Robert Duncan (poet)

From Academic Kids

Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919 - February 3, 1988), was an American poet associated with the Black Mountain poets and the beat generation. He was a key part of the San Francisco Renaissance


Early Life

Duncan was born in Oakland, California. His mother died in childbirth and he was adopted by a family of devout Theosophists and grew up surrounded by the occult in one form or another. He started studying at the University of California, Berkeley in 1936. He started writing poems inspired by his left wing politics and acquired a reputation as a bohemian. 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, where he worked on James Cooney's magazine The Phoenix and met Henry Miller and Anais Nin, who both admired his poetry.

Duncan and Homosexuality

In Philadelphia, Duncan had a relationship with a male instructor he had first met in Berkeley. In 1941 he was drafted and declared his homosexuality to get discharged. In 1943, he had his first heterosexual relationship. This ended in a short, disastrous marriage. In 1944, he published The Homosexual in Society, an essay in which he compared the plight of homosexuals with that of Negroes and Jews. From 1951 until his death, he lived with the artist Jess Collins.

San Francisco

Duncan returned to San Francisco in 1945 and was befriended by Kenneth Rexroth, with whom he had been in correspondence for some time. He returned to Berkeley to study Medieval and Renaissance literature and cultivated a reputation as a shamanistic figure in San Francisco poetry and artistic circles. He also became friends with fellow poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. In the early 1950s he started publishing in Cid Corman's Origin and the Black Mountain Review and in 1956 he spent a time teaching at the Black Mountain College. These connections were instrumental in getting some of the Black Mountain poets involved in the San Francisco Renaissance.

Mature Works

During the 1960s, Duncan achieved considerable artistic and critical success with three books; The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), and Bending the Bow (1968). These are generally considered to be his most significant works. After Bending the Bow, he vowed to avoid the distraction of publication for fifteen years, and his next book, Ground Work: Before the War was published in 1984. This was followed in 1987 by Ground Work II: In the Dark, his last major volume.

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