on Robert Duncan, The Ambassador From Venus, a biography by Lisa Jarnot (University of California Press)
Writing about Shelley, Virginia Woolf said that a worthy biography "is the record of the things that change rather than of the things that happen." The biographer is responsible for showing us how we alter over time, and clarifying how and why those alterations matter. She continued, “A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” and therefore, a biographer’s attitude toward her subject should allow for flux and shift. Avoid fixed generalizations – but don’t evade judgments.
Lisa Jarnot’s Robert Duncan at the least nominally meets Woolf’s prerequisites even though, as Michael Davidson states in his brief introduction, “Robert Duncan’s life offers a particular challenge for the biographer … If Duncan’s literary career occupied multiple sites, his self-mythologizing defies attempts to create a consistent narrative.” His itinerant schedule, affiliations and snubs, and his many and various friends and contacts may make for an “erratic trajectory,” but Jarnot’s greater challenge issues from Duncan’s ideas and attitudes toward selfhood in his work, and how or if this relates to his social and private behaviors. More generally, she is reticent to assess Duncan's work and reputation.
The trials of selfhood began early. Robert Duncan was born in Oakland in 1919 and named Edward Howard Duncan in honor of his father. His mother died hours after childbirth. He was adopted by theosophist parents and renamed Edward Howard Symmes. On the one hand, Duncan always said that the Symmeses inculcated his orientation to the numinous, primordial and mythological. He changed his name to Robert Symmes and later to Robert Duncan. As Davidson notes, “Duncan thought of his life as an allegory in which everyday events held cosmic and mythic potential.” The pantheistic Symmeses gave access to material for a lifetime. On the other hand, Duncan said of his stepmother, “My mother would call me from my own hobbies – she would consider my drawing, writing, reading as criminal … I understand now that she hated me.” But Duncan, who never applied himself effectively either to scholarship or labor, was willing to be supported by his mother until he was thirty.
It sounds like a rich Freudian stew, but Jarnot isn’t hungry. She critiques another Duncan biographer, Ekbert Faas, for “treating Duncan’s writings primarily as narratives of sexual psychodrama and overlooking the complex cultural and aesthetic worlds from which they grew.” Perhaps Jarnot’s removed tone reflects her respect for Duncan’s stance on the diminished role of the personal in his poetry. In praise of Charles Olson and his poetics, Duncan said, “For those of us who had been waiting (circa 1950) for the moment to come when the art of poetry could be turned from personal use and misuse toward a new life, Charles Olson turned the tide.” He savored a “craving in me for large spatial architectures at the edge of the chaos.” Not the personal but “that-which-had-been-buried” would be his concern.
Joanne Kyger, a Duncan acolyte, said of his teaching, “There was a big emphasis on ‘truth,’ finding the ‘real’ poem … With an understanding of poetry as existing in a magical parallel universe … The poem is a reality which invites you to enter, written by the poet in the ‘office of the poet’ with news from another life. Nothing to do with your personal ‘self.’”
Jarnot tells us that during World War II, young Robert Duncan (who received a dishonorable discharge from the military after divulging his homosexuality) “made his way into an emotional war, undertaking a quest to find his adult identity via shamanistic rituals and makeshift Freudian analysis” – but she stops short of biographical analysis. Similarly, she introduces observations of Duncan by others who were struck by his habitual selfishness – but she won’t entertain any speculation regarding the apparent chasm between his professed mystically transpersonal passions and his crudeness. Yet despite some stubborn reservations, I soon accepted her approach since it allows the reader, amply supplied with facts and testimonies, to develop a feel for Duncan’s presence, work, and obsessions.
Duncan shared a household with the painter Jess Collins almost from the time they met in 1949. Although he took lovers over the years, especially while traveling, the relationship lasted until his death in 1988. Their letters reveal Duncan as quite sensitive to his own tendencies: “how much still I ride roughshod over even your love.” This, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of their meeting.
He met Anais Nin in New York in the 1940s. Known famously as an incessant talker, Duncan was observed by Nin as one who “talked obsessionally, overintently, overwillfully” maintaining “a monologue, not a dialogue … I had not noticed before that he does not feel for or with others … his behavior crystallized into coldness and selfishness.” Today this failure to read social cues, restlessness and endless blabbing would quite probably yield a diagnosis and a prescription.
Strangely, even while placing Duncan’s anti-personal poetics in an inviolable hands-off critical zone, she quotes extensively from his poetry to allude to occurrences in his life – but usually unpersuasively qualifying the example as not merely confessional. Here’s an example:
“In the months [during 1976] during which Duncan’s libidinous attentions had been divided, ‘Circulations of the Song’ arrived at a ‘he’ that encompassed his love for both Jess and Austin while pointing toward a larger mythological manifestation of love via the Greek Eros. But at the heart of the poem was Jess: ‘How happy I am in your care, my old companion of the way! / The long awaiting … the sometimes bitter hope, / have sweetened in these years of the faith you keep. / How completely I said “yes” when it came to me / and continue … Each morning awakening you set free / another day for me.’”
Even when the poetry is clearly awful and the reference most personal, Jarnot won’t budge. In a 2004 interview at the blog “Here Comes Everybody,” she was asked, “How important is philosophy to your writing?” (meaning her poetry). She answered, “I don’t understand philosophy.” I almost believe her, since there is a certain active engagement missing here (or hidden) – along with any indication as to why she is drawn to her subject, how it stimulates her thinking, and why she thinks Duncan’s life should matter to us now. She has elsewhere named Duncan as among the major influences on her own poetry.
Jarnot’s defense is found in Duncan’s own claims for himself. She makes a legitimate decision to let us come to terms with and assess the impact of this dynamic poet. The main reason to read his biography is to witness the residue (in story) of his intensity of purpose, the inclusiveness of his materials, and the sounds made by his struggles and dreams.
He wrote, “What I call the Divine is what I begin to divine inn the poem … The dream, the dance, the falling-in-love, and the poem seem to me of one kind. A seizure, given to us, overcoming the pose of the ego, commanding us to attend the need, enthralling us in the spell of a form we must achieve. To be a poet is to be prepared for that seizure, to have learned in the hand all the command one has of language, to have a tongue that is ready and true to the heart so that speech may come when the mind is not yours.”
He was a revolutionary poet who had “questions about any of the new minority movements simply because it seems to me that the whole issue of our time is that we barely hold onto writing as human beings, which is the hardest thing of all to do.” Jarnot takes up his long friendship and rupture with Denise Levertov over poetry’s role in protest, and also his butting of heads with the Bay Area L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets (a comic interlude). For Duncan, poetry was redemptive. If poetry could be an essential presence, plugged into the greater mysteries, then history (personal or global) would have no grip on it. But presence itself (versus language as sheer material) was the problem for his San Francisco antagonists, and Duncan overflowed with it.
Jarnot's coverage of the emergence of Duncan's major poems and collections (including The H.D. Book) tends to bleed and blur – she doesn’t offer summations, criticism or even much description of the poems. But if you already pray at the foot of his statue, you’ll find plenty about his whereabouts (and his cats) from year to year. All the familiar names pop up – Spicer, Blaser, Creeley, Corman, Adam, Rexroth, Patchen, Everson, McClure, Corso, Ginsberg, Whalen, Snyder, Eigner, Rothenberg, Antin, Coolidge, DiPrima, Waldman, Malanga, Dorn, Perelman, Warsh et al.
Duncan’s vatic voice called back to Greek, medieval poets and Dante, then to Blake, Whitman, Yeats, H.D., and Pound. "The poet realizes that his own personal history, reflected in his poems, coincides with the universal spiritual history of mankind," wrote Lawrence Lipking in The Life of the Poet. "Dante, Blake, and Yeats do not transmit a knowledge they have already learned and codified. Instead their books crackle with the excitement of new readings that unfold before them." In Duncan's theosophic and gnostic utterances, his intention was to discover meanings along the way and not to make meaningful speeches. Implicitly extolling his intentions above all else, Jarnot silently caresses the results.
In a rare candid moment, she tells us that “his ferocious intellectual appetite and equally ferocious narcissism” were yoked to move his mission forward. I don’t believe that Jarnot makes a clear case for his “development,” and I’m not at all certain that there was any significant development to make a case for. His habits of mind were profoundly ingrained, his energies directed to diverse projects.
Perhaps the great take-away of Jarnot’s biography is something Duncan said about himself: “It’s because I am an ordinary mortal, with my own dread of offending these very powers, that I have any integrity at all.”
[Published August 27, 2012. 560 pages, 18 b/w photos, $39.95 hardcover]