Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus 
by Lisa Jarnot.
California, 509 pp., £27.95, August 2013, 978 0 520 23416 1
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As a boy, Robert Duncan had a recurring dream. He would imagine himself in the middle of a treeless field. The ripe grass rippled, though there was no wind, and the light, as he later remembered, ‘was everywhere’, though there was no sun to be seen. Seeing himself in the centre of a circle of children, all of them singing and playing ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’, Duncan understood that he was ‘it’: ‘the Chosen One … a “King” or victim of the children’s round dance’. From there the scene shifted underground, to a huge cavern where Duncan found himself alone with a stone chair. Again he felt himself picked out as a king, but now fear joined the feeling of lonely nobility, a sense that ‘all things have gone wrong and I am in the wrong.’ The doors of the chamber would collapse inwards under a tower of water, and some nights Duncan would watch himself die in the flood. At other times he survived, floating alone ‘over a grey and forbidding sea towards new land’.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Duncan’s dream is that it took him so long to think it strange. Though he’d write, as an adult, that the dream-vision of field and cave remained an ‘emblematic and puzzling’ motivator of his poetry, as a child he wasn’t puzzled at all. His adoptive parents, a public-works architect called Edwin Symmes and his wife, Minnehaha, were theosophists, adepts of an occult order that took its teachings from Aleister Crowley and Madame Blavatsky. As Lisa Jarnot relates in her new biography of Duncan, the Symmeses interpreted their son’s dream immediately: it was a ‘wound in time’, a memory from a previous life. The boy was watching the inundation of his native Atlantis.

This notion about Atlantis was an old one, older even than Duncan himself. He was born in Oakland about ten hours before his birth mother died, possibly from Spanish flu. His father, a railroad engineer, was stricken with grief and refused help from relatives; within a year Duncan and his seven siblings were ‘effectively orphaned’. The Symmeses had been told by an astrologer that their destiny was to raise a boy born at dawn on 7 January 1919, and they confirmed the truth of their hermetic beliefs by doing just that. They brought up their new son to believe he had been an Atlantean inventor in a former life, ‘of the ancient generation that had recklessly destroyed its own world’.

The Symmeses’ esoteric interests faded as they settled into lives of middle-class rectitude, but their ‘pot and pantheism’ was a powerful influence on Duncan: ‘It was not a dogma nor was it a magic that I understood for myself … but I understood that the meanings of life would always be, as they were in childhood, hidden away, in a mystery, exciting question after question, a lasting fascination.’ And even though Duncan stopped believing in ‘a historical Atlantis’ by the time he was a teenager, the myth remained, Jarnot writes, ‘an enduring inspiration’ for his work. The dream of the sunken city supplied the setting for what is probably his best-known poem, ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’, in which the dream-field acquires a hyper-uranian aspect to become

an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

As a mature poet, Duncan was accused by his friend Charles Olson – along with just about everyone else who read his work – of wanton myth-mongering, a charge against which he didn’t even try to defend himself. Olson, he wrote,

suspects, and rightly, that I indulge myself in pretentious fictions. I, however … take enuf delight in the available glamour that I do not stop to trouble the cheapness of such stuff … I like rigour and even clarity as a quality of a work – that is, as I like muddle and floaty vagaries. It is the intensity of conception that moves me.

By his own account, Duncan’s traffic in ‘available glamour’ and ‘muddle and floaty vagaries’ was a leftover of his theosophical youth, but he credited his high-school literature teacher, Edna Keough, with his real ‘conversion to Poetry’. Though he had written poems as a child – an activity that caused his occultist aunt to scold him: ‘This is very lazy of you. You have been a poet already in so many lives’ – it was Keough’s explication of H.D.’s short poem ‘Heat’ that introduced the teenage Duncan to an art that ‘belonged not to what every well-read person must know … but to that earlier, atavistic, inner life of a person’. His extracurricular education continued at Berkeley, where a circle of female friends including Pauline Kael taught him the byways of modernist poetry and leftist politics. He joined the campus literary magazine and discovered there ‘a stubbornness that should’ve told me I was going to be able to hold out for the rest of my life’. Poor grades, a love affair and a $100 monthly stipend from his mother sent him east to Philadelphia in 1938, and before long he was living in New York and spending much of his time in the circle around Anaïs Nin.

Duncan published poems throughout his twenties, but his first real break as a writer was an essay, ‘The Homosexual in Society’, that appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s journal, Politics. Duncan had announced his sexuality in his early days at university; it earned him confusion from his Berkeley classmates and in 1941 a dishonourable discharge from the US army. Now, in 1944, at the age of 25, he wrote frankly about his experience as a gay man and rejected Macdonald’s advice to publish under a pseudonym. His admission drew much attention, and caused John Crowe Ransom to retract his acceptance of one of Duncan’s poems for the Kenyon Review. The essay was also notable for its earnest protest against the ‘cult of homosexual superiority’, a volley probably directed at the Surrealist Charles Henri Ford. Twenty years before Susan Sontag insisted that the camp sensibility had ‘hardly broken into print’, Duncan was arguing in print that the time for camp was over. In the name of gay rights, and in line with his universalist instincts, Duncan suggested that the appropriate attitude for homosexuals buffeted by society’s hostility was not ‘a tone and a vocabulary … loaded with contempt for the human’ but a ‘liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations’ that would ‘disown all the special groups … that would claim allegiance.’

For all the affected stateliness of his early prose, Duncan became known as a young man for stirring up mostly benign mayhem. Marjorie McKee, his partner for a brief and disastrous experiment in heterosexual marriage, said he ‘could stand chaos better than anyone I knew’, and Jarnot shows that much of the chaos was of his own devising. He distinguished himself among the crowd at Nin’s apartment by volunteering to test the anatomical plausibility of the dirty stories they were assembling for an anonymous benefactor. He was an insatiable seducer, and a bold one too: one night after dinner with Kael and her boyfriend, Duncan cornered the boyfriend and flashed his erection (‘I can give you a better fuck than Pauline can!’). The habit of treating his friends’ relationships as sexual opportunities cost Duncan not a few companions, including his old friend Virginia Admiral, who turned her back on him after he admitted to sleeping with her future husband, Robert De Niro père. In 1951 he exchanged wedding vows with a man, Jess Collins, but while this gave him a stable home and a partner for life, it didn’t do much to slow his trysting.

Duncan approved of any commotion that held him at its centre. A blether to his enemies, his friends saw him as a conversationalist in the Coleridgean mould: ‘a circling man/in a seizure of talk,’ as he described himself in a late poem. Jarnot’s book gives the sense that his friend Thom Gunn couldn’t have been the only person to dodge one of Duncan’s monologues by faking sleep, though Gunn also insisted Duncan was great fun to have around. (It’s also possible that Duncan’s chattiness once saved his life. Warned after a reading late in life that coronary failure might kill him if he fell asleep, Duncan kept himself up all night by extemporising a commentary on Cain and Abel.)

From 1945 onwards Duncan lived in Northern California, though travel and teaching took him away more and more as his fame spread. In Berkeley, he took classes with the historian Ernst Kantorowicz, became friends with the poets Kenneth Rexroth and Robin Blaser, and formed an intense alliance with Jack Spicer that set the stage for the San Francisco Renaissance and later curdled into an open and often hostile rivalry. During one energetic six-month period he met or made contact with Olson, Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky, and in 1953 began one of the most important artistic relationships of his life, a decades-long correspondence with Denise Levertov.

By the end of the 1950s Duncan had already published several books, including a Selected Poems in 1959, but it was The Opening of the Field (1960) that marked his breakthrough as a poet. Convinced, with Pound, that in poetry ‘all ages are contemporaneous,’ Duncan sought to make of his art a field or a ground that would, as he put it, join centre and circumference, microcosm and macrocosm, dream and reality. Though he once confessed himself ‘a poet, self-declared, manqué’, he held to a heroic view of his vocation. ‘I make poetry as other men make war or make love or make states or revolutions,’ he wrote, ‘to exercise my faculties at large.’ In The Opening of the Field’s ‘Under Ground’, he told himself to ‘go write yourself a book and put/therein first things that might define a world,’ an imperative that drove his search for what he would elsewhere call ‘the/unthinking/ready thing’.

Duncan always counted himself a faithful son of high modernism, but he often seemed less interested in making things new than in making them seem as ancient as possible. Duncan spends much of The Opening of the Field appealing to ‘old powers’: Dionysius, Apollo, Orpheus, Eros and Christ, as well as the ‘Queen under the Hill’, ‘the Hornd Master’, and the ‘Consul of the Dead’. Sometimes this instinct served Duncan well, as in ‘This Place Rumourd to Have Been Sodom’, a poem that wrestles homosexuality away from the Bible’s canonical reprobation:

This place rumourd to have been a City surely was,
separated from us by the hand of the Lord.
The devout have laid out gardens in the desert,
drawn water from springs where the light was blighted.
How tenderly they must attend these friendships
or all is lost. All is lost.
Only the faithful hold this place green.

Sometimes his taste for the eternal steered Duncan towards a gilt antiquarianism: the ‘hard electric lights’ of a Berkeley flat are in ‘A Poem Slow Beginning’ transmuted into ‘old lamps of wisdom/old lamps of suffering’.

Duncan insisted he was ‘not an experimentalist or an inventor, but a derivative poet’. But in one respect he separated himself from the modernists whose ‘threshold’, as he once put it, ‘remains ours’. From H.D. and from Pound he had learned that ‘as the artist works to achieve form he finds himself the creature of the form he thought to achieve.’ But for Duncan, to allow a poem to work this way required the poet to thwart his will to technical perfection. He credited the Scottish poet Helen Adam, whom he met in San Francisco in 1953, with ‘breaking the husk of my modernist pride and shame, my conviction that what mattered was the literary or artistic achievement’. Like Creeley, Levertov and the other poets of what would come to be known as the Black Mountain School, Duncan paid close mind to Olson’s injunction to ‘USE USE USE the process at all points.’ His distrust of revision was akin to a mystic’s antinomianism: the idea wasn’t to abandon form but to commit himself to ‘a faith in the voice’s telling that we follow’. As he put it in ‘Another Animadversion’:

                                the poem
beyond all poetry I have actually heard
has words as natural and expendable
as a cold stream of the first water
thru which rocks of my resistant life
yield to the light cleavages of what seems true,
                white heights and green deeps.

The three major books that followed The Opening of the FieldRoots and Branches (1964), Bending the Bow (1968) and Ground Work: Before the War (1984) – recorded Duncan’s continued search for an art that might ‘tune the world … to the mode of an imagined music’ and resist, however subtly, ‘the pervading triumph of mercantile utilitarianism’.

In Roots and Branches he takes pains to justify the high style that was scorned by his peers in Donald Allen’s groundbreaking New American Poetry anthology:

If I think of my element, it is not of fire,
of ember and ash, but of earth,
nor of man’s travail and burden
to work in the dirt, but of the abundance,
the verdant rhetorical.

With his reputation secure, he now allows himself a greater catholicity of design. Alongside a theosophical play about Adam and Eve and a continuation of ‘The Structure of Rime’, the serial poem he started in The Opening of the Field, he includes poems for Creeley, Spicer and Levertov; autobiographical prose narratives; and several tributes to H.D.

Duncan published Bending the Bow at the nadir of the Vietnam War. The collection includes translations of Gérard de Nerval and one of Duncan’s best lyric poems, ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’, which ends on a marvellously creepy note:

My mother would be a falconress,
and even now, years after this,
when the wounds I left her had surely heald,
and the woman is dead,
her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart
were broken, it is stilld.

I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.

The bulk of the collection is taken up with ‘Passages’, a serial poem that succeeds in touching what he describes in the book’s introduction as the ‘life-spring of dissatisfaction in all orders from which the restless ordering of our poetry comes’. As before, Duncan asserts this dissatisfaction in hymns to Osiris and Mnemosyne, but here he gives voice to secular disappointments as well. In ‘The Multiversity, Passages 21’ he attacks the ‘hired minds of private interests’ at the University of California. ‘Up Rising, Passages 25’ watches Lyndon Johnson ‘join the great simulacra of men,/Hitler and Stalin, to work his fame/with planes roaring out from Guam over Asia.’

The anti-war poems in Bending the Bow cost Duncan a publishing contract with Scribner, and by the time New Directions put out the volume in 1968, a disagreement about the poet’s proper relation to war was straining his relationship with Levertov too. Duncan complained that Levertov’s preoccupation with the horrors of the war was causing her to forget half of the duty she owed their shared vocation. He argued that the poet’s responsibility was not only to ‘bear constant … testimony to our grief for those suffering in the war’ but also ‘to keep alive the immediacy of the ideal and of the eternal’. In ‘Santa Cruz Propositions’, a poem he wrote in the autumn of 1968, Duncan depicted Levertov as ‘Kālī dancing, whirling her necklace of skulls,/trampling the despoiling armies and the exploiters of natural resources/under her feet’ before calling her ‘Madame Outrage of the Central Committee’. True to form, he seems to have been surprised that Levertov didn’t appreciate the characterisation.

After Bending the Bow, Duncan committed himself to a 15-year hiatus from publishing, a vow he mostly kept by releasing only chapbooks until the 1984 appearance of Ground Work: Before the War. (A second volume of Ground Work, subtitled ‘In the Dark’, was published in 1988.) Ground Work: Before the War continues the serial poems begun in earlier volumes and includes suites dedicated to Thom Gunn, Dante and the metaphysical poets. ‘Passages 36’, a 1971 poem, records Levertov’s appearance in an early morning dream. The poem starts by suggesting a return to another dream, Duncan’s childhood vision of Atlantis: ‘I know but part of it and that but distantly,/a catastrophe in another place, another time.’ Then it tacks hard into the violent present:

                the mind addresses
and would erect within itself  itself
                as Viet Nam,  itself as Bangladesh,
itself exacting revenge and suffering revenge.

Later the poem offers a reading of the dream of Levertov:

It was about the end of an old friendship,
                the admission of neglect rancouring,
mine of her, hers of what I am,
                and festering flesh was there.

There is nothing therapeutic in this recognition. Duncan ends the poem with the angry and guilty concession that the friendship is unrecoverable:

I do not  as the years go by  grow tolerant
            of what I cannot share and what
refuses me.   There’s that in me as fiercely beyond
the remorse that eats me in its drive
as Evolution is  in
            working out the courses of what will last.
In truth  ’tis done.   At last.   I’ll not

Shortly after Duncan’s death, from kidney failure and heart disease, Gunn wrote that ‘there were many who considered him the best poet we had.’ Three years earlier, Mark Rudman, reviewing Ground Work for the New York Times, had declared Duncan’s long serial poem ‘Passages’ to be ‘among the finest written in our time’. Today neither proposition seems insane – a few tenacious admirers would probably still agree – but it’s become less plausible to rank Duncan’s work with that of Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop or the Roberts Lowell and Creeley, all of whom were born within a decade of him. I don’t imagine that even his most enthusiastic supporters would put his influence anywhere near that of John Ashbery, who seems pretty securely the major American poet of the last half of the 20th century. Though here and there one can find contemporary poets tending the Duncan flame (Nathanial Mackey, Devin Johnston and Jennifer Moxley are three of them), theirs is a slender coterie.

Jarnot begins her book with the warning that she has ‘refrained from deeper interpretations of the work in my interest to shape the book as biography rather than criticism’, a decision that, at first blush, seems understandable. Duncan lived a full enough life to justify the cradle-to-grave treatment, and a thorough consideration of his work would have demanded a book at least half as long again as the present volume. Jarnot is a sensitive reader of literary history and an admiring but not uncritical biographer. She is also not above serving up the scuttlebutt that we’ve come, as readers, to expect as our literary-biographical due. We get the scene of Duncan’s righteous fury at Randall Jarrell, who insulted Edith Sitwell’s poetry and pudendum in a single spiteful breath; we watch him chase a speaker off a San Francisco stage for being too boring; and we hear of the time Elizabeth Bishop baked marijuana brownies to test his insistence that he couldn’t get stoned. (He was wrong.)

And yet, given the state of Duncan’s reputation, Jarnot’s decision to attend to the life instead of the art has to count as a missed opportunity. She tells us that he was ‘one of the most important avant-garde artists of the mid-20th century’ and has the contemporary reports to prove it. What’s missing from her book, however, is any strong sense why Duncan ought to matter to us today. Some of the falling off in his readership can be put down to shifting sensibilities. His verbal brocade and fairy-tale diction were always an acquired taste; James Dickey called him ‘one of the most unpityingly pretentious poets I have ever come across’. But these days the kind of poetry he wrote – extravagant in ambition, mantic in mood, unironic in the extreme – is about as popular as trade unions and Cuban heels. His aspirations to mythopoiesis, a totalising instinct picked up from the high modernists, can feel antique, if not presumptuous. Which major poet today would, like Duncan, praise Carlyle’s conviction that ‘it is a man’s sincerity and depth of vision that makes him a Poet’? The tutelary spirits of the poetry our age prefers are quick and clever, eager to please or eager to offend. Ashbery’s translucent charm, O’Hara’s cunning innocence, the rigorous spleen of Geoffrey Hill and Frederick Seidel: all of these qualities are alien, if not anathema, to Duncan’s mature work.

There’s no question Duncan wrote a number of poems worth remembering, several of which (‘Often I Am Permitted’, ‘A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar’, ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’) don’t need any extraordinary advocacy or exegesis. But I’ve begun to wonder if the trouble isn’t the lesser work. Where a mediocre poem by Ashbery or O’Hara evaporates before it can leave a mark, and a bummer by Hill simply baffles, some of Duncan’s weaker poems feel as offensive as shag carpets. Take ‘Structure of Rime XV’, from Roots and Branches, which crumples under the pressure of Duncan’s unstinting overdetermination:

                        O mask of the mandrill!
knuckle-dancing night-prowler! from your
hut among the everlastings you come,
animal figure no older than we are,
            and mimic my own, ready-made,
                        mind mandrill,
having a name   who gave you?

(A possible law of taste: we judge the greatness of poets based on their best work, but our tolerance for their second-rate stuff determines how much we read them.)

There’s also the question of personality. Jarnot testifies throughout to the energising effect Duncan had on everyone he met. Exhibit A in this respect is an account Carol Bergé filed from a 1964 poetry conference in Vancouver. Reporting for Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, Bergé writes that she

came to this seminar convinced that nothing Robert Duncan has ever written is worth a damn, and that he is personally not merely a bore, but an offensively affected bore. I hate to be wrong and I hate even more to admit it: I am wrong … 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.

This is meant to be a compliment. For those of us who have only the work left to go on, Bergé’s report raises questions about how much his reputation owed to his personal presence.

In this respect, it is fortunate that Jarnot’s book is being published by the University of California in the midst of its multi-volume edition of Duncan’s collected works. The Collected Early Poems and Plays came out last year, but I suspect that the volume most likely to convince the unconverted is The H.D. Book, a prose masterpiece that, after half a century, recently appeared in a comprehensive edition for the first time.* The H.D. Book was born as a tribute to Hilda Doolittle, the poet whose work first introduced Duncan to the ‘sense of art and life as the creation of a community of feeling’. Duncan’s initial aim appears to have been to rescue H.D. from a critical consensus that remembered her only as the poet of frigid purities and dainty perfections. He argues that H.D.’s work, both during and after her Imagist phase, was cosmic and revelatory: ‘To evoke an image is to receive a sign, to bring into human language a word or a phrase … of the great language in which the universe itself is written’.

The H.D. Book quickly reveals itself as what the editors of the 700-page volume call a ‘proliferating, symphonic performance’. Half ars poetica and half spiritual autobiography, composed in the manner of a daybook or literary collage, it mounts a sustained argument about the relationship between modernism and romanticism. Rejecting an earlier generation’s rejection of an earlier generation, Duncan finds in the work of his modernist ‘elders’ – H.D., Pound, William Carlos Williams, D.H. Lawrence, even T.S. Eliot, whom he considered ‘too cautious to be great’ – support for the Romantic proposition that literature was ‘a text of the soul in its search for fulfilment in life’ and the imagination ‘a primary instinctual authority.’ Art, Duncan argued, was not a ‘closed system of beauty’ but ‘a life quest or romance’, and not merely an individual one:

To compose … a symposium of the whole … a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the lumpen-proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond in our consideration of the figure of Man – must return to be admitted in the creation of what we are.

Duncan started work on The H.D. Book in 1959, at a time when H.D.’s visionary proclivities were scorned as ‘silly’ and her poems had been dropped from an influential anthology. Though recuperation was not his only goal, the book was, as its editors write, ‘an effort to undo that injustice’. How fitting if the reputation The H.D. Book saves in the end is Duncan’s own.

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