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Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus

Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

Lisa Jarnot
Foreword by Michael Davidson
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 560
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  • Book Info
    Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus
    Book Description:

    This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919–1988), one of America’s great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan’s birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets and painters who gathered around him. Weaving together quotations from Duncan’s notebooks and interviews with those who knew him, Jarnot vividly describes his life on the West Coast and in New York City and his encounters with luminaries such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95194-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xx)
    Michael Davidson

    Robert Duncan’s life offers a particular challenge for the biographer. He was a widely respected, if determinedly controversial, poet associated with the Black Mountain school, but his early career is marked by involvement in a number of significant literary communities. He participated in the AnaïsNin and Henry Miller circle in the 1940s, the surrealist movement aroundViewmagazine during the same period, anarcho-pacifist political movements in New York and the Bay Area, and the Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s. He maintained close friendships with the objectivists, initially with Louis Zukofsky on the East Coast and then with George Oppen...

    (pp. xxi-xxii)
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)
    (pp. xxvii-xxviii)

    • ONE The Antediluvian World
      (pp. 3-5)

      HE WAS CASE NUMBER 27,436 at the Children’s Home Society. Though he would later be known as Robert Symmes, and later still as Robert Duncan, at birth he was given the name Edward Howe Duncan in honor of his father, a railroad engineer on the Southern Pacific line.¹ What evidence remains of the elder Edward Duncan is his careful rounded signature on his wife’s interment papers in Oakland, California’s Mountain View Cemetery, dated February 23, 1919. Marguerite Duncan hadn’t intended to deliver her tenth child at home, but she had been ill, and a local hospital refused to admit her,...

    • TWO Native Son of the Golden West
      (pp. 6-12)

      FAYETTA HARRIS PHILIP TURNED thirty-seven during the summer of 1919. On most days she could be found at Philip & Philip, the corner drugstore on Fruitvale Avenue in East Oakland that she managed alongside her husband, Bruce. Each morning she rose at dawn, pinned her red-brown hair into a bun, and made breakfast for her children, Mercedes and Harold, before opening the store. When the children were visiting their grandmother, Fayetta spent the early hours in her trea sured library, pulling books from the shelves and composing lengthy pseudoscientific treatises, which she referred to as her “discoveries.” With her mother’s...

    • THREE The Architecture
      (pp. 13-20)

      WHEN NOT SECLUDED IN YOSEMITE, the Symmeses began the transition to their new home in Alameda, which would be Robert Duncan’s main residence for the first seven years of his life. A sleepy island town appended to the southernmost part of Oakland, Alameda had once been a peach orchard, cultivated by Spanish settlers. The house that Edwin Symmes designed and had built there in 1922 was at 1700 Pearl Street, some blocks from a narrow sandy beach with a view of the San Francisco skyline across the bay. In Alameda’s mild coastal climate, the foliage on the city’s palm and...

    • FOUR A Part in the Fabulous
      (pp. 21-25)

      THERE WAS TO BE A CATASTROPHE: the first world would be destroyed by water, the present world incinerated in a fiery apocalypse. Duncan heard the tale from his parents, his grandmother, and his Aunt Fay, and he and his cousins talked about it as they splashed in the waves on summer outings. The notion consumed his imagination, and his sleep was haunted by its images:

      Taller than Morro Rock . . . the breakers of that catastrophe must be. I would try to picture the flood enormous enough to crash upon the mountains . . . as if they were...

    • FIVE The Wasteland
      (pp. 26-33)

      IN LATE 1927, Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes again relied on an astrological forecast by the elders of the hermetic brotherhood to guide a major decision—the last time that cosmic imperatives took precedence over pragmatic household decision making. The family would move to the nascent town of Bakersfield, where Edwin saw the promise of a professional practice all his own. Not long after the family’s arrival in October, he found employment as a public works architect. The transition was not as effortless as the stars had foretold: the family had landed in a desert valley three hundred miles from friends,...

    • SIX The Fathering Dream
      (pp. 34-40)

      IN THE SUMMER OF 1935, the Symmeses rented a bungalow on the Santa Barbara beachfront. Sixteen-year-old Robert Duncan slept in a courtyard patio under mosquito nets, surrounded by citrus trees and lush, big-eared palms. Just before the school year began, on September 10, Edwin Symmes died after suffering a massive heart attack alone in the house on Truxton Avenue, where he had gone to recuperate from an earlier attack. Symmes had been in failing health for some time; his heavy smoking contributed to his death at fifty-two, as did the stress of supporting his family during the Depression years. Duncan...


    • SEVEN The Little Freshman Yes
      (pp. 43-47)

      THE SAN FRANCISCO–OAKLAND BAY BRIDGE was completed in the fall of 1936, creating the first direct route for automobile traffic between San Francisco and the Oakland East Bay. From the span, one could view the blue-green waters of San Francisco Bay, separated from the Pacific by the Golden Gate headlands and Marin County. The massive waterway, inspiring the imagination of all who lived near it, had served as a stopping point for Gold Rush trea sure seekers and by 1930 was the center of the Pacific Coast maritime industry.

      Freshman class member Robert Duncan arrived at the Berkeley campus...

    • EIGHT A Company of Women
      (pp. 47-53)

      SIX MONTHS INTO COLLEGE Duncan met two women crucial to the development of his ideas about art and politics, Lillian Fabilli and Cecily Kramer. He paid homage to them in the opening chapter ofThe H. D. Book,where they appear as Lilli and Athalie. Fabilli, raised in a large, close-knit Italian Catholic family primarily in the San Joaquin Valley town of Visalia, supported herself in Berkeley by keeping house for a well-to-do couple. A lonely teenager with little money, Fabilli met fellow student Cecily Kramer after a few weeks, and the two became fast friends. The outgoing Kramer, a...

    • NINE The Dance
      (pp. 53-61)

      DESPITE HIS TALKATIVE NATURE, Duncan didn’t reveal many details about his sexuality to his female admirers. Virginia Admiral noted that he sometimes acted “campy,” and Mary Fabilli recalled that when Duncan first mentioned his sexual preference to them, “none of us were interested because we didn’t think of him as a boyfriend.”¹ But Cecily Kramer did seem to take issue with her friend’s sexuality, as did Mary Fabilli later in life when she became more committed to the Catholic Church. Virginia Admiral remembered, “Cecily was very concerned with philosophical and spiritual aspects of something she felt to be a terrible...

    • TEN From Romance to Ritual
      (pp. 61-68)

      DUNCAN’S RELATIONSHIP WITH NED FAHS CONTINUED from a distance throughout the fall of 1939, with Fahs making a weekend trip to New York in October, during which the two attended the Ballet Russes and strolled through the Museum of Modern Art. Over Christmas weekend, Fahs again came to the city to view a Picasso show and to share a late night preholiday celebration with Duncan and Jeff and Connie Rall. As Duncan wistfully noted in a letter to his mother, it was his first Christmas away from home, but his anxiety was pacified by a Christmas Eve train trip through...

    • ELEVEN Queen of the Whores
      (pp. 69-76)

      DURING THE FALL AND WINTER OF 1940, Duncan remained in Woodstock to finish the second issue ofRitual,now renamed theExperimental Review.He also briefly took the helm of the Phoenix Press when the Cooneys went to investigate a new farming venture in Georgia. Needing to provide for himself emotionally and financially through the cold Catskills winter, Duncan recruited a group of younger writers and artists to Maverick Road, including Alvin and Marguerite Schwartz, Jack Johnson, and New York comrade Jeff Rall.¹ In September, another kindred spirit, Sanders Russell, arrived, having been invited by Duncan to live with him...

    • TWELVE Enlisted
      (pp. 77-81)

      ON MARCH 26, 1941, Duncan began his compulsory service in the United States Army, just as American forces were mobilizing toward action. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for training and became a member of Company C of the 8th Battalion. Duncan later said that he had refused a career as an officer, abiding by a Taoist ideal that one should “go to the bottom.”¹ He wrote the Cooneys about his first impressions of army life: “We have been consigned to the Armored Force Replacement Center. . . . In six weeks we will be drivers of tanks and...

    • THIRTEEN Marriage
      (pp. 82-88)

      HAVING BURNED BRIDGES ON THE EAST COAST, Duncan returned to Berkeley in early 1942, intending to take classes at the University of California. Weary of financial dependence on others and emotionally drained from his skirmish with the army, he informed his mother that he had decided to become a teacher: “I have been thinking about this course of action, seeking the advice of professors and considering all the factors. . . . The fields in education which are most open; where there is . . . the least competition and the best provisions for graduate scholarships . . . —two...

    • FOURTEEN Divorce
      (pp. 88-92)

      BY NOVEMBER 1943, Duncan’s marriage was in a deadlock: “Faced with either Maggie’s alternating declarations that she cannot live without me or that she cannot live with me—I do not feel much relation to these feelings. They seem to violate my person, to be emotions and needs transferrd from other people, other areas of conflict to me.”¹ At the beginning of 1944, he made a break from McKee, moving out of their apartment and beginning a relationship with paint er Leslie Sherman.² McKee, then pregnant with Duncan’s child, returned to Chicago to have an abortion, a decision that dismayed...


    • FIFTEEN The End of the War
      (pp. 95-100)

      WHILE FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES had maneuvered around the draft or waited out the conflict detained as conscientious objectors, Duncan narrowly escaped being sent to the front. In January 1945, he constructed a utopian plan for his own postwar life: “What I want is . . . a field for a house, a vegetable garden and some goats, to house my library and my beginning collection of paintings. A field in the backwoods with an eye for Northern California, for the sort of country where I lived in Woodstock—in kerosene lamp country.”¹

      That spring, he ended his relationship with Leslie...

    • SIXTEEN The Round Table
      (pp. 101-105)

      EARLY IN HIS CAREER Robert Duncan claimed three companions in poetry: Mary Fabilli, Sanders Russell, and Jack Spicer. Fabilli and Russell received little public acknowledgment for their craft. Jack Spicer seemed destined to share an analogous fate but made a vast contribution to the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1950s and 1960s. His influence on Duncan’s poetry was likewise formidable. Through conversation and correspondence with Spicer, Duncan was pushed to reenvision his poetics: to study the linguistic basis of poetry, arrange objects in poems as magical talismans, and question the role of poetry and language in the world. The...

    • SEVENTEEN The First Poetry Festival
      (pp. 105-109)

      WHILE THE BAY AREA WAS ALREADY saturated in literary happenings, another important moment came in April 1947 with Madeline Gleason’s First Festival of Modern Poetry. A seasonal event, it eventually led to the establishment of San Francisco’s Poetry Center in the mid-1950s. Gleason was born in 1903 in North Dakota and had arrived in San Francisco during the early 1930s to write for the WPA. A poet and avid organizer, she conceived her festival with the help of Duncan and James Broughton: “For two evenings twelve poets, including Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and William Everson read to a...

    • EIGHTEEN The Venice Poem
      (pp. 109-115)

      INSPIRED BY HIS MEETINGS with Pound and Olson, Duncan again decided to test the waters of academia. Between the spring of 1948 and the fall of 1951, he worked toward a degree in the University of California’s Civilization of the Middle Ages program, studying with Paul Schaeffer and Ernst Kantorowicz. His reason for returning to classes was simple: “Most people do not go to college for an education. . . . I was going back for an education. . . . This is almost impossible to explain to a university. [It’s like saying] I like banks because I want to...

    • NINETEEN Indian Tales
      (pp. 115-118)

      THE SUMMER OF 1949 brought Duncan into an educational experience of a different sort. As his relationship with Jerry Ackerman drew to a close, he moved into a cottage in the Berkeley Hills owned by anthropologist and linguist Jaime de Angulo and his wife, Nancy. While there, he assisted in the care of Jaime, who was dying of prostate cancer.¹ Duncan entered the household with an introduction from Ezra Pound, but he had been aware of de Angulo since the 1930s, intrigued by rumors of a “man who lived on the Sur, and who lived like an Indian Shaman.”² De...

    • TWENTY The Song of the Borderguard
      (pp. 118-124)

      ENDING HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH JERRY ACKERMAN, Duncan wondered if he’d ever find a stable domestic situation, but out of the trauma described in “The Venice Poem” came an unexpected turn. One of the audience members at a 1949 reading of the poem in Berkeley was a painter and literature enthusiast named Jess Collins. Duncan was thirty when he first met the twenty-six-year-old Jess. Shy, willowy, and the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome, Jess attracted Duncan’s attention immediately. With him, Duncan came into a marriage and companionship that lasted thirty-seven years.

      Born Burgess Collins on August 6, 1923, in Long...

    • TWENTY-ONE The Way to Shadow Garden
      (pp. 124-131)

      STAN BRAKHAGE WAS NINETEEN YEARS old when he arrived in San Francisco in 1952. The previous year he had withdrawn from Dartmouth College after suffering a nervous breakdown two months into his first semester. Unsure that he would ever fit into a traditional academic community, he crossed the country and landed in the Bay Area, where he was introduced to Duncan and Jess by Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth’s home had long been a gathering place for younger writers, and Brakhage’s high school classmate and fellow filmmaker Larry Jordan recalled that the San Francisco poetry community was generally a welcoming place: “We’d...

    • TWENTY-TWO The Workshop
      (pp. 131-135)

      IN THE AUTUMN OF 1954, Duncan was offered a teaching position through San Francisco State’s recently created Poetry Center. The center had been established that year with a grant from W.H. Auden and was first headed by Professor Ruth Witt-Diamant. Because Duncan lacked academic credentials, Witt-Diamant also asked poet Norman McLeod, “a straight-line modernist,” to sign on as a moderator for the weekly workshop held at the San Francisco Public Library.¹ Titled The Writing or Reading of Poetry, the class almost immediately presented a problem for Duncan: “I have had a deep dissatisfaction . . . with the course of...

    • TWENTY-THREE Mallorca
      (pp. 135-140)

      ON MARCH 3, 1955, Robert Duncan was issued his first passport. The brown-haired, gray-eyed, five-foot-ten San Franciscan listed his occupation as “writer,” and the laminated photograph showed him dressed in a dark suit, a grin creeping across his chubby face and waves of tousled hair styled over his broad forehead. The passport arrived in time for a springtime adventure in Europe with Jess—something of a delayed honeymoon, Duncan wrote to the Cooneys, “The last four years have been very happy ones for me—life sometimes gives us what we little deserve. And then I think I like being thirty-six...

    • TWENTY-FOUR Caesar’s Gate
      (pp. 141-146)

      ON JUNE 26, back from Barcelona, Duncan reported to Ida Hodes that he and Jess had acquired two overactive kittens, Billy and Jeoffry, offspring of a black cat belonging to the Creeleys. Hodes, who had been doting over Jess and Duncan’s other black cat, Princess, responded with several letters about pet activities in San Francisco, including Princess’s traumatic trip to the veterinarian after swallowing a long piece of string. Relieved that Princess had survived the ordeal, Duncan turned to writing a small book calledBallads for Helen Adam,which he soon abandoned for another project,Caesar’s Gate.The limited-edition book...


    • TWENTY-FIVE The Meadow
      (pp. 149-155)

      DURING HIS STAY IN ENGLAND in January of 1956, Duncan composed a poem that would serve as the entranceway to his first major book,The Opening of the Field.While it would later be known as “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” the piece was initially titled “Having Been Enraged by John Davenport,” a reference to an argument Duncan had with a literary critic “at the end of an evening at G.S. Fraser’s over Pound.”¹ Davenport was the victim of a Duncanian lambasting in later-deleted lines of the poem:

      The besotted man as if he were dead...

    • TWENTY-SIX New York Interlude
      (pp. 155-159)

      UNCERTAIN ABOUT THE STATUS of Black Mountain’s summer session, Duncan made a brief trip to New York in early May to search for work as a freelance typist. When he returned south to wait for a head count of remaining students, he recorded the small measure of domesticity he had achieved in North Carolina: “The black kitten, Mr. Rimbaud, sleeps under the spray of azalea. Lotta Lenya sings ‘Surabaya Johnny’ with seductive persistence. White surfaces of an enameled pot and a willow-patterned sugar bowl are cool in the May heat.”¹ Meanwhile, Jess left for San Francisco, where he first stayed...

    • TWENTY-SEVEN The San Francisco Scene
      (pp. 160-164)

      WHILE DUNCAN WAS AT BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE, the San Francisco poetry community was in the midst of transformation. Throughout the early part of 1956, Duncan had received reports from both Michael McClure and Robert Creeley about events in his home city, but he may not have been entirely prepared for what awaited him upon his return. As a fledgling poet, he had always been at the center of activity: “There was only one poet here when I came back in [19] 42 briefly and that was Kenneth Rexroth, and then there was Philip Lamantia and myself and Kenneth Rexroth. And...

    • TWENTY-EIGHT Olson, Whitehead, and the Magic Workshop
      (pp. 165-170)

      THE 1956 SEASON AT THE POETRY CENTER ended with readings by Eve Triem, Landis Everson, Richard Wilbur, Madeline Gleason, and Brother Antoninus; and the poets of San Francisco had even more to look forward to the following year. In February, Jack Spicer began teaching a workshop called Poetry as Magic at the San Francisco Public Library. The fifteen-week class was sponsored by the Poetry Center, and Duncan was a participant along with Helen Adam, Joe Dunn, Jack Gilbert, George Stanley, Sue Rosen, Robert Connor, and Joseph Kostolefsky. Spicer told his prospective students, “This is not a course in technique or...

    • TWENTY-NINE The Maidens
      (pp. 171-175)

      DURING THE FALL of 1957, Duncan divided his energy between his Poetry Center responsibilities and more personal business. As he neared completion ofThe Opening of the Field,he also supervised the Jargon production of his bookLettersat Banyan Press and applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship with the assistance of Louis Zukofsky and Donald Allen. The fellowship was to elude him, but the application gave him the opportunity to clarify his ideas about the structure ofThe Opening of the Fieldand to begin to see the book’s boundaries. At least one of the interruptions to his own work...

    • THIRTY Elfmere
      (pp. 175-180)

      FREED FROM POETRY CENTER POLITICS, Duncan and Jess also freed themselves from the social obligations of San Francisco’s poetry community during the spring of 1958. In mid-March, they relocated to Stinson Beach in Marin County north of San Francisco. Christening their new home “Elfmere,” they remained there until early 1961. The landscape of Stinson Beach—the fruit trees and gardens, the long stretch of Pacific coastline, and the green and gold-tinged fields along the coastal highway—flooded into the next decade of Duncan’s writing. As in Mallorca, the solitude also allowed him and Jess to renew their relation to the...

    • THIRTY-ONE Night Scenes
      (pp. 180-185)

      IN SEPTEMBER 1958, Duncan was drawn back to the Poetry Center to teach a workshop at the San Francisco Public Library. The class, focused on “basic techniques,” had a roster that included Mary Callaway, Katherine Abend, Julia K. Watson, Robert Kaffka, Joanne Kyger, George Stanley, Ebbe Borregaard, Bruce Boyd, and Jack Spicer. Duncan’s syllabus hinted at his desire to separate himself from the Spicer circle and the levity of a poetry scene based in North Beach bars. In an entrance survey, he asked the students a number of questions about the cosmologies of their work as writers. The search for...

    • THIRTY-TWO H. D.
      (pp. 185-191)

      WITH A NEW BOOK IN PROGRESS, Duncan began to seek out worthy publishers forThe Opening of the Field.In July of 1959, he began a preface to the book and sent the manuscript to Macmillan Press. That month, the Creeleys were again guests at Elfmere before departing for Guatemala, where Robert Creeley had secured a teaching job. Another young couple, Diane and Jerome Rothenberg, also visited the cottage toward the end of July, bringing news from the East Coast poetry scene and encouraging Duncan to visit them in New York. Jerome Rothenberg, then the editor ofPoems from the...

    • THIRTY-THREE Go East
      (pp. 192-196)

      BY 1960, Duncan’s friendships on the East Coast were impressive in their diversity, and his appetite for travel was insatiable. In the spring, he left Stinson Beach for the beginning of a substantial northeastern reading tour during which he would spend time with Norman O. Brown, Norman Holmes Pearson, M.C. Richards, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Rothenberg, and Denise Levertov. Making his way first to Denver by train, he admired the Rocky Mountains with their “granite extrusions and towering piles of red, rose, pink, stone” before being greeted at the terminal by his exiled protégé Stan Brakhage.¹ Brakhage, then living...

    • Plates
      (pp. None)
    • THIRTY-FOUR Apprehensions
      (pp. 197-200)

      DURING HIS NEW YORK SOJOURN, Duncan had a brief affair and recorded the details of it in a letter to Robin Blaser. Blaser in turn put the letter into Jess’s hands shortly before Duncan’s return to Stinson Beach.¹ As Blaser recalled in a 1992 interview with Kevin Killian, “A letter arrived, and I picked it up, packed my bag, and left . . . to stay over the weekend with Jess. . . . Th e letters were always wonderful, and they were usually . . . both for me and for posterity—I rather liked my relation to posterity—...


    • THIRTY-FIVE The Will
      (pp. 203-208)

      ON JANUARY 20, 1961, Robert Frost acted as the poet of ceremonies at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Frost recited his poem “The Gift Outright,” and Kennedy spoke the now-famous lines “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Duncan felt little sympathy for the new president, whom many looked upon with hope and admiration. Kennedy’s administration was confronted with major crises, including communist threats in Cuba and Viet Nam, the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and growing civil unrest in the South. Early in...

    • THIRTY-SIX The Playhouse
      (pp. 209-213)

      WHEN H.D. DIED IN ZURICH ON SEPTEMBER 27, 1961, Duncan was in the midst of the second section ofRoots and Branches,composing a poem called “Doves.” Dedicated to H.D. and partly inspired by William Morris’s fantasy novelThe Well at the World’s End,the piece evolved from a tribute into an elegy.¹ H.D. suffered a stroke and a heart attack in early June, and Duncan had followed news of her decline via his correspondence with Norman Holmes Pearson. He recorded his thoughts about her death in a September 28 letter to Pearson, including the sentiment “You will understand how...

    • THIRTY-SEVEN The Political Machine
      (pp. 214-221)

      DUNCAN AND JESS HAD A RARE OPPORTUNITY to travel together during the spring of 1962, flying to Denver on Thursday March 22 to begin a longer journey to the East Coast. Though reluctant to venture far from home, Jess embarked on the trip to fulfill a commission from friend and benefactor William Matson Roth “to make . . . a ‘political machine,’ a construction out of objects ‘found’ in Washington, D.C.”¹ On their first night in Denver, the couple accompanied Stan and Jane Brakhage to a performance of Duncan’s 1956 playMedea at Kolchis: The Maidenhead,produced by a local...

    • THIRTY-EIGHT Knight Errant
      (pp. 221-224)

      ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S FILMThe Birdswas released on the New Year of 1963. That spring, as moviegoers shuddered to imagine the skies of San Francisco and Bodega Bay besieged by flocks of angry birds, South Vietnamese and American troops cooperated in a number of new military operations. Away from the birds and the helicopters, Duncan proceeded withThe H.D. Bookand spent the New Year rereading E.R. Dodds’sThe Greeks and the Irrational.He also spent time reflecting on a disappointment with the San Francisco poetry scene that struck at the roots of his old Berkeley friendships.

      His relationship with...

    • THIRTY-NINE The Vancouver Conference
      (pp. 225-229)

      THE SYMPOSIUM THAT CAME TO BE REMEMBERED as the Vancouver Conference brought together poets of Duncan’s generation in full force. Beginning on July 24 and continuing through August 16, 1963, its participants included the major writers of the Black Mountain school as well as San Francisco poet Philip Whalen and Canadian poet Margaret Avison. Students of poetry—from the Vancouver faithful to Drummond Hadley of Tucson to two young East Coast writers, George (Michael) Palmer and Clark Coolidge—flocked to the event from around North America.¹ Workshop meetings for the credit-based students were held three days a week, and panel...

    • FORTY Bending the Bow
      (pp. 229-234)

      WITH A THREE-MONTH HIATUS from reading and lecturing responsibilities in early 1964, Duncan settled into the landscape of new poems. In January, he wrote the title piece ofBending the Bow,which arrived while he was penning a letter to Denise Levertov. Embedding the lines into a January 12 missive, he again demonstrated his inclination to create conversations between texts, in this case responding to Levertov’s early bookThe Double Image.But the poem also expressed a deeper and nearly erotic fascination with her:

      in the course of a letter to a friend

      who comes close in to my thought...

    • FORTY-ONE A Night Song
      (pp. 234-238)

      IN THE SUMMER OF 1964, Duncan worked as hard at home as he had on the road, producing poems towardBending the Bowand turning in his final version ofRoots and Branchesto Scribners for a September publication date.¹ The themes of house hold, love, and language were heavily on his mind and evident inPassages9 and 10, “The Architecture” and “These Past Years.” Giving views into the house hold and into Duncan’s marriage to Jess, the poems also returned to a Steinian lyric playfulness and to the projective form of a Black Mountain aesthetic. He opened “These...

    • FORTY-TWO Anger
      (pp. 239-244)

      RETURNING TO SAN FRANCISCO ON NOVEMBER 22, Duncan and Jess celebrated Thanksgiving, enjoyed a short visit from Kenneth Anger, and caught up with the news across the bay. In early December, the Berkeley campus was briefly shut down by Free Speech Movement protests, and nearly eight hundred students were arrested after they took control of the campus’s main administrative building. Around the conflict, Duncan penned a series of lines into his poem in progress “The Multiversity,” laying out in the clearest terms his political beliefs: “Where there is no commune, /the individual volition has no ground. /Where there is no...

    • FORTY-THREE The Berkeley Conference
      (pp. 244-248)

      THE BERKELEY POETRY CONFERENCE BEGAN ON JULY 12 and continued through the 24th of the month. Organized by Richard Baker, the event took place at the University of California and was sponsored by the school’s extension program. Duncan and Donald Allen were Baker’s key advisors on the conference focus and list of invitees, though Duncan reported to Denise Levertov in the weeks preceding the gathering, “I wanted Clayton Eshleman and Jackson Mac Low and got neither.”¹ Duncan had also pushed to include LeRoi Jones but had second thoughts when Jones appeared in the Bay Area that spring espousing a newfound...

    • FORTY-FOUR The Sixties
      (pp. 249-258)

      BY THE EARLY 1960S, those of Duncan’s generation were struggling to acclimate themselves to a youth movement that would soon radically alter the face of American life. The San Francisco Renaissance participants who had been inspired by the Beats and schooled through Jack Spicer’s halfdecade reign now crossed paths with another wave of adolescent energy in the form of the counterculture. Duncan weathered the changes with an active curiosity. While he was critical of young people’s use of drugs, he listened to their views on politics and sympathized with their plight in relation to the Viet Nam war.¹ Seeing the...


    • FORTY-FIVE The Household
      (pp. 261-266)

      DUNCAN ONCE JOKED that he lived in San Francisco because it was where his mother had been born. He saw it as Oz, a part of the imagination. For both Duncan and Jess, the city’s Mission District became a nook removed from the responsibilities of professional life. They preferred its rough edges to more obviously favorable parts of town such as the Castro, a traditionally gay neighborhood, or Bernal Heights, which provided more spectacular views of the city. Down the length of the Mission, colorful sidewalk markets displayed fresh fish, Central American spices, and pyramids of lemons, limes, and mangoes...

    • FORTY-SIX The Summer of Love
      (pp. 266-274)

      AT HOME IN EARLY APRIL, Duncan and Jess prepared for tax day while roofers paced and pounded overhead. Abroad on the city streets, a noisy series of dramas was unfolding, including an April 15 antiwar march that drew over a hundred thousand protesters. Leaving the turmoil behind, Duncan flew to Kansas to begin a two-month Midwest and East Coast reading tour. He made his way through the opening obligations of the trip while fighting off a head cold and adjusting to an early spring heat wave. It was his second visit to Lawrence, where he gave an April 17 reading...

    • FORTY-SEVEN Days of Rage
      (pp. 274-280)

      THE ASSASSINATIONS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., and Robert Kennedy, followed by riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, plunged the New Left into crisis. At the Olympic games in Mexico City, American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos caused controversy by raising their fists in a show of solidarity with the black power movement. The year had begun with the Tet offensive, a massive attack on U.S. military sites in South Viet Nam by the Viet Cong on the Viet nam ese lunar New Year.

      Beginning the poems that would be collected intoGround Work: Before the War,Duncan...

    • FORTY-EIGHT Ground-Work
      (pp. 280-284)

      WHILE DUNCAN OFTEN had the luxury of quiet summers in San Francisco with Jess, he was away for a good part of the season in 1968. Invited to an international poetry festival in late June at Stony Brook and to Buffalo for a six-week teaching job at the state university, he prepared for travel amid news of the June 5 assassination of Robert Kennedy.¹ Once back on the road, Duncan’s concern shifted from politics to poetry, and he registered an ill temper with the business at hand. He wrote Jess that “the few real poets” in attendance at Stony Brook...

    • FORTY-NINE Helter Skelter
      (pp. 285-289)

      IF 1968 WAS THE SUMMER OF LOVE, 1969 was the summer of murder and mayhem: the Stonewall Riots, Chappaquiddick, the Zodiac killings, and the murder of Sharon Tate. On May 16, just after Duncan returned from Kansas, Governor Reagan ordered National Guard troops to reclaim the recently established People’s Park in Berkeley as the property of the University of California regents. The park, a plot of land liberated from the university by community activists, became a bloody battlefield that week as thirty thousand people clashed with guardsmen, who fired birdshot and tear gas into the crowds. One protester, James Rector,...

    • FIFTY Santa Cruz Propositions
      (pp. 290-295)

      THE EARLY PART OF 1970 seemed slated for bad news. The loss of one of Duncan’s closest friends in the field of poetry was followed by the death of Fayetta Harris Philip at the age of eighty-eight. Duncan, then in Vancouver for a weeklong visit to the Tallmans, received the news on February 15 via a telegram from his cousin Mercedes Gardner.¹ Returning to the Bay Area, he attended to family obligations, driving to the funeral in Folsom, California, with Mercedes’s daughter, Susan. Staying close to home through the spring, he also prepared for two local readings. WithBending the...

    • FIFTY-ONE The Torn Cloth
      (pp. 296-302)

      AS HE REFLECTED upon his experiences in Santa Cruz that autumn, Duncan also prepared for an extensive winter and spring tour. The 1970s would see a turn in his career, with multiweek commitments becoming the norm. Jess meanwhile indulged in the solitude, content with quiet days of work in his studio. On February 9, Duncan began an epic trip across the continent with a reading at Simon Fraser University. Staying with Warren and Ellen Tallman, as had become his February ritual, he also visited Victoria for three days before taking a winding journey by train through the Canadian provinces to...

    • FIFTY-TWO Despair in Being Tedious
      (pp. 303-309)

      WHILE THE WAR in Viet Nam continued and his relationship with Denise Levertov drew to a close, Duncan turned to thoughts of his career. With his fifty-third birthday in January 1972 came the promise of another long year of touring and writing deadlines. After participating in a February 2 memorial reading for Kenneth Patchen, who had died in early January, Duncan traveled to Portland to give a February 17 reading there. His annual stay with the Tallmans was punctuated by business activities, including meetings with elementary school administrators in Ellensburg, Washington, who had asked him to consult on new learning...

    • FIFTY-THREE The Cult of the Gods
      (pp. 310-313)

      EZRA POUND DIED ON NOVEMBER 1, 1972, just as Duncan was completing a three-week residency at Kent State University. Having spent the early part of the autumn returning to Pound’s work with Michael and Joanna McClure, Duncan infused his Kent course, Studies in Ideas of the Poetic Imagination, with attentions to thePisan Cantos,Williams’sPaterson,Christopher Smart’sJubilate Agno,Blake’sJerusalem,and Sir Charles Sherrington’sMan on His Nature.The course syllabus pointed to a larger goal: “In our projected lexicon of ideas of the Imagination, we will be concerned with whether we consider the ideas to be phantastic,...

    • FIFTY-FOUR Elm Park Road
      (pp. 314-319)

      PUTTING ASIDE HIS STUDIES OF VAUGHAN AND DANTE, Duncan flew to London on May 3, 1973, with a copy of Octavio Paz’sAlternating Currentstucked into his travel bag. After a five-year hiatus, the city would again offer engaging company and novel sights and sounds. Lodging in Kensington with R.B.Kitaj, he installed himself “at a great octagonal table in rosewood” to write his first letter to Jess.¹ Noting his delight in meeting Kitaj’s new companion, Sandra Fisher, Duncan also described the sanctuary at 62 Elm Park Road: “Everything about this house . . . is comfortable and easy. A little...

    • FIFTY-FIVE Riverside
      (pp. 320-326)

      NINETEEN SEVENTY-FOUR WOULD BE AN UNUSUAL YEAR for Duncan. Having forsworn travels, he found himself unable to escape a long list of writing tasks that had accumulated over several months. Th roughout the winter and early spring, he filled his journals with notes on Allen Upward’sThe Divine Mystery,Jack Spicer’s poetry, and Georges Poulet’sTrois Essais de Mythologie Romantique.He and Jess also kept a watchful eye on American politics. January brought rumblings of impeachment, and in mid-April, the House Judiciary Committee asked Nixon to hand over audiotapes of his Watergate conversations. On May 15, Duncan returned to work,...

    • FIFTY-SIX The Heart of Rime
      (pp. 327-336)

      JANUARY 1976 brought an end to Duncan’s two-year self-imposed moratorium on long-distance business travels. Giving up the hope of being at home to witness a major earthquake, he reengaged with the world of poetry and began one of his busiest years on the reading circuit. At the age of fifty-seven, his public recognition as a writer allowed him to earn a reasonable professional income from readings, though it meant spending more time away from Jess. Having shared a house hold for a little over a quarter of a century, the couple had come to recognize the complexities of the life...


    • FIFTY-SEVEN An Alternate Life
      (pp. 339-345)

      FOR THE WRITERS OF AUSTRALIA, Robert Duncan’s arrival inspired dramatic change. The poet owed his September 1976 trek to Sydney to the efforts of Robert and Cheryl Adamson, the editors ofNew Poetry.Robert Adamson later reminisced to Duncan about their initial contact some four years earlier:

      When I got your letter I was living in a small fishing village on the Hawkesbury about fifty miles from Sydney and no phone or transport—it was around ten in the morning, winter . . . , and a magic sunny day. I read your letter over and over, there was no...

    • FIFTY-EIGHT Cambridge
      (pp. 346-350)

      THE BEGINNING OF 1977 BROUGHT NEW STUDIES, with Duncan attending French classes at San Francisco’s Alliance Française. Though he had learned French and Latin in high school, and muddled through Ancient Greek texts and German during his short stint as a medievalist, he was always most at home with English, and more specifically with American English. Duncan liked the grit of his “mother” tongue: he had been adopted into a pioneer family, and his Aunt Fay toward the end of her life had drifted back to the dialects and slang of her Oregon Trail upbringing. He too held fast to...

    • FIFTY-NINE The Avant-Garde
      (pp. 351-355)

      DUNCAN RETURNED HOME on June 9 to find Jess putting the finishing touches on work towardTranslations, Salvages, and Paste Ups,a retrospective that would open at the University Art Museum in Berkeley later that summer. Duncan meanwhile dove into activities inspired by his adventures in France and Belgium. Continuing language classes at Alliance Française, he filled spiral-bound notebooks with grammar exercises, laboring over the forms of French verbs and occasionally breaking into fragments of poems. He also took heed of poetry events in the Bay Area. On July 26, he attended a reading by poet John Taggart, with whom...

    • SIXTY Adam, Eve, and Jahweh
      (pp. 355-361)

      DUNCAN’S HEAVY SPRING touring schedule was followed by a mid-July residency at the Naropa Institute. In an interview given while there, he joked that he agreed to the residency only because he had been blackmailed by the two Jack Kerouac School cofounders, Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg. In reality, he made the commitment hoping that Tom Savage, the young poet with whom he had had an affair in 1976, would also be returning to Boulder. Savage did not appear, and in a notebook entry written during his stay, Duncan reflected mournfully, “I have now been long without the full body...

    • SIXTY-ONE San Francisco’s Burning
      (pp. 361-364)

      DUNCAN WAS HOME in San Francisco to vote in the November elections, during which California’s Proposition 6 was defeated. The measure, backed by a number of conservative organizations, would have made it legal to remove gay schoolteachers from their jobs. On November 18, the Jonestown Massacre took place in Guyana. Nearly a thousand followers of the Reverend Jim Jones, many of them former San Franciscans, died in the mass suicide, and the city’s congressman, Leo Ryan, was also killed there during a fact-finding mission to the site. On November 27, yet another tragedy befell the city when Mayor George Moscone...

    • SIXTY-TWO At Sea
      (pp. 365-370)

      IT WAS CHARLES OLSON’S WORK that dominated Duncan’s thoughts that year above and beyond San Francisco poetry politics. Throughout the later part of 1978, he completed preparations for the lectures on Olson he was scheduled to give in Buffalo in mid-March. Meanwhile, the new year opened with social events close to home, the first a mid-January party in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, attended by Fred Martin and his wife, Cathy, and Miriam Patchen. At home through Christmas and the New Year, Duncan had an opportunity to hold court before a sympathetic audience, dipping into long-buried memories for aGay...

    • SIXTY-THREE The Cherubim
      (pp. 370-377)

      WHEN A SUMMER 1979 teaching excursion to the Midi-Pyrénées of France was scrapped due to underenrollment, Duncan accepted a position with the University of Louisiana’s study abroad program in Innsbruck, Austria. On his way to the post, he stopped in New Orleans. Leaving San Francisco on June 8, he wrote an in-flight note to Jess that registered his delight with one aspect of traveling: “For a while I was curld up in the full length of the three seats. . . . Then awake as the first horizon of light appeard before us in the east. Venus brilliant. And over...

    • SIXTY-FOUR Alaska
      (pp. 377-383)

      AS THE 1970S CAME TO AN END, Duncan’s subtitle forGround Work II: In the Darkbegan to read as an ominous prophecy. President Carter, in his final year in office, would find no reprieve from the troubles that had hounded his administration. In the spring of 1980, he took responsibility for a failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, and the ghost of the Cold War came to the front of public consciousness as Ronald Reagan campaigned for president. Duncan despaired at Reagan’s November victory, and while he struggled to make sense of his strained relationship to the...

    • SIXTY-FIVE Enthralled
      (pp. 383-386)

      INCREASINGLY, Duncan’s trips seemed to be an attempt to escape from the confines of the household. Home for a few weeks between his tour of Alaska and a working vacation to New York, Duncan made an emotional foray away from Jess in early June, continuing the tryst he had begun with Aaron Shurin in 1976. At the close of an afternoon of lovemaking, he lingered in Shurin’s Oak Street apartment to bathe before going home to compose another section of “The Regulators” titled “Enthralled.”

      By midsummer, Duncan was again on the East Coast. He spent the last weekend of June...


    • SIXTY-SIX New College
      (pp. 389-393)

      ON MORE THAN ONE OCCASION, Robert Duncan told friends that at an appointed time he would become a “master teacher,” even if it meant standing on a street corner and imparting information to passersby.¹ He had taught at Black Mountain College in 1956 and accepted weeklong residencies at various academic venues throughout his career, but he had never acquired steady employment in the Bay Area. In 1980, he had the opportunity to join the New College of California’s fledgling Poetics Program alongside Louis Patler, Duncan McNaughton, David Meltzer, and Diane di Prima.² Mc-Naughton and Patler had created the school on...

    • SIXTY-SEVEN Five Songs
      (pp. 394-399)

      FOR DUNCAN, the spring was to bring a meeting of great import. On April 5, at the close of a reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz, he was approached by a sixty-four-year-old woman who informed him that she was his biological sister. Anne Spaulding, then living in the area, had seen an advertisement for the reading and suspected that the poet was the younger brother from whom she had been separated in 1919. The fact that Duncan used his birth name made the identification easier, and his poems inRoots and Branchesand elsewhere had also made public the story of...

    • SIXTY-EIGHT A Paris Visit
      (pp. 399-403)

      IN THE MIDST OF TAX SEASON, Duncan left for a trip to Europe that would take him away from home for several weeks. Arriving at JFK Airport for a brief stop in New York City on April 13, he wrote to Jess with complaints about the rigors of traveling: “I must be sixty-three years old of it, for my frame, muskculls, flash or flush, nerbs are frazzled and silently groaning.”¹ His luxurious lodgings with Federico and Odyssia Quadrani provided some consolation, though Duncan also reported home that the couple had quizzed him about Jess’s output in the studio, hoping he...

    • SIXTY-NINE Bard
      (pp. 404-410)

      TAKING A LEAVE from his responsibilities at New College during the fall of 1982, Duncan traveled east to teach at Bard College, where he had been appointed a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Division of Languages and Literature. On September 23, he flew east, first giving a reading at Radcliffe College in Cambridge and then making his way to Bard to teach the first of two four-week terms. Duncan’s class, Poetics I: Segmentation of the Poem, would include “lectures and discussions concerning the structures in Poetry: the sensorimotor grounds of intelligence; phone, phoneme, sememe as projecting formal meaning; coordinations—rime...

    • SEVENTY The Baptism of the Blood
      (pp. 410-414)

      IN JANUARY 1984, Ronald Reagan won reelection, and Duncan turned sixty-five. Robert Glück arranged a birthday party for him, recalling Duncan’s request that he invite “only family”: “I wondered if he was using the old term, meaning only gay people, or if he meant the family he had created for himself. In any case, it was only gay people, so perhaps the former. Just for fun I got out some party hats, and Robert wore a pointed hat on his forehead, like a unicorn.”¹

      New College student Dawn Kolokithas recalled a darker aspect of Duncan’s affect during early 1984:


    • SEVENTY-ONE Hekatombe
      (pp. 415-421)

      TODD BARON WAS TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS OLD when he first stepped through the doors of New College in early September 1984. Every Monday at 9:00 A.M., he made his way to the Basic Elements course, taught by a revolving cast of faculty members. He enjoyed studying with Michael Palmer and Duncan McNaughton, but most of all he enjoyed Robert Duncan’s classes. Duncan usually arrived wearing his favorite corduroy coat with a sweater underneath and a scarf wrapped around his neck. For Baron, the excitement of Duncan’s presence was twinned with an anxiety that increased as Duncan surveyed the room with one...

    • SEVENTY-TWO The Year of Duncan
      (pp. 422-429)

      THROUGHOUT ITS COURSE, Duncan’s illness coincided with the San Francisco community’s growing AIDS epidemic. In 1984, the city closed its bath houses in an effort to limit opportunities for gay men to congregate, and Gaetan Dugas, the man who was assumed to have brought AIDS to North America, died of the disease. The crisis took on a more public face in 1985 with actor Rock Hudson’s death, but not until two years later did Ronald Reagan make his first public comments about the disease, announcing a new national commission to study it. For Duncan, focusing on the emergency was difficult...

    • SEVENTY-THREE The Circulation of the Blood
      (pp. 429-431)

      ON JANUARY 14, 1988, David Levi Strauss accompanied Duncan to a doctor’s appointment during which Duncan “was actually in fine high spirits . . . cutting up with the receptionist, reinventing the wheelchair, groaning loudly when the form he was given to fill out asked for his ‘Occupation.’ ”¹ After an initial exam, the cardiologist arranged for Duncan to have his heart analyzed via more conclusive procedures at St. Mary’s Hospital the next day. Strauss was with Duncan and Jess at St. Mary’s when the cardiologist delivered the test results: “He said that Duncan now had virtually no blood pressure,...

    • SEVENTY-FOUR In the Dark
      (pp. 432-434)

      DUNCAN NEVER RECOVERED from the rigors of his final hospital stay, nor did the angioplasty treatment resolve the serious narrowing of his aortic valve. With little more to be done, on the afternoon of Thursday January 28, he returned home from St. Mary’s Hospital. He died six days later. In the week leading up to his death, Jess and those around the couple tried to fall back into the routine of caretaking that had kept the house hold on track the previous three years. On January 29, Duncan received physical therapy at home and had lunch and dinner in a...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 435-502)
    (pp. 503-510)
    (pp. 511-512)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 513-526)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 527-527)