The H.D. Book, by Robert Duncan. University of California Press. 646 pp., $49.95.
Ezra Pound wrote in The Spirit of Romance that “The study of literature is hero-worship.” It is this sentiment that guides Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, a work as impossible to categorize as it is to not be in awe of. Magisterial and encyclopedic, this is a confounding tome. I say that not to disparage but to praise, for that which confounds can excite, upset, and, in this case, inspire a true and honest thinking. How so? By calling forth a necessary reconsideration of those concepts we think we know best but have taken for granted. To quote Heraclitus via Charles Olson: “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar.” Duncan’s work, whether the book under review here or his poems and other prose writings, asks his readers to question those fields of knowledge that we no longer view as radical or powerful because they have become the most familiar: Modernism, Romanticism, poetry, the hermetic arts, tradition, history. All are open to scrutiny and to questioning. At its least, The H.D. Book is an autobiography, a poetic Künstlerroman, the story of how Duncan grew into poetry. At its most profound, it is a reimagining of the last hundred or so years of literary history, and one that, in part, seeks to counter the masculinist traditions of critics like T. S. Eliot, Hugh Kenner, and Harold Bloom. Duncan’s project is meant to counter such traditions by also turning away from its traditional discourses . Duncan refuses to proceed in any syllogistic or traditional manner in terms of argument. He is, in large part, refusing to partake in the language of traditional academic discourse. For Duncan what is of utmost importance is the revelatory realization rather than “rational” understanding, the ability to imagine the workings of the world as they might be rather than as they crudely are. It is no coincidence that Duncan often returns to Romantic poets such as Blake in order to elucidate the revelatory power of poetry.
But where to begin unfolding the thread that will navigate us through this labyrinth? The book contains multitudes, and a critical discussion of it can begin nearly anywhere. What should we most urgently address when reading The H.D. Book? It must be said that writing an essay such as this one does the work a great disservice, limiting us to one or two facets of a seemingly endless array to examine. One could build a university on the learning between these covers. But bemoaning the limits of critical inquiry can only get us so far; it is enough to be aware of them. As such, I would like to focus on what I see as one of the general themes of the text: its engagement and critique of rational modes of thinking, and the place of poetry in critiquing such logic. Following this thematic thread, I hope, will also bring into focus Duncan’s relationship to his poetry.
The hero-worship of the poet Hilda Doolittle is the present/absent center on which Duncan’s intellectual/emotional wheel spins. The book takes seriously its study of H.D.’s life and work, but is far more than that. (And now as I struggle to do what critics do, to isolate and analyze in order to “explain” what a work might possibly “mean” or “suggest,” do I realize the overwhelming difficulty of making such a critical move in relation to a work that persistently resists such practices.) Let’s not worry about defining it. As stated above, it is an intellectual and artistic autobiography, the story of one poet’s initiation—a very important word for Duncan—into the life of poetry, a search for, as he writes, “The fire . . . needed to carve the poet for its use.” For Duncan, this initiation begins in a high school classroom. It is 1935 or 1936. A young teacher reads to Duncan’s class H.D.’s poem “Heat.” From that moment on Duncan is never quite the same: he is besotted with the language; the poem has changed the world, his world. He writes of that particular poem and of that particular moment:
[T]he image stirred not only pictures from my knowledge of a like world, from the shared terms of orchard, pear, and grape at the stem, and the shimmering medium of air in the heat; but it stood too for another statement, arousing and giving a possible articulation to an inner urgency of my own to be realized, to be made good. The poem had a message, hidden to me then, that I felt but could not translate, an unconscious alliance that made for something more than a sensual response.
The chord is struck, and the music sounds. Duncan can feel the poem’s message, but he cannot “translate” it into rational meaning or sense. Why? Because the poem exists beyond such restrictive measures. It is its own agent.
H.D.’s work opens a door, and makes visible what was before hidden. But H.D. is only one of many teachers, one of many masters. Freud, for example, is one, as are Dante, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. Because of Duncan’s historical moment and because of his clear affinity for and appreciation of the Modernists it has become easy to label The H.D. Book as an examination of Modernism. But if there is a Modernism to be found here it is one almost entirely of Duncan’s own making, a historical reimagining of sources that also brings together writers and thinkers, such as Mary Butts and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who have been forgotten or ignored. Blavatsky, for one, is given a good amount of consideration, illustrating Duncan’s lifelong engagement with theosophical and hermetic traditions, an echo of which he also felt in H.D.’s oeuvre. But such forgotten traditions are indicative of Duncan’s true aesthetic leanings as a practitioner of a Romanticist poetics. Duncan’s Modernism (even his Postmodernism) is really an extension of a radical skepticism, a negative capability, that begins with the Romantics. It is from this soil that Duncan blooms.
For Duncan such traditions contain within them antinomies that can run counter to the overwhelmingly rational impulses that have defined Western thinking and which have sought to marginalize the imagination and the creative:
The man who would present himself without the dimensions of dream and fantasy, much less experience of illusion and error, who would render the true from the false by voiding the fictional and the doubtful, diminishes the human experience.
These salvos against the rational and the championing of the imaginative are of the utmost importance when considering most of Duncan’s work. The H.D. Book is no exception. The lack of any coherent structure, of any central argument or process, is an essential part of coming to terms with its composition . Duncan often quotes Robert Creeley’s famous dictum in Charles Olson’s seminal essay “Projective Verse”: “Form is never more than an extension of content.” By not proceeding in any systematic manner, The H.D. Book’s circuitous and elliptical meanderings perform one of its central tenets. While ostensibly a work of prose, the text moves with what Ron Silliman would call the non-syllogistic movement of prose poetry. This comes into stunning clarity in The H.D. Book’s second half, “Nights and Days ,” a fragmentary and feverish collection of thoughts and observations that leap from place to place, sometimes in a clear and obvious manner, other times in a seemingly incongruous pattern. For example, on pages 536–537, a small section on Heraclitus is juxtaposed with the following:
The crucifixion was not only a punishment (as those who judged him saw it), not only a sacrifice, passion, and endurance, in the name of the world’s sin (as the cult of pain-worship saw it), not only a compassion (as the cult of the Redeemer saw it), but also not a punishment, not a suffering, but, if one saw it as a thing in itself, a drama enacted, it was a play of revelation, or a dance.
Such juxtapositions challenge and call into question the very modes of discourse which usually control and limit criticism.
I stress the importance of Duncan’s form only because it underscores his aesthetic approach. For Duncan, the agency of the aesthetic object, the poem, must be dealt with on its own terms, and on its own grounds. Duncan’s close friendship with fellow poet Denise Levertov, for example, came to an end, in part, because of a fundamental disagreement on where politics stood in relation to aesthetics. In Duncan’s estimation of Levertov’s poetic work politics overcame her artistic judgment, thus betraying what a poem should be: an event in language that is, to a great degree, an object independent from the world, divorced from crude reality, its own agent. As he writes to Levertov in a letter dated October 19, 1971:
But our initial breakthru [sic] was not to be concerned with form as conservative or as revolutionary, but with form as the direct vehicle and medium of content. Which means and still means for me that we do not say something by means of the poem but the poem is itself the immediacy of saying—it has its own meaning.
It is this agency of the imaginative work that also drives The H.D. Book. And what is the aesthetic object, in this case the poem, if not that which can change the design and shape of the known world? The H.D. Book is such an object. It is, simply put, essential and necessary.
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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