Robert Duncan, the Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

Robert Duncan, the Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

Robert Duncan, the Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

Robert Duncan, the Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

Synopsis

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, Anais Nin, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson.

Excerpt

Michael Davidson

grand collage, I name It, having only the immediate event of
words to speak for It.      ROBERT duncan, Bending the Bow

Robert Duncan’s life offers a particular challenge for the biographer. He was a widely respected, if determinedly controversial, poet associated with the Black Mountain school, but his early career is marked by involvement in a number of significant literary communities. He participated in the Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller circle in the 1940s, the surrealist movement around View magazine during the same period, anarcho-pacifist political movements in New York and the Bay Area, and the Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s. He maintained close friendships with the objectivists, initially with Louis Zukofsky on the East Coast and then with George Oppen and Carl Rakosi in San Francisco. Although he retained his loyalty to Black Mountain peers, his oeuvre—which includes ballads, children’s rhymes, masques, and imitations of Edith Sitwell—often seems at odds with the more self-consciously avant-garde work of his contemporaries. Following the success of his 1960 book, The Opening of the Field, and his powerful antiwar poems in Bending the Bow in 1968, Duncan’s reputation expanded internationally: his work was translated into many languages, and his publications extended to mainstream literary journals, academic conferences, and presses. Reading Duncan’s life under the narrow mantle of Black Mountain poetics misses the more erratic trajectory of his career and the eclectic nature of his poetics. Lisa Jarnot’s biography offers a useful corrective.

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