Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan

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 Bow (1968).

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 Award.

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 Francisco

*Excerpted from American National Biography.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

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.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
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 blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down

whose secret we see in a children’s game
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.

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