Return to a Meadow: Remembering Robert Duncan

By Carlos Reyes

I first met Robert Duncan in the fall of 1968, at Seattle’s Union Station. He had come to Washington as poet-in-residence for a symposium at Central Washington University, where my good friend Phil Garrison was teaching. Phil knew how much I admired this well-known poet of the Black Mountain School, this lion of the San Francisco Renaissance, and was eager for me to meet him.

I took the train up to Seattle with my two older children, Michael and Amy. Phil drove all the way from Ellensburg to pick us up at the station and drive us back there. With him were his two daughters, Monica and Laura, and the poet Robert Duncan.

As he walked toward us, the first thing I noticed was his height. He was smaller than I expected, maybe 5’5” at most. He was hatless and wearing a greatcoat. A long scarf was wrapped once around his neck, the ends flowing behind him. As he got closer, I could see that he wore his hair tied back in a ponytail, and his cheeks were covered with bushy mutton chop sideburns.

Phil was smiling, gave me his customary abrazo and introduced me to Duncan. When Duncan shook my hand in greeting, his grip was much stronger than I expected.

The kids ran to greet each other enthusiastically, and began chattering away.

We all crammed into Phil’s station wagon to start our trip across the Cascades. We hadn’t traveled far before Duncan turned to the kids in the back seat and asked, “Who has to go potty? Who needs a drink of water?” The four kids said in unison “I DO!” Mostly, they just wanted to get out and run around a bit. I was amazed that this man with no children was so tuned in to little people. He knew not only what would make a long car trip a success, but also what would keep the kids happy.

All the way to Ellensburg we were serenaded with Laura’s improvised lyrics of “Rubber Duckie” from Sesame Street, reworked as “Robert Duncan You’re My Friend.” The take-off delighted all of us, but especially Duncan. Even after the kids fell asleep, I heard him humming a bit of the tune every now and then.

As we drove across the Cascades, Phil concentrated on the winding road, leaving me to talk to the poet. But for the life of me, I couldn’t think of how to begin or what to ask him. I wanted very much to talk to him about his life and his work, but didn’t know quite what to say.

Duncan didn’t wait for me, he jumped right in. “How old are the kids, Carlos? Tell me all about things down in Portland.”

Here was a man who could talk to anyone at any level, discussing Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” But he wanted to talk about my children. He wanted every detail about each of my kids’ lives, what they studied in school, what foods they liked, about their talents. Were they readers?  Did any of them write poetry?  His interest was genuine, and he took delight in each bit of information. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn he was a father himself.

That evening, Phil, Duncan and I stayed up talking most of the night. I leaned up against the fireplace drinking my beer, listening mostly. Duncan told many stories, but my favorite was the tale about collecting his mail. As he related the story, he laughed so hard he could hardly finish a sentence.

One night after teaching a class, Duncan went to the English Department office to check his mailbox. When he walked in, there were the secretary and the department chairman, without a stitch and in flagrante delicto! Never at a loss for words, Duncan looked the naked secretary in the eye and said simply, “I don’t suppose any mail came for me this week?” He laughed so hard he almost choked.

At some point, Duncan brought up the subject of being cross-eyed. This was one of his most distinguishing physical features, something you could hardly fail to notice, but I certainly wasn’t going to ask him about it. He told us that he’d been in a sledding accident at the age of three, and ever since he was cross-eyed and suffered from double vision.

“Being cross-eyed is perfect for a poet,” he laughed. “Very useful at readings. You can keep one eye on the poem you’re reading, and the other on the audience. Always throws ‘em off!” he finished with a roar.

When the subject turned to publishing, as it always does with writers, the conversation flowed easily among the three of us. Duncan seemed to deflect the spotlight away from himself, encouraging Phil and me to recount our own tales. Then he asked about my small press, Trask House Books. After giving him a rundown of the authors and books we’d published, without thinking, I asked Duncan if he had a manuscript that Trask House could publish. He thought it over for a minute, then to my surprise he said he had a mimeo book, Writing, Writing, A Composition Book. It had been published in 1964 by Fred Wah of Sumbooks, and had gone out of print. “You can have it to reprint,” he said, “if you’d like.” I couldn’t believe it. I was so taken aback that all I could think to say was “That’s great!” In my nervous excitement I repeated myself twice.

I was hoping for something that hadn’t been published but I was happy to be able to reprint one of his books. Duncan then made an exaggerated gesture of repositioning himself in his chair, turning toward me. “And what about you?” He tilted his head and raised his eyebrows. “What are you working on these days?”

That was the cue I was hoping for. I had brought with me a poetry manuscript called “The Prisoner,” a collection that would eventually be included in the small but ambitious Capra Series, that had already published work by Anais Nin and Henry Miller. At that time, though, it was no more than a manuscript, waiting for the right set of eyes. With Duncan’s prompting, I dug the manuscript out of my bag and handed it over.

Duncan read through the poems while I held my breath, trying not to watch him read. After what seemed like forever, he said, “There’s some nice work here. I like the sparseness of the poems. The space around them gives the poems a chance to breathe. I like that, too.” He didn’t elaborate beyond that but I was pleased that a poet I so admired said that much.

I knew of Duncan’s interest in the connection between poetry and art, and I knew too that he considered himself something of an artist as well as a poet. Encouraged by his generosity in giving me his book to reprint, I took in a deep breath and asked if he would draw something for the frontispiece of my manuscript. His response was immediate: “Thank you for asking. I’d be happy to.” He picked up the manuscript, turned to the title page, and sketched a little line drawing right there. It was unbelievably simple and beautiful. I was thrilled. He didn’t act as though he’d been put on the spot! His reaction reflected a generosity which I had seen earlier in the evening. It was one of his trademarks I would see over and over again as I got to know him.

*  *  *

In 1971 I invited Duncan to read his poetry at Portland State University. Unfortunately, it took until spring of 1972 to find the funding. Although I wasn’t part of the English Department, I was the faculty advisor to the Student Poetry Committee, and the students were very interested in having Duncan come to read. The English Department finally said yes, and the Student Poetry Committee came up with the money. Duncan’s reading fee was $200 – ridiculously low even for the 1970s. I’d like to think he came because of our friendship and because he liked visiting the Northwest.

The afternoon of the reading, the Browsing Room in Smith Memorial Center was standing room only. Word had gotten around that this giant of the San Francisco scene was going to read in Portland, and poets from all over the region turned out. Mel Buffington, a poet and photographer from La Grande, was taking pictures of the crowd. I’d recently published Duncan’s book, Writing, Writing, and I’d brought copies with me to the event. Buffington got a picture of me holding up the book with Duncan in the background. He stood by himself, waiting to be introduced.

Greg Geokjian of the English Department was to be the master of ceremonies. Unfortunately, in his introduction Greg referred to Duncan as a Beat Poet. He must not have known much about the San Francisco Renaissance; he must have thought that any poet from San Francisco had to be a Beat Poet. Duncan cringed, but as the audience applauded he smiled and walked to the podium.

The crowd quieted, waiting. With a wing-like motion of his hands Duncan began, orchestrating the rhythm of his poems as though he were conducting an orchestra. He began with “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” from Bending the Bow. When he began to read “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” he looked at me, gave a bit of a wink, and we both smiled. Those lines are the epigraph on the title page of my book The Prisoner, just above the drawing he made for me on our first visit.

It was a magical reading. That afternoon Duncan held a packed room enthralled for a full hour.

Even after a late night party that followed Duncan’s reading, we were up early the next day. As we were having our coffee Duncan said, “Why don’t we let your wife sleep in. Can we take the kids to a park?” The kids were thrilled and once again I was touched by Duncan’s sensitivity to our family life.

We all piled into the Volkswagen and headed over to Laurelhurst Park. As soon as we stopped the bus the kids ran for the swings, then called out, “Come on Mr. Duckie-Duncan, come on and swing with us!” Duncan got to the swings and asked in his disarming and polite way, “OK. Who wants to be first?” Amy shouted “Me!!” before anyone else could claim the first ride, and Duncan pulled her swing toward him. “Alright, here we go!” and gave her a push up to the sky.

I was amazed. I would have thought that the kids might be frightened or intimidated by this dark mysterious poet from San Francisco. But they had met him before in Ellensburg, and his delight in playing with them was enough to win them over. He pushed one swing, then the other, until both children were gliding as high as the lower treetops. As they swung they recited nursery rhymes to impress the poet, then got back around to singing “Rubber Duncan.” He just grinned as he pushed them in their swings until they got bored. He seemed in no hurry to stop.

My memory of that visit is of Duncan’s willingness to talk about anything. But mostly I remember a man who delighted in children, who played with them, pushed them on the swings. He was as happy in their presence as he was with the literati. The children remember a dark man in a long cape like Dracula, though a friendly one with a broad smile and twinkling eyes.

* * *

On several occasions Duncan had suggested I drop by for a visit if I were ever in San Francisco. So, in the fall of 1971 I took him up on his offer. When I phoned he sounded delighted to hear from me and invited me to join him and his partner Jess Collins for dinner. When I arrived at his Victorian in the Mission District, Duncan was there at the door to meet me, smiling and happy to see me. “Carlos, welcome!” he boomed, and ushered me inside.

I was struck by the interior of the Victorian: dark wood, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, lush furnishings, walls covered with artwork. It reminded me of photos I’d seen of Gertrude Stein’s atelier in Paris. I knew of Duncan’s appreciation of Stein. After all, the subtitle of his book that I published was Stein Imitations, and the dedication left no doubt: For the love of Gertrude Stein in which I labored to write in whose mode…

After a lovely casserole dinner, Jess cleared away the dishes, leaving Duncan and me alone to talk. In the corner of the room, I noticed a large oak desk. Although this was my first time at Duncan’s house, it was not the first time I had seen that desk. It was the very one that was featured in a documentary about Duncan, which was part of a series on National Education Television in the 1960s.

When I had seen that program years before, I was struck by a close-up of the desk. As Duncan sat there, the camera zoomed in on the poem he was writing right then. Each line seemed to run the full width of the page. Being familiar with Duncan’s work, I knew his lines were not that long, and I was curious about the way he composed and revised. Seeing the desk again, I remembered that curiosity and asked him about it. “When the muse gets me, I just start writing. I get it all down at once. Later I go back and break the lines by the rhythm, turning them into music as I feel it.”

As I caught my breath – for I was astonished by what he shared with me – Duncan excused himself suddenly and left the room. He was gone only a short time and returned with something in his hand, a small square of paper. Before he handed it to me, he beamed like a kid with a secret, with a look of amused self-satisfaction. “This is the earliest extant writing of Robert Duncan!”

He presented this scrap of paper to me with an exaggerated gesture. It was his Christmas wish list from 1929, no more, no less. He seemed quite thrilled with himself at having found this evidence of his earliest writing. I was a bit overwhelmed to even read the list before he took it back and returned it to its safe keeping. I wish I had read it – I wonder what that 10-year-old little boy wanted for Christmas.

A few months later I happened to see a rare book catalog. There was the very same scrap of paper, Duncan’s Christmas wish list from 1929, offered for sale at a hefty price. While I was amused to see the item listed, I was not surprised. That was certainly something Duncan would do. He never had a regular job or teaching position. He lived by his wits since the 1940s persisting in being a poet and writer. I am sure he was delighted to have turned that scrap of paper into hard cash.

* * *

In 1972 my friend Walter Hall was working at Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley. Walter ran the reading series upstairs in Cody’s Gallery, and in August of that year he set up a reading for me. I was excited and nervous about reading in Berkeley, particularly since it was being held at that famous bookstore.

I got the surprise of my life that night. Just before I was introduced to read, Duncan strode in and sat down in the front row. I was excited that he was there, and impressed that he made the trip from San Francisco to Berkeley. Duncan didn’t drive, so to get there he had to take the bus over. I’ll admit that I was more than a bit nervous seeing him in the audience. As I read I glanced his way, and when I saw that he was thoughtfully listening, nodding in assent at some particular line, I relaxed into the rhythm of the reading. But that was just like Duncan, always interested in poets of a lesser rank like myself, at the time relatively unknown. After the reading he shook my hand in congratulations. “Good job, Carlos! You gave a fine reading.” That made me very happy.

* * *

In 1980 I invited Duncan to read at the Portland Poetry Festival. The festival was a week full of activities – panels, lectures, softball games, picnics, and of course poetry readings and parties. Duncan would be one of the featured poets at the end of the week. The Sunday reading took place in the amphitheater of the Portland Rose Gardens, an expansive and breathtaking park that overlooked the city, with a spectacular view of Mount Hood rising beyond the stage.

Some festival poets stayed in hotels while others were hosted by local writers. I was honored to be Duncan’s host for the week. When I picked him up at the airport, he was in fine spirits and excited about the festival. One of the many things I liked about Duncan was his professional attitude. As soon as he arrived he wanted to know how many parties he was supposed to attend, which panels he would participate in, which talks he was to give and who the audience would be. And of course he wanted to know the schedule of readings throughout the week. He was generous about attending readings by other poets, especially younger and lesser known ones.

It was fascinating to watch Duncan interact with the other readers at the festival. At one reception Duncan and Galway Kinnell sat together out on the patio under a big weeping willow, then strolled around the garden walking and talking. The way Duncan gestured toward Kinnell, rested his hand on Kinnell’s arm, reminded me of a father and son. At an after-hours party Duncan interacted in quite a different way with Joseph Langland, who seemed to be openly flirting with Duncan. And Duncan looked delighted by Langland’s advances. Later in the evening he laughed off the flirtations by someone he referred to as “that silly youngster.” That amused me even more, because Duncan and Langland were contemporaries. I still have the picture of the two of them sitting on my living room couch, heads together like lovebirds, Portland city lights twinkling in the background.

One evening when there were no planned events for the festival, I invited Duncan to dinner, and decided on Jake’s Famous Crawfish. Jake’s is one of Portland’s oldest restaurants, and to me it seemed the only one in Portland that could equal San Francisco eateries. I also chose it because of their signature dish, crawfish.

Duncan liked the 1890s atmosphere of the place, and, it turned out that he too was a big a fan of the little crustaceans. I was accustomed to eating only the tail and maybe the claws when they were big enough. But I was in for a new treat. Duncan showed me how to find other succulent parts of the creature, like the delicious “butter” and the roe. “Ah, crayfish roe. Almost as good as caviar,” Duncan smiled as he wiped his lips with a napkin. I had to agree with him.

After a week filled with readings and panels, parties and dinners, it was time for the grand finale, the Sunday reading in the Rose Garden. It was my incredible honor and privilege to introduce Duncan.

Strange, though: the man I introduced on that day in the park was a more dapper and more robust man than the one I had met ten years earlier. When I stood at the mic and called Duncan “a candidate for the greatest living American poet,” he looked downright youthful as he took the podium. He gave a tremendous reading to a spellbound audience of several hundred people. From the applause, I could tell that they were convinced too, that we had experienced greatness.

* * *

I talked to Duncan by phone several times after that, but the 1980 Portland Poetry Festival was the last time I saw him. Still, he is ever present in my poetry library. From time to time I take his books down to re-read, like Opening of the Field. I think of him when I open my own book, The Prisoner, and see his drawing and the epigraph. It makes me believe also “that I am permitted to return to a meadow.”  A meadow where I see him: in a park with my children, swinging them, listening to their nursery rhymes, smiling at their knock-off Sesame Street jingle. I only just realized that our little scene in the park replicates the image on the cover of the first edition of Opening of the Field. Jess Collins, Duncan’s partner, designed a charming scene: there, beneath the title, are children holding hands in a circle, a swing set just to the right.

I can see myself in that meadow with Duncan, talking and walking, his hand on my shoulder, the way I’d seen him with Galway Kinnell. Besides being one of my literary idols, I realize now that Duncan’s most important influence on me has been that of a perfect role model for conducting one’s life as a poet. He exuded a quiet conviction of the legitimacy and viability of poetry as a way of life, convincing me to continue that struggle and to find my way through a life of living and writing poetry.