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Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  37 Ratings  ·  13 Reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 560 pages
Published August 27th 2012 by University of California Press (first published January 1st 2012)
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Aug 29, 2012 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Dec 28, 2012 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Forrest Gander
Jun 17, 2014 rated it liked it
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-- ...more
Jul 10, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: duncan
There is much that makes this biography worth reading (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 also much disappointment here. First: that Jarnot has not attended 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 ...more
Aug 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 02, 2012 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Aug 08, 2012 rated it liked it
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: 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 ...more
R. G.
Aug 13, 2012 rated it liked it
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.
Aug 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
Derek Fenner
Aug 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Three days. That's all it took to devour this accomplishment in all things Duncan.
"I was a poet who started without talent."
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