Sunday, January 07, 2018

Born Today In 1919: Poet Robert Edward Duncan

Robert Duncan was born today January 7, in 1919. He was a poet who spent most of his career in and around San Francisco. Though associated with any number of literary traditions and schools, Duncan is often identified with the poets of the New American Poetry and Black Mountain College. He was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance.

Not only a poet, but also a public intellectual, Duncan's presence was felt across many facets of popular culture. Duncan’s name is prominent in the history of pre-Stonewall gay culture and in the emergence of bohemian socialist communities of the 1930s and '40s, in the Beat Generation, and also in the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s, influencing occult and gnostic circles of the time. During the later part of his life, Duncan's work, published by City Lights and New Directions, came to be distributed worldwide, and his influence as a poet is evident today in both mainstream and avant-garde writing.

Duncan was born in Oakland, California, as Edward Howard Duncan Jr. His mother, Marguerite Pearl Duncan, had died in childbirth and his father was unable to afford him, so in 1920 he was adopted by Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes, a family of devout Theosophists. They renamed him Robert Edward Symmes; it was only after a psychiatric discharge from the army in 1941 that he formed the composite of his previous names and became Robert Edward Duncan.

The Symmeses had begun planning for the child's arrival long prior to his adoption. There were terms for his adoption that had to be met: he had to be born at the time and place appointed by the astrologers, his mother was to die shortly after giving birth, and he was to be of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent. His childhood was stable, though Duncan grew up surrounded by the occult in one form or another; he was well aware of the circumstances of his fated birth and adoption and his parents carefully interpreted his dreams. 

At age three, Duncan was injured in an accident on the snow that resulted in his becoming cross-eyed and seeing double. In Roots and Branches, his second major book, he wrote: "I had the double reminder always, the vertical and horizontal displacement in vision that later became separated, specialized into a near and a far sight. One image to the right and above the other. Reach out and touch. Point to the one that is really there."

After the death of his adopted father in 1936, Duncan started studying at the University of California, Berkeley. He began writing poems inspired in part by his left wing politics and acquired a reputation as a bohemian. He thrived as storyteller, poet, and fledgling bohemian, but by his sophomore year he had begun to drop classes and had quit attending obligatory military drills.

In 1938, he briefly attended Black Mountain College, but left after a dispute with faculty over the Spanish Civil War. He spent 2 years in Philadelphia and then moved to Woodstock, New York to join a commune run by James Cooney, where he worked on Cooney's magazine The Phoenix and met both Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin.

Long before it was safe to do so, Duncan "came out" in both his personal and public lives. While living in Philadelphia, Duncan had his first recorded homosexual relationship with an instructor he had first met in Berkeley, Ned Fahs. In 1941 Duncan was drafted and declared his homosexuality to get discharged. In 1943, he had his first heterosexual relationship, which ended in a short, disastrous marriage. In 1944 Duncan had a relationship with the abstract expressionist painter Robert De Niro Sr.

Duncan's name figures prominently in the history of pre-Stonewall gay culture. In 1944, Duncan wrote the landmark essay The Homosexual in Society. 
This caused John Crowe Ransom to withdraw Duncan's [poem] "African Elegy" from its scheduled publication in the Kenyon ReviewThe essay, in which Duncan compared the plight of homosexuals with that of African Americans and Jews. 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 (Mattachine Society). In 1951 Duncan met the artist Jess Collins and began a collaboration and partnership that lasted until Duncan's death 37 years later.

Duncan returned to San Francisco in 1945. He returned to Berkeley to study Medieval and Renaissance literature and cultivated a reputation as a shamanistic figure in San Francisco poetry and artistic circles. His first book, Heavenly City Earthly City, was published in 1947. In the early 1950s he started publishing in Cid Corman's Origin and the Black Mountain Review and in 1956 he spent a time teaching at the Black Mountain College.

During the 1960s, Duncan achieved considerable artistic and critical success with three books; The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), and Bending the Bow (1968). These are generally considered to be his most significant works. His poetry is modernist in its preference for the impersonal, mythic, and hieratic, but Romantic in its privileging of the organic, the irrational and primordial, the not-yet-articulate blindly making its way into language like salmon running upstream:

Neither our vices nor our virtues
further the poem. "They came up
and died
just like they do every year
on the rocks."

The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.

The Opening of the Field begins with "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow", suggesting one interpretation of "Field" in the title. The book includes short lyric poems, a recurring sequence of prose poems called "The Structure of Rime," and a long poem called "Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." 

Duncan died on February 3, 1988, of kidney failure in San Francisco.

1 comment:

Raybeard said...

Surprised I didn't know of this name - yet another - despite reading a LOT of poetry (9 poems per day since over 50 years ago!). The names which immediately come to mind when thinking of gay American poets are Hart Crane and Thom Gunn (plus Whitman, of course). I'm clearly missing out here in a big way, and not just with Duncan. Some research needed!

Btw: Thanks for deleting that spurious and dangerous comment under your 'Rich II' post. I've learnt from experience and to my cost (literally!) not to trust
such comments which are irrelevant to the subject matter and luring one to another site. If your action has saved just one other from getting duped, good!