August 2011

Greer Mansfield


The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan wrote his magisterial H.D. Book fifty years ago; thanks to the University of California Press, it has now been published in its complete form for the first time. Like an alchemical text or a book of ancient hermetic wisdom, for decades it has circulated only in fragments (selections published in little magazines, copies passed from friend to friend) among a small group of initiates fascinated by its arcana. This is in keeping with the tradition of esoteric and occult knowledge that so intrigued Duncan, and that he invokes over and over in this book.

Just what is the H.D. Book? On one level, it is Duncan's homage to one of his favorite poets and a defense of her work against critical neglect and even hostility. The historical context is important here: at the time The H.D. Book was written, literary criticism in the "highbrow" magazines and in the academy (by that time, essentially one and the same, Duncan says) was dominated by the New Critics and their immediate offspring. Though some critics still honored H.D.'s early Imagist poetry, most of the prominent tastemakers in American letters deprecated her later, visionary work. Writing in the Partisan Review, Randall Jarrell dismissed her as "silly" and "queer." Karl Shapiro and Richard Wilbur decided that she didn't belong (not even her Imagist poems) in their "definitive" Modern American and Modern British Poetry anthology. As Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman say in their useful introduction: "At the time Duncan began writing The H.D Book in 1960, H.D. had been dismissed from the ranks of serious poets by the official arbiters of literary taste and had largely disappeared from recognition."

A great poet had become neglected and poorly understood. It's hardly an uncommon phenomenon, but Duncan felt obliged to strap on his armor and defend his lady from the scoffers and the small minds (Duncan jokingly uses this knightly image a few times in the book). As he writes:

This is an age of criticism, so the critics tell us. An age that has sought to denature and exhaust its time of crisis in bringing philosophy, the arts, human psyche, historical spirit, and the inspiration of the divine world into the terms acceptable to academic aspirations. To undertake this study I must go against the grain of values and rationalities established in my lifetime by a new official literary world. Finding their livelihood in American universities, a new class of schoolteachers has arisen, setting up critical standards and grading responses to fit the anxieties and self-satisfactions of their professional roles and writing verses to exemplify these ideals...

The university versifiers mistrust or despise equally the ardor of the scholar when it appears, Lowes's Road to Xanadu or Pater's Renaissance studies. What they seek is not the course of some passionate intuition that men have called inspiration or divine fire or the inner melody of things; these very words are signals for critical contempt.

Against this corruption of poetry and learning, Duncan celebrates a strand of Modernism that he saw as keeping the Romantic flame burning in fresh forms. It encompasses H.D., Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and, in a different way, Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, and even T.S. Eliot in his early poems and The Waste Land (Duncan has serious disagreements with Eliot's curious notions about "tradition"). Even though Pound, H.D., and their fellow Modernists were revolting against rhetorically cluttered and metrically anemic "late Romantic" verse, restoring meaning and vigor to poetry by cutting words and drawing with clear and precise lines, they were also conscious inheritors (and refiners) of pre-Raphaelite and Romantic poetry. Pound and H.D. both wrote poems filled with romantic pre-Raphaelite imagery of flowers and trees, longhaired maidens and chivalrous knights. It was imbued with what Pound called "the spirit of romance."

This lineage leads back to the Romanticism that Duncan so cherished, and beyond that to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Renaissance Hermeticism, Dante, Cavalcanti, the Provencal troubadours, Gnosticism, the Zohar, Plato, the Greek mystery religions, and the imagined occult wisdom of ancient "Egypt." Not to mention alchemy, astrology, the tarot, and other occult practices that Duncan studied his entire life (he grew up in a family of believing Theosophists).

It is on this level that The H.D. Book becomes something more than a study of H.D. (though it is that, and a great one). It is a sprawling, dazzling, impossibly rich exploration, not only of Modernist poetry but of poetry itself. Duncan sees poetry as an occult practice, a form of magic in the literal Greek sense: a religious ceremony presided over by magus priests (and perhaps more often priestesses). Duncan writes:

My vision of poetry has been drawn from Carlyle as well as from Whitman, from Dante, from Burckhardt, from Pater and Symonds as well as from Pound and Olson -- wherever another man's vision leads my spirit towards a larger feeling. And there has been a fire, a fire of anger that rose, as I found the Romantic spirit and back of that the Spirit of Romance and back of that the cult of life as a romance of the spirit belonged to an order that was under attack or was under boycott.

The mention of Carlyle is telling. Duncan agreed with Ezra Pound that "the study of literature is hero-worship. It is a refinement, or, if you will, a perversion of that primitive religion." In The H.D. Book, Duncan expands that refined or perverted religion to include heroine worship. As an outsider himself (he once wrote an essay titled "The Homosexual in Society" for Dwight Macdonald's magazine Politics and found himself shunned by several publications), Duncan was aware that the neglect of H.D. could be at least partially blamed on sexism:

Then I began to see the book as being not only the story of a poetics but of the role of women as muses and even, as Robert Graves does, as deities over Poetry, but the term poetess was derogatory. The relation of a man to the idea of mother or sister or wife raised the specter of the female will to trouble his idea of woman's genius. So, Marianne Moore in her modesty claiming no more than an honest craft was commended and even admired, but H.D. and Dame Edith Sitwell, writing in the personae of the inspired seer, pretenders to the throne of Poetry that gives voice to divine will in an age which mistrusts even the metaphor, excited contempt.

The H.D. Book contains all sorts of other wonders. The later part of the book takes the form of impressionistic diary entries: one of them describes a California wildfire that Duncan likens to an apocalyptic painting by Bosch or Brueghel: "In the West some intense fire burned, red in the evening. Fires were scattered over the landscape, descending suddenly as if cages or caps of flames has been clamped down from another realm above over men where they were, working in the fields or on their way home, or as if footsteps of angelic orders, fateful and oblivious of the individual, had burst into flame." There is also a charming reminiscence of the moment he first became enchanted with poetry and dimly felt his calling as a poet. Most poetry lovers have a story like Duncan's, where a particular poem ambushes them and reveals the possibilities of rhythmic speech and poetic imagery. In Duncan's case, a high school English teacher abandoned the textbook one day and read an H.D. poem:

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

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.

Cut the heat --
plough through it,
turning it on either side of your path.

Duncan recalls that, "Just beyond the voice of the poem, the hum and buzz of student voices and the whirr of water sprinklers merging comes distantly from the world outside an open window."  This detour into H.D. in a California schoolroom is a bright contrast to the ossified universities that Duncan criticizes throughout The H.D. Book.

H.D.'s recognition as an important poet is secure at the moment, but it seems her reputation still rests, for the most part, on her early poems. The belated publication of The H.D. Book will, one hopes, lead more readers to her haunting, resonant later work and also convince more readers to make the leap into Robert Duncan's demanding but gorgeous word-music. Someday, some century even, he and his peers in the Bay Area Renaissance (Rexroth, Snyder, Levertov, Spicer, Blaser) will be recognized as the greatest and most rewarding American poets of their era.

Most of all, though, one hopes it will lead American poets to rediscover imaginative ambition, romantic fire, spiritual scope, and a sense of where they are in history (literary and otherwise). Ezra Pound, arch-apostate of American poets (comrade and former lover of H.D., flawed hero to Duncan), once wrote: "Good art never bores one. By that I mean it is the business of the artist to prevent ennui; in the literary art, to relieve, refresh, revive the mind of the reader -- at reasonable intervals -- with some form of ecstasy, by some splendor of thought, some presentation of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase -- laughter is no mean ecstasy. Good art begins with an escape from dullness."

The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan
University of California Press
ISBN: 978-0520260757
696 pages