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New Review of Lisa Jarnot’s Biography of Robert Duncan at MAKE Mag
At MAKE Magazine! Devin King reviews Lisa Jarnot’s Robert Duncan biography, officially titled Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus (UC Press 2012). Though King mostly focuses on the subject, there are moments when he considers Jarnot’s take:
Duncan . . . dropped out of the ROTC and Berkeley to drift around, first to Philadelphia, and then to New York, where he fell in with Anais Nin and other artists. He moved frequently between different apartments and artist retreats on farms in upstate New York. Though it would take him another 20 years to publish his first major work, The Opening of the Field, Duncan was on his way.
It was during this period that he published The Homosexual in Society. A pioneering essay in its earnest, honest engagement with gay life in America, it is, in hindsight, both deeply moving and also quite problematic. In it, Duncan lambasts those homosexuals who cultivate a “secret language, the camp, a tone and a vocabulary that are loaded with contempt for the uninitiated.” He instead endorses a homosexuality that speaks not only to those “in the club” but to all mankind. Jarnot reads this as a transference of Duncan’s frustration with the exclusivity of the cultural avant-garde, and in this essay we see the beginning of the anarchist ideals that Duncan would espouse for the rest of his life, most famously in a late argument with the poet Denise Levertov over the proper reaction to the Vietnam War (Levertov preferring the agitprop, Duncan arguing for a deeply pained, mythological response). Regardless of its politics, the essay makes clear that Duncan was coming to terms with his new found life as double outsider—the poet and homosexual.
While most of his peers embraced strongly political (or auto-biographical) poetics, Duncan instead, as with Olson, developed a more chaotic approach, in which the material and the spiritual worlds entwined. Unlike Olson’s work, which churns with the history of Gloucester, MA, for Duncan the world is only partly material; the spiritual world is always immanently present. How Duncan understood this material/spiritual world is difficult to say. Certainly his ideas were influenced by his parents’ theosophy. Reading Duncan can be a challenge for the contemporary reader versed in the arguments of the New Atheism. In his poems one encounters the suggestion that there exists something beyond what we are able to perceive. The Opening of the Field begins with one of Duncan’s most famous and most anthologized poems, Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow. Its title is its first line, and the poem continues:
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.
This made place, this eternal pasture that comes, not just from the poet but from the world, and yet is beyond the world, this is not new to modernist poetics—there are intimations of this in Yeats, Pound, and H.D., to name a few. Still, Duncan is among the most continually, and deeply, engaged of poets in his role as spiritual witness.
Read next to Duncan’s own writing, Jarnot’s biography acts, in its portrayal of the historical life, to rein in Duncan’s embellishments, to present a demythologized and quotidian portrait. Hers is a thorough and three-dimensional view of the man in all his complexity and at times, all too familiar blandness. While it is helpful, even crucial, to capture Duncan in this light and to present him as a working poet and craftsman rather than as a siphon for the godhead, it is also, at times, frustrating how close Jarnot holds her readings of his poems to the archival record. Her astute autobiographical criticism is, of course, good to have, and the book is a wonder of patient historical archeology. But with Duncan, who always, in his own telling, had one eye on the material world and the other on the spiritual, one wishes for a more open reading of the poetry. Still, there remains something marvelous in Jarnot’s showing that Duncan’s made place, his entirely extraordinary mythology, was the product of the most ordinary of men.