Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Robert Duncan's The H.D. Book

I've been meaning to post my review of this book for a while -- it appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (29 July).




Robert Duncan
THE H.D. BOOK
Edited and introduced by Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman
696pp. University of California Press. $49.95. 9780520260757


Reviewing H.D.’s Tribute to the Angels in 1945 Randall Jarrell declared that “Imagism was a reductio ad absurdum upon which it is hard to base a late style”. H.D.’s new poem was one for those who enjoy any poem by H.D., or for those collectors who enjoy any poem that includes the Virgin, Raphael, Azrael, Uriel, John on [sic] Patmos, Hermes Trismegistus, and the Bona Dea.” Jarrell’s tone is an indication of the depths to which H.D.’s reputation had fallen by the 1940s. Once celebrated as the quintessential Imagist poet, Hilda Doolittle (who was persuaded by Ezra Pound to sign herself “H.D.”) had turned in her later, post-Imagist work to a freer, more flexible style, drawing on archetypal figures, myths and legends. The critics hated it. As Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman, the editors of The H.D. Book, put it: “She became lost, hidden to the official world of poetry, her work out of print, her memory kept alive by a few dedicated readers.”

One of these was the poet Robert Duncan. At school he had experienced a moment of “self-revelation or life-revelation in the pursuit of Poetry”, when his teacher read to the class H.D.’s early Imagist poem “Heat”, but it was not until he encountered The Walls Do Not Fall (1944) that Duncan elevated her to his pantheon of master poets, alongside Pound and William Carlos Williams. That volume was followed by Tribute to the Angels (1945) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946), published together as Trilogy. Duncan’s response to what he calls The War Trilogy was as different from Jarrell’s as could be imagined: “In smoky rooms in Berkeley, in painters’ studios in San Francisco, I read these works aloud; dreamed about them; took my life in them; studied them as my anatomy of what Poetry must be.”

Duncan’s decision to start work on The H.D. Book – “a book ‘On H.D.’ or ‘For H.D.’, a tribute and a study” – can only be understood in the context of this widespread “critical distaste for H.D.’s work”. “I must make up for the critical disregard,” he writes. “To take up arms in her honor? . . . to fight for her cause that I saw as my own.” The H.D. Book is written against “the New Criticism, from the generation of Ransom or Yvor Winters to the generation of Jarrell or James Dickey”. (After reading Duncan’s pioneering essay “The Homosexual in Society” a shocked John Crowe Ransom had withdrawn Duncan’s poem “An African Elegy” from publication in The Kenyon Review.) According to Duncan, the New Criticism is a conspiracy of protestant schoolmen to “exorcise” the magic of poetry. 

In the literary establishment Eliot had won the day – he had, indeed, designed that literary establishment in his essays; and H.D., along with Lawrence and even Pound . . . belonged with those who had departed from what reasonable men consider of concern and had lusted after strange gods . . . The concept of a revealed poetry was not in tune with the mode of the great literary reviews of the forties. The new critics were partisans of what they called the rational imagination . . . ‘Inspiration’, ‘spell’, ‘rapture’ – the constant terms of The War Trilogy – are not accepted virtues in the classroom, where Dream or Vision are disruptive of a student’s attentions . . . The War Trilogy was not written, any more than Paterson or The Pisan Cantos were, for classrooms, anthologies, or the new reviews.

Although elsewhere he acknowledges T. S. Eliot as one of his “old masters”, Duncan largely disparages him in The H.D. Book. The Waste Land he describes as a “period charade”, while Williams’s Spring and All is “the spring of a new poetics”. Williams declared The Waste Land “the great catastrophe to our letters”, and Eliot ensured, Duncan says, that “Williams was never taken up in England”.

Duncan corresponded with H.D. from 1959, when he started The H.D. Book, to her death in 1961, but what began as a brief homage to the poet grew into a project of unmanageable proportions, and was abandoned in 1964. Segments of The H.D. Book were published, but this is its first appearance in book form. As Boughn and Coleman observe, “for some forty years, the only access to the text was photocopied assemblages of the various magazine publications, treasured – and sometimes passed from hand to hand – by Duncan’s loyal readers”.

The H.D. Book is more and less than an explanation of H.D.s work. It is about the growth of a poet’s mind: “I am searching out, a poetics . . . my initiation of self as poet in the ground of the poet H.D. . . . how I had found my life in poetry through the agency of certain women”. It is also a history of Modernism and of the New American Poetry:  

“The War Trilogy, The Pisan Cantos and Paterson were battlegrounds in our own struggle towards the realization of a poetry that was to appear in the early fifties. ‘Aroused’, ‘excited’, ‘inspired’, ‘fired’, we found ourselves contending for these masterpieces against those for whom our own work was never to have a place.”

Duncan touches on his debt to Charles Olson and on open-form poetry or “composition by field”: “to work not from preconceived form but toward a form yet to be created”; the idea being that a poem should retain what Pound called “the defects inherent in a record of struggle”. The H.D. Book is also a reassertion of Pound’s occultism, which, Duncan argues, never went away, and haunts the Lear-like ruminations of the Pisan Cantos. Pound might affect “the ‘spiel’ of the American businessman”, but he cannot hide “the shamanistic poet he is at heart”. Duncan never forgets Pound’s Pre-Raphaelite roots stretching back to Dante, and the influence of W. B. Yeats’s “daemonic experiment”. Yeats’s occultism is easily mocked, while the poetry it produced is revered. H.D. and Duncan have not been so fortunate. Yeats was silly like us, and silly like Duncan, who points out in The H.D. Book that “silly” derives from “seely”, meaning “spiritually blessed”. “H.D. is silly in the head,” Randall Jarrell announced after reading The Walls Do Not Fall. That volume was written in London during the Blitz, and Duncan shows how the second world war brought forth the best work of his poet-heroes, with old age as its crucible: 

Was it that the war – the bombardment for H.D., the imprisonment and exposure to the elements for Ezra Pound, the divorce in the speech for Williams – touched a spring of passionate feeling in the poet that was not the war but was his age, his ripeness in life?

The autobiographical sections of The H.D. Book cast light on Duncan’s unique position in modern poetry – and on why he might regard becoming a poet as akin to entering a cult. His mother died giving birth to him, and his adoptive parents belonged to the Hermetic Brotherhood of California. “In my childhood,” he recalls, “there were still mediums who talked in Indian voices among those adults meeting in the other room.” It was, by anyone’s standards, a peculiar upbringing. Having consulted astrological charts, his parents informed the young Duncan that he had lived on Atlantis in a previous incarnation, and recorded here is his childhood “Atlantean” dream, which some commentators regard as central to his work. Duncan could talk without irony about magic and angels, and in The H.D. Book he observes how the world of faery in its otherness resembles the otherness of being a “fairy”, his sexuality connecting with H.D.’s in “a cult of mediumship, poetry and homosexuality”. Duncan’s occultism was sincere and serious, but autonomous. He borrowed only what he needed for his own purposes. To quote H.D. in The Walls Do Not Fall, his was a “peculiar ego-centric / personal approach / to the eternal realities”. 

While writing The H.D. Book Duncan produced some of his best poetry, from The Opening of the Field (1960) to Roots and Branches (1964) and Bending the Bow (1968). His decision in 1968 not to publish anything for fifteen years has been seen by some as disastrous for his career and reputation. The H.D. Book is the first phase of a larger commitment by the University of California Press to get Duncan back into the bookshops. The Collected Early Poems and Plays will follow, together with the Collected Later Poems and Plays, the Collected Essays and Other Writings, a new Selected Poems and a Selected Letters

Robert Duncan’s insistence on the interconnectedness of all things seems well suited to an age of ecological crisis, as is his recurrent fear of some impending apocalypse with its origin in that early Atlantis dream. The unique mood of Duncan’s verse, the precise music that keeps us engaged in the midst of obscurity, the intimate prophecy, deserve to be celebrated.  

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