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Robert Duncan

1919-1988

American poet

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Robert Duncan (poet)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919 – February 3, 1988) was an American poet and a student of H.D. and the Western esoteric tradition who spent most of his career in and around San Francisco. Though 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. Duncan was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance.

 Overview

Not only a difficult 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]

 Birth and early life

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 devoutTheosophists. 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.

Robert grew up surrounded by the occult in one form or another; 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 second death of civilization through a holocaust. The family adopted a second child, Barbara Eleanor Symmes, in 1920. She was born almost one 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 three, Duncan was injured in an accident on the snow which resulted in his becoming cross-eyed and seeing double. In Roots and Branches, his second 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 started studying 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 two 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.


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