The Unconquered Flame: On Robert Duncan
Ever since The Iliad and The Odyssey were ascribed to Homer, the blind poet has served as a metaphor for the ability to catch sight of things beyond mere appearance. Robert Duncan, born in 1919, belonged to this tribe of seers. At the age of 3, he slipped in the snow in Yosemite while wearing sunglasses against the glare; they shattered, and the injury resulted in strabismus—a condition in which the eyes cannot focus on the same object. In her Diary, Anaïs Nin wrote of meeting the young Duncan around Christmas 1939, at a party in Woodstock thrown by some impresarios of the maverick art scene: “a strikingly beautiful boy [with] a faunish expression and a slight deviation in one eye, which made him seem to be looking always beyond and around you.” The playwright and filmmaker James Broughton had this to say about meeting Duncan, a longtime friend: “It was often difficult to know whether he was looking at you or at the wall behind you. Sometimes when he changed focus the discarded eye would wander off to a side wall, and he would remind one of Cyclops.” Students would be unnerved by Duncan’s wandering eye, never sure whom he was addressing during his formidable lectures. He supplemented his look with three-tiered capes in purple or black, broad-brimmed hats and amber necklaces.
Duncan’s visual disability provided him with a trope—not just for his ability to see beyond appearances, but for seeing two worlds at once, one quotidian, the other mythical. Perhaps more than any other American poet except Ezra Pound, Duncan claimed as grist for his art the entire myth-hoard: Greek, Sumerian and Egyptian gods; the Bible; Kaballah; fairy tales and folklore. He also unashamedly imitated canonical literary works by the Elizabethans, the Metaphysicals, Dante, Whitman. By so doing, he guaranteed a degree of alienation from the “make it new” poets (acolytes of the avant-garde) and the “make it prudent” poets (acolytes of the New Critics), and anyone who believed in general that poets ought to “make it plain-spoken.” Though in his later years he was a notable public figure, touring colleges on the reading circuit and as a visiting professor, his poetry remained at once exhilarating in its scope and frustrating in its obscurity. “Apparently, if he cannot find a connection between his personal experience and his reading he does not find the experience worth the making of a poem,” huffed one critic in 1964.
But since his death from kidney failure in 1988, at the age of 69, Duncan’s prestige as a cult poet has not diminished. His longtime publisher, New Directions, has kept his books in print for decades. In 2004, Stanford University Press published his 800-page correspondence with the poet Denise Levertov (who once served as poetry editor of this magazine). Last year, the University of California Press published Duncan’s monumental poetics, The H.D. Book, and this year it’s bringing out The Collected Early Poems and Plays as well as Lisa Jarnot’s biography of the poet. The expanding bookshelf of Duncania serves as a reminder of why he remains a unique resource to American poetry: Ariadne-like, he feeds a line backward into the labyrinthine history of human imagination. His source materials provide a curriculum of great books in literature and religion—from the Zohar to the Oz books—undreamt of in the philosophy and pedagogy of Mortimer Adler.
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Duncan the person was permanently bifurcated as well, his very name an amalgam of two identities. He was born Edward Howe Duncan on January 7, 1919, in Oakland, the tenth child of Marguerite Duncan, who died within hours of his birth. After her death, her overburdened husband was at a loss; the household fell apart, and the infant Duncan was put up for adoption. He was rechristened Robert Edward Symmes by his new parents, Minnehaha and Edwin Symmes, also from Oakland, who were directed to him by the edict of an astrologer. They were Theosophists, Jarnot explains, members of a “hermetic brotherhood modeled after late nineteenth-century occult groups such as London’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society of New York and India.” (W.B. Yeats had been a member of the former.) According to Minnehaha and Edwin, the life of their adopted son was thick with mystical truths: he had lived on the doomed continent of Atlantis in a previous life; it was necessary for his birth mother to die so that he could achieve his destiny with his true parents; and it was considered “very lazy” of him to want to be a poet. “You have been a poet already in so many lives,” his Aunt Fay chided.
It was a childhood whose memory Duncan seemed to enjoy being haunted by, for throughout his career he would return to the fact of his mother dying in childbirth, to the apocalyptic specter of Atlantis and to his adoptive family’s hermetic doctrines. But even as he refashioned old myths and looked for fixed patterns in history and his own experience, he remained dedicated in his poetry to a free-verse style on the belief that “it is from…undisclosed intent, that we know only as the formal imperative struck deep in our nature as we work, that the line comes, the elemental thrust of the line, that is, that Whitman seeks to come from.” Duncan would evolve his collagist poetics out of Whitman’s wide-ranging catalogs as well as Pound’s ideogrammic method (a formal element of The Cantos), by which abstract ideas are apprehended through juxtapositions of disparate but concrete images. Pound was obviously the nearest model for Duncan, with his long historical reach and immersion in myth.
Also like Pound, Duncan did not want to end up an antiquarian. He wanted to belong to his historical moment: to find his peers—living and dead—and change the world. After two years he left the University of California at Berkeley without a degree to follow his first love, a romance philologist named Ned Fahs, to the East Coast, where he mingled with bohemians in the Village and the Catskills and became a favorite among the circle of writers around Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. After several peripatetic years during which he mainly wrote pastiches, he returned to the Bay Area, settled down and established friendships of lasting importance with several poets: first with Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, then with Levertov, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. They all passed into legend, the former circle cataloged under “the Berkeley Renaissance,” the latter under “the Black Mountain School,” as in the famous 1960 anthology edited by Donald Allen, The New American Poetry, which would formalize the breach that some poets and critics thought had opened up between traditionalists and experimentalists in mid-century American poetry. But Duncan, ever the anarchist, was ambivalent about the anthology and doubtful about labels. “I write poetry for the fucking stars!” he said during one lecture, as if to remind himself that, contemporary mores aside, in poetry the genuine article is eternal. Or, as Pound wrote in Canto LXXXI,
To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.
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