Harp & Altar
Lisa Jarnot
from Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus

Michael Newton

Jared White

Michael Zeiss

Lisa Jarnot

. . . often I remember our conversation one morning, riding in on the bus with you and Jess to Palma from Banalbufar. I listened very carefully that day; you were asserting that I too could hope to be usefully employed, for a reasonable income, and then—well, of course I could not believe it.

—Robert Creeley to Robert Duncan, 8 Dec 1956


On March 3, 1955, Robert Duncan was issued his first passport. The brown haired, gray eyed, five-foot-ten San Franciscan listed his occupation as “writer” and the laminated photograph within the document showed him dressed in a dark suit, a grin creeping across his chubby face and waves of tousled hair styled over his broad forehead. The passport arrived in anticipation of a springtime adventure to Europe with Jess. Imagining the trip as something of a delayed honeymoon, Duncan wrote to James and Blanche Cooney that there was much to look forward to: “The last four years have been very happy ones for me—life sometimes gives us what we little deserve. And then I think I like being thirty-six more than I ever did being twenty-six.”1 Before departing, the couple packed up the Baker Street house and left the cats Kit Kat and Pumpkin in the care of Michael and Joanna McClure, and Princess with Ida Hodes. The goals of the trip were threefold—to escape the bustle of the San Francisco poetry scene, to see the sights of Europe, and to meet the poet Robert Creeley who was then living on the Spanish island of Mallorca.

For Duncan, a transition toward the Black Mountain School began in his correspondence with Olson and Creeley, and continued through his meeting with Creeley in Mallorca in 1955. The key Black Mountain poets—Olson, Creeley, Duncan, and Denise Levertov—came to form an incongruous company. Both Olson and Creeley were Harvard educated New Englanders, a curious breed of colleague for the West Coast “never-graduated” theosophically raised Duncan.  British-born Denise Levertov, who never stepped foot on the Black Mountain College campus, brought to the group her own exotic preoccupations: a mix of Christian and Jewish mysticism inherited from her rabbi-turned-Christian father, as well as an economic use of line and image in her poems resonant of Williams and the Objectivists.

Creeley, born in Arlington, Massachusetts in 1926, was raised in the company of his widowed mother, an aunt, and older sister in New England. By his mid-twenties he had attended and dropped out of Harvard University, served in the Second World War, married, had three children, worked as a pigeon breeder, and moved to Europe to live in France and Spain. In 1950 he began a correspondence with Charles Olson, and from 1954 through 1957 he edited the Black Mountain Review. In 1952, the year he began his correspondence with Duncan, his first book, Le Fou, was published. The friendship between Duncan and Creeley had a timid start, but by the time the two met in Mallorca, they were on the way to a rich companionship that saw few interruptions between 1955 and Duncan’s death in 1988.

Duncan and Jess, along with painter Harry Jacobus, began their journey toward Europe in February of 1955, traveling by car to the East Coast and spending three weeks there. They started the trip with the idea of “looking at things.”2 Neither Jess nor Duncan drove, which made it easier for them to do just that. With Harry Jacobus at the wheel, the group made their way first to Black Mountain College, finding the school in a state of disrepair. As Jacobus recalled, “It was the first hippie place I’d ever seen, with no discipline at all. I was just amazed.”3 The three men stayed briefly, sleeping on the floor in one of the semi-abandoned buildings on campus. Duncan remembered other details of the visit in a short prose piece written years later:


It was already dark by the time we got to Asheville, North Carolina, and phoned Charles at Black Mountain. When at last we made our way to the College, driving over doubtful roads through the derelict grounds of the “old campus,” which had been sold to a Summer Camp, it was nine or so. The place was frozen in, and there were no students there . . . . It was a night of high intellectual excitement; we drank and talked after dinner and then, at midnight or one in the morning, under a sky blazing with stars, we were out with Charles on the way to the “Gropius” building, stopping to give Olson’s stranded car a heave-to to get the dead battery to turn over. Then . . . Charles read O’Ryan to Jess and me as we huddled in the cold of our guest quarters.4 


The following morning they were on the road again, bound for New York City where they stayed with Stan Brakhage. Relations between Duncan and Brakhage were strained in the aftermath of Duncan’s clumsy attempt to seduce the young filmmaker during the previous year, but Brakhage was more than happy to have his San Francisco mentors as guests in his downtown apartment. During his first few months in New York, he had met a number of local artists and filmmakers, and was eager to show Duncan and Jess a new film of his own, “The Way to Shadow Garden,” which had been shot in the basement at the Baker Street house. Jess meanwhile was more concerned with defending himself from the cacophony of New York. He reported to friends Ham and Mary Tyler: “We’re living in primitive N.Y. style in a little apt. of Stan Brakhage’s.  A bit grim but not too bad.  How life in the big city is real scary outside here on the streets.”5

                The trip to New York allowed for a substantial first meeting between Duncan, Jess, Denise Levertov, and her husband Mitch Goodman. Levertov was greatly impressed, soon forwarding a note to Duncan in Europe: “I’ve wanted to write ever since you left but I wished to write such a special kind of letter—something befitting the effect on me of your visit—that I put it off, to save for a special day.”6 Duncan’s glimpse into a new community of writers and artists in New York was not enough to appease his old gripes with the “greater madness” of the city, but the brief visit at least allowed him an opportunity to catch up with old friends. He likely visited Blanche and James Cooney in Woodstock, and he and Jess spent an afternoon with Virginia Admiral and her eleven-year-old son Bobbie at her loft on 14th Street.7

                Leaving New York on March 8, Duncan, Jess, and Jacobus sailed to Portugal. Once ashore in Lisbon, the three men traveled together to Barcelona and finally to the island of Mallorca, arriving on March 22 where they were greeted by the scrawny goateed twenty-eight-year-old Creeley. Then living in a typical Mallorcan “ranch style” house with his first wife Ann and their children David, Thomas, and Charlotte, Creeley brought his guests home where they all sat down around the fireplace facing each other. At one point in the conversation that evening, in “trying to emphasize to Robert some absolute confusion someone had had vis-a-vis something,” Creeley said, “You know it’s like one of those cross-eyed sons of bitches who can’t get anything right.” A pause ensued and Duncan bantered back, “You mean like me.” Creeley’s rather sheepish response, “Well, you know, one-eyed, whatever,” was greeted by laughter.8 A more substantial tension arose in Duncan and Jess’s relationship with Ann Creeley, stated bluntly in Duncan’s first correspondence to Denise Levertov from Mallorca:


I can’t restrain myself from a comment or two on the Creeleys. Bob we both liked very much indeed . . . . But what must be sketched in is that she isn’t really likeable. She is embitterd—and while one can piece together why—what has that to do with it as Jess says. Plenty of unembitterd people have all the why in the world. And then she is, I am afraid, stupid.9


Despite, or possibly partly because of Duncan’s hostility to his wife, the presence of visitors was a godsend for Creeley, and he later recalled in an interview with Ann Charters:


Things were very tight in my house and I was very relieved to see them. I liked Duncan in an instant. We took a trolley into the city to try to locate a pension for Duncan and Jess that would be comfortable and inexpensive, and I can remember riding this trolley and Robert looking at me and saying with that crazy smile, “You’re not interested in history, are you?”10


Duncan, shrewdly pointing toward one of the differences between his work and Creeley’s, nonetheless appreciated his younger peer’s minimalist emotion-driven aesthetics. While Creeley was soon to return to America, during his weeks spent with Duncan and Jess that spring he found the support he needed to propel himself away from his troubled marriage.

                Meanwhile, the honeymooners stayed on the island of Mallorca from March of 1955 until February of 1956, for the most part in the town of Banalbufar. Situated east of Spain in the Mediterranean, the island was as yet a fairly untouristed site, though it had served as a literary outpost for the likes of Robert Graves and Laura (Riding) Jackson. Graves had gone to Mallorca in the late 1920s on the recommendation of Gertrude Stein. In a memoir of his time spent there, Graves wrote:


. . . I chose Deya, a small fishing and olive-producing village on the mountainous north-west coast of the island—the rest is mostly plain or rolling country—where I found everything I wanted as a background to my work as a writer: sun, sea, mountains, spring-water, shady trees, no politics, and a few civilized luxuries such as electric light and a bus service to Palma, the capital.11


Duncan and Jess had a similar experience of their year in Mallorca; it offered the opportunity for both men to complete significant amounts of work: Jess with a series of collages and paintings, and Duncan with writings toward his books Letters and Caesar’s Gate. The landscape of the island consumed their imaginations. High cliffs overlooking the sea shadowed Banalbufar’s cathedrals and the ruins of medieval walls and towers. Its market places were filled with seafood, olives, saffron, and local wines. Living on an allowance from Duncan’s mother, the couple settled into an eight-room apartment that the Creeleys had previously inhabited, paying ten dollars a month, high by the standards of the region, but ideal for Duncan and Jess. The space felt palatial, including a kitchen with a fireplace, a dining room, living room, bedroom, and work studio all laid out in a railroad style flat. Another common room at the end of a long hall provided a balcony view of the ocean through an arched doorway, a regular feature of Mallorcan architecture.

                Having set out to get away from civilization, Duncan and Jess’s correspondence back to the United States during that period reflected the leisure that Mallorca afforded them. They swam every day, Jess painted, and reading was a key activity for Duncan. The texts that later influenced the poems of The Opening of the Field filled his bookshelves in the Banalbufar flat. Throughout the spring he had been absorbed in the writings of Jean Cocteau and William Blake. When he began translating Cocteau’s writings, he mused in a notebook about


a period of virulent contagions, fevers of Blake; and the closeness of Cocteau’s journals to my own designs, a closeness that is of the design anyway.  But to give my vices a world in which to flower, and a universe for my demons to walk by night is a virtue of writing at all.12


The exotic and somewhat haunted island atmosphere had its influence in directing Duncan’s reading as well. Helen Adam sent books by Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was another favorite for post-dusk candle-lit reading, and John Livingston Lowes’ The Road to Xanadu became, as Duncan reported to Robin Blaser, his bible.13

                During the course of his travels, Duncan also had an opportunity to think about the more immediate creative influences he had left behind in the Bay Area. Letters to Helen Adam were frequent that year, filled with insights into Duncan’s poetics:


That we found you all—the Adam family such a special revelation. It is the kinship one feels with those however and wherever that live in an enchantment of the imagination—antiques, we are, of the 19th century? It is this that I admire in the surrealists: the powers of the word rather than the power of the word. I reach for the distinction.14


Appearing in his notebooks that summer were a series of ballads for Helen Adam alongside a final wave of Stein derivations, and in May and June, while struggling to make some sense of the Spanish that was being spoken around him, Duncan started an essay later titled “Poetry Before Language,” a piece reflecting upon the mytho-physiological origins of speech.15 In a note to James Broughton, he exclaimed, “We have a splendid piso, which we furnished and are beginning to be at home in. But O Spanish—how did I ever learn English!”16 and in a letter to Denise Levertov he wrote about the near-panic he could fall into when out of his element:


My notebooks are becoming deformd by the “ideas” which ordinarily I throw into talk, invaluable talk for a head like mine that no wastebasket could keep clear for a poem. I can more than understand dear old Coleridge who grew up to be a boring machine of talk; I can fear for my own poor soul. And, isolated from the city of idle chatter, here, my head fills up, painfully, with insistent IMPORTANT things-to-say. I toss at night, spring out of bed to sit for hours, crouchd over a candle, writing out—ideas, ideas, ideas.17


There were at least a few English speakers in Mallorca to keep Duncan occupied, and in late May, after recovering from a series of mishaps including a scalded foot, a fever, and what may have been a migraine attack, there was time to entertain new friends. The painter John Altoon, who had become close with the Creeleys, lived nearby and made visits to the household. Creeley remembered that Altoon, an Armenian who had grown up in a working class neighborhood in Los Angeles, was one day cornered by Duncan who “related the authority and magnificence of the Armenian empire. It took him about two plus hours to do it, but it was just incredible . . . and he [Altoon] was dazzled.”18 Altoon and Jess also took an interest in each other, and as Duncan told James Broughton in a letter that summer, “Jess is at work on a new phase of non-objective canvasses, the first in two years or so, touchd off by our seeing John Altoon’s work here.”19

                For Jess, Europe provided inspiration in countless forms, including a trip to Barcelona in June during which he and Duncan visited the Museum of Catalan Art and several architectural sites around the city. The trip was a confusing one for the couple in that their Spanish was poor and the boat schedules from the island to the mainland were difficult to understand. With their third class tickets, they were left on the deck in the rain, arriving in Barcelona very wet, but ready to be enchanted. The Oz-like works of the early twentieth-century Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi awaited them, dotting the horizon of a city


filld with wonders—Gaudi’s magnificent Cathedral of the Holy Family . . . the Parque Guell filld with storybook fantasies of color and strange forms, grottoes, hanging terraces, arcades, dragon fountains, and little houses at the gate out of Grimm’s world; and the beautiful apartments along the Paseo de Gracia—the Casa Mila and the Casa Batllo; and in the same district the Music Palace.20


1 to James and Blanche Cooney, 22 Feb 1955 [misdated as 22 March 1955].

2 The Originals: The Writer in America, PBS documentary audio cassette recording, 1974, SUNY at Buffalo.

3 Christopher Wagstaff with Harry Jacobus, Painters of the San Francisco Renaissance, No. 3: Interview with Paul Alexander, 15 and 20 May 1986 and 10 June 1986.

4 Robert Duncan, “Black Mountain College,” Jacket 28, http://jacketmagazine.com/28/dunc-bert-10prose.html#x7

5 Jess to Ham and Mary Tyler, 20 Feb 1955.

6 from Denise Levertov, 31 March 1955.

7 Virginia Admiral, personal interview, 17 July 1998. “Bobbie” became the Hollywood actor Robert De Niro Jr. Admiral’s main memory of the meeting was Jess’s effort to procure an oinment for Bobbie’s dog who had a skin rash. Duncan wrote to the Cooneys on 22 Feb 1955 asking if he might visit them in Woodstock. There is no record of the visit. In the letter, Duncan wrote of New York and New Yorkers: “How brutally unaware one wld. have to be to last.”

8 Robert Creeley, personal interview, 20 Dec 1997. Creeley had lost an eye as a child in a car accident.

9 to Denise Levertov, 16 Apr 1955. Ekbert Faas in his biography of Robert Creeley recorded the details of this conflict.

10 Charles Olson, The Special View of History, edited by Ann Charters (Berkeley: Oyez, 1970), 6.

11 Robert Graves and Paul Hogarth, Majorca Observed (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 7.

12 Notebook 15, 3 May 1955, SUNY at Buffalo.

13 Robin Blaser, personal interview, 18 June 1999. Lowes’s book is a study of Coleridge’s notebooks leading up to the composition of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” That summer Duncan added the Zohar and Darwin’s Origin of Species to his reading list as well.

14 to Helen Adam, 8 Apr 1955.

15 The essay appears in Fictive Certainties.

16 to James Broughton, 4 June 1955.

17 to Denise Levertov, ND [early June 1955].

18 Robert Creeley, personal interview, 20 Dec 1997.

19 to James Broughton, 11 July 1955.

20 to Ida Hodes, 26 June 1955.