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Duncan, Robert (1919-1988)  

Robert Duncan wrote a remarkable series of poems that deal directly with the love of men for other men.

Duncan was born in Oakland, California, on January 7, 1919, to Edward and Marguerite Duncan. His mother died giving birth, and his father could not manage a small baby by himself while raising Robert's older brothers and sisters. At the age of seven months, Robert was adopted by Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes, who lived in Alameda, California, and belonged to a group called the Hermetic Brotherhood, an offshoot of Theosophy.

An accident at the age of three left him with double vision. By the time he was eighteen, attending the University of California at Berkeley, he was in a relationship with a man. Adoption, double vision, hermetic philosophy, and homosexuality: these were the early forces that shaped Duncan's poetic practice.

After college, Duncan moved to New York City to begin his career as a writer. In August 1944, he published "The Homosexual in Society" in Dwight Macdonald's magazine Politics. In this article, Duncan called for openness regarding homosexuality, criticized homosexual writers who ghettoized themselves, and acknowledged his own homosexuality.

The immediate consequence of this brave essay was that John Crowe Ransom refused to publish a previously accepted poem of Duncan's in Kenyon Review, thus initiating Duncan's exclusion from the mainstream of American poetry.

Despite this rebuff from the literary establishment, the young poet persisted in writing. He became a leader of the San Francisco Renaissance as well as of the poets associated with Black Mountain College, where he taught in the 1950s. By the time of his death in 1988, Duncan was recognized as a significant American artist.

Duncan's understanding of homosexuality changed and grew throughout his career. His earliest poems, such as the Bearskin poems and "Among My Friends Love Is a Great Sorrow" (included in Selected Poems, 1993), reject gay men who develop a separate culture and regard themselves as different from or superior to "normal" society.

At the same time, however, these poems show him longing for the companionship of gay men with values similar to his own. After 1951, when Duncan began his lifelong relationship with the artist Jess Collins, the "household" becomes a major theme in his work.

The transition between these two visions of homosexual love is well depicted in "This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom" from The Opening of the Field (1960). He first describes Sodom as "once / a city among men, a gathering together of spirit. / It was measured by the Lord and found wanting." However, by the end of the poem, he declares:

In the Lord Whom the friends have named at last Love
the images and loves of the friends never die.
This place rumord to have been Sodom is blessd
In the Lord's eyes.

Although Duncan was always aware of the political consequences of homosexuality and relished and celebrated the domestic pleasures of living with another man, for him the significance of being gay (as with all things) did not stop with the apparent. "Within all daily love," he wrote, "is another world sleeping or an otherness awake in which I am a sleeper" ("Correspondences" in Letters, 1958).

In Duncan's love poetry, there is a constant interplay between "He," the Lord of Love, the ideal lover, and "you," the actual lover, the domestic companion. The theme of love so interacts with his other themes that any attempt to separate gay and nongay poems is meaningless.

For example, in Duncan's last book, Ground Work II: In the Dark (1987), he does not mention homosexuality directly, but love, sexuality, and the "other," addressed as "You," circulate through these poems, bearing with them the meaning that Duncan has carefully given them throughout his career.

Duncan has, however, written a remarkable series of poems that deal directly with the love of men for other men. Many--such as "These Past Years: Passages 10"--celebrate his love for Jess Collins. "The Torso, Passages 18," on the other hand, is a more generalized love poem to all men, whereas "My Mother Would Be a Falconress" is an uncanny exploration of a delicate subject, the relationship of gay men to their mothers.

In Ground Work: Before the War (1984), he includes a cycle of lyrics inspired by fellow poet Thom Gunn, "Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly." In these poems, Duncan reviews his life as a lover of men.

Finally, the lovely "Circulations of the Song," a meditation on the poems of Rumi, the Sufi poet, sums up Duncan's lifework by exploring the role love plays as a mediation between the world we can see and the world we cannot.

Terrence Johnson


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Bertholf, Robert J., and Ian W. Reid, eds. Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. New York: New Directions, 1979.

Fass, Ekbert. Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1983.

Gunn, Thom. Shelf Life: Essays, Memoirs, and an Interview. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Johnson, Terrence  
    Entry Title: Duncan, Robert  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 19, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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