Robert Duncan was born January 7, 1919, in Oakland, California.
His mother died at childbirth and his father couldn't afford
to keep him. He was adopted in August 1919 by a couple who were
devout Theosophists and chose their adopted son after consulting
horoscopes and astrological charts relating to his birth. Duncan
grew up in an atmosphere of seances, meetings of the Hermetic
Brotherhood, and a library of occult literature.
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.
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), Anaïs
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.
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. 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 returned to Berkeley in
1948, following the publication of his first book, Heavenly
City, Earthly City (1947). 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 book. Soon 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
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
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
*Excerpted from American National
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.
Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow (
Top of Page )
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
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
Wherefrom fall all architectures
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.
She it is Queen Under the Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.
It is only a dream of the grass
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun's going down
whose secret we see in a children's
of ring a round of roses told.
Often I am permitted to return
to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.