Robert Duncan (1919-1988)

[Robert Duncan, Anne Waldman, unidentified male, and Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche – June 1976, Boulder Colorado. Likely taken shortly before the reading with Helen Adam, mentioned below. Photo c. Allen Ginsberg Estate]

January 7 marks the birthday of the great master poet and mage, Robert Duncan, born in 1919, died in 1988, he would have been 93 today. As an entry into his work, one can happily rely on the invaluable resources at PennSound, an extraordinary trove (the extraordinary trove) of recorded (poetry) audio. His May 1959 reading at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State is there (tho’ not, curiously, this earlier 1956 reading). From the same location, there’s a 1972 reading (be warned, tho’, there’s silence for the first 45 seconds – the poetry-reading begins about one minute in), and a 1983 reading (with Michael McClure – by the way, there’s a 5 second break, around 44 minutes in, on this one, where the tape gets turned over). Vintage – essential – audio would also have to include his participation in both the Vancouver (1963) and Berkeley (1965) poetry conferences (regarding the former, not only his reading, but recordings of ancillary discussions, may be found here – regarding the latter, Berkeley, 1965, here‘s him reading his classic “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow”

Here are some remarks made by Allen transcribed from the (June) 1976 Naropa reading he gave with Helen Adam (the audio of this is available in two parts here and here):

AG: “Tonight’s couple represents a mystic marriage already many decades old. When I first came to San Francisco in 1954 among the reigning stars of poetry on the West Coast in the SF poetic community was Robert Duncan and Helen Adam, both of whom are here together, reading as old friends, and old collaborators, and old fellow brother-sister dreamers, witches and warlocks, magicians, players. Robert is, perhaps, the most elegant poet in America, both in mind, in body, speech and mind, which is to say, dress, language, syntax (he claims that he’s getting so old that he practically can’t walk but he still looks in pretty good shape, and, as you notice, one of the rare American poets dressed in a velvet suit! – which corresponds to the exquisiteness and delicacy, and richness and splendor, of his work as a poet . His reading here is also a rare occasion, because it’s one of the… We’ve all read together under the Buddhist auspicies in San Francisco before, (but) this is Robert’s first visit to NAROPA Institute, and we’re very happy that he made it here finally, because it represents a merger, or wedding, or joining together, of many streams, many traditions, many families, of American poetry, which we’ve been trying to do, to accomplish, here in Boulder. When I first came to San Francisco, the King, or Prince, or Queen Poet, was Robert – and still is, I think, the presiding Muse of San Francisco.

His work, as it flowered in print, available to you, is published by New Directions, The Opening of The Field, that was followed by Roots and Branches, and then Bending The Bow (so those are all currently [1975] in print from New Directions). There’s extensive lore in those books. There’s currently (also) [again, it’s 1975 that Allen’s speaking] available out of Sumac Press, The Truth and Life of Myth. Robert has also been working for many.. over a decade.. on a long poetic essay, critical-poetic-imaginative essay, on the work of HD, [now out], one of the early Imagist poets, and one of the great poets of American century. So Robert has.. [a list of subsequent (post ’75) books would include the silence-breaking Groundwork: Before the War (1984) and Groundwork II: In the Dark (1987), Fictive Certainties, his 1983 book of essays, and a whole lot more]…

The rarity of this reading (and of the texts to be presented) consists, in part, in the fact that Robert has taken a vow not to publish poetry for 15 years (which is very rare for a poet to do) – so there’ll be no major work in print by him until 1984, he says. Partly to escape the poetry star system, partly as an act of meditation, poetic meditation, (the writing will perhaps be more extensive than if it were to be published, it’ll be less self-conscious(ness)). So (t)here is a rare true practitioner of the art of poetry as a form of meditation (preoccupations here) . He’ll read first, do a brief set, and then Helen Adam will read and present her major set, then Robert will come back and finish the evening. And we’ll encourage them to read as long as they have strength and we have ears…”

Courtesy, the Internet Archives, part one and part two.

Robert Duncan: “I have one footnote to Allen’s introduction. He spoke of my having taken a vow, not to publish a major work for 15 years, (not) until 15 years after (the publication of) Bending The Bow. I’m much more ex cathedra than that, and much less humble. I informed my publisher that I would not deliver him a volume of poetry until 15 years had past, and (it’s) a vow – I am mercurial, I have no responsibility to my vows, but I, as an imperial force, I’m not about to release my publisher, who keeps whining around the corner, and let him have a volume, for 15 years. I think you see the difference. One, I know is a very good virtue (but when you propose good virtues, I’m likely to occupy the other side of the proposition). I will try not to be, well, the one thing I do appreciate about Buddhism (is) that it’s hard to pose what the other side is…”

The University of California Press is planning the publication of a 6-volume set of The Collected Writings of Robert Duncan, of which Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman’s edition of The H.D.Book is the first volume. Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Duncan, The Ambassador From Venus, is scheduled for the Spring (excerpts may be read here and here).And for the Fall, the exciting news of Christopher Wagstaff’s collection of interviews – “A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan 1960-1985”.

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