Showing posts with label H.D.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label H.D.. Show all posts

Monday, June 01, 2015

A celebration of

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Just about everyone I know thinks of Jack Kerouac as a novelist who wrote poetry. But what about Gilbert Sorrentino? Before Mulligan Stew and the other long prose fictions that made Sorrentino justly famous as a novelist, he was a successful poet (and a superb critic of poetry). Along with the then-LeRoi Jones, the always-on-the-road Paul Blackburn, and youngsters George Economou, Rochelle Owens, Robert Kelly & Clayton Eshleman, Sorrentino was part of Projectivism’s presence in & around Manhattan throughout the 1960s & ‘70s. Sorrentino’s Selected Poems covers the period 1958-1980. But I’m not aware if there has been much, if any, poetry since. It’s as though the man had one successful career & then chose to follow it with another, very different such career. Not unlike Bill Bradley, an athlete, then a politician.

Another poet with an even more ambiguous relation to these genres has been Toby Olson, again a second generation Projectivist. Because he’s published in both forms throughout his life, I’ve always suspected that his work has been underestimated in each form. The very same silliness that bedevils the bookstore clerk who cannot decide whether Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate is fiction or poetry*, let alone Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, plays out in the minds of readers more generally when it comes to considering the lifework of different authors. Case in point: Hilda Doolittle.

Almost everyone thinks of Doolittle as a poet who also wrote some fiction, as well as translations & memoirs. Yet H.D. published, for all extents and purposes, just a dozen or so books of poetry during her lifetime, going long periods between volumes after the appearance of her first Collected Poems in 1925. And that number shrinks if you treat Trilogy as one book, instead of three. During this long productive career – just under half a century – Doolittle also wrote 19 novels and collections of stories, according to Susan Stanford Friedman’s 1987 chronology of H.D.’s writing, published in the special issue of Sagetrieb devoted to Doolittle’s work. They include the following:

<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Paint It Today, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Asphodel, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Pilate’s Wife, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Palimpsest, novel (interlocking stories)
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Nike, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Hedylus, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>HER, novel (published as HERmione)
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Narthex, novella
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Usual Star, stories
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Kora and Ka, novellas
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Nights, novella
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Hedgehog, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Seven, stories
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Bid Me to Live, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Majic Ring, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>White Rose and the Red, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Mystery, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Magic Mirror, novel

Not all of these novels ever made it into print. Friedman’s note for Nike simply reads “Destroyed.” Biographer Guest politely notes that “Hipparchia: War Rome (Circa 75 B.C.)” has “none of the polish or professionalism” of H.D.’s later work, and I would pass a similar judgment on Paint It Today. Friedman lists Pilate’s Wife as “submitted and rejected,” & White Rose and the Red as “probably rejected.” Yet 19 booklength works over a 35-year span (H.D. appears to have begun writing fiction in 1921, after her life began to stabilize somewhat with the presence of Bryher; the final item, Magic Mirror, was written in the mid-1950s) demonstrates a considerable emphasis, a commitment of time & effort. Indeed, between the first Collected Poems in 1925 and her next book of poetry, Red Roses for Bronze, in 1931, Doolittle produced seven novels & collections of stories, plus the verse drama Hippolytus Temporizes plus her work on the film Borderline.

One could make the case that Doolittle was, in fact, a novelist – tho not a successful one – who wrote poetry at least as much as she was a poet who wrote fiction. While that may seem like a difference within a distinction (& vice versa), it has, I suspect, real consequences in terms of how H.D. saw herself & thus how she envisioned her career as author. Did she feel satisfied? Was she pleased at what she had accomplished? These are, I think, legitimate questions. During a poet’s life, they have everything to do with how the writer decides what’s next, and even how to proceed. At one level, the writer in me would love for an Emily Dickinson, say, to understand the breadth & depth of her achievement, the power of her impact on the world. At another, younger writers are constantly confronted with options, nearly every one of which is an incentive to stop writing poetry. What if, for example, Jack Spicer had finished his detective novel & it had proven to be a best-seller, followed with a major motion picture? What if, in precisely the other direction, Trout Fishing in America had not been so fabulously successful? Would Richard Brautigan still be alive today? Would there be a west coast tradition of the humorous lyric as widespread as that which flowed from the New York School? So many what-ifs flow out of such a distinction: was a H.D. a novelist who wrote poetry?

In practice, I haven’t seen anything yet to suggest that this is how Doolittle saw herself, albeit I am still acquainting myself with the territory & I have a long way still to go. Nonetheless what I want to be conscious of, at least for today, is how the H.D. we know / I know is a construct. That is, we define her as the poet & in so doing condition many of our responses to new information, setting our expectations accordingly. The fiction that is in print, such as it is, for example, appears to have been published to fill out the oeuvre of the poet, not because anyone thought that it might transform a history of the novel (although, in fact, it is historically important to the degree that H.D. was writing overtly lesbian fiction at time when this was hardly done at all, & only at some risk). Which is to say that all of the reasons for publishing H.D.’s fiction have little or nothing to do with its actual quality as fiction.

* Hint: bad fiction, worse poetry.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

There is an interesting image in Barbara Guest’s excellent biography of Hilda Doolittle, Herself Defined, of imagism as a movement after Ezra Pound had moved on to join Wyndham Lewis in declaring Vorticism. The image Guest leaves the reader with is one of a lone major Imagiste, H.D., a second-but-inferior entrepreneurial huckster in Amy Lowell, and a handful of second-tier poets of the likes of John Gould Fletcher and Richard Aldington, having to carry on with no clear sense of direction. Guest outlines the ways in which the Imagism of these latter poets was invariably compromised – either too Georgian or just too muddled. The implication is that once Pound turned his attention elsewhere, Imagism lost its “head.” Ultimately, and Guest is fairly explicit about this, there would be only one “true” Imagist: H.D.

Which opens, for me, the deeper question of what an –ism can possibly be. The idea of poetry organized in some fashion around a common purpose necessarily implies the possibility of shared motives. That’s a concept that comes more directly from French painting (& secondarily French symbolist poetry) than it does the tradition of Anglo-American letters. Still there are sporadic foretastes, including the mid-19th century squabbling between the Young Americans and the anglophiles of the School of Quietude. Underlying this concept is some sense of how a “common purpose” might be characterized. Does it require, for example, a defining statement of principles – a manifesto for want of a better term – and the adoption of a name? Guest is clear that Pound, for example, was less of a namer of movements than he was an appropriator of names, such as T.E. Hume’s imagism or Lewis’ Vorticism. Even Objectivism, although Guest doesn’t mention it, might be described in these same terms – a name & an accompanying statement of principles, primarily put forward (at least in 1932) for the purposes of marketing. The need thus was external to the poetry, indeed was imposed on the poets by Zukofsky only at the insistence of Harriet Monroe.

An –ism of this order strikes me as being essentially hollow, aimed less at the poets than at some externalized audience. Contrast this with, for example, the most pronounced ism of the 1950s, Projectivism. While Olson, Creeley, Dorn, Duncan & Sorrentino all wrote substantive works of critical writing – and some of Olson’s in particular embody the rhetoric of a manifesto – they’re really aimed at one another. What we are reading in their works is much more of an internal discussion – they’re goading one another to write better & to take greater chances in their work. One sees this also, I think, in the relatively few critical works to emerge from the New York School (O’Hara’s “Personism”) or the so-called Beat Scene (primarily Kerouac’s statements on prosody & spontaneous writing). Indeed, the Projectivists never once in their writings ever called themselves by that name & the Beats were accorded that moniker by a San Francisco gossip columnist, Herb Caen. “Personism,” the only true –ism of that decade, employed that term strictly as a joke. Even the term New York School, which was employed only by its second generation, was used half as a joke. While the marketing aspect of a group brand was not altogether absent with the NY School, any more than it was with the Beats, the focus was much more decisively around the question of internal discourse. The –isms of the 1950s were thus more communities in their orientation than the ones of the teens or the 1930s. And, no surprise, it was this aspect of these “movements” that I think appealed most to the poets who came to be known in the 1970s as language poets.

It’s not that Pound wasn’t interested in communicating with other poets, but his rather frenetic social organizing never moved toward a community because that was never its purpose.

Monday, October 14, 2002

Vocabulary fascinates me. Individual writers often have very distinct styles that are identifiable entirely through the words they choose. Often working in longer lined forms that provide a maximum of freedom & context for the specificity of his selections, Forrest Gander unleashes his expansive vocabulary with a deep love for the sheer clutter of the polysyllabic:

       The solid given upward, hemorrhaging into air, the vista
tinged Merthiolate and twisted

Or, elsewhere in Science & Steepleflower, (New Directions, 1998) “The land arborescing,” a verb Gander has employed on multiple occasions, more I suspect than any of the rest of us could say. Gander has a naturalist’s bias toward a vocabulary not only of exacting detail, but with an ear turned towards that heritage of lush Latinisms lurking & available for a given depiction. If I read Ken Irby for his inexhaustible ear, the absolute pleasure it affords, I do Gander likewise for his word choices. They seem fabulous, in every sense of that term.

A second poet with an exact sense of which words to use and why is H.D. In her work, each word stands walled, a brick:

Think, O my soul,
of the red sand of
think of the earth; the heat
burnt fissures like the great
backs of the temple serpents;
think of the world you knew;
as the tide crept, the land
burned with a lizard-blue
where the dark sea met the sand.

In this first strophe of the poem “Phaedra,” all but four words of its fifty are built with but one sound. The four with two are placed with great care. Not one term has three or more sounds – it would push out of the line like a shock to discover one. No clutter here. But that is H.D. to the max. Count the sounds per line: 4-6-6-6-7-6-6-6-7. H.D. loved that great clean sense to her work, perhaps even too much.