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Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

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This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919-1988), one of America's great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan's birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets a This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919-1988), one of America's great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan's birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets and painters who gathered around him. Weaving together quotations from Duncan's notebooks and interviews with those who knew him, Jarnot vividly describes his life on the West Coast and in New York City and his encounters with luminaries such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson.


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This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919-1988), one of America's great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan's birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets a This definitive biography gives a brilliant account of the life and art of Robert Duncan (1919-1988), one of America's great postwar poets. Lisa Jarnot takes us from Duncan's birth in Oakland, California, through his childhood in an eccentrically Theosophist household, to his life in San Francisco as an openly gay man who became an inspirational figure for the many poets and painters who gathered around him. Weaving together quotations from Duncan's notebooks and interviews with those who knew him, Jarnot vividly describes his life on the West Coast and in New York City and his encounters with luminaries such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson.

30 review for Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Indispensable and yet frustrating. Kudos to Lisa Jarnot for her years, if not decades of work on this project, which does often succeed at bringing Duncan, and many of his relationships (particularly with Jess) to life. But I found myself longing for a more interpretive take on Duncan's life and career, and especially on the poetry itself. Perhaps it isn't a biographer's job to evaluate her subject, but I wish this book did more to conjure the context of Duncan's actual poems, which receive surp Indispensable and yet frustrating. Kudos to Lisa Jarnot for her years, if not decades of work on this project, which does often succeed at bringing Duncan, and many of his relationships (particularly with Jess) to life. But I found myself longing for a more interpretive take on Duncan's life and career, and especially on the poetry itself. Perhaps it isn't a biographer's job to evaluate her subject, but I wish this book did more to conjure the context of Duncan's actual poems, which receive surprisingly short shrift; I also would have liked more attention paid to the peculiarities of Duncan's publication history (the appearances of his major books somehow don't come off as major events in Jarnot's narration) and, most of all, to what's distinctive about Duncan's poetics. The book is at its best in its first half in its rendering of Duncan's childhood, his idiosyncratic education, and his love affairs; in the second half we get a highly detailed itinerary of the poet's activities (he was a compulsive self-documenter), but it's more trees than forest. Anyone with even a passing interest in modern American poetry should buy and read this book. But you had better buy Christopher Wagstaff's new book of interviews with Duncan to read alongside it if you want to come to know "the poet's mind" as well as the man.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    Jarnot's book is brilliant and horribly dull by turns. Whole chapters are given over to lists of flights hither and yon for readings, lectures, workshops, panel discussions etc., which Duncan undertook to make money. (He never had or really sought a secure place in the Academy.) She also lists all the people he met at those events and generally makes some cursory comments on how he was received, interspersing quotations from the letters he wrote daily to his partner Jess, who was evidently a pai Jarnot's book is brilliant and horribly dull by turns. Whole chapters are given over to lists of flights hither and yon for readings, lectures, workshops, panel discussions etc., which Duncan undertook to make money. (He never had or really sought a secure place in the Academy.) She also lists all the people he met at those events and generally makes some cursory comments on how he was received, interspersing quotations from the letters he wrote daily to his partner Jess, who was evidently a painfully shy homebody. The book provides some insight into Duncan's character, which in print doesn't seem terribly appealing because of his erotic aggressiveness, persistent infidelity, raging ego, and general disregard for the others' feelings and views. In other words, this is not in any way a critical biography; it's too often a vessel full of literary gossip. What's missing is any in-depth insight into Duncan's writings. I have to say that I've long admired Duncan from afar. He's what I think of as a process writer, a writer of sequences; there are few whole poems that stand alone, and because these tend to be the only ones Jarnot discusses, we're left with a very partial sense of the man's achievement. Jarnot does show us that Duncan was devoted to Charles Olson and his poetics, but gives no concrete examples of how he applied those ideas. My feeling is that Duncan rose above Olson's vague and wooly-headed theories and ultimately outdid his mentor. I can scarcely stomach Olson's poetry, but I continue to learn from Duncan and to read him with a sense of pleasure and discovery. All this said, I can't pretend that Jarnot is entirely to blame. The fashion in biographies these days is the tome: fat books crammed with quotidian facts, as if readers needed proof that these people actually existed, eating and drinking, getting and spending, committing and betraying just like them. It's our own feeling of unreality that such biographies secretly seek to cure. Personally, I miss the days when literary biographies ranged from 200 to 350 pages or so, with a firm touch kept on the pulse of the work, which after all is the only reason to care about the writer's life (with some exceptions, of course). Jarnot's book could easily have weighed in at 300 pages and still had plenty of room to deal with Duncan's fundamental themes, adventurous structures, and varied music. We'll have to wait for another writer to wrestle with this poet on the terms that clearly mattered most to him.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Forrest Gander

    Written by a terrific poet about one of the signal American poets of the mid-late 20th century, The Ambassador from Venus is going to be necessary reading for those interested in contemporary poetry. Jarnot gives us a good sense of his domestic life and his life on the road. Perhaps partly as a reaction to previous psychological meditations on Duncan's work and life, Jarnot steers clear of much close reading. And maybe it is impossible, but she doesn't give us much of a feeling for how Duncan-- Written by a terrific poet about one of the signal American poets of the mid-late 20th century, The Ambassador from Venus is going to be necessary reading for those interested in contemporary poetry. Jarnot gives us a good sense of his domestic life and his life on the road. Perhaps partly as a reaction to previous psychological meditations on Duncan's work and life, Jarnot steers clear of much close reading. And maybe it is impossible, but she doesn't give us much of a feeling for how Duncan-- one of the great American talkers-- actually spoke. The biography almost seems at times a construction from Duncan's calendar of reading engagements. We see him going here and then going there, but we feel hungry to know more, and to go deeper into the poems together.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    The book is not entirely a botch (see below). It provides a modicum of what Duncan has not previously been privileged to receive, a chronological narrative of his life that takes in the whole life (1919-1988). But there is much disappointment here. First: that Jarnot does not attend to the scholarly work that led to her work; second, that she entirely steers clear of the poetry and poetics itself, treating the contemporaneous framings of it (again, see Spicer to Blaser, below) as documents worth The book is not entirely a botch (see below). It provides a modicum of what Duncan has not previously been privileged to receive, a chronological narrative of his life that takes in the whole life (1919-1988). But there is much disappointment here. First: that Jarnot does not attend to the scholarly work that led to her work; second, that she entirely steers clear of the poetry and poetics itself, treating the contemporaneous framings of it (again, see Spicer to Blaser, below) as documents worth including but not herself deigning to engage in interpretation or much cultural historiography (then again, when she does, it's often botched, as when a chapter titled the "Days of Rage" covers the year preceding the Days of Rage, etc. ); that her coverage of the early adult life of Duncan almost entirely ignores his psycho-sexual formation; finally, that she sees the arc of this life very much as based on the correspondence between Duncan and his life-partner, Jess, which has the derivative result of tonally heightening the world-weariness of professional appointment (see below, marked "Jarnot's melos") and communal alienation, which I can't quite accept is either the accurate or informing image of Duncan's achievement. A question: Duncan's lifelong friend, and really, his intellectual soul-mate at a crucial moment of development, was the in-later-days film critic, Pauline Kael. How will Duncan's war years be told of without reading their correspondence? What possibly could be the rationale for barely mentioning their friendship? Inspirational verse from Jarnot's text: Toby McCarroll, the Jesuit activist and writer, told Jarnot this about Duncan: Robert's focus on the human experience appealed to [the audiences he curated at his lecture series], even if they did not always understand him. He tried to be straightforward and really liked the people and their children and their struggles. He was like a visiting Uncle. The topics he talked on were The Imagination of the Good, Poetry as a Vocation (like the priesthood), Sexuality, Against eh War etc. . . The collection from that gathering would pay the air ticket . . . [from a Spicer letter to Robin Blaser, c. 1958:] "The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us -- not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of a single poem." (180) Here is Jarnot's melos, from 1968: Giving readings in York and London, Duncan also made time to see the zoo and visit with Gael Turnbull. On May 27, the weary poet flew home to California. The trip had come with the joy of social interaction, but it also stirred Duncan's ambivalence about career, publishing, and life on the road. As he told Jess during the last days of the tour, "I don't relish being pusht. The main battle will be to win back areas of free volition." (280)

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mat

    An exhaustive and truly brilliant portrait of a poetry maestro. The only Robert Duncan book of poetry I had read prior to reading this was his seminal work, The Opening of the Field, a book which explores universal themes such as the dance of life and human community but one heavily steeped in a classical and dare I say mystical style. That was my introduction to Duncan but I had no idea what kind of person he was. This Duncan biography by Lisa Jarnot looks like it will come to stand the test of An exhaustive and truly brilliant portrait of a poetry maestro. The only Robert Duncan book of poetry I had read prior to reading this was his seminal work, The Opening of the Field, a book which explores universal themes such as the dance of life and human community but one heavily steeped in a classical and dare I say mystical style. That was my introduction to Duncan but I had no idea what kind of person he was. This Duncan biography by Lisa Jarnot looks like it will come to stand the test of time and be known as THE DEFINITIVE biography of Duncan. I came away from this book with a thorough and deep understanding of Duncan's life, who he was as a poet and person, the troubled times that he lived in and also to some degree, but admittedly lesser, what he was trying to achieve through his poetry. Maybe I should take this moment to point out that one area where I disagree with several other reviewers who have already critiqued this book is that this is a BIOGRAPHY, not an analysis of Duncan's poetics. Even so, I think Jarnot does add enough background to the poems, telling us, with a fairly high degree of precision, when he wrote each poem and what was going on in his life at the time. I now know that Robert Duncan was an incredibly brilliant, garrulous, hard-working, well-read and horny (!) guy. His life-long partner Jess also played a crucial role in his life (and I came to discover Jess' artistic talent as well through this book). If Duncan had never met Jess, I think things would have turned out much much differently. In Jess, he not only found the love of his life, but also an extremely devoted and loving caretaker and a pillar of strength to whom he could turn to in times of despair. Jess was also forgiving of at least one of Duncan's numerous infidelities detailed in the book. Just exactly how much Jess knew about Robert's philandering is anybody's guess. Perhaps Jess didn't want to know. There is also plenty of information in this book on other great poet contemporaries of Duncan such as Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson (his story in itself is quite heart-breaking), Robin Blaser, Denise Levertov (who is Duncan's best penpal after Jess but with whom he falls into a rank feud later on), and many more. I also learned much about some of Duncan's bardic role models and heroes such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams (who is one of my favourites too), Louis Zukofsky, and most importantly H.D. to whom he devoted almost a score of years in his canonical The H.D. Book. I also learned about other poets I had never heard of before such as Helen Adam (she is a really interesting, unstable character) and James Broughton. My only gripe with this book, and it's a small one, is that I was hoping that Ed Dorn and Lew Welch would be mentioned a bit more. Ed Dorn is mentioned fleetingly here and there but Welch is only mentioned once in the caption of a rare photo with Jack Spicer. I had heard that Lew Welch and Duncan corresponded at one stage and so was a little disappointed by not being able to find out more about that connection between two very talented but very different poets. I highly recommend this biography, not only for fans of Duncan's work but for all aspiring poets and writers. This book also turned me on to Duncan's Fictive Certainties, a book collecting Duncan's numerous university lectures and speeches and as important as Ezra Pound's book of essays entitled Make It New. I am now going to go out and order about a dozen different Duncan books.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stanp

    I agree with Joshua's review elsewhere on the site. Jarnot's biography doesn't say enough about Duncan's poetry, either in terms of what the poetry is about or what it means (despite providing various samples of the poems). The latter half of the book really bogs down in Duncan's itineraries, as he travels the poetry reading circuit. I was hoping to learn something more about Duncan's debate with the self-declared Language Poets, but the discussion in the book is surprisingly skimpy, and left me I agree with Joshua's review elsewhere on the site. Jarnot's biography doesn't say enough about Duncan's poetry, either in terms of what the poetry is about or what it means (despite providing various samples of the poems). The latter half of the book really bogs down in Duncan's itineraries, as he travels the poetry reading circuit. I was hoping to learn something more about Duncan's debate with the self-declared Language Poets, but the discussion in the book is surprisingly skimpy, and left me confused. Even the portrait of the San Francisco scene in the 1960s, when RD was at the height of his powers and fame, struck me as rather thin. Oversll, I don't think the book comes together; instead, it has the feel of a manuscript worked over for years and years that never finds its focus. I realize that readers interested in Duncan's work are grateful to have this first full-length biography (as am I), but the high ratings from several of the reviewers are inflated.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tinker

    with such a vivid personality as subject, this book leaves a rather unvivid impression. heres a link to a recent blog review i find valuable for listing all the things this biography might have been, but isn't: http://www.ronslate.com/robert_duncan... to sum up: "there is a certain active engagement missing here (or hidden) – along with any indication as to why she is drawn to her subject, how it stimulates her thinking, and why she thinks Duncan’s life should matter to us now..." The early year with such a vivid personality as subject, this book leaves a rather unvivid impression. heres a link to a recent blog review i find valuable for listing all the things this biography might have been, but isn't: http://www.ronslate.com/robert_duncan... to sum up: "there is a certain active engagement missing here (or hidden) – along with any indication as to why she is drawn to her subject, how it stimulates her thinking, and why she thinks Duncan’s life should matter to us now..." The early years of the life make excellent reading, being inherently mythic. but the latter parts seem dutifully and systematically to render duncan's appointment calendar into narrative. i certainly sympathize, but i sense ms jarnot found an adequate response to the task to be beyond her powers.

  8. 4 out of 5

    R. G.

    I had been looking forward to reading this book for several years. My anticipation might have gotten the better of me since I was expecting a more interior presentation rather than an exhaustive persons met and places seen approach. Warts and all would be fine but it felt like Jarnot lost interest in Duncan's mental state and poetic mission somewhere in the telling. Still, the book contains large quantities of information that would be difficult to find elsewhere. I had been looking forward to reading this book for several years. My anticipation might have gotten the better of me since I was expecting a more interior presentation rather than an exhaustive persons met and places seen approach. Warts and all would be fine but it felt like Jarnot lost interest in Duncan's mental state and poetic mission somewhere in the telling. Still, the book contains large quantities of information that would be difficult to find elsewhere.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jared

    There were tears, for me, at the end, and so many tender, and also terrible, antics in the book. Well. Sometimes the book moves along too briskly, and sometimes it reads like a litany of events and names, but Jarnot has really done a great service to those of us who love Duncan with all our hearts - this books could have been a big ol' gossipy thing, but it's matter-of-fact style works in its favor, I think. There were tears, for me, at the end, and so many tender, and also terrible, antics in the book. Well. Sometimes the book moves along too briskly, and sometimes it reads like a litany of events and names, but Jarnot has really done a great service to those of us who love Duncan with all our hearts - this books could have been a big ol' gossipy thing, but it's matter-of-fact style works in its favor, I think.

  10. 4 out of 5

    John

    A very factual account of Duncan's life, with occassional linkages between events of his life and the dominant themes of his life. Not intended as a study or meditation on his work, but more of an itinerary of his important and ambitious poetic vocation. A very factual account of Duncan's life, with occassional linkages between events of his life and the dominant themes of his life. Not intended as a study or meditation on his work, but more of an itinerary of his important and ambitious poetic vocation.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Derek Fenner

    Three days. That's all it took to devour this accomplishment in all things Duncan. Three days. That's all it took to devour this accomplishment in all things Duncan.

  12. 4 out of 5

    mayhugh

    "I was a poet who started without talent." "I was a poet who started without talent."

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tim Atkins

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ken Taylor

  15. 5 out of 5

    Dan

  16. 5 out of 5

    P.C.

  17. 5 out of 5

    James Gifford

  18. 4 out of 5

    Leo Dunsker

  19. 5 out of 5

    Abby Chiaramonte

  20. 5 out of 5

    David

  21. 4 out of 5

    Duff

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Gallagher

  23. 4 out of 5

    Brian Teare

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kyle Harvey

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kaplan

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dan

  27. 5 out of 5

    e

  28. 5 out of 5

    Herb

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rodney Phillips

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dusty

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