Robert Duncan’s Miraculous Escapes
The notion of mystical parents may seem odd, particularly to those who think of parents as people who are (or try to be) grounded in everyday life. But the poet Robert Duncan’s parents—and his grandmother and his aunt—were devout Theosophists. Theosophy was founded by the Russian émigré Helena Blavatsky, “one of the gaudiest characters of the nineteenth century,” according to Frederick Crews in “The Consolations of Theosophy,” a 1996 essay included in Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays. Crews offers in that essay some definitions that will be useful: “I will treat occultism as the belief that nature possesses secret properties contradicting the presumed laws of science; a dedicated occultist believes that those properties can be manipulated through adept exercises of magic […] Spiritualism is the attempted practice of communicating with the dead through séances. Mysticism purports to bring the seeker into direct experience of, even merger with, a transcendent deity. Gnosticism, broadly conceived, is the intuitive apprehension of deep truth without a felt need for corroborating evidence. Theosophy, uncapitalized, is gnostic and esoteric lore that relates human destiny to speculation about the origin, nature and governance of the universe. Finally, in its capitalized form, Theosophy refers to the specific theosophical doctrines and organizations founded by Madam Blavatsky and her successors.” Hermeticism, it should be added, is an ancient occult tradition encompassing alchemy, astrology and theosophy. This was the atmosphere in which the poet grew up. What he made of it will be the subject of this essay.
Robert Duncan was born in 1919. His mother died giving birth to him and his father could not afford to raise him. At the age of six months, he was adopted by Minnehaha (named after Longfellow’s heroine) and Edwin Symmes, an architect. The next year the couple adopted a girl, Barbara. Lisa Jarnot, in her biography, Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus, describes the house in Alameda, California in which Robert and Barbara spent their childhood: “Behind the walls surrounding the property the Symmes house was an architectural anomaly, resembling a Spanish Mission building from the outside but offering its greatest surprises inside. Its main foyer opened onto a room modeled after a theosophical chapel. High wooden crossbeams formed a cathedral ceiling, and a stairwell at the room’s center led to an interior curtained balcony that was a memorable part of the house for the Symmes children, who crept up there to spy on their parents’ dinner parties. Robert Duncan never separated the architecture of that household from the mysteries of his family’s religious practices. Excluded from the hermetic rituals because of his age, he was never sure what would appear from behind doors or out of the darkened alcoves as he made his way through the large, angular rooms.” Jarnot quotes Duncan’s memories as he recorded them in Book One, Chapter Five of The H.D. Book: “In the inner chamber, the adults, talking on, wove for me in my childish overhearing, Egypt, a land of spells and secret knowledge, a background drift of things close to dreaming—spirit communications, reincarnation memories, clairvoyant journeys into a realm of astral phantasy where all times and places were seen in a new light, of Plato’s illustrations of the nature of the soul’s life, of most real Osiris and Isis, of the lost Atlantis and Lemuria, and of the god or teacher my parents had taken as theirs, the Hermetic Christos.” Jarnot continues, “What the elders spoke of in that inner chamber was a mystery to the children in the house.” It was a mystery to Robert and Barbara because they were not yet initiated. And they never were–because of something strange that would happen in far-off times to come.
The first strange thing had happened in the past. Minnehaha’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Cooley Harris had, in 1893, according to Jarnot, “encountered an acquaintance from Oregon who related the message, ‘My wife has something to tell you.’ Intrigued, Mary Harris agreed to meet with the woman and a medium, though whom Harris communicated with her deceased infant daughters. Deeply affected by this message from the spirit world, Harris joined several friends in forming a hermetic brotherhood, a makeshift ‘initiatory order’ of students of theosophy who began meeting regularly, conducting séances, and waiting for instruction from the astral plane. Tea-leaf divination, séances, numerology, and palm reading were apparently the core of Duncan’s grandmother’s religious practices.” Peter Quartermain, in his introduction to Robert Duncan: The Collected Early Poems and Plays, recounts Robert’s memories of his grandmother reading aloud to him, when he was six or seven years old, from “Thomas Taylor the Platonist’s relation of the Orphic mystery and his translation of Porphyry and one of the volumes of Mead’s Thrice Greatest Hermes.” That was the grandmother. (Robert’s sister Barbara remembered her as “just a regular old grandma.”) There was also Minnehaha’s sister, Fayetta Harris Philip, who had graduated from the College of Pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco in 1901 and now ran a drug store in East Oakland with her husband. She composed, according to Jarnot, “lengthy pseudoscientific treatises which she referred to as her ‘discoveries.'” These treatises had titles like Soul Psyche and The Lady Alchemist. “She was a self-proclaimed expert,” according to Jarnot, “on all matters metaphysical. Her authority, she told friends, was owed to her meticulous study of the phenomenon of light.” In addition to the treatises, Aunt Fayetta worked on her masterpiece, The New Hypothesis, which would explain “‘the ULTIMATE.'” (Duncan liked in later years to vex Fayetta, who reported to Duncan’s mother in March 1938, “He had been here a couple of hours and had taken most of the time to read me Freud.”)
His grandmother and his aunt and his mother and his father and their friends spoke a special language to each other. Duncan fell in love as a child with the words he overheard. At first he didn’t know what they meant. In his 1968 essay, “The Truth and Life of Myth: An Essay in Essential Autobiography,” he writes, “The seed of poetry itself sprang to life in the darkness of a ground of words heard and seen that were a congregation of sounds and figures previous to dictionary meanings.” But after he learned more or less what the words meant he realized that he didn’t care as much as he should. What his family and their friends used these words for didn’t matter. Not to the words themselves. Robert didn’t believe that proving or demonstrating was what the words were really trying to do. They were instead precisely what they seemed to be: mysterious and beautiful. The same was true of the words in the books in the house. One could take any book down from the shelf and find the Shining Whole, his parents believed. The precocious young reader, taking them down, found poetry. His parents had somehow misidentified the genre of their own books.
Matthew Dennison in his biography, Eternal Boy: The Life of Kenneth Grahame quotes the 1896 essay “Saturnia Regna,” in which Grahame describes a mother who, sitting in church, observes “the rapt, absorbed air of her little son during the course of a sermon that is stirring her own very vitals.” But, Grahame adds, “Ten to one he is a thousand miles away, safe in his own kingdom; and what is more, he has shut the door behind him. She is left outside, with the parson and the clerk.” Robert’s adopted parents must have noticed at some point that he was a thousand miles away, safe in his own kingdom and not safe with them in theirs. (Not that Minnehaha and Edwin liked the parson or the clerk anymore than Robert did.) He certainly wasn’t old enough to be initiated. He wasn’t even ten. But they still wanted him to be safe. Something was the matter with him, though. Was he a halfwit? He seemed, on the contrary, precocious, clearly. But something was off. He seemed, actually, to like the mystical words too much. Or to like them differently. He was a little alarming, definitely. A thousand miles is a long way away. In his biography, Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the Poet as Homosexual in Society, Ekbert Faas writes, “Where his parents translated mystery into fact, Robert was fascinated by the mystery itself. From early on the precocious child was constantly seen writing, drawing and making collages. Or he would outdo and enthrall his older cousins with his fantasy games. In all this he felt little need for an Ariadne’s thread out of his self-created labyrinths.” Getting out was not the problem, it was staying in: he wanted to stay in a long time. So he tried to provide for sufficient maziness.
He was a provoking child. He didn’t believe but at the same time he didn’t disbelieve. In an interview Duncan gave to Unmuzzled OX in 1974 when he was fifty-five, he remembered, “At the age of ten I found myself guilty because I did not believe anything that anyone ever proposed to me, and also I couldn’t honestly disbelieve it.” (Duncan’s interviews are collected in A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985.) He didn’t think Theosophy was mumbo jumbo or humbug. How could it be? It was poetry. He found himself guilty because his parents believed in the teachings of Theosophy. And believers in the Shining Whole don’t understand it when someone says they don’t disbelieve in it.
Another child in such a house might have grown up to become a hair-trigger atheist or flown into the always-waiting arms of the Reality Principle. (Which, in Robert’s house, would have been called Ananke.) Henry James, who had grown up in a house with a Swedenborgian father, actually spent a year in law school. James suffered the same kind of difficulties as Duncan. He didn’t want to be, like his father, a devout follower of the eighteenth century Swedish mystic, author of The Apocalypse Revealed. “What I ‘wanted to want’ to be was just […] literary,” Henry James wrote much later in his 1914 memoir, Notes of a Son and Brother. Duncan also wanted to be “just literary”—though he must have had his own idea early on of how the literary was going to sound. It would sound just like his parents and at the same time nothing like them. They would recognize many of the words but, sadly, none of the music, James, in his 1913 memoir, A Small Boy and Others, wrote of “a possibly great truth, the truth that you can’t have more than one kind of intensity—intensity worthy of the name—at once.” Was that why Duncan couldn’t have both his family’s Theosophy and the poetry—even though they were the same words in the same volumes? “The seed of poetry itself sprang to life in the darkness of a ground of words heard and seen”—heard and seen not only by him but by his parents as well. But they were two separate intensities. The last lines of Emerson’s poem, “The Problem,” described the situation, though it was only a problem if others made it so. “Taylor, the Shakespeare of divines. /His words are music in my ear, / I see his cowled portrait dear; / And yet, for all his faith could see, / I would not the good bishop be.” The words were not music in his parents’ ears. They crossed their arms and pursed their lips, as we do when someone has unaccountably thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater.
If Robert enthralled his older cousins with fantasy games, he himself was enthralled by the house: the darkened alcoves, the inner chambers, the cathedral ceiling. And the books. In his poem, “The Architecture” Duncan remembered “the glimmering titles arrayed.” The spines of the books, their frontispieces, glimmered when he looked at them. There were the old books in the deluxe morocco binding. The authors had names like Plutarch and Plotinus and Avicenna and Cornelius Agrippa. And there were the books with nothing especially deluxe about their bindings. These books were written by people with names like Alfred Percy Sinnett, Alice Ann Bailey, G.R. S. Mead, Manley P. Hall, Charles Webster Leadbeater. If their names didn’t glimmer, their titles of their books did. Always something glimmered. Henry James, too, remembered that some of the books in the house he grew up had a kind of splendor. In Notes of a Son and Brother, James recalled that the Swedenborg volumes were a regular part of the family luggage on their travels in the 1850s and that the family never felt settled until the books had been taken and placed on the shelves. He remembered that his father’s purple Swedenborg volumes had such titles as Arcana Coelestial, Angelic Wisdom and Apocalypse Explained. Duncan, unlike James, was in love with the language. Arcana. Coelestial. James felt it wasn’t “literary.” Duncan knew it was. Duncan was unlike James Merrill as well, who did hate the language. In an interview with J.D. McClatchy (included in Recitative: Prose by James Merrill) Merrill was asked about the use of the occult in poetry—and especially his own use of it in his three-volume occult epic, The Changing Light at Sandover. “The first thing to do,” Merrill said, “is get rid of that awful vocabulary. It’s almost acceptable once it’s purged of all those fancy words—”auras'” and “‘astral bodies.'” Duncan was steeped in that “awful” vocabulary. Words like aurora, aura, astral had claimed him: he was theirs.
Duncan didn’t love just the Theosophist books owned by his parents but also the books of Greek myths and the Victorian fairy-lore that were intended for him. “The Symmes library for their two adopted children,” Faas tells us, “included many titles like Wonder Book, Children’s Hour, Myths from Many Lands and the Arthur Rackham illustrated Siegfried & The Twilight of the Gods.” Duncan remembered being enthralled by the Maxfield Parrish illustrations of Eugene Field’s poem, “Winken Blinken and Nod.” The words of that poem filled him all his life with intense longing. And then there were the Oz books. He had a complete collection of them and he was rereading them in the last months of his life. Like the Theosophist books, the Oz books (L. Frank Baum was actually a Theosophist) put him in his favorite frame of mind. By the time he was eight Robert had started whenever he was in that mood to write his own poems. Always knowing how to get that mood back, he kept writing poems until the end. When he wanted to write poetry, Hart Crane played Maurice Ravel’s one-movement orchestral piece Boléro over and over on the Victrola and drank gin. Duncan reentered by rereading them the imaginative world of his childhood books. Then he began to write.
Robert Duncan was a highly imaginative poetry-intoxicated child. He was strange, stranger than his family in a way, and they all knew it. Did other children read books out loud in an intense, incantatory voice when they thought they were alone? Probably. Somewhere. Still, he felt lonely and crazy sometimes. In 1960 he would write his famous poem, “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” As a child he had to validate for himself his love of poetry. Duncan was lucky enough to find an English teacher, Edna Keogh, who liked him and loved poetry. He soon came to think of her high school classroom as “the place of the numen.” So Miss Keogh, not his mother or aunt or grandmother, would initiate him—not into the secret wisdom of Madame Blavatsky but into the world of poetry in books of poetry and in poetry anthologies. Duncan told Anne Waldman in an interview at the Naropa Institute in 1978, “My experience about poets is discovering a company. Growing up, […] I really didn’t have much company, I felt insane much of the time.” And then Edna Keogh began reading poetry to the class “and suddenly there were spirits I could really commune with, feel I had a company with. I didn’t care that I wouldn’t know them. I understood that, yes, probably I will never meet these people but I understood. I love to read, anyway. But it never dawnd on me that what I loved in reading was that all the time I felt suddenly companied. I didn’t have to talk to them but they were making it clear that I could have, because they were extensions.”
More initiations followed as Duncan went out into the world. When he was sixty-four he told James Laughlin during an interview that he remembered strolling on the Berkeley campus with a friend who told him he absolutely, urgently, must read Ezra Pound. “I rushed off to a bookstore and opened up a volume which was called XXX Cantos. I’m not quite sure that at seventeen going on eighteen that I wasn’t merely reading x-x-x; it took a vast summoning of my intellectual powers at the time to realize it meant ‘thirty.” I opened and read, “And then went down to the ship” and it was just too much, I was overcome, I looked around the bookstore and shut the volume. I kept going back to the bookshop to read just this one line, maybe sneaking the next two, but it was just too much for me.” He kept coming back to the bookshop and to the bookshop story. In a letter to H.D. (their surviving letters are collected in A Great Admiration: H.D. /Robert Duncan: Correspondence 1950-1961) Duncan told her, “I went to the bookstore and read those opening lines, just the two, from which dreams of everything poetry could be to fulfill old promises seemd to flow.” The “old promises” must have been the promises made by the books in his family’s house—maybe in particular the promise that there was more poetry in books outside the house. There were poems that lovers of poetry thought of as poetry. In his 1966 introduction to The Year as Catches: Early Poems, 1939-1945. Duncan wrote, “By my eighteenth year I recognized in poetry my sole and ruling vocation.” Edwin and Minnehaha, Duncan wrote in Book One, Chapter Three of The H.D. Book, were “dismayed and strove to dissuade me” when they discovered that he wanted to become a poet. Aunt Fayetta thought it was lazy for him to want to be a poet. “You have been a poet already in so many lives,” she told him.
The military, on the other hand, didn’t care whether he was going to be a poet for the first or the seventieth time. In 1940 Duncan was drafted and served at Fort Knox. In 1941 he was given a dishonorable discharge for homosexuality, first having been transferred to a military psychiatric ward. In 1945 Duncan enrolled at Berkeley again to study medieval history. His first book, Heavenly City, Earthly City, was published in 1947. He had said that “probably I will never meet” the poets he loved but some of them he did meet—and his relationship with them helped to confirm and fortify the choice he had made to become a poet. His friendship with Charles Olson was particularly important. Olson was like a father but unlike Duncan’s actual father, who was mild and taciturn, Olson was caustic and vituperative. In 1950 Duncan published Medieval Scenes. In 1951 he began his lifelong relationship with his lover, Jess Collins (who was always called simply “Jess”), a painter and collagist with whom he collaborated. “The two shared a delight,” according to Jarnot, “in collage, the art of found objects, and the art of the ‘salvage.” They lived in Mallorca for several years, as did Robert Creeley, who published Duncan in the magazines (Origin and Black Mountain Review) that Creeley edited or co-edited. In 1956 Duncan, like Creeley, came to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Olson was the rector. Duncan’s major works in the sixties included The Opening of the Field (1960), Roots and Branches (1964), and Bending the Bow (1968).
Duncan became more and more well known in the world of poetry. But never far from his mind was the big house in Alameda: its interior curtained balcony and its large angular rooms and its background drift of things close to dreaming. Edmund Gosse, in his 1907 memoir Father and Son, described his parents, who were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a conservative, low church, non-conformist, evangelical Christian movement: “They lived in an intellectual cell, bounded at its sides by the walls of their own house, but open above to the very heart of the uttermost heavens.” While Gosse thought the spiritual books in the house by Andrew John Jukes and Benjamin Wills Newton were of an “incommunicable dreariness,” Duncan had found the poetry in his parents’ books and so felt a deep nostalgia for his childhood house, cell or not. Duncan told Anne Waldman “There are many things I carried forward from that family.” He added, “And I tend to bring forward all the things that I find fascinating, and try to find a way of having them so they don’t form subscriptions.” The word “subscriptions” suggests that he might have been remembering that Theosophists of his childhood were people not just of the book but also of the magazine. Theosophists enjoyed reading articles about hoary mysteries solved with up-to-the-minute “discoveries.” Popular magazines included The Messenger and The Theosophical Review, previously called Lucifer and The Path and The Theosophist and Pacific Theosophist. Jarnot tells us that Mary Elizabeth Cooley Harris, Duncan’s grandmother, subscribed to Azoth: The Occult Magazine of America and The All Seeing Eye “which kept its readership up to date on the latest discoveries in the ancient world while also providing speculative accounts of the Druids and Stonehenge.” Jarnot adds the interesting information that “Duncan kept the August 1921 issue of Azoth—with its articles, “The Occult Side of Einstein’s Theories,” “Leaves from a Kabbalists’s Notebook,” “Fate and Freewill” and “Interior Stars” as a keepsake of his childhood.” One issue. A keepsake. Not a subscription.
He salvaged the magazine, in a sense. Duncan, like Jess, was a salvager. According to his obituary in The New York Times, “Jess’s series, ‘Salvages,’ consisted of paintings found in thrift stores or old canvases by the artist himself, to which new layers of imagery were added.” To salvage was, for Duncan as well as Jess, to transvalue. Many people who came out of complicated childhoods did that. It’s what Charles Olson himself was doing, whether he knew it or not. In an interview with Contemporary Literature in 1980, Duncan discussed Olson’s “transvaluation of Catholic contents” and observed, “This vivified my own activity, which is always to transvalue the things in my parents’ religion that I wanted to take with me because they made life vivid.” Vivify. Vivid. “Every moment of life is an attempt to come to life,” Duncan wrote in his 1953 essay, “Pages from a Notebook.” In the interview with Contemporary Literature Duncan added, “I have a lifestyle now, not a tradition, a lifestyle. A lifestyle that draws upon those elements in my parents’ traditions that I found fascinating and drops like a hot potato the ones that I didn’t, the ones that I found fundamentalist. And fundamentalist occultism and Hermeticism is as much a bore as any other kind of fundamentalism.” Some things can’t be salvaged, can’t be transvalued. They have their value and nothing can alter it. True believers are condemned to say the same thing over and over when asked what they believe and after a while people stop asking. Some true believers then begin to tell people without being asked. That was the problem. The telling people.
Fundamentalists. Loyal subscribers. Sometimes Duncan talked about “the will to power” and used the word “totalitarian” when talking about his adoptive parents. (“The characteristic of the totalitarian is that they can’t repropose themselves,” Duncan said in a 1985 interview with Sagetrieb.) The will to power was a will to power over him and it took many forms. People, for example, wanted to improve him. “I immediately turn away,” he told Anne Waldman at Naropa, “if someone says, ‘I’m going to spiritually improve you, here’s a little enlightenment.” Duncan’s aversion to any hint of spiritual improvement meant that he kept a distance from New Age culture when it hit San Francisco. More and more people in the culture wanted to improve both his spiritual and his psychological health. “I am not remotely interested in my psyche,” he said in an interview with Contemporary Literature in 1980. Others were interested in it, though. They converted his words to other words, their words, in their heads as he spoke. Sometimes they did it right to his face. Oh, you must mean…What I hear you saying… A better word for that might be…Jungians did that. Which was particularly maddening, because his vocabulary had an overlap with theirs, except that they meant their words to have therapeutic power, and he meant his words to be what they were, which was all they were: beautiful and mysterious.
People seemed so delighted when they came to a conclusion, any conclusion but especially a significant one. In his poem, “Where It Appears,” Duncan wrote, “Leave writer and reader /up in the air /to draw /momentous / inconclusions.” Momentous conclusions were dull in part because people had invariably come to these conclusions after being subjected by some other boor to conclusive proof and now they wanted to subject other people to the same conclusive proof, thereby, as if by some irresistible compulsion, persuading Robert Duncan. Such people must be dropped like hot potatoes. If some people tried to improve him by persuading him of the certainty of some momentous conclusion, others tried brazenly to convert him. “The question of conversion gives me anxiety; I don’t want to be converted,” Duncan told the Unmuzzled OX in 1974. Buddhists, at least, didn’t try to convert you. Still, they had a look in their eyes, and would gently correct you when you got Buddhism completely wrong which you did, inevitably. Duncan was not enormously fond of Buddhists, the American ones anyway, the ones at Naropa. They were all exhibitionists pretending not to be. He was also not impressed by Chogyam Trungpa, founder of the Naropa Institute, the first accredited Buddhist university in North America. Duncan, spending time at Naropa, noticed that many of the people who were under Trungpa’s spell were smug and pious. “Pieties are the worst things of all,” he told The Southern Review. “Buddhist books are miles of pieties.” Better than the piety of religious people, much better, was the feeling poets get when they’re writing a poem. “Shivering overtakes us,” as H.D. wrote in The Walls Do Not Fall.
Duncan didn’t want to be converted—even if it meant being saved. Especially if it meant being saved. (He had already rescued himself.) Christians were more of a nuisance than even the most fundamentalist Occultist. In his 1953 essay, “Pages from a Notebook,” he wrote, “The outrage of the Christians upon humanity is that they sought to impose salvation as the sole adventure of life.” Duncan told the Unmuzzled OX in 1974, “What the Christian really means is that you’re awake to thoroughly Christian meanings that penetrate everything. My only departure from that is that there are other sets of meanings; I want a multiphasic consciousness. […] You could get as close as you could to reality but that’d be no guarantee you’d be anywhere the next minute.” In an interview with The Southern Review he said, “I’m not a theologian at all, although the constructs that are in theology fascinate me but there is not just one construct. All theologies I’ve come across exist on the idiocy of not seeing that their first premises are not first premises but coexist with a lot of others leading to other pictures, to other constructs.” In Book Two, Chapter Four of The H.D. Book, Duncan wrote that H.D. attempted “not a conversion to Christianity but a conversion of Christianity to Poetry.” Why not? Why must conversion always go in the one direction? Auden and Eliot converted to Christianity. Why didn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury convert to Poetry? This was a question Duncan did not ask but might have asked. He must also have wondered: Why did people use religious language, not knowing it was poetry? Why did people use poetic language not understanding it was religion? And also: why did people use mystical language, not knowing it was poetry? And why would people not use mystical language, thinking it wasn’t poetry?
Then there were the earthbound, matter-of-fact, unimaginative people who never stopped trying to convert him to their literal-minded worldview, which he did disbelieve in. “The literalists will plug along as if the most solid thing was solid,” he complained to Ann Charters in 1969. Virginia Woolf—a writer Duncan greatly admired—wrote in her diary about a woman she knew, Barbara Bagenal. “I own that I sounded the very depths of boredom with Barbara. She gives out facts precisely as she receives them–minute facts about governesses and houses. And no doubt of her own adequacy crosses her mind; all so nice, honest, sensible, how can there be a flaw? Indeed one figures her nature as a flawless marble, impervious, unatmospheric.”
Such people, unatmospheric people, plugging along, tried to explain the nature of reality to him. But the last thing he wanted was the only thing his adoptive parents had wanted: explanation. He did not like to hear explanations. Still less did he enjoy offering them, especially not to his readers. Explanations, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “are so much water poured into the wine.” Duncan and his reader were inside the poem together, bewildered, giddy. Emerson, in his essay “The Poet” wrote of the poem that “the poet knows well that it is not his; that it is as strange and beautiful to him as to you.” In an interview with the Chicago Review in 1976, Duncan said, “I’ve always wanted to be inside an unexplained poem, a poem that was an adventure that you couldn’t sum up.” Was the “unexplained poem” not explicable because it was incomprehensible? That was all right. Robert Duncan had a great sympathy and patience for the incomprehensible, although the word “patience” implies that he was waiting for the poem to become comprehensible, and he wasn’t, really. In an essay on Dante, T.S. Eliot wrote that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Duncan was fine if the poem was never completely understood. When Faas noted in a 1980 interview in boundary 2, “One thing every reader of your poetry has to contend with is your love of enigma for its own sake,” Duncan answered, “It is interesting that the term of not being understood was a territory I found fascinating from very early on. […]. I mean oracular voice fascinates me and enigma fascinates me.” It was partly what he responded to in the poetry of Louis Zukovsky. “We cannot tell what he is saying. And we finally understand that he is standing there in the aura of our not being able to tell what he is saying.” Life offers few greater pleasures, as Duncan knew, than standing there in that particular aura. It was one of his first memories: not being able to tell what the books were saying, not being able to tell what his parents were saying, not being to tell what their friends with the long white locks were saying. And then realizing that what they were saying was poetry. When they spoke to each other they were speaking poetry without knowing it. The poetry made their speaking voices beautiful and they ought to have suspected something.
In his poem, “Illustrative Lines,” Duncan wrote, “Voice / is all.” What he thirsted for was the voice. His parents, as he said in his essay, “The Truth and Life of Myth” were first and foremost voices. In that essay he evoked “the mothering and fathering voices about me” in his childhood. The voice he sought for from childhood onwards was hushed, deepened. Sometimes there were voices in unison. Cathedral chant, barely audible then louder. The voice was present in ancient mystical books and in twentieth-century poetry. Versions of it were present in H.D’s War Trilogy, for example, and Rilke’s Duino Elegies and every so often in Ezra Pound. The voice had no reason to stop, or even to pause. It could sound stern and serious and full of warning but it wasn’t serious, exactly: it was too gorgeous in a way to be serious. The voice of Ibn ‘Arabi, the Arab Andalusian Muslim scholar, mystic, poet and philosopher, his works translated by Henri Corbin. The voice of the multi-volume Zohar. The voice of William Butler Yeats, who was still alive.
Duncan wanted to use that voice himself. He couldn’t wait. As an adult he knew everything there was to know about the words the voice used. In his introduction to Bending the Bow he wrote about “the tone leading of vows, the various percussions of consonants. He wrote about the weight of the words, the color of the vowels: “A word has the weight of an actual stone in his hand. The tone of a vowel has the color of a wing.” He once taught a graduate level creative writing workshop at San Francisco State entirely about phonetics. And at Black Mountain he taught a course on vowels, although as he told Kevin Powers in an interview, “It was a terrible failure.” Still, he added, “I had a great time, and the students got to hear that there was a vowel around.” Poets knew what he meant—the real poets. When he met George Oppen, Oppen’s first words to him were, “I want to speak to you about your open vowels.” Open vowels! Syllables! Words! Phrases! Sentences! Virginia Woolf, in an essay, described Philip Sidney writing The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia: “We are drawn down the winding paths of this impossible landscape because Sidney leads us without any end in view but sheer delight in wandering. The syllabling of the words even causes him the liveliest delight. Mere rhythm we feel as we sweep over the smooth backs of the undulating sentences intoxicates him. Words in themselves delight him. Look, he seems to cry as he picks up the glittering handfuls, can it be true that there are such numbers of beautiful words lying about for the asking? Why not use them, lavishly and abundantly? And so he luxuriates.” “The luxe of the unreal,” Duncan called it in Book Two, Chapter Three of The H.D. Book.
He wanted a voice that came from a distance in space and time, a voice by the night-wind sent. Using that voice he would assert that “”The Golden Ones move in invisible realms” (from his poem “Before the Judgment”) or ask “Were we discoursing / upon the mercurial Hermes?” (from “Circulations of the Song,” based on a poem by Rumi) or, from the same poem, “How I long for the presence of your eyes, / for in your eyes gnostic revelations /come to me.” He wanted to begin a poem (“Such is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing”) by asking “Was he then Adam of the Burning Way?” and to end a poem (“Passage Over Water”) by confession “and within the indestructible night I am alone.” He wanted to say, “And then went down to the ship.” That line was already said by someone else but that was all right. He could quote– lavishly and abundantly. Often he sounded like he was quoting even when he wasn’t. “So, if I’m a derivative poet, is that so bad?” he asked in a 1976 interview with the Chicago Review. A derivative poet takes suggestions as a cat laps milk. The moonlight on Shelley’s midnight stream is lovely. The derivative poet thinks: moonlit. Yeats’s Babylonian mathematical starlight is beautiful and strange. The derivative poet will say to himself: starlit.
Duncan wanted a version of that voice in his prose as well. Maybe it even worked better there. Louis Zukovsky, according to Faas, once “answered one of Duncan’s enthusiastic letters by declaring that Robert’s prose was much better than his verse—’as you know, or I wouldn’t be saying it to you.'” Duncan’s prose has the same rarefied atmosphere as his poetry, though it may be that the genre of the essay makes the atmosphere more surprising. That may have been part of the appeal of the essay for Duncan. He may also been drawn to the essay form in order to explore the many rhetorical possibilities available to a writer who knows almost everything. John Livingston Lowes in his book on Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1927) (a book Duncan called his “Bible”) quotes Coleridge, “I have read almost everything.” Duncan wrote prose as if he had too.
There were contemporaries who had also read almost everything. And he had to deal with them. Luckily he had had practice with all the people, beginning with his parents, who had tried to explain things to him. Some of these poets weren’t as sweet natured as Duncan usually was. In a letter to J.H. Reynolds in 1818, Keats observed that readers dislike poetry that has a palpable design on them. Some poets have palpable designs on other poets. Charles Olson did. Duncan seemed to attract people like Olson, as if they sensed that his openness to experience was just a tease and that he was secretly a seeker after precisely the knowledge that they possessed. In an interview with Ann Charters in 1969, Duncan said, “Olson likes to dogmatize and I tend to spin endless whatevers.” Spinning endless whatevers was sometimes a way of dealing with dogmatizers. If Olson was a force, a non-stop talker, Duncan, as his words “spin” and “endless” suggest, was the same. Sometimes he talked not to deny others victory but just for the pleasure of talking. Jarnot tells us that a professor from the State University of Albany “who escorted Duncan …to the campus, remembered that while getting Duncan into the car and walking around to the driver’s side, his passenger continued his stream of chatter to the dashboard.” Duncan wasn’t embarrassed. (He was unembarrassable.)
Just as his strange parents found him odd, eccentric people continued to find that he was odder than they were. It’s an interesting and somewhat comic phenomenon. Yeats, who was certainly an unusual man, remembers, in his 1915 memoir, Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, Edwin Ellis, the British poet and illustrator with whom he co-edited a three volume collection of the works of William Blake: “His conversation would often pass out of my comprehension, or indeed I think of any man’s, into a labyrinth of abstraction and subtlety, and then suddenly return with some verbal conceit or turn of wit.” Ellis had a mind, according to Yeats, that “was constantly upon the edge of trance.” The experimental poet and filmmaker James Broughton remembered how Duncan “would suddenly appear, sit down wherever, on a cat or a film can, and begin to write furiously line after line in the notebook he always carried, puffing innumerable cigarettes like a possessed choochoo, oblivious of everything until he had finished; then he would immediately read aloud what he had written in his intense incantatory voice, whether anyone was listening or not.” Often, of course people were listening but those people were sometimes tested. Jarnot writes about the poetry reading Duncan gave at Shippensburg State College in Pennsylvania in 1981, at which he performed for nearly two hours before saying, ‘Let’s take a short break and then those who care for poetry can come back.'”
Duncan loved to talk and liked to think about the act of talking. There was a voice to be used in the poems and a voice to be used in the essays and there was a third voice to be employed in talking. In one of his poems Duncan celebrates “the voice” which “declaims with a frightful verve.” Charles Olson, of course, had that voice too. Their readers might wonder how, if Olson and Duncan both “declaimed with frightful verve,” they were able to talk to each other year after year, decade after decade. Duncan explained. They simply talked at the same time. One difference between the two poets, of course, was that Olson had an agenda, always. His manner, was, compared to Duncan’s, more overweening. Six feet seven inches tall, he would, when provoked, begin to tower. As Duncan writes in “Structure of Rime XXV” the “Fire Master” was always ready to “blaze forth and take over.” And Olson allowed himself liberties in his poems that Duncan would not have taken. Olson used the phrase “o my people” in a poem, for example. Duncan would have been unlikely to do that. Olson was pontifical. He would preach. “Old Man Mose you are with your stone tablets,” Duncan wrote him in 1955. The overbearing side of Olson came out not only in his writing but also in his classroom teaching. They were both memorable teachers, but Olson had his own view of what education ought to involve. Duncan told Ann Charters in an interview in 1969, “There was a kind of spiritual attack, it seems to me, on students frequently. He wanted things to happen in them. I don’t mean he wanted things to happen in his classes. He wanted things to happen to them spiritually. That’s a very important difference between me and Charles.” Duncan did, on the other hand, have a lot of opinions to share with his students. One of them remembered that during a class at the University of Kansas he went through the poetry anthology, A Controversy of Poets, giving one-line judgments on everyone. And Duncan liked to provoke people. (As we saw when he spent “a couple of hours” reading the works of Freud out loud to Aunt Fayetta). Duncan couldn’t, in the presence of certain people, resist drawing their fire. “One of my public habits,” he confessed, “is to goad those whose opinions I despise into a frenzy.”
And there were other poets who had read almost everything. Ezra Pound was another Fire Master ready to blaze forth and take over. He and Duncan wrote to each other and met for two conversations–what Duncan called “sessions”– at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington D.C. Pound did not permit anyone to speak at the same time as him but he was generous with Duncan, offering him (sometime surprising) advice about his poems. After reading one of his longer poems Pound told Duncan he should have had a plan. Ezra Pound was recommending a plan? Surely he knew that Duncan hated plans as much as Pound did? In an interview with Sagetrieb in 1985, Duncan said, “I read Finnegan’s Wake for a long time,” he said, “and the Skeleton Key to Finnegan came out, and it was sort of horrible. The plan was not interesting.” Still, there was another version of Pound. Duncan was a master at taking what he needed from the fire masters, just as he was at taking what he needed from books. Duncan told Faas, “The Pound that I dearly loved shared my admiration for richness and glow and light.” Duncan loved the Pound who wrote, in Canto VII, “In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.” Duncan dearly loved the richness and glow and light and gold and gloom. He longed for them, specifically for the richness and glow and light around him in his childhood. (He had had a Wordsworthian childhood, if Wordsworth had stayed indoors and read books.) In his poem, “An Ark for Lawrence Durrell,” Duncan wrote of “the cave-home of our childhood, dark / among darkend lights.” Duncan was nothing if not atmospheric.
But Pound was really a disappointment in many ways. Why so many scurrilous diatribes, why so much about social credit and Mussolini, why so much Anti-Semitism in the Cantos? Why not more evocation of the poetry of mysticism? “Since I believed from the first in the magic of the poetry of Ezra Pound,” Duncan wrote in his 1966 introduction to The Year as Catches: Early Poems, 1939-1945, “I would try again and again to find the efficacy of passages in the Cantos where I could not make my way—the documentation of law and use of money– but it was Pound’s autohypnotic evocation of a world in which gods and elemental beings moved that I loved.” Once they had been on the same page. In Book Two, Chapter Three of The H.D. Book, Duncan wrote that in Pound’s 1913 essay, “The Tradition” he had said, “We know that men worshipped Mithra with an arrangement of pure vowel-sounds.” Vowel-sounds! Inspired by that memory, maybe, Duncan, in Book Two, Chapter Four of The H.D. Book, proceeded to describe Imagism as a kind of Hermeticist circle. It wasn’t so far off. Pound had hobnobbed with a lot of mystics in London in the pre-war period. And during the First World War also, hadn’t Pound’s mind been more open? Duncan wrote in Book Two, Chapter Four of The H.D. Book that “John Gould Fletcher’s review of H.D’s Sea Garden in 1917, with its reference to ‘Plotinus, or Dionysus the Areopagite, or Paracelsus, or Behmen, or Swedenborg, or Blake,’ may suggest the ambiance of intellectual conversation in which the “image” of Imagism arose.” And in Book Two, Chapter Four of The H.D. Book, Duncan wrote, “Pound often writes to cover for the shamanistic poet he is at heart.” Mentors can be tantalizing: they sometimes give glimpses of the help they could have given—or could have kept giving. Still, there was always the occasional richness and glow and light. And Pound did return to the occult material of his youth in his old age.
Other Modernist poets were useless as mentors. Marianne Moore, for example, who was, like T. S. Eliot, “too cautious to be great,” and ultimately “self-trivializing.” Probably he also found her insufficiently atmospheric. And yet she was constantly celebrated. Duncan wrote in Book Two, Chapter Seven of The H.D. Book, “So, Marianne Moore in her modesty claiming no more than an honest craft was commended and even admired, but H.D. or Dame Edith Sitwell writing in the personae of the inspired seer, pretenders to the throne of Poetry that gives voice to divine will in an age which mistrusts even the metaphor excited contempt.” Duncan was a great approver of Sitwell. (“I’m the only one who reads Edith Sitwell and has a high regard for her. It’s easier to announce that you’re a homosexual than to say you read Edith Sitwell.”) And Gertrude Stein, he said, was his “patron saint.” He gave her this odd but memorable complement: “she gives me all the pleasures of reading without the rewards.”
And of course H.D. was crucial to Duncan, not just the example of her poetry but her support, which was momentous for him. He had known about her work since Edna Keogh had read H.D’s poem “Heat” aloud to her students in the numinous high school English class. In Book Two, Chapter One of The H.D. Book, Duncan remembers reading H.D.’s War Trilogy: “In smoky rooms in Berkeley, in painters’ studios in San Francisco I read these works aloud; dreamed about them; took my life in them; studied them as my anatomy of what Poetry must be.” Duncan was extraordinarily open to H.D’s poetry and it’s moving to see how receptive H.D. is to the lonely poet with the bizarre childhood. Duncan had often felt utterly alone and misunderstood when young and now, with her friendship, he felt companioned and understood. He had written her about Edwin and Minnehaha and Fayetta and Mary Elizabeth Cooley Harris and she had responded: “All that you write is most fascinating.” She told him, “I am interested in your family story” and asked, “Have you written your story?” In a later letter she wrote, “I am always astonished by your Hermetic inheritance.” She read and admired “The Venice Poem,” and didn’t tell him that it would have benefitted from a plan of some kind. It made sense that H. D. was sympathetic to him. She had a similarly peculiar upbringing. She’d been raised in a close-knit Moravian community, founded in the 18th century by Count Zinzendorf and a small band of people persecuted for their membership in the Unitas Fratrum, a mystical Protestant sect. H.D believed she had inherited a psychic gift from her mother’s Moravian ancestors. She had traveled in in the 1920s with people that had engaged with magic and various occult practices. Timothy Materer, in Modernist Alchemy: Poetry of the Occult, writes that “Of all the poets of the occult […] H.D. seems the least self-conscious about occultism.”
Denise Levertov too was extremely helpful to Duncan, both in the poems she wrote and in the letters they exchanged. (Ultimately they quarreled over the best way to write anti-war poems.) Denise Levertov wrote him that everything he did had “a crazy exalted validity, no matter what.” It would be hard to imagine a complement more agreeable to Duncan. Levertov came from a background like Duncan’s and H.D.’s. Her father, a Russian immigrant Jewish scholar, joined the Church of England as a student at Konigsberg in the 1880s. His life-long hope was to unify Judaism and Christianity.
John Butler Yeats, the father of the poet, wrote that “everyone’s life is a long series of miraculous escapes.” Robert had escaped from his parents’ mystical beliefs. Now he had, still a child, a second miraculous escape to execute. His adoptive parents, the loyal subscribers, the fundamentalists, the totalitarians, did what nobody—least of all their adopted son—expected: they reproposed themselves. Duncan’s grandmother died in 1929, when Duncan was ten. In Book One, Chapter Five of The H.D. Book, Duncan remembered what happened next: “With my grandmother’s death, my family’s tie with the old wisdom-way was broken.” It’s not clear why. It’s as if some spell Mary Elizabeth Cooley Harris had cast over her daughter and her daughter’s husband had been broken with her death. Minnehaha and Edwin had not stopped believing, exactly, they had just somehow lost interest. Duncan wrote, “There was no cult life for them after her death. They moved from the region of San Francisco to Bakersfield. They were isolated from their brotherhood, their studies changed into studies that were respected by the community into which they moved.” They turned themselves into highly conventional people, a typical middle-class couple—what they had always been at heart, maybe. “They were concerned now,” Duncan recalled in Book One, Chapter Five of The H.D. Book, with “security and status, the politics and business opportunities of Bakersfield.” Edwin became involved in botany and the study of local historical sites. And Minnehaha, as Jarnot writes, became “a busy socialite who served on committees, chaired community council meetings and volunteered her time to a range of organizations, from the Children’s Home Society to the Kern County Council of Campfire Girls.” In 1939 a local Bakersfield paper named Minnehaha Harris “Socialite of the Week.”
“Almost overnight,” Jarnot writes, “Duncan lost his status as a phantom from an underwater kingdom.” But he would not join his parents in their new kingdom on land. Duncan had escaped being initiated into Theosophy because of his age and now, ten years old, he chose not to be initiated into the world of the everyday. He had spent his whole childhood among the out-of-the-way, outlandish, congenial words. They had done their work and it could not be undone. He was formed for life. Duncan wrote in Book One, Chapter Five of The H.D. Book: “What was left me from the talk of the elders in that antechamber of my childhood was now all my own.” He added, “I talked to myself about it.” (He did not talk to his sister, Barbara. She appears not to have been helpful in either escape.) The talk of the elders rang in Robert’s ears. Edwin and Minnehaha were not going to strand him now in the world of the everyday. Matthew Dennison writes that Kenneth Grahame “insisted on the hermetic, excluding nature of a child’s imagination.” Robert had not been initiated into Theosophy and he refused to be initiated into the everyday world. He would exclude both. Edna Keogh’s English class helped a lot. She liked him and didn’t think he was weird. As Duncan went through adolescence, though, the pressure of the workaday world became greater. Edwin wanted him to become an architect, it turned out. Formidable as mystics, his adoptive parents were maybe more formidable as middle-class Republicans. He could be himself with Edna Keogh but It wasn’t easy to be himself with his mother: they found each other exasperating. And she was horrified to discover he was gay. Writing the groundbreaking essay, “The Homosexual in Society” in 1944, Duncan would become, according to Maria Damon in her book, The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry, “a forerunner in the gay freedom movement.” But that was in the future. Right now his mother was standing in front of him and she was “anguisht, terrifying.” Duncan could dodge the Theosophist and sidestep the Socialite of the Week but there was no avoiding the falconress. In his poem “My Mother Would Be A Falconress,” Duncan wrote, “I tear at her wrist with my beak to drop blood, / and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying / She draws a limit to my flight. / Never beyond my sight, she says.” Minnehaha was a lifelong problem—not just for Duncan but also for Jess, whose meetings with her invariably triggered asthma attacks, Jarnot tells us. (Jess kept many kinds of distance. In an interview with Sagetrieb, Duncan notes that Jess “didn’t read very far in Olson.”) Sometimes mothers, like disappointing mentors, give hints of the warm and loving mothers they could have been. Minnehaha did not. But Duncan continued to write her letters and take an allowance from her into his twenties. There was something between them.
Although he changed his name in 1941 from Symmes back to Duncan, the name of his unknown natural father in order to make a statement, he knew he wasn’t utterly unlike his adoptive parents and he had a sense of humor about it. At a poetry reading in Seattle in 1976 he said, “This is my third year of going to the entire opera seasons…The reason I go to entire opera seasons is that by the time I came to my mid-fifties I simply regressed to my parents who went to entire opera seasons.” And in his private and public life and in his poems and essays he could be adept at assuming the character of a man who believed what his adoptive parents had believed. Certainly, as he had said many times, he didn’t disbelieve in it. At the age of twenty-one he threw “conjuring parties.” Why shouldn’t he? He was a native in that world, not a tourist. When he was twenty-five he used tarot cards and crystal balls with his friends the poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser and others. He worked on the manuscript of a novel to be called “Toward the Shaman” before he abandoned it. In the late sixties he took to wearing three-tiered capes in purple and a black, wide-brimmed hat and amber necklaces. Edwin and Minnehaha’s copies of the volumes of G.R. S. Mead, a secretary to Madame Blavatsky—we met him before as the author of Thrice Greatest Hermes–were placed prominently on his bookshelves. There was always a kind of exaggeration in such gestures, and a sense of the comic aspects of having grown up in such a house. And in any case his parents had more or less escaped that world and entered the world of the everyday. It was a way for him to provoke them—even after they were dead. It was comic sometimes to think of them (or himself!) as believers in the Shining Whole. And it was more ridiculous to imagine them as people in the community, studying historical sites or winning Socialite of the Week awards. He would rather wear a three-tiered cape than live a life like theirs.
I want to return to the topic of Duncan’s second escape. He would never follow his adoptive parents into the cult of the everyday. (Neither would aunt Fayetta.) Dressed in that cape, Duncan would probably not have been welcomed into it anyway. His childhood had given him everything he needed to become a poet. In his essay, “The Truth and Life of Myth” Duncan wrote, “The roots and depths of mature thought, its creative sources, lie in childhood or even ‘childish’ things I have not put away but taken as enduring realities of my being.” He remembered his childhood with extraordinary vividness: the richness and glow and gloom surrounding him in his solitude as he sat for a long time in one position on the faded Persian rug, reading the family books aloud until he was hoarse and blear-eyed. What could he do with the everyday world? He was not going to try to find poetry in it. (Poets, more and more, were swearing it was there.) The realm of the real was best left to Edwin and Minnehaha and to William Carlos Williams. Williams could have his wheelbarrow, if he depended on it so much. Duncan told Kevin Power in an interview, “I sometimes feel that my poetry’s deficient in its relation to what Williams would call the object, the old red wheelbarrow, since so much of it is about poetry, stems so much from poetry, books and art.” The deficiency didn’t seem to bother Duncan but instead to bring him a feeling of happiness and a sense of relief. He refused to listen to all the propaganda spread by poets and therapists about the importance of the reality principle. They were boors, like the earthbound, matter-of-fact, unimaginative people in the workaday world. At the same time it should be said that his rejection of the aesthetics of poets like William Carlos Williams led him to some startling observations about other poets. “That’s the trouble Milton has,” Duncan said in an interview with Sagetrieb. “Since the theology is real, he isn’t imagining it. That’s the curb on the imagination.” He did write furious poems against the Vietnam War, inspired by Blake’s prophetic poems. But in general he kept the real world at bay. He and Jess were not, for example, interested in the moon landing in 1969. Jarnot quotes the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage: “They expressed concern that a place in their imaginative lives had been colonized by “the real.”” Even when he was dying, Jarnot writes, Duncan was adamant. Their house was “a stronghold of the imagination” and “the idea of interventions from the ‘real’ world of professional health care workers was unthinkable.”
In the actual world there were professional health care workers for the simple reason that, no matter how defiantly people stood in the aura or in “deathless light” to use Pound’s phrase, there was an iron fate in store for them. In 1984 Duncan published Ground Work: Before the War and that same year he was diagnosed with kidney failure. In 1987 he published Ground Work: In the Dark, his final collection. And in 1988 he died, of heart and kidney complications. (In an interview with The Southern Review he wondered why his kidney complications—which he must have known about unconsciously– had not somehow found their way into his poems before the doctor’s diagnosis). Duncan had worked for many years on the unfinished The H.D. Book. Chapters appeared in various magazines. The almost-700-page book was finally published by University of California Press in 2011.
Duncan, even in old age, maybe especially in old age, wanted to remain a child—not a child but precisely the child he had been. In his 1953 essay “Pages from a Notebook” Duncan wrote, “Can the ambitious artist who seeks success, perfection, mastery, ever get nearer to the universe, can he ever know ‘more’ or feel ‘more’ than a child may?” Suddenly he starts using the word “child” in every sentence. “To be a child is not an affair of how old one is. ‘Child’ like ‘angel’ is a concept, a realm of possible being.” The realm of being was possible. He had lived in it. He had not relinquished it. James Dickey wrote, in his review of The Opening of the Field, “It is no accident that the cover design is of children dancing in a ring; one imagines Duncan as one of the few modern grown-ups who could join such a dance without self-consciousness.” But it was necessary to be an unselfconscious child if he was going to keep himself in the frame of mind in which his first discovery of the poetry of mystical books had placed him and his later discovery of the poetry of the poems in anthologies had put him. In his biography, James Russell Lowell: Portrait of a Many-Sided Man, Edward Wagenknecht writes of Lowell’s “feeling of perpetual youth” and tells the story of Lowell “passing a ‘Home for Incurable Children,’ one day towards the close of his life, and remarking that he would probably have to go there sooner or later.” Lowell, his biographer tells us, told a friend that “my childhood was the richest part of my life” and that he did not feel his age even when he was near death. Duncan was like that. And he was like Kenneth Grahame as well. Matthew Dennison quotes the then forty-eight year old author of the best-selling essay collections, Golden Age, Dream Days and the children’s novel, The Wind in the Willows: “I feel I should never be surprised to meet myself as I was when a little chap of five, suddenly coming round a corner. I can remember everything I felt then, the part of my brain I used from four to about seven can never have altered. After that time I don’t remember anything particularly.” Such men are everywhere (in life and in fiction) and often talk proudly—with a kind of “have I not kept the vow?” bravado–about their failure to “grow up.” If, as Wordsworth said, the child is father to the man, such men sometimes feel a kind of filial respect for the child.
James Barrie, in his 1911 novel Peter Pan wrote, “All children, except one, grow up.” Men like James Russell Lowell and Kenneth Graham and Robert Duncan knew they had escaped something to which everyone else was subject and they were grateful to be the one exception. They hoped we would be charmed by the children they were and are. They did not try to disguise their gratitude and hope. Dickens, in his 1853 novel, Bleak House, repeatedly used the word “candid” in describing John Jarndyce’s friend, Harold Skimpole, who insists over and over again that he is “a mere child.” Skimpole is, Dickens wrote, “perfectly undesigning and candid.” Again, he speaks with the “utmost simplicity and candor.” Of course the candor with which Harold Skimpole is credited (undercut by the words “utmost” and “perfectly”) is unrelated to any kind of genuine introspection or effort at honesty. Marie-Louise Von Franz uses the word “struggle” in the subtitle of her 1970 book, Puer Aeternus: A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle with the Paradise of Childhood. Such men, real and fictional, have no sense that any such struggle is necessary or desirable. We are more likely to forgive them if they are creative artists, as they know.
Like many adults who remain children, Duncan was generally happier than the people around him. Always ambivalent about Freud, Duncan did actually go to a Freudian analyst. His friends thought he ought to struggle a little. His analyst ended the sessions after a few weeks, telling Duncan he was too happy to be analyzed. Why shouldn’t he be happy? His struggles were over. He had escaped—twice. The mystical world once occupied by his parents (with its changeless unalterable teachings) and the day-to-day world now occupied by them (with its inflexible unchangeable pieties) were both enemies of Duncan’s world of imagination, seeking to limit it, to circumscribe it. Maurice Blanchot in one of his essays on Kafka, “The Work’s Space and Its Demand,” wrote that art has its origin not in this world and “not in another world but in the other of all worlds.” Duncan twice escaped back into the world that is the other of all worlds. The word “miraculous” seems appropriate because, after all, so few people succeed. In Book One, Chapter Two of The H.D. Book, Duncan said, “I have written elsewhere that I am unbaptized, uninitiated, ungraduated, unanalyzed. I had in mind that my worship belonged to no church, that my mysteries belonged to no cult, that my learning belonged to no institution, that my imagination of my self belonged to no philosophical system.” It is hard to miss the note of triumph.
Nick Halpern is the author of Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich.