Robert Duncan

Henry Miller and Anai's Nin. He was an assistant and contributor to the commune's journal The Phoenix, and edited the Experimental Review - where one of his correspondents was Kenneth Rexroth, who was to become an important contact when Duncan returned to the west coast. In 1941 he was briefly drafted into the military, but was discharged after declaring his homosexuality. In 1943 he married Marjorie McKee, although they were divorced after a few months. In 1944 he published a pioneer essay "The Homosexual in Society" in the journal Politics, and paid the price for such a forthright statement at a time when the subject was still largely taboo. An immediate outcome was that John Crowe Ransom refused to print Duncan's "An African Elegy" in The Kenyon Review, even though the poem had been scheduled for publication. Duncan's essay is a plea for tolerance on all sides, both from those who condemned homosexuality, whether on racial, religious, or sexual grounds, and from homosexuals themselves. The essay, he noted in a 1959 introduction to its reprinting, was "as far as I know . . . the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved; but my view was that minority associations and identifications were an evil wherever they supersede allegiance to and share in the creation of a human community good - the recognition of fellow-manhood" (Selected Prose, 38).

Duncan returned to San Francisco in 1945 and subsequently resumed his studies at Berkeley, focusing upon medieval and Renaissance civilization. Resuming contact with Rexroth, and with fellow poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, Duncan began to formulate his concept of a collage or "serial form" for poems, allowing for a maximum of inclusiveness and sometimes drastic discontinuities, while retaining an inner coherence through the repetition of motifs, sounds, images, and phrases. Duncan's well-known poem from 1960, "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," articulates this sense of form and its relationship to creativity and the world outside the poem. It concludes:

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow as if it were a given property of the mind that certain bounds hold against chaos, that is a place of first permission, everlasting omen of what is.

And in "Poetry, a Natural Thing," also from 1960, he wrote that "The poem / feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse, / to breed itself, / a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping."

In the same year that Duncan published his first book he met Charles Olson, whose theory of "projective verse" bears some resemblance to Duncan's concepts; he also visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital ("Old man, early / devoted voice," as he described him in the poem "Homage and Lament for Ezra Pound in Captivity May 12, 1944"). Poems 1948-49 appeared in 1949 and Medieval Scenes in 1950, but the new decade saw important developments in both Duncan's personal life and his literary associations. In 1951 he began his lifelong relationship with visual artist Jess Collins, with whom he collaborated in the visual design of a number of his subsequent books of poems. In 1952 he began publishing in Cid Corman's Origin and in the Black Mountain Review. Caesar's Gate: Poems, 1949-1950 appeared in 1955 and two further books in the late 1950s. Meanwhile Duncan taught briefly at Black Mountain College in 1956, and helped to found the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, where he served as assistant director from September 1956 to June 1957.

The 1960s saw Duncan's emergence as an important figure with the publication of The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964) and Bending the Bow (1968). The achievement brought such recognition as a major prize from Poetry magazine, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1963 a Guggenheim Fellowship. This decade also saw the republication of Duncan's earlier poems. Duncan took a forceful stand against the Vietnam War, treating it in the "Passages" poems of Bending the Bow in a broad mythological context. In "Up Rising: Passages 25" he described the agony and destruction inflicted by the war as:

in the line of duty, for the might and enduring fame of Johnson, for the victory of American will over its victims, releasing his store of destruction over the enemy, in terror and hatred of all communal things, of communion, of communism

In the early 1970s Duncan declared that he would not publish a new book of poems for 15 years, in order to be able to focus more fully on his writing. He continued to be increasingly involved in the printing and distribution of his books, and when his next volume of poetry, Ground Work: Before the War, appeared in 1984 it carried notice that the volume was "typeset under Duncan's direct supervision." Ground Work II: In the Dark appeared in 1987, and the following year Duncan died in San Francisco from a long-standing kidney disease.

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