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Robert Duncan collection

Identifier: PCMS-0110

Scope and Contents

The Robert Duncan collection comprises over 100 linear feet of manuscript material, correspondence, artwork, ephemera, audio visual material, and printed material related to Robert Duncan’s (1919-1988) life and work, including a significant amount of material related to his partner, Jess (1923-2004), a visual artist who often collaborated with Duncan. The majority of this collection came from Duncan and Jess’s home shortly before and after Duncan’s death and reflects a shared life created to support their literary, artistic, and spiritual pursuits. This manuscript collection is complemented by Duncan and Jess’s shared personal library of approximately 9,000 volumes, also housed in the Poetry Collection, the arrangement preserved to reflect that of its original organization within their house.

Consisting of numerous acquisitions over three decades, the Robert Duncan collection contains over 17 linear feet of Duncan’s manuscript material, with over 75 notebooks. The Correspondence series forms the largest part of the collection, at 23 linear feet in 55 boxes. Nearly equal in size is the series on Manuscripts by others which includes work by Helen Adam, Robin Blaser, Larry Eigner, Madeline Gleason, Jerome Rothenberg, Jack Spicer, and many others. The Professional Work series documents Duncan’s work as a writer, teacher, and speaker: Included are correspondence, contracts, and other information related to the publication of his work as well as speaking engagements and teaching positions. Personal records and photographs provide an intimate look into Duncan’s life, which he detailed thoroughly, from his genealogy to his partnership with Jess—legal and financial documents that represented a relationship that was a marriage in every way except recognized by law.

This collection tells the story not only of Duncan’s life and work, but of the world he created, radiating out from his and Jess’s household in the Mission District: It represents the circle around them and their closest friends and collaborators. Beyond Duncan’s role in the world of poetry, this collection reflects his influence as an out gay man at a time when it was deeply unsafe and often unacceptable even to fellow artists. Duncan was not closeted or even coy: He declared his sexuality to the military when drafted in 1941, resulting in a dishonorable discharge, and his 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society” predates any organized gay rights movement in the United States.

This collection also tells the story of 30 years of the Poetry Collection: In addition to Robert Duncan materials, former curator Robert Bertholf sought and acquired items and collections that supplemented and expanded upon Duncan’s circle, including extensive collections on Helen Adam and Paul Mariah, the Jargon Society Collection, and smaller collections of personal papers. The Poetry Collection also holds Lisa Jarnot’s papers, which include her research in writing the biography, Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus. This collecting history makes it possible to read both sides of correspondence between a number of writers, to follow the careers of writers publishing in small and independent presses, and to envision the complex and organic network of writers and artists creating work outside the mainstream—creating their own avenues of publication, performance, and education—and maintaining personal relationships that supported their work.


  • circa 1900-1996
  • Majority of material found within 1940-1986


Language of Materials


Terms of Access and Use

The Robert Duncan Collection, circa 1900-1996, is open for research.


Copyright of papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns. Researchers must obtain the written permission of the holder(s) of copyright and the Poetry Collection before requesting photocopies and/or publishing quotations from materials in the collection. Once permission is obtained, most papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures unless otherwise specified.


101.5 Linear Feet (183 containers, two map case drawers, 229 audiocassette(s), 102 audio reels, and 200 individual works of art)


The Robert Duncan collection comprises over 100 linear feet of manuscript material, correspondence, artwork, ephemera, audio visual material, and printed material related to Robert Duncan’s (1919-1988) life and work, including a significant amount of material related to his partner, Jess (1923-2004), a visual artist who often collaborated with Duncan.


The Robert Duncan collection is arranged in nine series:

  1. Manuscripts, 1936-1987
  2. Correspondence, 1939-1987
  3. Manuscripts by others, 1928-1986
  4. Professional work, 1928-1987
  5. Personal records and memorabilia, 1928-1996
  6. Photographs, circa 1900-1996
  7. Artwork, 1938-1991
  8. Audio recordings, 1950-1996
  9. Accruals, [1940s]-1994

Acquisition Information

The majority of the collection arrived at the Poetry Collection directly from the home of Robert Duncan and Jess in 1988. Accruals and their provenance, where available, are noted in the last series of this collection.


Further accruals are expected.

Related Materials

Additional manuscript collections on Robert Duncan can be found at Kent State University; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of California, Berkeley; and Washington University in St. Louis, among others. The Jess papers, 1941-2004, are held at UC Berkeley.

Processing Information

Processed by Marie Elia with Matthew Gadziala and Kayla Noll in 2019.

Beginning shortly before Robert Duncan’s death in 1988, former Poetry Collection curator Robert Bertholf, a Duncan scholar and friend of both Duncan and Jess, established the collection around a large core group of materials created and collected by Duncan. Over the years, he added to this collection in the form of donations and purchases, developing it to present Duncan’s life and work in a way that supported his own research. Similarly, Bertholf arranged the collection for his ease of use; therefore, provenance of much of the material is difficult to document. Where discernable, provenance has been recorded, as in the Scope and Content note for the series on Photographs and in the arrangement of later accruals.

In the early 2000s, Poetry Collection curator James Maynard, a graduate student at the time, began to write a working index of the collection. This nearly 100-page Word document served as both inventory and finding aid, describing much of the collection at the item level, particularly manuscript material and correspondence. This document formed the basis of the current finding aid: Archivist for Special Collections Marie Elia used it to create encoded description (EAD) for display online. Additional existing description included an index to the notebooks created by poet and former Poetry Collection student assistant Lisa Jarnot in the 1990s; a spreadsheet of the audio collection created between 2007 and 2009 by former Poetry Collection cataloger Diane Ward with the assistance of Poetry Collection student Christine Hurko; and a spreadsheet of the art collection created in 2011 by former Poetry Collection student assistant Susan Sturm, including VRA Core metadata fields. All of these were encoded by Marie Elia and added to the EAD from the index.

Later accruals, primarily from the 1990s onward, had remained physically separate and minimally described. Each of these, none more than a linear foot, is described as a file within the Accruals series. Additional accruals will be added to this series.


Finding aid for the Robert Duncan collection
Finding aid prepared by Marie Elia
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the The Poetry Collection Repository

420 Capen Hall
Buffalo New York 14260-1674 US
716-645-3714 (Fax)