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Robert Duncan: The Poet

Robert Duncan, 1948

Robert Duncan (1919-1984) is still waiting to be discovered. Although he was a seminal figure throughout the fifties and sixties as a member of both the San Francisco Renaissance and the experiemental Group known as the Black Mountain Poets, he remains shrouded in the obscurity that hangs over Mid-Century American Poetry. His poems articulate a deep mysticism in the tradition of William Blake and W.B. Yeats, yet at the same time his poems take up profound political and social themes.

Duncan stands as a significant American poet for two reasons that go beyond his engagement with the mystical: in 1944 he publicly announced his homosexuality (three decades before America “came out of the closet” in the 1970s); in the fifties and sixties he involved himself in an active critique of America’s rise to power after World War II and its mad quest to destroy Communism.

Revising A Book of Resemblances

Within this site I have gathered unique materials pertaining to the publication of Duncan's A Book of Resemblances: Collected Poems 1950-1953, which are housed at Washington University's Department of Special Collections. The book, which Duncan attempted to publish in 1962 and failed, and which he did finally publish in 1966, is perhaps one of his most distinctive works because he spent an extreme amount of time writing and revising instructions for the book's creation. Duncan spent so much time on the book's presentation and appearance because these poems were extremely important to him: they represented work from the years that he had met his partner, Jess Collins.

Duncan also needed to make a splash, he needed to get something into print in the sixties (all his books were in fact out of print by 1965) because to do so would aid his status as an important American poet. Finally, he needed to revisit his early poems - the poems from what he called his "derivative period" - because reflecting on who he was and where he was going had become essential to the changing nature of his poetry in the late sixties. He wrote the poet Denise Levertov that A Book of Resemblances was "perplexing," but also an attempt "at recovery of position"; that is to say that it was his attempt to discover and establish his voice.

Collins provided drawings for the poems, and Collins' and Duncan's instructions to the publishers mainly pertain to how these drawings had to be printed: lavishly. Duncan regarded these poems as intimately linked to his life, and as a result most of his revisions craft the book's look and feel as opposed to the actual language in the poetry. This handsome, illustrated book and its manuscripts reveal how one can revise writing by crafting an attractive vessel for its conveyance.