Use Use Use

Robert Baird

  • Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus by Lisa Jarnot
    California, 509 pp, £27.95, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 520 23416 1

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.

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[*] Robert Duncan: The Collected Early Poems and Plays (California, 1040 pp., £34.95, November 2012, 978 0 520 25926 3); The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan (California, 678 pp., £25.95, January 2012, 978 0 520 94802 0).