The H.D. Book, by Robert Duncan. Ed. by Michael Boughn & Victor Coleman. University of California Press.$49.95.

If you’re an English teacher, you’ll know a certain type of student, one whose intellectual curiosity, whose sheer imaginative ambition, eclipses simpler things, like turning in papers. The essay that was due last week hasn’t appeared, not because of any lack of effort, but because the assignment to explicate one short lyric has somehow conjured up pages of notes on Greek etymology, Egyptian myth, the latest issue of Scientific American, the Albigensian Crusade, and symbology in the Oz books of L.Frank Baum. You start to wonder if the men with butterfly nets are fast approaching. At the same time, you feel admiration for the student, gratitude even, for his literary overflow. So the questions linger: Will this excitement ever balance out? Will this enthusiasm ever find a form? What will happen to this person in the world?

Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book offers one triumphant answer to such doubts, one justification of the errant imagination. The book discovers its source, as a matter of fact, in the answering and honoring of teachers. Asked for a short tribute to the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) on the occasion of her seventy-fourth birthday in 1960, Duncan began a prose work he would revise for years. Growing from a meditation on the importance of H.D., it branched into six much wider-ranging essays, and then a series of divagations in notebook form. The whole thing, reaching nearly seven hundred pages, has now been published, in definitive form, by the University of California Press. At the beginning of the book, Duncan tells of the first time he encountered H.D.’s poem, “Heat,” as read aloud by his teacher, Miss Keough, in her high school classroom in Bakersfield, California. The tribute to Miss Keough (I wish the otherwise expert editors had found her first name for us) is more than a sentimental lead-in: the whole book has at its heart a tale of origins, the growth of the poet’s mind, as fostered by teachers, friends, and great writers of the past.

H.D.’s “Heat,” though actually created by anthologists who cut it from a longer sequence called “Garden,” stands itself as a testament to the urgency, the entangled yearning and uneasiness, of any process of growth. Here are the lines Duncan remembers Miss Keough reading, over “the hum and buzz of student voices and the whirr of water sprinklers” from outside the classroom window:

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.

You can see, and hear, why the poem would appeal to an alert seventeen year old. The action of the poem is literally “incipient,” about to fall from ripeness into some new state, whether life or death. The basic, phrasal lineation holds back the stronger verbal force of the invocation and command, while phrases themselves veil more disruptive meanings: “rend open the heat” is only one letter short of “rend open the heart,” and the “the points of pears” just shy of “the points of spears.” Something passionate or violent, or both, bursts at the seams of this poem.

Duncan traces the drama of containment and release as it develops into various forms in H.D.’s mature work, in Helen in Egypt and Trilogy. But he also follows the process of growth in his own life and work. This is what makes The H.D. Book so valuable. Reading it, you examine a poet’s sensibility from the inside out. Sex, politics, religion, memories of college friends, arguments with other poets, the entire history of art—all these swirl in the alembic of the poet’s mind as he concocts his poems of the future. “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves,” T.S. Eliot wrote of great art, “which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.” This is the modification that Duncan wants to affect.

But it may seem odd to quote Eliot here, since as he reconfigures those monuments left by his immediate predecessors, as he writes, in fact, a whole new history of modernism, Duncan tries to cut down Eliot himself a notch or two. It’s not only that Duncan resents what he sees as the older poet’s “pervading concern for respectability,” his comfort in his role as the Archbishop of Modern Letters. Duncan reads The Waste Land as “the monumental artifice of a ruin, a ruin with an outline.” The poem seems too didactic, it provides “very usable attitudes and conclusions.” Those conclusions tended at the time toward a fashionable world-weariness, one that found a comfortable home in academia; Duncan agrees with William Carlos Williams’s claim in his Autobiography that “Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom.” Duncan paints an image of the “new young men in the Universities” at mid century, who were “haunted by a world they had come from where their people had not read Kyd or Webster.” Genuine anger simmers behind that humor. After all, those followers of Eliot were the same poet-critics who cut H.D. from the anthologies, and who turned away from Duncan himself after the appearance of his 1944 essay, “The Homosexual in Society.”

You don’t have to agree entirely with Duncan’s objections to Eliot to understand the value of the alternative he offers, both for his second generation of modernists, and for all poets since then. I mean that there’s still germane power in Duncan’s image of the lyric self, his idea of how a poem both portrays and embodies personal experience, his belief that the poem is always bound up with the growth of the person. In this way, Duncan proves an unabashed Romantic. Remembering that first encounter with “Heat,” he writes of H.D.’s lines that “such a shaping was the directive of all simple urgencies—toward the pear, toward the poem, toward the person of a man.” Against the regnant doctrines of impersonality, Duncan wants poems with greater creaturely heat, and greater expressive capacity. Surprisingly, he finds this in the imagist lyrics of the nineteen-teens: “the idea of this being a perfect lyric, an ecstatic, a memorably shaped, moment, drew us away from recognition of the opening and closing address of the poem that cried out for release from such perfection.” Modernist poetry moved on from the imagist lyric, and Duncan himself was certainly never an epigrammatist. But his best work grew from this early glimpse of the poem as both a holding and a releasing of the lyric self.

Reading The H.D. Book seemed, to me at least, a good excuse to return to those poems of Duncan’s. His work stands on its own merits, but dipping into it again, I also wondered if it could have tonic value for contemporary poetry. Against those seemingly innovative writers who attempt to razor the traditional, subjective “I” from their poems because they suspect it of being an illusory construct, Duncan stands as a reminder of the primal, even anarchic, power of the lyric self. But his poems are not mere containers for expression either. Against poets who content themselves with the presentation of a personality, the retailing of anecdote, and the bantering of sensibility, Duncan offers a more expansive vision. In a 1971 letter to Denise Levertov, he claims that “the hidden and life-creative and destructive ID-entity underlying and overriding the conveniences of personal identity is what makes the difference between mere craft...and significant craft.” Anyone delving into the self must go deeper than “personal identity,” just as anyone creating true art must go deeper than technical effect. For Duncan, the self is both a source and a potential adversary. It’s no wonder then that, like Pound, Duncan saw Robert Browning as the great precursor of modernist poets. In his historical and fictional monologues, Browning developed what Duncan calls “a form for the poet’s dramatic participation in other personalities in other times.” Duncan sees this form translating in the twentieth century into the modernist use of masks or personae, and even into surrealist methods of dream work, all of which reveal “that there is, back of poetry, some collective poetic unconscious.”

Duncan’s own major work begins when the fusion of the individual lyric self and that “collective poetic unconscious” reach high octane, in his 1960 collection The Opening of the Field. Here he begins “The Structure of Rime,” the first of his two, magnificent open-form poems—the other, “Passages,” first appears in 1968 in Bending the Bow. The discrete, numbered sections of these poems are meant to exist as apertures through which the poet and reader view a larger structure, occurring endlessly through time and space. Even the poems not in these series, when they’re at their best, work to reconcile human life with some vision of the eternal. Take, for example, the first sentence from the first poem in The Opening of the Field. The poem unfolds from its title, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow”:

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Duncan’s passion to understand both the individual and this structure much larger than the individual gleams in the very syllables here. The near rhyme of “mind” and “not mine” in the first two lines sounds effective to me, and poignant, because of its incompletion. It enacts a very human slip, a near miss. Even the mind is not a possession; it’s out on loan. The individual mind participates in “the mind,” a collective or even transcendent consciousness. But transcendence here means also to remain embedded on earth. When vital making occurs—the making of life, of love, of art—the resulting forms don’t rise, they “fall.” Duncan picks up on that word and repeats it in the next sentence. Here is the rest of the poem:

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down

whose secret we see in a children’s game
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

With the entrance into this dreamy plateau of being, the highest cosmic orders are revealed, and yet these are movingly mirrored, and held for a moment, in a children’s game. The connection to the ethereal must be grounded. However open the form becomes (and Duncan certainly wrote many fine prose poems, for example) it must remain a measure: “certain bounds hold against chaos.” Duncan talked and wrote often of what his free verse predecessor, Ezra Pound, called “the tone leading of vowels.” He meant those shapes created by lines of assonance and by the abandonment of those lines—shapes which occur within and across the verse line itself. This may sound technical or esoteric, but say the poem above out loud, and you’ll hear it: the chains of interior rhymes and the breaking of those chains dynamize, at the micro-sonic level, the counterpoint of pattern and openness. 

Another grounding force in Duncan’s best poems turns out to be, very simply, other people. I love, for example, when Duncan moves in his poem “The Dance” from a highfalutin, neo-Platonic reverie to the memory of a summer job he had sweeping up a dance hall in the early morning, and then to the dance instructor there, a woman he admired, named Friedl. In “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” the “Queen Under The Hill” may seem like a misty figure dreamed up by Peter Jackson for one of his Lord of the Rings films. But this figure pops up in many guises throughout Duncan’s work, and here, if she becomes ethereal, she also takes the form of a woman who, at the time the poem was written, was very much on earth. I mean H.D. herself. You don’t have to hear the allusion to appreciate the poem, but the line “whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words” looks to me like a clear nod to the opening tercet of Helen in Egypt:

Do not despair, the hosts
surging beneath the Walls
(no more than I) are ghosts.

Helen becomes half ghost here, because in H.D.’s telling she has been taken to Egypt: the warriors in Troy are killing each other for a phantom. The “hosts,” who rhyme with the “ghosts,” are the absent, yet very real, crowds of warriors and victims across the sea. As Duncan plays with this word and image, he casts the “hosts” as words themselves. The actual material of the poem, language, turns out to be an unruly system of human contingencies, which can both kill and give life. Conjuring an image of crowds, “hosts” suggests the way that others, both living and dead, inhabit our language and our consciousness. H.D.’s words sound within Duncan’s words here, in the very allusion: “whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words.”

And if in “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” the allusion comes across as a wink, in The H.D. Book the process of poetic indebtedness becomes explicit. At times this process becomes a “disturbance” in the pejorative sense: we are indebted, bound to, those with whom we quarrel, as Duncan quarrels with Eliot, and even with poets he admires much more, such as Williams and Pound. Influence can be a disturbance in this case, the hosts morphing into the swarm of received opinions, of period styles and voices, out of which we must find our way. But the hosts can also be something like the “Heavenly Hosts.”

Although Duncan does employ Christian imagery in his poems, for him this angelic visitation arrives more often as a Dionysian disruption, from below. So much of the pleasure of reading The H.D. Book comes from following these bursts, up from the subconscious, as they lead in all sorts of directions. We move, for example, from a memory of the poet’s Aunt Fay, through a string of etymologies, to a discussion of the homophobic use of “fairy,” and then to W.B. Yeats and Madame Blavatsky. Or we start with a magazine article about schizophrenia by the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, and then wend our way from an exploration of shamanism to several remarks about William Blake. At times, in Duncan’s poems, this meandering can feel compulsive or self-indulgent: as if every association that passes through the mind of Robert Duncan needs to be rhapsodized for the reason that it’s an association passing through the mind of Robert Duncan. But in the best poems, and throughout The H.D. Book, the errant flights work to uncover a large and gorgeous structure: nothing less than the growth of a poet’s being. It’s rare to get so close to how an artist actually puts together, through self-making, the world that he or she imagines. This book offers such an opportunity, along with its wealth of argument and insight, and its engaging cameos of people important to the poet. These include, of course, Miss Keough of Bakersfield, California.

Originally Published: September 1st, 2011

Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005), The Lions: Poems (2009), which won the Levis Reading Prize, and El Dorado (2013). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry...

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