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.