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

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

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

Robert Duncan saw in H.D.’s poetry “The story of survival, the evolution of forms in which live survives.”


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.”

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.

The arcane, the esoteric, the occult—these were the elements of poetry in Duncan’s earliest memory. He tells the story of his adoptive grandmother, who wandered inconsolably among the spiritualist circles of the Northwest after the deaths of two babies. His Aunt Fay’s supernatural stories were yet another feeder stream back into his genesis as a poet:

The soul, my mother’s sister, my Aunt Fay, told me years later, was like a swarm of bees, and, at night, certain entities of that swarm left the body-hive and went to feed in fields of helium…. Fate, faith, feign, and fair, we find, following the winding associations of fay, fey, and fairy, in the Oxford English Dictionary, are closely related. From many roots, words gathered into one stem of meaning, confused into a collective suggestion. There is fay, too, from old Teutonic *fôgjan, to join, to fix.”

Hence, too, to an embrace of “fairy” as in queer, effeminate.

The Duncan family’s enthusiasm for the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky was contemporaneous with her association with Yeats when he was in his early 20s. Yeats is a touchstone for Duncan. Through his friendship with Pound, Yeats became part of an Imagist circle where his Helen—the offspring of “Leda and the Swan”—mingled with H.D.’s Helen, and his membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a group of occultists active in turn-of-the-century Britain, paralleled her obsession with the ancient temple complex at Karnak, Egypt. Blavatsky’s counterculturalism was of a kind with the poets’: Yeats believed that poetry had “a secret tradition and doctrine”; H.D. believed “we are the keepers of the secret.”

The arcane was not limited to the supernatural; after Freud, the natural was arcane too. H.D. wrote a memoir of her sessions with Freud, and averred that he had thought of psychoanalysis as a kind of religion. Despite this, his disavowal of the “oceanic feeling” of limitlessness induced by religion marks him as a man of science, not poetry. One of The H.D. Book’s most rewarding tangents is when Duncan criticizes Freud for his work of disenchantment, The Future of an Illusion: “The man who would present himself without the dimensions of dream and fantasy, much less the experience of illusion and error, who would render the true from the false by voiding the fictional and the doubtful, diminishes the human experience.” Duncan speculated that Freud repressed his own infant pleasure in fairy tales when he witnessed his father, who was from Moravia, chiding his nanny, who was overheard imparting Catholic nonsense to the child.

H.D. was raised in a pacifist Pennsylvania Moravian sect, her birthplace was Bethlehem and the eight childhood years she had there were some of the happiest she would ever know. Duncan believed there was a Moravian connection between Freud and H.D., just as he believed there was a rhyme between the baby that H.D. lost in a flu epidemic in 1915 and the mother who died giving birth to Duncan in 1919—the year H.D. almost died of the flu. Repeatedly in The H.D. Book he quotes her lines:

the meanings that words hide;
they are anagrams, cryptograms,
little boxes, conditioned
to hatch butterflies…

“The very heightened sense of the relatedness of everything,” Duncan wrote, “set poets apart.”

* * *

“All ages are contemporaneous,” Pound declared in The Spirit of Romance. The complaint against H.D. was that she was anachronistic, but Duncan’s apologia does not offer counterarguments. If Pound was right—and H.D., and Duncan—then the English mystical poet Thomas Traherne had had the last word in the seventeenth century: “Men do mightily wrong themselves when they refuse to be present in all ages and neglect to see the beauty of all kingdoms.”

An important conceit for H.D. was the palimpsest: the reusable parchment wherein new writing mingles with the ghostly, imperfectly erased text, and all ages seem contemporaneous. “Palimpsest” is the title she gave to a trilogy of stories Duncan calls a “study in reincarnations.” Palimpsest is the beaches of ancient Greece overlaid on the Jersey Shore of her childhood holidays, or lost Atlantis glimpsed in the Pacific off San Luis Obispo, where young Duncan visited extended family. Palimpsest was Pound writing in a poem “See, they return” at the same time as Williams was writing in a poem “Now—they are coming into bloom again!” in a spirit of renewal that harked back to the Eleusinian mysteries in Greece.

Duncan envisioned The H.D. Book as a palimpsest too: not only revisited and restarted many times over the years, but incorporating different sources from different points in time, insights from Bruno Bettelheim here, Erwin Schrödinger there. Duncan’s roving eye for patterns consistently saw relationships between the new science of his day and the ancient wisdom of the poets. His description of H.D.’s war poem Trilogy as “the story of survival, the evolution of forms in which life survives,” recalls the work of Darwin and Haeckel on the morphology and ontogeny of living organisms. For Duncan, William Harvey’s description of the blood’s motion is akin to the systole & diastole of the tide in Helen in Egypt. When Duncan quotes Alfred North Whitehead (“we should confine ourselves to time-spans of the order of magnitude of a second, or even of fractions of a second”), we perceive Harvey’s observation of the pulse behind it, so that the flow of history is just the flow in a man’s veins writ large, which is also the flow of the rivers and tides. Duncan compares H.D.’s figure of the palimpsest to the Oxford English Dictionary—which was still a new marvel of excavated meanings and usages in Duncan’s formative years—and, of course, to Freud:

Like the detective hero of the murder mystery which was contemporary in its rise with psychoanalysis and the O.E.D., Freud reads in the dreams and life stories told by his patients searching for clues to a prehistory or metahistory leading to the disclosure of some past event that will make clear what really happened, parallel with the solution that satisfies the form of the popular mystery novel. So, in the Theosophic mystery, the traumas of Hyperborea or of Atlantis come as disclosures of shaping forces in our own lives—they are still with us.

The past is still with us, in the reptile’s jaw recycled in the bone structure of our inner ear or the childhood trauma encoded in neurosis. Why then would it not be the poet’s primary task to explore the mystery of the myths that persist? Duncan was right. It is inconceivable to read these lines from H.D.’s Trilogy as an anachronism:

I assure you that the eyes
of Velasquez’ crucified
now look straight at you,
and they are amber and they are fire.

Velasquez is still with us, and so too the crucified. The further away we move from H.D.’s own time, the more timeless she becomes.

* * *

Duncan’s projected third section of The H.D. Book never progressed beyond a small collection of preliminary notes, which Boughn and Coleman present as an appendix. The notes contain some of the most fascinating material in the volume and, it seems to me, provide something close to evidence for the truth of Duncan’s arguments about the hidden lore of poetry and its coded manifestations in the world. The appendix concerns one of H.D.’s last great works, Helen in Egypt, a long poem that is habitually read as a feminist work of self-empowerment and reclamation.

The story is one that H.D. borrowed from Euripides’ play Helen, which derived in turn from a palinode by Stesichorus, a Greek contemporary of Sappho’s. A palinode is an apology in which a poet recants something said in a previous poem. Stesichorus had lambasted Helen of Troy for causing the deaths of thousands of warriors. He was struck blind. He wrote the palinode to declare that Helen was not in Troy during the war but was spirited away to Egypt where she awaited her husband, Menelaus. Only her eidolon (image or phantom) dwelled at Troy; therefore she was not responsible for the bloodshed. The spell was reversed, and Stesichorus regained his sight.

This vindication of Helen—and by extension all women—is indeed feminist revisionism, albeit from the sixth century BC. It’s a fascinating story, reimagining Helen as being, separately, a real person and a projection (clearly Greek fame is continuous with modern celebrity). But the practical issue the story raises is of great general interest too. Duncan’s reading of Helen in Egypt prompted him to delve into the history of the myth, and he discovers that “Plato had read the truth of Helen in Egypt to mean that men fought at Troy for an illusion, for a lie.” H.D.’s visionary poem, her bid for a grand-scale Modernist epic on a par with the Cantos, is staked on this claim.

What is real? What is an illusion? The H.D. Book as an apologia for the imagination comes down to its case for the truth of Helen in Egypt. A real person can have a double, an eidolon, through the collective mind (fame); the reverse is also true, wherein an eidolon, a mythical or fictional character, can become real. Everything our modern civilization is staked on is a matter of imagination: money, career, literature, “the public,” “are all realms that men in their phantasies invest with reality,” Duncan writes. They are all eidolons, and yet they lead, Duncan argues, to actions with consequences—the real as defined by the irreducible: bloodshed. So it was with all the hairs on my head rising that I read, toward the end of Duncan’s epic commentary: 

the cause of the war was fraudulent. So, too, we in our own time have seen two fraudulent wars and prepare now for a third, where no cause is raised but the threat of disaster. Freedom, Christianity, democracy—whatever wraith upon the walls to be defended or liberated—has not been in our lands since the beginning nor in the hands of the enemy, but spirited away to Egypt while we must be at it again to loose ourselves and our forces in the ruin of cities.

Was this 1961 or 2003? The poet risks blindness, like Stesichorus, if she does not ask right now, in 2011, whether “freedom, Christianity, democracy” are still in Egypt while we grasp at eidolons.

The H.D. Book is, at bottom, a spell book. I admit that very few readers will concur with its supernatural assumptions and its purist tenets. I also think that it is a fierce contribution to the Western poetic palimpsest. As a testimony to poetic vocation, it could not be clearer, and in these confusing times a young poet could use the encouragement: to continue her education—with or without the aid of a degree program (Duncan’s apprenticeship to H.D. was purely textual)—and to maintain a fine contrarianism:

After the excitement in the authenticity of masterpieces, having resistant individuality and a demanding skill, I have come to see such works not as the achievement of inventors or masters or diluters or starters of crazes, as Pound would have us classify writers in his ABC of Reading, not as objects of a culture, embodying original sensibilities, but as events in another dimension, a field of meanings in which consciousness was in process; where I saw psyche and spirit, as I had come thru Darwin to see the animal organism, arising in an evolution of possible forms, surviving, perishing, derived always from an inheritance in which the formal persisted, arriving always as a trial or essay in which the formal had to live the last of a species, the first of a species, and yet having only its own terms, its own life, in which to make it.

Is that contrarianism, or is it faith? For Duncan, as for all serious poets, there may be no difference.

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