May 23, 2015
Robert Duncan [USA]
Robert Duncan was born in Oakland, California in January 7, 1919, named Edward Howard Duncan, Jr. by his father. His mother died in childbirth, and his father, unable to care for him, put the child up for adoption. In 1920 the child Edward was adopted by Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes, devout Theosophists, who renamed him Robert Edward Symmes. It was only later, after his discharge from the army in 1941, that the poet returned to his birth name of Duncan.
Reportedly, the young Robert’s early years were quite stable, despite the numerous occult beliefs of his adoptive parents. His father was a prominent architect and his mother devoted much of her time to volunteer work. The family adopted another child, a girl, Barbara Eleanor Symmes, shortly after they had taken adopted Robert.
He began writing poetry while very young, encouraged by a Bakersfield high school teacher.
After his father’s death in 1935, Duncan attended the University of California, Berkeley for two years, where he began writing poetry. Among his friends at the University were Mary and Lilli Fabilli, the later film critic, Pauline Kael, and Ida Bear.
In 1938, after a brief period at Black Mountain College and two years in Philadelphia, he moved to Woodstock, New York, where he joined a commune run by James Cooney and worked on Conney’s journal The Phoenix. He also became involved with the coterie that had grown around writer Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Moving to New York City, Duncan also became actively involved in the art world, mixing with the Abstract Expressionist, with American surrealists, and with personal acquaintances, Roberto Matta and Hans Hoffman.
With Sanders Russell, Duncan launched the magazine Experimental Review which published writers such as Nin, Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Durrell, and numerous others.
Already in Philadelphia, Duncan had begun a homosexual relationship with Ned Fahs, an instructor from Berkeley, and had used his homosexuality to get discharged from the military. Although he briefly attempted a heterosexual marriage in 1943, it ended disastrously, and the following year had a relationship with artist Robert De Niro, Sr., father to actor Robert De Niro, Jr. During this period, Duncan wrote a landmark essay “The Homosexual in Society.” That essay, in which Duncan compared the plight of homosexuals with that of African Americans and Jews, was published in Dwight Macdonald's journal Politics. Today Duncan's essay is considered a pioneering treatise on the experience of homosexuals in American society given its appearance a full decade before any organized gay rights movement.
In 1945 Duncan returned to the San Francisco Bay area, working with the active poetry scene there which would later come to be known as the San Francisco Renaissance. He befriended Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, James Broughton and the novelist Philip K. Dick. Other friends Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer were developing their notions of “serial poetry,” with their repeating images, themes, and words, while poet and fiction writer Kenneth Rexroth held literary and radical political meetings, which Duncan, Blaser and others attended.
Duncan returned to Berkeley to study Medieval and Renaissance literature. His first book, Heavenly City Earthly City was published by Bern Porter in 1947.
That same year Duncan met Charles Olson, who had founded Black Mountain College, and over the following two years developed a relationship. In 1951, Duncan met the artist Jess, beginning a sexual partnership and artistic collaborative relationship with him that would last 37 years until Duncan’s death.
Olson introduced Duncan to Robert Creeley, and in 1956 invited Duncan to teach at Black Mountain. During this period Duncan composed many of the poems that were to make up his first major collection of poetry, The Opening of the Field.
Taking ideas from Olson’s Projective Verse and his own spiritual values based on the occult and theosophy, Duncan meanwhile, begin to develop his own poetic perceptions, most of which he continued to hold throughout his life.
Beginning in the 1960s, Duncan published in major works: The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow. Other major works were Ground Work I and II, Selected Poems of 1959, 1977, and 1993, and his 1979 essays Fictive Certainties. Duncan also wrote three books of prose works, and a drama Faust Foutu: An Entertainment in Four Parts (1959).
His impact on San Francisco writing has been formidable, and he has become a major force in American poetry increasingly since his death in 1988.
BOOKS OF POETRY
Heavently City Earthly City (Berkeley, California: Bern Porter, 1947); Poems 1948-1949 (Berkeley, California: Berkeley Miscellany Editions, 1949; Glen Garden, New Jersey: Libertarian Press, 1950); Medieval Scenes (San Francisco: Centaur Press, 1950; reprinted as Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Libraries, 1950 and 1958); Fragments of a Disordered Devotion (1952); Writing, Writing: A Composition Book (Albuquerque: Sumbooks: 1952); Caesar’s Gate: Pomes 1948-1950 (Palma de Mallorca: Divers Press, 1955; Berkeley: Sand Dollar Press, 1972); Letters: Poems MCMLIII-MCMLVI (Highland, North Carolina: J. Williams, 1958; Chicago: Flood Editions, 2003); Selected Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959); The Opening of the Field (New York: Grove Press, 1960; London: Cape, 1969; New York: New Directions); As Testimony: The Poems and The Scene (San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1964, 1966); Roots and Branches (New York: Scribner, 1964; London: Cape, 1970; New York: New Directions); Medea at Kolchis: The Maidenhead (Berkeley, California: Oyez, 1965); Of the War: Passages 22-27 (Berkeley: Oyez, 1966); The Years As Catches: First Poems (1939-1946) (Berkeley, California: Oyez, 1966); Six Prose Pieces (Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin: The Perishable Press, 1966); A Book of Resemblances: Poems 1950-1953 (1966); Epilogos (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1967); Names of People (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1968); Bending the Bow (New York: New Directions, 1968); Derivations: Selected Poems 1950-1956 (London: Fulcrum Press, 1968); Achilles’ Song (New York: Phoenix Book Shop, 1969); The First Decade: Selected Poems 1940-1950 (London: Fulcrum Press, 1969); Play Time: Pseudo Stein (San Francisco: Poet’s Press, 1969); Poetic Disturbances (San Francisco: Cranium Press, 1970); Tribunals: Passages 31-35 (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1970); Ground Work (1971); Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s “Moly” (San Francisco, 1972); A Seventeenth Century Suite in Homage to the Metaphysical Genius in English Poetry 1590/1690 (San Francisco, 1973); An Ode and Arcadia (Berkeley: Ark Press, 1974, with Jack Spicer); Dante (Canton, New York: Institute of Further Studies: 1974); The Venice Poem (Sydney, Australia: Prism, 1975); Veil, Turbine, Cord, and Bird (1979); The Five Songs (La Jolla: Friends of the UCSD Library, 1981); Ground Work: Before the War (New York: New Directions, 1984, 2006); A Paris Visit (New York: Grenfell Press, 1985); Ground Work II: In the Dark (New York: New Directions, 1987, 2006); Notebook Poems, 1953 (San Francisco, The Press Tuscany Alley, 1991); Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1993, 1997); The Collected Early Poems and Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); The Collected Later Poems and Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014)