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 literary journal called Occident. He also lived an openly homosexual lifestyle and left California to follow his first lover to New York.
In Manhattan he became involved with a group of young writers which included Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, and George Barker, all of whom were considered avant-garde outsiders of modern literature at the time. He also helped edit and publish the famous Experimental Review with Sanders Russell in Woodstock, New York. His marriage to Marjorie McKee lasted only a short time. He and his fellow writers were influenced by the quirky genius of both the French artist, poet, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and the English poet Edith Sitwell.
In 1944, Duncan published an essay in Dwight Macdonald’s journal, Politics , titled “The Homosexual in Society,” an essay that was simultaneously an admission of his own homosexual orientation and an argument for more humane treatment of homosexuals in general. After a storm of protests over such sexual honesty, Duncan returned to Berkeley in 1945 to...
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