The Unconquered Flame: On Robert Duncan

The Unconquered Flame: On Robert Duncan

The Unconquered Flame: On Robert Duncan

A new biography shows how the poet Robert Duncan fed a line backward into the labyrinthine history of human imagination.


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.

* * *

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.

* * *

If his vision, his name, his lives and his ambitions were multiple, then it follows that Duncan was a creature of perpetual ambivalence and conflict. (One of his key essays is titled, after Heraclitus, “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife.”) He prided himself on his California provenance, which made him an outsider to the East Coast centers of publishing and criticism. (He was cynically attuned to the social positioning inherent in cultural judgments long before the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu appeared on anyone’s syllabus.) He was politically an anarchist, but easily irritated by the cultural and political orthodoxies of the American left. He was unflappably, openly gay, having broken ground with his 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society,” which appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics, but rejected the “gay writer” label. He abhorred groupthink. When asked late in his life about the Language Poets, he remarked, thinking of their mixing of poetics and French linguistic theory, “They’re like a crowd of mosquitoes off there in somebody else’s swamp.” He preferred Elizabeth Bishop’s company to her poetry (she introduced him to pot brownies) but adamantly stood apart from most of his popular contemporaries. After a William Snodgrass reading, he complained to Levertov: “I loathe these personal problems that have no deep root but are all social currency—case history of a social worker. Wld. as soon attend divorce court.”

He also couldn’t help but quarrel fiercely with his friends—and the closer the friend, the fiercer the fight. His falling out with Levertov is legendary, but it’s also hopelessly confusing: while he lambasted her for writing simple-minded antiwar poems, he himself was writing invectives against Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater and the Berkeley administrators who quashed student protests. In fact, Charles Scribner rejected the book in which those poems would appear, Bending the Bow, for being shrill—the same criticism Duncan had rightly made of Levertov. Duncan was taking symbolism and myth too far. In his mind, Levertov had become (to her dismay) Kali, the Indian goddess of war: “She has put on her make-up of the Mother of Hell.”

Similarly, he couldn’t merely drop his friendship with Spicer; Spicer had to become a Nemesis. But Spicer—whose devotion to coterie poetics far outstripped Duncan’s—not only played the game but raised the ante. In one entertaining episode, Spicer dispatched a new acolyte, 19-year-old Harris Schiff, to convey a message to Duncan at a Vancouver poetry festival. Schiff, in all innocence, introduced himself at a house party and told Duncan: “Well [Spicer] wanted you to tell him if you could tell the difference between poetry and cable cars.” Duncan’s enraged response stunned the young man, who hadn’t known of Spicer’s maxim, “Poetry is only for poets. Cable cars are for tourists”—code for selling out. But then Duncan would himself take digs at his friend Helen Adam when she permitted changes to her play San Francisco Is Burning to placate the box office. Duncan clearly thrived on throwing epic tantrums; it was a way for him to assure his fragile self that, like poetry and myth, life really does have meaning, that it does have stakes.

If Duncan’s enchantments and anathemas could be devastating to his friendships, they animated his teaching. After his breakthrough decade, when his work reached maturity and a trio of books—The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964) and Bending the Bow (1968)—made his name, his schedule of public readings, lectures and visiting professorships intensified. This was, on the one hand, disruptive to his cherished home life, which was anchored by his partner, the artist Jess, and the household they lovingly cultivated for almost forty years. But it was clearly the work he was born for. He was a talker on the scale of Coleridge, as Thom Gunn would recall, and his poetry readings could run as long as three hours. A student, Kathy Schwille, remarked, “Conversations with Duncan drained me. Attempts to keep up with his thoughts left me exhausted and sometimes dazed.” But more often he left his students dazzled. Carol Bergé: “I still think he is not my dish of tea as a poet, but I say now that he is a vitally interesting lecturer and an unforgettable personality. He has a warmth of projection of personality which sweeps one along until one forgets to be annoyed.” One favorite trick was his “Kenkyusha” oracle, a variation on the Roman practice of sortes, whereby Jess would draw three phrases at random from Duncan’s Japanese dictionary and hand them to him in an envelope in front of the spellbound class. The lecture would be improvised from whatever metaphors the dictionary proposed.

But there was more to Duncan’s teaching than theater, or the force of personality, or his wandering eye. For one thing, he gave students a broad and deep education, spending perhaps a morning on “Pagan and Hellenistic Roots” and an afternoon on Pound’s Cantos, or assembling a reading list that included “Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology and The Place of Value in a World of Facts, Piaget’s Construction of Reality in the Child, Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Whitehead’s The Function of Reason…and Cassirer’s The Phenomenology of Knowledge.” His teaching method was to collage “conversations between texts,” just as his poems did. He rejected the workshop model of likes and dislikes, taste and distaste: “We will be detectives not judges…. Week by week we will study…vowels, consonants, the structure of rime.” And he gave students and audiences what they implicitly craved from poetry: meaning, stakes. “Poetry is not my stock in trade, it is my life.” “In language I encounter God.” “To become a poet, means to be aware of creation….” “Vowels the spirit, Consonants the body.” Who could doubt that, with a teacher of such conviction, embarking on a study of poetry was a life-changing undertaking? The effect, in testament after testament, was galvanizing: “I was one of Robert Duncan’s students in his seminar on The Imagination….I date my birth as a poet from that time and place,” declared Richard Blevins.

* * *

A perpetual problem with literary biographies is that the life ends up throwing the work in the shade. An earlier, disappointing biography by Ekbert Faas that followed Duncan’s life up to 1950 did exactly that. But for any poet worth his or her salt, the life is in the work. And so I was a little uneasy when I learned that a major Duncan biography would be issued before a definitive edition of his works. Such volumes are certainly in the pipeline, but I warrant that most Duncanites—and maybe curious, uninitiated readers—would have first liked to see a scholarly edition of the breakthrough books from the 1960s, or of Ground Work, the project that absorbed his final two decades, or at least more volumes of his letters.

But the good news is that Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Duncan should only stoke further interest in his work. She avoids the usual two pitfalls—worship and apostasy—by cleaving to a style so clean and free of editorializing or psychologizing that it reads like reportage. Duncan kept detailed notebooks, and Jarnot fills pages with itineraries that sometimes seem like a poetry-biz version of Warhol’s diaries. They are punctuated with interesting information on the inception of particular poems, many of which encode Duncan’s interpersonal battles and infatuations, though even here Jarnot moves quickly through seminal moments like the writing of his landmark poems “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” and “My Mother Would Be a Falconress.” To do more, she avers in her introduction, would have meant taking a turn toward criticism—something she wanted to avoid. The result is a book of just the facts: what, where, when and who. And yet Jarnot, a poet herself, is sensitive to the symbols and cycles that defined Duncan’s imaginative life, marking the seasons (Lammastide and the New Year, notably) that had significance for him, and noting such quirks as Duncan’s belief that the bloating caused by his terminal kidney disease was the fulfillment of the Atlantis myth that had haunted his childhood.

In the last years of his life, and despite a hectic schedule, Duncan founded a Homer Club, shepherding a group of students through a reading of The Iliad. Together, they worked through the Greek. His lifelong commitment to circles and study groups, on the model of Stefan George’s Kreis or the Greek mystery cults, stands as a rebuke to the models of “distance learning” and all entrepreneurial notions of education. The club met in one of the members’ living room where, according to one participant, David Levi-Strauss, “We would copy out the lines, scan the dactylic hexameter, rehearse chanting and translate.” During Duncan’s final illness, the community rallied around the man who had conversed with the greatest texts and brought their lessons back with one eye on the angels, the other on his friends. When he died, San Francisco was briefly Atlantis: flooded with grief.

The Midlands poet Roy Fisher has never aspired to a readership; all the more reason to welcome his Selected Poems, writes Ange Mlinko in “Hard Against Time” (August 15-22). Two of Mlinko’s poems, “Azure” and “Cicadas,” appeared in the April 9 issue.

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