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Duncan's Divagations: On Robert Duncan and H.D. | The Nation

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Duncan's Divagations: On Robert Duncan and H.D.

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Robert Duncan did not know anything about the Modernist poet H.D. in the mid-1930s, when as a teenager in Bakersfield, California, he listened with voluptuous interest to his schoolteacher read H.D.’s poem “Heat.”

The H.D. Book
By Robert Duncan.
Edited by Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman.
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About the Author

Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko is poetry editor of The Nation. The recipient of the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the...

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Saving the venerable NYPL… cooperation, not capitalism… a jewel in the dross… you could look it up…

How was Emily Dickinson able to be frugal and fruitful in her art?

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.

“The thick air of adolescence, the thick air of Bakersfield,” Duncan later remembered, “the pervasive oppressing atmosphere everywhere of social forces seeking to govern…gave substance to the immediacy of the poem as she read.” The richness of the poem belonged to “a larger life—la vita nuova, Dante had called it.” Duncan’s love for his teacher, Miss Keough, and her ardor for H.D.’s poem illumined the natural relation between beauty, intelligence and vitality. “It was a responsibility to glory that she touched in me.” Could that recitation of “Heat” have given Duncan an intimation of his affinity with H.D. and his identity as a poet (also committed to free verse, amplified into what he and Charles Olson called “the open field”), homosexual and free-thinker?

Several decades later, his ardor for H.D.’s verse unabated, Duncan sent a birthday poem to the poet. Her reputation had waned since she touched fame as an Imagist in the early twentieth century. Sea Garden (1916) was still regarded as her signature work, even though she had written—among other poems, translations, memoirs and novels—Trilogy (1946) and Helen in Egypt (1961), epics that rivaled Ezra Pound’s Cantos and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. Her austere style was described as “clear,” “frigid,” “pure,” “beautiful” and “inaccessible.” Her work was deemed unstylish by the reigning critics—Randall Jarrell, Louise Bogan, Lionel Trilling, Robert Hillyer—and she was summarily dropped from a renowned anthology, Louis Untermeyer’s Anthology of British and American Poetry, when Karl Shapiro and Richard Wilbur joined the editorial team in 1955. Conventional men, Duncan scoffed: “Their name is legion; they swarmed and swarm in competition with one another to establish an idea cut each to his own limitation for the poet.” Legion was the group of demons Jesus cast out of a man and into a herd of pigs.

Duncan recorded this observation in a daybook devoted to H.D. that he began keeping in 1959 and that quickly grew into a wide-ranging study. Published in bits and pieces in small magazines, revised and returned to repeatedly, “The H.D. Book” amassed itself into a volume much as Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet did, by slow accretion during its author’s life and curatorial handiwork after his death. What editors Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman present to us now is the first comprehensive edition of The H.D. Book, a text of nearly 650 pages in which Duncan traces the divagations and derivations of H.D.’s major works, with digressions on Imagism, Pound, Williams, female Modernism, occultism, evolutionary biology and psychoanalysis. Into this eldritch tapestry Duncan weaves patches of poetic autobiography, strands of family history and reflections on his intellectual development.

Duncan begins The H.D. Book with his recollection of hearing “Heat.” It’s a mise-en-scène he uses not only to establish an origins myth for his awakening to poetry but also to plant the seeds of several arguments that tendril out through the study. First, poetry, like falling in love, is a matter of affinity, not culture or self-betterment; second, lyric language summons a treasury of lore and wisdom that yields to the willing initiate; and third, the unreal stuff of words, dreams and fantasies lead always and everywhere to action. Artifice draws one to the world, not away from it.

The H.D. Book doubles back on itself, repeating and amplifying, self-criticizing and contesting. It is not a measured retort to men of “rational imagination” like Jarrell, written on the New Critics’ terms. Instead, like W.B. Yeats’s A Vision (1925), which marries automatic writing to occult poetics, or Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (1985), which uses angular lyric criticism to rebuke mannered feminist portraits of Dickinson, The H.D. Book is often argued on very personal, idiosyncratic and metaphorical terms. As Boughn and Coleman remark in their introduction, Duncan conceived of thinking “as an explosive release linked to Eros, rather than the traditional notion of a disciplined exposition, Logos, with footnotes and citations.” The H.D. Book is, like any of the great works of Modernism, astonishing and maddening by turns. Duncan was 40 when he started keeping the germinal daybook and already a fixture in San Francisco poetry circles and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught alongside Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. He had just published his breakthrough book, The Opening of the Field, but it was only upon intense engagement with H.D. that he achieved the maturity of his great middle books—Roots and Branches and Bending the Bow—and the late serial poems of Ground Work. His vindication of the master was the crucible out of which his own masterworks were born.

H.D. was born Hilda Doolittle in 1886 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. When she was 9, her family relocated to a suburb of Philadelphia, where her father directed the University of Pennsylvania’s observatory. At 15, she came to know Ezra Pound, a 16-year-old fellow Philadelphian who had already traveled to Europe. He was “immensely sophisticated, immensely superior, immensely rough-and-ready,” H.D. recalled. They both attended Penn and at one point even got engaged, but instead of marrying H.D., Pound lured her to London, where he had already become a literary man-about-town. In 1912 they met in the British Museum tea room over a manuscript of her recent poems. In his excitement Pound scribbled “H.D. Imagiste” at the bottom of the manuscript and mailed it to Harriet Monroe at Poetry, and thus became the impresario of the first wave of Anglo-American Modernist poetry.

H.D. had known she wanted to be a poet early in life, but she struggled to establish an identity until she left for Europe. As her biographer Helen Carr writes, “H.D. was to say many times that she could not have become a writer if she had not come to Europe.” Further, it was her undertaking of the translation of ancient Greek poetry and drama that allowed her to forge a style as delicate and steely as her temperament—a style that also happened to be original enough to spawn Imagism. Had she not left her own world twice, geographically and linguistically, she would have been remembered as a minor satellite in Pound’s orbit. Instead she became an international figure: not only a famous poet of revolutionary vers libre but an iconic free spirit. She was bisexual. She had a child in wedlock but of uncertain paternity. She submitted to psychoanalysis with Freud, wrote feminist-pacifist epics and settled in Switzerland.

Women were central to Duncan’s self-invention as a poet. After the memory of H.D. and Miss Keough, another origins tale has him reading aloud from James Joyce’s poems to two female friends on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, where they were undergraduates in 1938, on “one of those radiant days that October brings.” The girls, working-class immigrants, embodied the allure of their respective ancestries: Polish-Jewish Athalie, the descendant of rabbis, and Italian Lili, whom Duncan associated with St. Francis of Assisi. When the campanile bells rang to summon Duncan to ROTC classes, Athalie and Lili urged him to stay with them. “Stay with Joyce,” Lili declared. “Rejoice with Joyce,” Athalie affirmed. This was another awakening: a poetic vocation is a thing apart from the career path and academic accomplishment (but not study or scholarship). Duncan ended up dropping out of Berkeley and getting a discharge by outing himself; he was a lifelong anarchist who set himself against orthodoxy in all its forms, whether mercantile capitalism, the communist state or—most troubling for his friends during the Vietnam War—absolute pacifism.

If responsibility to poetry was at odds with “success,” then poetry for Duncan was a rebellion initiated, nourished and encouraged by women because they were so often denied a chance to succeed. Miss Keough was his “Beatrice,” Athalie and Lili were his “audience,” his “nurses,” but H.D. was something altogether different: a master. Is the sexual agon between men and women so fierce that only a gay man could place a woman in that role? Duncan too speculated: “Men live uneasily with or under the threat of genius in women.”

* * *

The H.D. Book is at its core a polemic—elevating the female and the noncomformist and the heterodox against the institutions of men. One of these institutions was literature. For Duncan, English department literature was the ossification of a living, vital recording impulse in the same way that the church was the ossification of a living, vital religious impulse. This was no metaphor. Duncan grew up in a family of West Coast Theosophists, as far from the East Coast establishment as one could get. Chafing under the formalist reign of New Critics like Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom, he was alert to their tribal affinities. “Tribal” was no metaphor for Duncan either: the New Critics really were the descendants of “those ministers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, holding out against the magic of poetry as once they had held out—by burning or ridicule—against the magic-religion of the witch-cults.” In “Why Critics Don’t Go Mad,” a tribute to Brooks’s commentary on John Milton, Ransom wrote of his kinship with Brooks: “The fact is that Brooks and I were about as alike as two peas from the same pod in respect to our native region, our stock (we were sons of ministers of the same faith, and equally had theology in our blood), the kind of homes we lived in, the kind of small towns.” When Duncan quotes Dudley Fitts or Randall Jarrell on H.D.—“more than a little silly,” “an anachronism”—he unleashes a ferocious counter-magic on them. “That company”—T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens—belong to the realm of the “rational imagination.” They were English department gentility, Duncan claimed, who pandered to a civic ideal of self-betterment that lacked visionary scope.

In his fervor Duncan could be monomaniacal, parochial and dead wrong. Who now would deem Stevens—whose “Sunday Morning” is a sublime meditation on death and beauty, his “Ideas of Order at Key West” a cri de coeur, his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” a gnomic riddle—a mere rationalist? Though it is late to be arguing (still) about the merits of Williams versus Eliot, there are moments of insight in Duncan’s portrait of the rivalry. If you don’t share Duncan’s disdain for Eliot’s sophisticated images, such as Prufrock’s “When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table,” you might find more persuasive his argument that The Waste Land was burdened by “period charade”: “The fame of the poet itself had triumphed over the pain of the poem.” In his sympathetic reading of Moore’s “He Digesteth Harde Yron” he locates the poet she might have been if she had been less “exemplary.” Ransom wrote in “Criticism, Inc.” (not an ironic title): “The critic should regard the poem as nothing short of a desperate ontological or metaphysical maneouvre.” The H.D. Book takes a ferocious stand against this presumption of trickery, and Duncan’s enmity would exist even if Ransom had not withdrawn Duncan’s great poem “African Elegy” from publication at Kenyon Review after his pioneering essay, “The Homosexual in Society,” published in Dwight Macdonald’s magazine Politics in 1944, caused a seismic disturbance in literary circles.

Duncan came to recognize the futility of his anger: “Jarrell and Louise Bogan were most right in their recognition that H.D. was not for them.” The task, then, was not to refute the charges of silliness and anachronism but to delve into the meaning of those terms and justify their appeal to the great poet. For Duncan, the great poet endeavors to unify the scattered epiphanies of daily experience and give them meaning within the context of myths, gods, Homer, Dante, Whitman—the whole human epic. In order to rehabilitate anachronism, Duncan relies on a counterintuitive understanding of reality—or “the real.” What is the real, and is fiction not real? Is H.D.’s world less or more real than Eliot’s because rather than modern social types (Sweeney, Prufrock, etherized patients), she deploys archetypes and allegories (Helen of Troy, Christ)? Is Shakespeare’s Bohemia not “real”? What of Yeats’s Gyre, Jean Cocteau’s Hell, or Emily Dickinson’s Loaded Gun? Are Christianity and the Kabala “real”? In H.D.’s children’s book, The Hedgehog (1936), the 6-year-old narrator thinks, “Growing up and last year’s shoes that didn’t fit this year—these were things that were part of a dream, not part of reality. Reality was the Erlking and the moonlight on Bett’s room wall.” The poet, in order to find the real, must look under the surface of the world to its hidden core of perdurance. The figure for one’s pantheon of masters is not, properly, a “canon,” as it is in English departments. It is, per the ancient tarot pack, an arcana.

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