People / Robert Duncan

Writer. Robert Duncan was born on January 7, 1919 in Oakland, Califronia. A leading figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat culture, his work is most often associated with the New American Poetry movement and the Black Mountain School. His poetry is characterized by the use of archaic diction and spelling and the complex repetition of phrase, creating a poetic space that has been described as collagist, ethereal, and obsessive. Duncan’s spiritual upbringing in theosophy and the occult informed his poetry as well as his theory of poetry as an act of magic, yielding themes such as the search for love and the decline of faith.

In 1947, Duncan met Charles Olson and developed a lasting relationship based on literary interests, with Olson introducing Duncan to poet Robert Creeley and, in 1956, inviting Duncan to teach at Black Mountain College. In 1951, Duncan met the painter and collage artist Jess Collins with whom he began a lifelong collaboration and partnership that lasted until Duncan’s death. In addition to his accomplishments as a poet and intellectual, Duncan figures prominently in many areas of popular culture, including the history of pre-Stonewall gay culture, the emergence of bohemian socialist communities in the 1930s and 1940s, the phenomenon of the Beat Generation, and the associated cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Duncan’s achievements include the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize (1961), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1963), the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1964), and three writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1985, he received the National Poetry Award. He passed away in 1988.