Robert Duncan: An Introduction
Robert Duncan’s relation to pedagogy and pedagogues was a conflicted one. He never completed the undergraduate degree he began at the University of California at Berkeley in 1937. As an anarchist he bristled against the bureaucracy of academia, and despised the unimaginative halls of the English Department. The concept of the group-therapy writing workshop was also well outside of his interest. When he did work with “creative writers”, he did so in boot camp fashion—plying them with complex linguistic exercises and challenging reading lists that made them rethink the very nature of poetry. Happily unemployable, Duncan nonetheless craved the sociality of intellectual circles, and spent much of his adult life infiltrating academia. Between 1960 and 1984, he gave readings and lectures at colleges around the United States and Canada. Once settled into a community for a week or so, he commandeered classes away from colleagues, tirelessly holding forth to undoubtedly dazed undergraduate students about subjects that could range from electromagnetic field theory to Melville to French Symbolism, to occult practices of the Victorian era. It was not until 1980 with the creation of the poetics program at New College of California that he came into steady work as a teacher in his hometown of San Francisco. His devotion to his students there is evident in countless first-hand accounts from the period. In all cases Duncan insisted upon stepping above and beyond the expectations of the typical classroom, weaving his real-life experience, encyclopedic knowledge, and incredibly spontaneous energy into the education of his students (which some described with reverence as “trial by fire”). There are several already existing sources the reader may look to if interested in this aspect of Duncan’s life:
The Penn Sound website includes college and classroom lectures by Duncan, including parts of his 1986 New College seminar on the life and work of H.D.
David Levi Strauss’s essay The Poetics of Instruction: Robert Duncan Teaching is available in *Disembodied Poetics: annals of the Jack Kerouac school*. ed. Schelling, Andrew & Waldman, Anne. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.
The State University of New York at Buffalo’s Poetry and Rare Books Collection houses numerous cassette recordings of Duncan’s classroom lectures.