ROBERT DUNCAN, American poet, born (d: 1988); An American poet and a student of H.D. and the Western esoteric tradition who spent most of his career in and around San Francisco. Though associated with any number of literary traditions and schools, Duncan is often identified with the New American Poetry and Black Mountain Poets.
Duncan’s mature work emerged in the 1950s from within the literary context of Beat culture and today he is also identified as a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance. Duncan’s name figures prominently in the history of pre-Stonewall Gay culture, particularly with the publication of The Homosexual in Society. While in Philadelphia, Duncan had a relationship with a male instructor he had first met in Berkeley. In 1941 he was drafted and declared his homosexuality to get discharged.
In 1943, he had his first heterosexual relationship. This ended in a short, disastrous marriage. In 1944, he published The Homosexual in Society, an essay in which he compared the plight of homosexuals with that of African Americans and Jews. The immediate consequence of this brave essay was that John Crowe Ransom refused to publish a previously accepted poem of Duncan’s in Kenyon Review, thus initiating Duncan’s exclusion from the mainstream of American poetry.
From 1951 until his death, he lived with the artist Jess Collins. Before then, Duncan began a relationship with Robert De Niro Sr., the father of famed actor Robert De Niro, Jr., shortly before DeNiro Sr. broke up with his wife, artist Virginia Admiral.
Duncan was the first poet to use the word “cocksucker” in print, and the first to strip to the buff during a reading. Nevertheless, he is in spirit, if not in fact, a modern romantic whose best work is instantly engaging by the standards of the purest lyrical traditions.