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.