The H.D. Book
by Robert Duncan.
University of California Press, 2011,
Written at the twilight high water of American modernism in the early Sixties, chapters scattered among obscure literary magazines like the limbs of Osiris, nearly published as a book by Black Sparrow in 1971, circulated incomplete among poets in samizdat photocopy from 1979, contracted for publication by University of California Press in 1986 and then banished for a quarter century into limbo (a delay which would have killed any other book of its kind, if there were one, but this one is wholly sui generis), Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, complete in print at last, now manifests the timeliness of its permanence. Centering on the work of Hilda Doolittle and her part in the invention of modernist poetry, it embraces an assay of modernist practice and tradition as well as a searching investigation of fundamental issues in poetics, with elements of literary autobiography and cultural history and salient reference to depth psychology, cultural anthropology, political economy, art history, philosophy, and religion.
When he wrote this, Duncan was just entering the mature phase of his own work in poetry, and his grasp of H.D.’s situation, task, and process is always vital and personally engaged. Her poetry, considered from manifold vantages in revealing (not redundant) detail, figures as a benchmark to map the wider perspectives of her tradition. He focuses on Trilogy as her master poem, with incisive attention to pertinent works of her modernist peers. He is a uniquely astute and lucid reader of Pound, The Cantos especially. Of The Waste Land he observes that the manuscript version presents a formally faithful encounter with chaotic and desolating material; Pound’s editing accurately expressive of Eliot’s poeticsproduced “a ruin with an outline,” an English garden grotto.
The approach is transdisciplinary, polymath, characteristically transgressive, and everywhere informed by an awareness that abstract categories and logic, consistent methodology, and the pursuit of theory obfuscate insofar as they lead away from an unblinkered confrontational scrutiny of fact. Rather than systematic argumentation, Duncan adopts the heuristic tools of modernist discourseluminous detail, transect, juxtaposition and montage, layering, collageto construct his discussion from an interplay of empirical insights. Norman Holmes Pearson, who originally suggested that Duncan write something to honor Doolittle’s seventy-fifth birthday, later commented, “I asked him for an H.D. book, and he’s writing an LSD book.” The H.D. Book fully lives up to acid’s multidimensional visionary inflorescence. It is an exploration, not a survey of captured territory. The view is from the West.
Duncan begins autobiographically, in a classroom at Kern County Union High School in “1935 or 1936,” listening to Miss Keough recite something extracurricular:
Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
This is the first Hilda Doolittle, the “H.D., Imagiste” of 19121915.
Imagisme was a faux-French movement Ezra Pound invented principally to promote the virtues of her poems, notably their emphatic economy of means devoted to the image as transmitter of “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In the impenetrable heat of Bakersfield in late May and the blunted ripening of frustrated adolescence, H.D.’s image and Miss Keough’s voice conjured such a complex in Robert’s response: a compound of discovery and recognition in the reading of a sign. Here “the image” is neither a rhetorical device soliciting visual imagination like “a patient etherized upon a table,” nor the projection of private emotion onto the opaque screen of nature. For H.D. (as for Pound, Lawrence, and Williams), “things and events strive to speak. To evoke an image is to receive a sign”to read an epiphany of meaning in the world. This poetics conceives a world of omens, a cosmos of synchronicities universally interknit by correspondences and sympathiesa concept which is heresy to orthodox western materialist science and theology alike, and central to what Yeats calls the “heterodox traditions”: neoplatonic, gnostic, hermetic, theosophical, esoteric, pagan, shamanic.
For this poetics of epiphany, “the business of the artist is to bring things to light”not to create meaning, but to discover it; “not to find what art is but thru the art to find what life might be.” The poet’s aims and the scientist’s are similarboth “work to feel or know the inner order of things”but the subjects and means of poetry are not limited to material reality. Yeats found encouragement for this “visionary realism” in Blake, Lawrence in anthropology, H.D. in Freud, Williams in Goethe, Pound in Cavalcanti, Duncan in Jung; but the Americans among them met it first in Emerson, who praises “the scope and vista” of Whitman’s “subject,” and in Whitman himself, whose 1855 Preface observes that “Folks expect of the poet to indicate the path between reality and their souls.”
Duncan draws a fundamental distinction in modernist poetry between the practice that evinces this poetics of epiphany and the work of poets such as Stevens, Eliot, and Moore, which centers on expression of attitude. Those three found their key models in later nineteenth-century France, and especially in the precocious pierrot courtier poet Jules Laforgue. This is a theatrical mode, governed by manner: like the Baudelairean dandy, “it strives above all for the telling mot,” listens spellbound “to its own phrases ringing upon the stage and lets its mask speak what it will.” It is a poetics of impersonation, intent on expressing responses and on the impression that it makes, the responses it provokeson persuasion, on being ingratiating, on distraction and entertainment. In this, its craft is akin to the businessman’s spiel, the comedian’s shtick, the magician’s spell and long sleeves. It wants “to make a sell.” As with Castiglione’s Courtier, its favorite artistic device is sprezzatura, an appearance of spontaneity dissembling calculation. Its concern for appearances helps it adapt well to institutional surroundings, but in captivity it tends to degenerate into flippancy, windowshopping, tourism.
Both elements “dwell in mixed possibilities in every event of art.” Their antithesis is sharply defined and perpetual and compelling. For a poetics of attitude, Pound’s motto “make it new” enjoins rapid turnover in the fashion cycle of a rag trade where “words are not powers but ‘counters’…‘pretty, expected, shopworn’ if they [are] not smartly turned out.” For a poetics of epiphany, “make it new” means the renewal of perennial visions and the art of “forcing new roots in the revival of ancient matter.” Unlike the poets of attitude among modernists, H.D., Pound, and Williams “go on to a major phase in their old age that will change the ground or culture of Poetry itself.”
Originally, in 1912, before ephemeral celebrity made it mean nothing, Imagism meant a miniature art of significant glimpses; haiku was a model. Trilogy, written in 19401944, numbers over two thousand verses. Duncan traces through H.D.’s work of the intervening years the development of the formal art that underwrites this epic scale. The image as signthe germinal image, “radiant gist,” “minute particular”is a primary element. Her understanding (and Pound’s) of its power as an instrument of vision, “the sense that everything is meaningful if one learn to read,” was extended in the early 1920s by anthropologist Leo Frobenius’s observation that the artifact legibly evidences its culture as a system of relations (or “correspondences”). H.D.’s psychoanalytic work with Freud in 193334 afforded a practical tutorial in dream reading and dream signs that “deepened her belief that the poet does not give meaning to the word but draws meaning from it, touches meaning or participates in meaning there.” The germinal image is not static; its “associational depth…links to meanings in an historical drama.” H.D.’s life-long investigation of the heterodox lore of signs, like Freud’s and Jung’s (and Duncan’s), targeted this drama. But the formal invention that enables Trilogy, that carries its action, is its mode of discourse, which draws on the stream-of-consciousness and narrative layering of H.D.’s fiction, on cinematic montage (she worked on experimental films in the late Twenties), and on Freud’s syntax of dream, integrating features of first-person narrative, meditation, dream-vision, pilgrimage, seance, logomancy, incantation, and oracle in the speech of a “multiphasic psyche” conversant with adversary voices.
Trilogy begins in London during the Blitz, with a prologue of Dantescan triads superimposing ruins in Kensington and Egypt. Like the Cantos and Paterson, Trilogy presents a landscape which “is a multiple image… The historical and the personal past, along with the divine world,…participate in the immediate scene… The War is not to be taken for granted as simply an economic or political opportunity or as a disorder, but it is also a Mystery play or dream projection to be witnessed and interpreted… In Freudian terms, [it] is a manifestation of the latent content of the civilization and its discontents, a projection of the collective unconscious.” For the young Hilda Doolittle, as for most modernists, the First World War climaxed a “traumatic crisis” of disillusionment with the modern state and mercantile society that propelled a spiritual and artistic quest for other avenues and deeper sources. The cultural crisis was psychological also, emergent “in the resistance men have against knowing what is above or below, the strange refusal to see what they are doing or to hear what they are saying just when they are most engaged in their own self-destruction.”
For H.D. in Trilogy (and for Pound in The Pisan Cantos), the Second World War triggered a recapitulation of this crisis envisioned in wider dimensions. As a second-generation modernist, Duncan differs from his elders in taking crisis and quest for given. “In the late thirties,…we had knownas younger men now have not knowna time when it seemed there could have been the choice for a peaceful economy,” not “war upon war” in “a new world [where] war was…the most profitable business, the foundation of the economy.” Trilogy confronts the war with a “declaration of a personal real equal in its terms to the real terms of the war.” It was this that underlay the rejections and dismissals of New Critics such as Jarrell and Fitts. H.D.’s poem “does not recognize what the consensus of opinion of reasonable men has determined is the true nature of history.” It “is a theosophical poem and…takes thought not from dogma but from speculations upon the nature of the cosmos as a divine revelation.”
Duncan points out that all three modernist epicsTrilogy, the Cantos, Patersonare neo-hellenistic. They bespeak a plural world, like the Mediterranean after Alexander, where local cultures and cosmopolitan interact, and would-be imperial centers contend for hegemony. They are hellenistic also in their syncretism (they “hanker after strange gods”), and in viewing “history as the evolution of psychic forms” and “the physical universe as vital.” All three involve a cosmological dimension, a regard for the nexus of personal fate and communal history as nested in cosmosthe imagined all-encompassing context addressed by what Duncan refers to as “the symposium of the whole.” Dante emerges here to exemplify the epic’s concern with cosmos as the ultimate form in which “it all coheres.” Alongside his presentation of cosmos, Duncan poses Géza Roheim’s ethnological-psychoanalytic study of the “dream time,” the tradition through which Australian Aboriginal culture, material as well as social and religious, is transmittedprojected as myth superimposed on the world and its creatures in a ceremonial calendar and map enacted in custom, rite, dance, and song. Here community, myth, and cosmos co-inform and collaborate. Roheim comments: “Both myth and ritual are an attempt to cathect environment with libido”that is, to enter an I-Thou relationship with the world.
The “dream time” is eternally present, coexistent with the material worldthe sum of culture and craft made manifest collectively, the archetypes performed. In reality, this is always the case. Duncan quotes Whitehead’s Aims of Education: “The communion of the saints is a great and inspiring assemblage but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is, the present.” In this sense, Pound’s proposition that “all ages are contemporaneous” is plain fact. “The fabric of history, of memory, then, must be continually woven in order to exist because it is not the fabric of the past but the fabric of the present that we weave.” This is “the symposium of the whole”; its weaving is the fundamental purview of poetry. Subsuming all disciplines, like “the total world of which the philosophers must take account” (in the reckoning of William James), it is composed “of the realities plus the fancies and illusions.” Duncan quotes H.D.: “Dream is the reaching out feelers like a snail’s horns. Reality is the shell or the thing of crystal boxes. We must have the two together.”
Duncan prized the observation of his teacher, medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, that although we are accustomed to think of “ritual transvestitism” as a practice endemic to aborigines, our judges, priests, and professors wear robesto show that they are to be considered as standing outside everyday custom. The robe is not a costume, a uniform, or a disguise; it is a sign that invokes a criterion for our expectations of the wearer’s acts, which are to be unworldly in their impartiality, in their disavowal of personal reward and grievance, in their rejection of partisan favor and partial views. “The temple is holy because it is not for sale.”
The H.D. Book begins inside a classroom, with a calling. “In towns like Bakersfield where I was growing up it needed daring to live by the imagination,…courage to live with sensitivity… Living for love or living for experience is heretical…to career, to comfort, to security.” H.D. was extracurricular: an infiltrator, subversive. “To face reality meant to accept and work with the terms of the dominant merchantile capitalistic and usurious system.” The inspiration transmitted was an artistic and visionary epiphany.
Duncan also concludes his first chapter autobiographically, outside on a UC Berkeley campus lawn in October 1938, reading to Athalie and Lili, his sophomore muses, from James Joyce’s new Collected Poems. As the Campanile begins to toll elevensummoning Robert for Military Drill (which was mandatory for graduation)he comes on a lyric of Joyce’s that appeared along with H.D.’s in the original Imagist anthology, Des Imagists (1914): “I hear an army charging upon the land.” Rather than report for drill, he decides to stay and read it to his friends. Turning from “the orders of the day, a deserter from my prescribed career,…transported into the authority of the impulse of a poem,” he answered the calling of “a new authority in the immediacy of what I had come to love: I came into a new fate,…an eternal order that challenged all other orders.”
Jim Powell is the author of two collections of poetry, Substrate and It Was Fever That Made the World, and the translator of The Poetry of Sappho.