Robert Duncan (1919-1988). Courtesy Arion Press.

Robert Edward Duncan (January 7, 1919 - February 3, 1988) was an American poet, who was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance.



Although a student of H.D. and the Western esoteric tradition, and associated with any number of literary traditions and schools, Duncan is often identified with the poets of the New American Poetry and Black Mountain College. Duncan's mature work emerged in the 1950s in the literary context of Beat culture.

Not only a poet, but also a public intellectual, Duncan's presence was felt across many facets of popular culture. Duncan’s name is prominent in the history of pre-Stonewall gay culture and in the emergence of bohemian socialist communities of the 1930s and 40s, in the Beat Generation, and also in the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s, influencing occult and gnostic circles of the time. During the later part of his life, Duncan's work, published by City Lights and New Directions, came to be distributed worldwide, and his influence as a poet is evident today in both mainstream and avant-garde writing.[1]


Duncan was born in Oakland, California, as Edward Howard Duncan, Jr. His mother, Marguerite Pearl Duncan, had died in childbirth and his father was unable to afford him, so in 1920 he was adopted by Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes, a family of devout Theosophists. They renamed him Robert Edward Symmes; it was only after a psychiatric discharge from the army in 1941 that he formed the composite of his previous names and became Robert Edward Duncan.

The Symmeses had begun planning for the child's arrival long prior to his adoption. There were terms for his adoption that had to be met: he had to be born at the time and place appointed by the astrologers, his mother was to die shortly after giving birth, and he was to be of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent.[2] His childhood was stable, and his parents were popular and social members of their community — Edwin was a prominent architect and Minnehaha devoted much of her time to volunteering and serving on committees.

Duncan grew up surrounded by the occult; he was well aware of the circumstances of his fated birth and adoption and his parents carefully interpreted his dreams. He was also told that in his lifetime he would witness a 2nd death of civilization through a holocaust. The family adopted a 2nd child, Barbara Eleanor Symmes, in 1920. She was born almost a year after him, on January 6 of that year, and was chosen under circumstances similar to that of her brother; her presence was expected to bring good karma into the family.

At age 3, Duncan was injured in an accident on the snow which resulted in his becoming cross-eyed and seeing double. In Roots and Branches, his 2nd major book, he wrote, "I had the double reminder always, the vertical and horizontal displacement in vision that later became separated, specialized into a near and a far sight. One image to the right and above the other. Reach out and touch. Point to the one that is really there."

After his adopted father's death in 1936, Duncan enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. He began writing poems inspired in part by his left wing politics, and acquired a reputation as a bohemian. His friends and influences included Mary and Lilli Fabilli, Virginia Admiral, Pauline Kael, and Ida Bear, among others. Duncan thrived as storyteller, poet, and fledgling bohemian, but by his sophomore year he had begun to drop classes and had quit attending obligatory military drills.

In 1938, he briefly attended Black Mountain College, but left after a dispute with faculty on the subject of the Spanish Civil War. He spent 2 years in Philadelphia and then moved to Woodstock, New York, to join a commune run by James Cooney. There he worked on Cooney's magazine The Phoenix and met Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, who both admired his poetry. Cooney was less fond of its pagan tendencies.

Duncan and homosexualityEdit

Long before it was safe to do so, Duncan "came out" in both his personal and public lives. In 1944, Dwight Macdonald's Politics published Duncan's still-controversial article, The Homosexual in Society. This caused John Crowe Ransom to withdraw Duncan's [poem] "African Elegy" from its scheduled publication in the Kenyon Review.
Michael Palmer


While living in Philadelphia, Duncan had his earliest recorded homosexual relationship with an instructor he had first met in Berkeley. In 1941 he was drafted and declared his homosexuality to get discharged. In 1943, he had his first heterosexual relationship which ended in a short, disastrous marriage. In 1944 Duncan had a relationship with abstract expressionist painter Robert De Niro, Sr., the father of actor Robert De Niro, Jr.[4]

Duncan’s name figures prominently in the history of pre-Stonewall gay culture. In 1944, Duncan wrote the landmark essay The Homosexual in Society. The essay, in which Duncan compared the plight of homosexuals with that of African Americans and Jews, was published in Dwight Macdonald's journal Politics. Duncan's essay is considered a pioneering treatise on the experience of homosexuals in American society given its appearance a full decade before any organized Gay rights movement (Mattachine Society).

In 1951 Duncan met the artist Jess Collins and began a collaboration and partnership that lasted 37 years till Duncan's death.

San FranciscoEdit

Duncan returned to San Francisco in 1945 and was befriended by Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, and Kenneth Rexroth (with whom he had been in correspondence for some time). He returned to Berkeley to study Medieval and Renaissance literature and cultivated a reputation as a shamanistic figure in San Francisco poetry and artistic circles. His first book Heavenly City Earthly City was published by Bern Porter in 1947. He also became friends with fellow poets Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and James Broughton and with novelist Philip K. Dick. In the early 1950s he started publishing in Cid Corman's Origin and the Black Mountain Review and in 1956 he spent a time teaching at the Black Mountain College. These connections were instrumental in getting some of the Black Mountain poets involved in the San Francisco Renaissance. He was also a prominent figure amongst a circle of San Francisco painters, including his longtime companion Jess Collins and Norris Embry.

Mature worksEdit

During the 1960s, Duncan achieved considerable artistic and critical success with three books; The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), and Bending the Bow (1968). These are generally considered to be his most significant works. His poetry is modernist in its preference for the impersonal, mythic, and hieratic, but Romantic in its privileging of the organic, the irrational and primordial, the not-yet-articulate blindly making its way into language like salmon running upstream:

   Neither our vices nor our virtues

   further the poem. "They came up

   and died

   just like they do every year

   on the rocks."
   The poem

   feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,

   to breed    itself,

   a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.

The Opening of the Field comprised short lyric poems, a recurring sequence of prose poems called "The Structure of Rime," and a long poem called "Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," which draws materials from Pindar, Francisco Goya, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and the myth of Persephone into an extended visionary and ecstatic fugue in the mode of Pound's Pisan Cantos.

After Bending the Bow, he vowed to avoid the distraction of publication for 15 years. Duncan's friend and fellow poet, Michael Palmer, writes about this time in his essay "Ground Work: On Robert Duncan" :

The story is well-known in poetry circles: around 1968, disgusted by his difficulties with publishers and by what he perceived as the careerist strategies of many poets, Duncan vowed not to publish a new collection for fifteen years. (There would be chapbooks along the way.) He felt that this decision would free him to listen to the demands of his (supremely demanding) poetics and would liberate the architecture of his work from all compromised considerations. ...It was not until 1984 that Ground Work I: Before the War appeared, for which he won the National Poetry Award, to be followed in February 1988, the month of his death, by Ground Work II: In the Dark.[5]

Collected WritingsEdit

The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan will begin appearing in January 2011 with the publication of Volume One: The H.D. Book. There will be a total of six volumes including The H.D. Book:--- Early Poems, Plays, and Prose;-- Later Poems, Plays, and Prose;--- Critical Prose--- and two further volumes with contents to be determined.[6]



  • Heavenly City, Earthly City (drawings by Mary Fabilli). Bern Porter, 1947.
  • Medieval Scenes , 1947. San Francisco: Centaur Press, 1950
    • (with preface by Duncan and afterword by Robert Bertholf). Kent, OH: Kent State University Libraries, 1978.
  • Poems, 1948-49 (actually written between November, 1947 and October, 1948). Berkeley Miscellany, 1950.
  • The Song of the Border-Guard. Black Mountain Graphics Workshop, 1951.
  • The Artist's View. San Francisco: 1952.
  • Fragments of a Disordered Devotion. privately printed, 1952; Gnomon Press, 1966.
  • Caesar's Gate: Poems, 1949-55. Majorca, Spain: Divers Press, 1956;  Sand Dollar, 1972.
  • 1953-56 Letters (drawings by Duncan, J. Williams). Highlands, NC: 1958.
  • Selected Poems, 1942-50. San Francisco: City Lights, 1959.
  • 1956-59 The Opening of the Field. Grove, 1960
  • 1959-63 Roots and Branches. New York: Scribner, 1964.
  • Wine. Berkeley, CA: Auerhahn Press for Oyez Broadsheet Series, 1964.
  • Uprising. Oyez, 1965.
  • Of the War: Passages 22-27. Oyez, 1966.
  • A Book of Resemblances: Poems, 1950-53 (drawings by Henry Wenning Jess). 1966.
  • The Years as Catches: First Poems, 1939-46. Oyez, 1966.
  • Boob. privately printed, 1966.
  • Christmas Present, Christmas Presence!. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1967.
  • Epilogos. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1967.
  • My Mother Would Be a Falconess. Oyez, 1968.
  • 1952-53 Names of People (illustrations by Henry Wenning Jess). Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1968.
  • Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968.
  • The First Decade: Selected poems, 1940-50. London: Fulcrum Press, 1968.
  • Derivations: Selected poems, 1950-1956. London: Fulcrum Press, 1968.
  • Achilles Song. Phoenix, 1969.
  • Playtime, Pseudo Stein; 1942, A Story [and] A Fairy Play: From the Laboratory Records Notebook of 1953, A Tribute to Mother Carey's Chickens. Poet's Press, c.1969.
  • Notes on Grossinger's "Solar Journal: Oecological Sections". Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1970.
  • A Selection of Sixty-Five Drawings from One Drawing Book, 1952-1956. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1970.
  • Tribunals: Passages 31-35. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1970.
  • Poetic Disturbances. San Francisco, CA: Maya, 1970.
  • Bring It up from the Dark. Cody's Books, 1970.
  • A Prospectus for the Prepublication of Ground Work to Certain Friends of the Poet. privately printed, 1971.
  • An Interview with George Bowering and Robert Hogg, April 19, 1969. Toronto:Coach House, 1971.
  • Structure of Rime XXVIII; In memoriam Wallace Stevens. University of Connecticut, 1972.
  • Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly. privately printed, 1972.
  • A Seventeenth-Century Suite. privately printed, 1973.
  • Dante. New York: Institute of Further Studies, 1974.
  • An Ode and Arcadia (with Jack Spicer). Ark Press, 1974.
  • The Venice Poem. Burlington, VT: Poet's Mimeo, 1978.
  • Veil, Turbine, Cord & Bird: Sets of Syllables, Sets of Words, Sets of Lines, Sets of Poems, Addressing... J. Davies, c. 1979.
  • The Five Songs. San Diego, CA: Friends of the University of California, San Diego Library, 1981.
  • Towards an Open Universe. Aquila Publishing, 1982.
  • Ground Work: Before the War. New York: New Directions, 1984.
  • A Paris Visit. Grenfell Press, 1985.
  • The Regulators. Station Hill Press, 1985.
  • Ground Work II: In the Dark. New York: New Directions, 1987.
  • Selected Poems (edited by Robert J. Bertholf). New York: New Directions, 1993.
  • Ground Work (Before the War & In the Dark; introduction by Michael Palmer). New York: New Directions, 2006.


  • Faust Foutu: Act one of four acts; a comic mask, 1952-1954 (an entertainment in four parts; first produced in San Francisco, CA, 1955; produced in New York), decorations by Duncan, Part I, San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1958; reprinted, Station Hill Press, 1985,
    • entire play published as Faust Foutu, Enkidu sur Rogate. Stinson Beach, CA: 1959.
  • Medea at Kolchis; [or] The Maiden Head (first produced at Black Mountain College, 1956). Oyez, 1965.
  • Adam's Way: A play on theosophical themes. [San Francisco], 1966.


  • Writing Writing: A composition book of Madison 1953. Stein Imitations, 1953; Sumbooks, 1964.
  • As Testimony: The poem and the scene (essay, 1958). San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1964.
  • Six Prose Pieces. Rochester, NY: Perishable Press, 1966.
  • The Truth and Life of Myth: An essay in essential autobiography. New York: House of Books, 1968.
  • Fictive Certainties: Five essays in essential autobiography. New York: New Directions, 1979.
  • Selected Prose. New York: New Directions, 1995.
  • The H.D. Book: The collected writings of Robert Duncan) (edited by Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman). University of California Press, 2011.


  • The Cat and the Blackbird (illustrated by Henry Wenning Jess). San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1967.


  • The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (edited by Robert Bertholf & Albert Gelpi). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[7]

"Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow," by Robert Duncan

"Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow," by Robert Duncan

See also Edit

References Edit



  1. Robert Duncan Webpage which is maintained by Duncan biographer and poet Lisa Jarnot
  2. (Quoted from Jarnot's biography), excerpts available on line at the Robert Duncan Webpage Which is maintained by Duncan biographer and poet Lisa Jarnot
  3. "Robert Duncan and Romantic Synthesis: A Few Notes". This article also republished as "On Robert Duncan" at Modern American Poetry website
  4. Deirdre Bair, Anais Nin (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1995)
  5. Jacket 29 - April 2006 - Michael Palmer: Ground Work: on Robert Duncan
  6. UC Press Re-launches The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan
  7. Robert Duncan 1919-1968, Poetry Foundation, Web, Sep. 8, 2012.

External linksEdit

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