Shortly after Robert Duncan’s birth on January 7, 1919, to Edward Howard Duncan and Marguerite Wesley Duncan, his mother died, and he was adopted by a family of theosophists. From 1936 to 1938, Duncan attended the University of California at Berkeley. After moving to New York, Duncan became part of the literary circle of Anaïs Nin, which included Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. He was married for a short time to Marjorie McKee.
Robert Duncan was the United States’ first avowedly homosexual poet. In 1944 Duncan’s brief essay “The Homosexual in Society” appeared in the journal Politics. His career suffered both immediate and long-term damage, not only because of his frank admission of his sexual orientation but also because of his forthright criticism of the homosexual establishment. It was only after large numbers of gay people began to acknowledge their sexuality publicly in the 1970’s that Duncan was recognized for his pioneering courage. When he returned to Berkeley in 1945 to study Renaissance culture—having already been introduced to Kenneth Rexroth, the central figure of the San Francisco poetry scene—Duncan fell in with fellow students and poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. He had already written Medieval Scenes, and he soon produced The Venice Poem (not published until 1975).
The year 1947 was extremely important for Duncan’s career. In the summer he visited Ezra Pound, who was incarcerated in a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., for his support of the Fascists. Later, back on the West Coast, Duncan fell under the powerful influence of the poet, scholar, and anthropologist Charles Olson. In 1951 Duncan and painter Jess Collins established a household together, and Duncan’s work began to show the influence of abstract expressionism, romantic art, and collage. Subsequently, Duncan became associated, through Olson, with the poets at the experimental Black Mountain College, including Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner, Ed Dorn, and John Weiners. Duncan’s aesthetic was also profoundly influenced by Olson’s essay “Projective Verse.” The general literary ferment of the 1950’s led to his three major books of poetry: The Opening of the Field, Roots and Branches, and Bending the Bow.
The Opening of the Field displays both Duncan’s virtuosity and his debt to Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, H. D., Louis...
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