by Robert Bertholf and Albert Gelpi, Stanford University Press, 2003.

Represented in anthologies, including Faber Book of Modern American Verse, edited by W. H. Auden, 1956, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, edited by Donald M. Allen, 1960, and many others. Contributor of poems, under the name Robert Symmes, to Phoenix and Ritual. Contributor to Atlantic, Poetry, Nation, Quarterly Review of Literature, and other periodicals.



Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Allen, Donald M., The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Grove, 1960.
  • Allen, The Poetics of the New American Poetry, Grove, 1973.
  • Bertholf, Robert J. and Ian W. Reid, editors, Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous, New Directions, 1979.
  • Charters, Samuel, Some Poems/ Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry since 1945, Oyez, 1971.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 41, 1987, Volume 55, 1989.
  • Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus, 1968.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 16: The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, 1983.
  • Faas, Ekbert, editor, Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews, Black Sparrow Press, 1978.
  • Fass, Ekbert, Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Homosexual in Society, Black Sparrow Press, 1983.
  • Fauchereau, Serge, Lecture de la poesie americaine, Editions de Minuit, 1969.
  • Foster, Edward Halsey, Understanding the Black Mountain Poets, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia), 1995.
  • Mersmann, James F., Out of the Viet Nam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry against the War, University Press of Kansas, 1974.
  • Parkinson, Thomas, Poets, Poems, Movements, University of Michigan Research Press, 1987.
  • Pearce, Roy Harvey, Historicism Once More: Problems and Occasions for the American Scholar, Princeton University Press, 1969.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth, Assays, New Directions, 1961.
  • Rexroth, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Herder and Herder, 1971.
  • Rosenthal, M. L., The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II, Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry since 1945, Harper, 1965.
  • Tallman, Warren, Godawful Streets of Man, Coach House Press, 1976.
  • Weatherhead, Kingsley, Edge of the Image: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Some Other Poets, University of Washington Press, 1967.

PERIODICALS

  • Agenda, autumn/winter, 1970; autumn, 1994, p. 308.
  • American Book Review, May, 1989, p. 12.
  • Audit/Poetry (special Duncan issue), Number 3, 1967.
  • Boundary 2, winter, 1980.
  • Caterpillar, number 8/9, 1969.
  • Centennial Review, fall, 1975; fall, 1985.
  • Concerning Poetry, spring, 1978.
  • Contemporary Literature, spring, 1975.
  • History Today, January, 1994, p. 56.
  • Hudson Review, summer, 1968.
  • Library Journal, March 1, 1993, p. 81, August, 1994, p. 132.
  • London Review of Books, March 10, 1994, p. 20.
  • Maps (special Duncan issue), 1974.
  • Minnesota Review, fall, 1972.
  • New York Review of Books, June 3, 1965; May 7, 1970.
  • New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1964; September 29, 1968; August 4, 1985.
  • Poetry, March, 1968; April, 1969; May, 1970.
  • Publishers Weekly, February 15, 1993, p. 232; May 16, 1994, p. 63.
  • Sagetrieb, winter, 1983; (special Duncan issue) fall/winter, 1985.
  • Saturday Review, February 13, 1965; August 24, 1968.
  • School Library Journal, August, 1994, p. 132.
  • Southern Review, spring, 1969; winter, 1985.
  • Sulfur 12, Volume 4, number 2, 1985.
  • Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1969; July 23, 1971; November 25, 1988, p. 1294.
  • Unmuzzled Ox, February, 1977.
  • Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1984.
  • World Literature Today, autumn, 1988, p. 659; spring, 1994, p. 373.

PERIODICALS

  • Los Angeles Times, February 4, 1988.
  • New York Times, February 2, 1988.
  • Times (London), February 11, 1988.

Articles About ROBERT DUNCAN

Audio & Podcasts

Poetry Off the Shelf
  • Listen Battle of the Bards
    Hear Denise Levertov's scathing Vietnam poem "Life at War," and find out why it made her friend Robert Duncan declare war on her.
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Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

LIFE SPAN 1919–1988

Robert Duncan

Biography

Described by Kenneth Rexroth as “one of the most accomplished, one of the most influential” of the postwar American poets, Robert Duncan was an important part of both the Black Mountain school of poetry, led by Charles Olson, and the San Francisco Renaissance, whose other members included poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. A distinctive voice in American poetry, Duncan’s idiosyncratic poetics drew on myth, occultism, . . .

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