‘Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus,’ by Lisa Jarnot
By Michael Dirda,
For many younger readers, the members of the post-World War II “San Francisco Renaissance,” like their cohorts among the Black Mountain poets, are little more than names. Once the poems of Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan were “required texts.” Today, with luck, they might make it into “recommended reading.” Posterity winnows ruthlessly, and, rightly or not, the American poets of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s who seem to be passing into the canon are largely East Coast folk — elegant Elizabeth Bishop, confessional Robert Lowell, howling Allen Ginsberg, formalist Richard Wilbur and perhaps a half-dozen others.
This makes Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Duncan (1919-1988) all the more valuable. Duncan taught briefly at Black Mountain College in North Carolina (and was an admirer of Olson and a friend of Creeley, the two literary figures most associated with the school), but dominated the poetry scene in the Bay Area for much of his adult life. He was gregarious and opinionated, a dazzling nonstop conversationalist, a superb reader of his own work, and a beguiling charmer of men and women. He was also an habitue of used-book shops, searching for studies of antiquity, works of cultural anthropology and psychology, collections of fairy tales and volumes of Jewish mysticism and occult learning.
Duncan’s early life largely accounts for these hermetic interests. Shortly after his birth, he was given up for adoption because his working-class father, shattered by the death of his wife, couldn’t support his family. Baby Robert was taken in by a family of ardent Theosophists, members of a group similar to that of the famous Order of the Golden Dawn (of which Yeats was a leading light). His new grandmother’s religious practices revolved around “tea-leaf divination, seances, numerology, and palm reading.” His Aunt Fay once sent this apparently typical holiday greeting:
“Dear Friends and Fellow Scientists . . . in line with previous Christmas letters, [I] will present my solution of another of the problems that have so long confronted scientists: namely, finding the fundamental cause of PERPETUAL MOTION.”
In short, throughout his life Duncan was immersed in the mystical, and centered much of his writing on myth and magic.
As a young poet, he seems to have learned most from the chant-like repetitions of Gertrude Stein, the imagism of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and the close attention to vocalic melody advocated by Ezra Pound. “Persephone,” the very first work in Duncan’s “Selected Poems,” includes lines that might have been written by T.S. Eliot:
. . . We heard rumor of the rape
among the women who wait at the wells with dry urns,
talk among leaves and among the old men
who sift tin cans and seashells searching for driftwood
to make fires on cold hearthstones.
Throughout his career, Duncan would regularly lecture and teach, and his classes — later called “Basic Elements” — almost always focused on technique, especially “the kinds of motion and levels of motion in poetic language: accentual, syllabic, by breath phrase, periodic, by repetition, development, variation, contradiction, disassociation, etc.” He also believed “that rime, meaning, images, color, texture, etc. should be considered as aspects of motion in a poem.”
Such a program typically characterizes nonlinear “open field” poetry, somewhat reminiscent of the free verse of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” At its most extreme, practitioners advocate an almost jazz-like approach to writing, one geared to the breath, with lots of seeming hesitations, each line virtually standing on its own. Typographically, this results in poems meandering, brokenly, across the page, as some lines might consist of a single word and others contain long white spaces between words.
Such poetry — “spatial architectures at the edge of the chaos,” according to Duncan — works best when mouthed silently or actually performed. Still, it can sometimes come across as pretentious free association, though Duncan usually avoids this. For instance, in one of his major works, “A Poem Beginning With a Line by Pindar,” he tosses off a neatly witty paradox — “Cupidinous Death!/that will not take no for an answer” — but also creates aurally beautiful lines:
. . . It is toward the old poets
we go, to their faltering,
their unaltering wrongness that has style,
their variable truth,
the old faces,
words shed like tears from
a plenitude of powers time stores.
As Duncan once declared, “Vowels the spirit, Consonants the body.”
Before he formed a lifelong partnership with the painter Jess Collins, known simply as Jess, the charismatic Duncan tended to freeload with his many friends, lovers and admirers. During a long stay in New York, he and the erotic adventuress Anais Nin became pals. At one point, the poet shared a house in San Francisco with, among others, the future film critic Pauline Kael and a little-known science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick. For decades, Duncan carried on a regular correspondence with poet and antiwar activist Denise Levertov. The avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage revered him.
When young, Duncan often took grunt jobs or worked as a typist, but in middle age he was well enough known to earn a living from his readings, lectures (myth, Whitman, Dante) and brief residencies. During these years, though, he fell out with old friends, provocatively announced his lack of interest in the work of Robert Frost and W.H. Auden, dismissed contemporaries like Randall Jarrell and W.D. Snodgrass, and was dismissed in his turn by Frank O’Hara (who called his poetry “flabby”). There’s no doubt about Jarnot’s own allegiances when she refers to W.S. Merwin as a “mainstream poet.”
By that point, however, this intensely researched biography has already begun to devolve into a list of the many places Duncan visited and the people he met or tried to seduce. Such fulsome detail, without context or analysis, gradually grows wearisome. Another college, another admirer! In the 1960s and ’70s, Duncan supports the Free Speech movement at Berkeley, marches on Washington, teaches at Bard, registers the first appearances of AIDS, and grows increasingly crotchety and quarrelsome. At age 65, on a visit to Louisiana State University, he suffers heart failure. Though the poet survives, a diagnosis of kidney disease leads to surgery and then to cumbersome dialysis four times a day.
Here, it must be said, Jarnot’s crisp, clinical detail pays off: Her last chapters are nearly as harrowing as an AIDS memoir. Weak and muddled, Duncan could barely reread his beloved Oz books and was reduced to watching Smurf cartoons on television. He drifted away, dying in 1988 at age 69.
The unusual subtitle of Lisa Jarnot’s biography — “The Ambassador From Venus” — derives from a description of the poet by Charles Olson. She offers no explanation, but the phrase does seem to capture something of Duncan’s glamour as artist, man and lover. One can hope that her book will encourage at least a few readers to look into his essays (collected in “Fictive Certainties”) or to acquire Robert J. Bertholf’s edition of the selected poems. After all, poets want to be read, not just read about.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
ROBERT DUNCAN The Ambassador From Venus By Lisa Jarnot Univ. of California. 526 pp. $39.95