Robert Duncan was born in Oakland, California, on January 7, 1919, to Marguerite Wesley and Edward Howard Duncan. His mother died immediately following his birth as a result of an influenza epidemic. His father, a day laborer, was unable to support and care for the child. Therefore, as an infant, Robert was put up for adoption and subsequently adopted by a family named Symmes. Mr. Symmes was a prominent architect who had offices in both Alameda and Bakersfield, California, where Robert spent his early childhood and adolescence.
The Symmes family was deeply involved in various forms of theosophy (a religious movement influenced by Buddhism). Robert’s adoptive mother’s sister would frequently interpret children’s stories, fairy tales, and myths with Gnostic and esoteric explanations to show young Robert the secret, deeper meanings of these seemingly harmless narratives. Duncan’s grandmother had been an elder in a hermetic religious order similar to Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s Order of the Golden Dawn.
Duncan’s early childhood experiences remained with him throughout his life and caused him to interpret practically all seemingly normal daily events as allegories corresponding to larger cosmic orders. Gnostic, hermetic, and alchemical lore continuously informed his imagination and became the groundwork for all of his major poetry. As Yeats’s imagination found its sustenance in Celtic folklore and mythology, Duncan’s spiritual core also found its center in his early apprehensions of his life as a spiritual enactment of mysterious powers he could only dimly perceive.
A sympathetic high school English teacher, Miss Edna Keough, spotted his obvious sensitivity to the beauty and seriousness of poetry; she helped him to envision it, as Duncan explained, “not as a cultural commodity or an exercise to improve sensibility, but as a vital process of the spirit.” She also introduced him to the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, such as “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s.” Many of Duncan’s early poems resemble in both form and tone those sophisticated works of Browning, poems that historians of English literature have called the first modern poems in the language.
Ezra Pound, another spiritual mentor of Duncan during his college years, had also been heavily influenced by Browning’s ability to entertain multiple voices in his dramatic monologues, poetic devices that both he and Duncan practiced throughout their careers. Miss Keough also introduced the young Duncan to the work of a woman whose poetry became as vital to his own as that of Pound—Hilda Doolittle, or “ H. D.”
By the time Duncan graduated from Bakersfield High School, he had accepted his vocation as a poet and conducted himself accordingly as he began his college career at the University of California at Berkeley. He spent the years 1936 to 1938 there, where he published his first poems in a...
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There is little doubt that Duncan’s contributions to American poetry are unique; no other writer approaches the poetic office as an activity of the spirit with the intensity of Duncan’s devotion. For him, poetry was as valid a way of exploring and knowing reality as chemistry or physics. His one consistent rule was that, though calling himself a traditionalist, he permitted the voices of his spiritual influences and ancestors to register their presences as long as he kept his poetic procedures open and trusted the changing structures of his primary source, language itself. He is unquestionably one of the major American Romantic poets.
Robert Duncan was born Edward Howard Duncan in Oakland, California, on January 7, 1919, to Edward Howard and Marguerite Wesley Duncan. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father was forced to put him up for adoption. His foster parents, “orthodox Theosophists,” chose him on the basis of his astrological configuration. Duncan grew up as Robert Edward Symmes and published some two dozen poems under that name before resuming his original surname in 1942. The hermetic lore imparted by his family and the fables and nursery rhymes of his childhood constitute a major influence on his work.
He attended the University of California, Berkeley, from 1936 to 1938, publishing his first poems in the school’s literary magazine, The Occident, and joining a circle of friends that included Mary and Lilli Fabilli, Virginia Admiral, and Pauline Kael. For several years he lived in the East, associating with the circle of Anaïs Nin in New York City and with a group of poets in Woodstock that included Sanders Russell and Jack Johnson. Receiving a psychiatric discharge from the army in 1941, he continued publishing poems and, with Virginia Admiral, edited Ritual (later Experimental Review). In 1944, he published his courageous essay, “The Homosexual in Society,” in Politics.
Returning to Berkeley in 1946, he studied medieval and Renaissance culture and worked with Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, and Robin...
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