Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography
This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919–1988), one of America’s great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan’s birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets and painters who gathered around him. Weaving together quotations from Duncan’s notebooks and interviews with those who knew him, Jarnot vividly describes his life on the West Coast and in New York City and his encounters with luminaries such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson.
income into the household for the holidays. On Sunday November 25, he flew to Santa Barbara to begin a two-week tour, staying in Ventura with recent immigrant Gael Turnbull and his family. There, he took part in the rush of a domestic scene that included children, children’s books, and a new publication from Turnbull’s Migrant Press: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s The Dancers Inherit the Party. Drawn to Finlay’s work, Duncan became an advocate of the Scottish poet, later visiting him at his home of
think I do not know what the curse of darkness means? the power in confusion? Do you think I do not remember the tyranny of establisht religions, the would-be annihilating cloud of lies and the despairing solar malevolence that is rumored to lie back of these? the madness of kings? ROBERT DUNCAN, “Circulations of the Song” THE ASSASSINATIONS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., and Robert Kennedy, followed by riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, plunged the New Left into crisis. At the
work at New College, his parents’ hermeticism, and the American, Canadian, and Australian poetry scenes. Duncan briefly mentioned the two poems he had composed the previous year, “Hekatombe” and “After a Long Illness.” Describing the dreams that inspired them, he also considered the nature of human consciousness: I realised that there was a level before any subconscious level . . . , a level that I could know only by rumour, or be told about it, in the dream, that was absolute darkness, and in
several months a sounding ground for his poems in progress. He wrote to her that spring to express an appreciation for her attentions: I can’t separate always . . . the love of everything you write and that I love you. There’s friendship and its courtesies—you’re perhaps right that we’ve to deserve friendship. . . . Could I send you the storm that is coming up again, blowing in with columns of rain? Or the vine flourishing single-roses at the north wall of the house? . . . But wherever you find
In June and July, Duncan also immersed himself in The H. D. Book, though he confided to Denise Levertov that the work required great effort: “I have no more than sketchy paragraphs—I am overwhelmd at what is involved in mastering prose—in managing anything natural and direct.”6 After cobbling together pieces of the project over the summer, he hitchhiked to the Pacific Northwest with plans to continue the work while visiting friends. On August 24, he arrived in Portland to see the McCarrolls,