. . . 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.