Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography
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This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919–1988), one of America’s great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan’s birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets and painters who gathered around him. Weaving together quotations from Duncan’s notebooks and interviews with those who knew him, Jarnot vividly describes his life on the West Coast and in New York City and his encounters with luminaries such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson.
Meanwhile, on May 9, Duncan gave a reading alongside Robert Creeley at the Poetry Center, and at the end of the month, he appeared with Michael McClure and Diane di Prima at a symposium in the East Bay celebrating the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965. In late June, Duncan flew to British Columbia and spent a week with the Tallmans, giving a reading at Simon Fraser University and completing a five-day residency at the Cold Mountain Institute on nearby Cortes Island. The experience put him in
story of order and chaos that unfolded in the United States and abroad during the 1960s. No subject was too far afield to enter his work, and no piece of information lacked the potential to generate a story. That Duncan titled his first major collection of essays Fictive Certainties is no accident: he lived his life with a respect for the certainties to be found in the “fictive” landscape of the imagination and with a belief that truths about the universe could be mined from the very structure of
Guerneville, California. Ham Tyler recalled, “Robert arrived at Pond Farm looking back over his shoulder in a high state of excitement, though perfectly reasonable. Mary and I wrote letters assuring his mother that we knew his son well, that he was of sound mind though a poet, and that in any case working on a farm was a far preferable solution to any she had in mind.”11 Duncan also wrote to Minnehaha, complaining of recurring nightmares about the stay in Sacramento and pointedly describing his
lowered. He stared at his plate . . . and went completely silent. . . . It was clear that he was protecting himself from energy that made him uncomfortable.”20 Duncan, in contrast, was frantic to fill the air with words: “I throw myself into the thick of any talk. If I keep a constant silly company, mere monkey that I am in this, I should become quite ill with silliness.”21 Before long, Jess had drawn up the parameters of the couple’s guest list. Spicer, with his clumsy habits and morose
art beckoned. In a wistful letter to the Tylers, Duncan described financial woes that scrapped a plan for more extensive travel: “Our romance with Europa is drawing to a close. . . . If we will never see Matisse at Vence, or Picasso at Antilles, or magnificent Italy—. . . we have gorged ourselves on museums of Paris and London.”6 Leaving London on February 10, the couple again stopped briefly in Paris en route to Mallorca, staying with a friend of James Broughton’s, painter Dan “Zev” Harris, in