Last year, having been invited to participate in a public discussion of the poet H.D., I decided to explore H.D.’s fictional works, virtually none of which appeared during her lifetime. Many of these, even just ten years ago, were available only to scholars willing to visit the Beinecke at Yale, where most of her manuscripts and papers are housed. But almost everything’s in print now.
Though I admire H.D.’s poems, I did not expect my prose project to be pleasurable, and it wasn’t. I don’t know how many of her novels and novellas I read, but I found all of them (with one exception, dealt with below) annoying. Mainly they are exactly what people mean by “self-indulgent.” The reader is exposed to the spectacle of the writer hunting around for a style worthy of her personal melodrama. Inefficiency and joyless obscurity abound. Even the one I liked is not a great book or anything.
But none of this matters. I say I didn’t find the project pleasurable, but I did find it engrossing. I became very invested in coming to some kind of reckoning with H.D.’s personality, mainly because I saw that over the years I’ve known and been friends with quite a few H.D.s—at least four. The key difference being that the H.D.s in my life could never have written any of H.D.’s mature poetry. But all of them could have written her novels. Except for Bid Me to Live.
The public discussion came and went, and I have not stopped reading H.D. I can’t wait till this semester is over so I can read some of these satellite materials that keep getting themselves mentioned in footnotes.
Anyhow, what follows is merely a set of hints and ideas and judgments I’ve been accumulating. Call it “H.D. Notebook: Part I.” I’ll post Part 2 in June.
I’m teaching a course called Twentieth-Century USA Poetry. We got to H.D. I suggested we all try to write some Sea Garden poems. We looked closely at three or four famous pieces in an old Norton Anthology. “Sea Rose,” et cetera. Then I laid down five rules:
- Poem must be this big (thumb and forefinger form a “C”)
- Itty-bitty choppy lines
- Violent monosyllabic verbs
- Apostrophe (i.e., talk to something you’re not supposed to talk to)
- Turn all wussy assumptions about beauty on their heads
Result? Ten people in the seminar, ten Sea Garden poems—all of ’em different, all of ’em more or less unmistakably written by H.D. in 1915. Apparently we had hit upon the right recipe.
This kind of thing would never work in a million years with Trilogy or Helen in Egypt. That it worked with Sea Garden makes me uneasy. The same thing could be done with my poems.
Lots of people read Sea Garden, then stop. This, even though they weren’t fatigued or annoyed. They liked the book, but they go no further. I have a hypothesis as to why.
It’s what happened to me with the first Smiths record. I intuited it would always be better simply to listen to The Smiths again rather than move on to whatever their second record was called, because (a) it seemed medically impossible the next album was going to be better and (b) in some sense, I always had unfinished business with the first album. I hadn’t sufficiently digested it.
Sea Garden is like that. The poems are so similar to each other that you get the idea no growth is possible. And the poems are so pregnant with meaning, one never feels one has done them justice simply by reading them. One never really “knows one’s way around” Sea Garden.
(How many people have read 77 Dream Songs many times and never moved on to His Toy, His Dream, His Rest—?)
I don’t like biographies wherein the subject has no stupid ideas, is never self-deceived, and is never a source of legitimate grievance to anyone. To watch a biographer protect her subject from all negative interpretations, and even from the other characters in the story—this is a most unedifying spectacle.
Janice Robinson sheltering H.D. from Pound, for instance. Or urging H.D. into hand-holding with D. H. Lawrence. Massaging facts so they can have gone to bed, those two exotic, beautiful creatures. Caroline Zilboorg explaining away four fifths of Richard Aldington’s character, so his marriage with H.D. can be viewed as a deep and mutually rewarding enterprise. And of course trashing Bryher.
Standing very far apart from those two is Barbara Guest’s biography (Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World, 1985). Guest, whose own poetry I find unreadable, plays perfectly (to my mind) the part of the mature critic. She respects H.D., but H.D. is not her darling. Guest’s tone is that appropriate to a conversation between friends A and B about absent friend C, whom they both love—but.
That, anyway, is the conversation I want to overhear. Not two people trashing a third, but two people soberly comparing notes, the better to understand the yes and the no of the person.
The photo on the back of Zilboorg’s Richard Aldington and H.D.: Their Lives in Letters (2003) is almost too vulnerable to mention. A naked Richard Aldington, sitting in surf, fused with a photo of naked H.D., standing in what looks like the same water but which is actually a path through some woods. The original photos are provided in the book. Cropped out: the naked woman with whom Aldington was actually bathing, also the fact that Aldington was three thousand miles away when the H.D. photo was snapped.
Back cover of Robinson’s bio is really something, too. Four men: Pound, Lawrence, Aldington, and then, taking up more space than those three put together: Freud. There’s nothing else on the back cover. (Where’s Bryher?)
A great many people felt the need to record and publish their impressions of H.D. during her lifetime. It’s stimulating that these works were, generally speaking, satirical. The most famous of these is William Carlos Williams’s bits about H.D. in his Autobiography (1951). He makes her out to be the kind of drama-queeny yo-yo who lifts her arms as it’s beginning to rain and says, “Come, beautiful rain!” and insists on getting drenched.
She seems to have inspired rather a lot of this kind of portraiture. Lawrence put some ineffectual, indecisive, thwarted version of her into Aaron’s Rod; John Cournos (who had also been a close friend) wrote a whole satirical novel about her (Miranda Masters, 1926); and even Frances Gregg, who was supposedly the female love of H.D.’s life (I forget who says this, but I pretty much buy it) wrote, in tandem with her husband, some long piece of fictional nastiness about H.D. Can’t remember the title; it’s hard to keep track of all this.
Seems everyone in her private life treated her roughly at some point, but the three people who at least never treated her roughly in public writing are Pound, Aldington, and Bryher. These last two genuinely revered her, thought she was a “genius” and all that crap. Surprisingly, only Pound seems to have declined to satirize her simply because he had better things to do. Or maybe she just somehow didn’t annoy him as much as she annoyed other people. She drove Aldington and Bryher up the wall and into the chandelier.
Actually, I feel like underscoring a point very easy to miss. You can say what you like about Pound; at least he never wrote a roman à clef. Everyone else in that circle wrote a bunch of ’em. H.D. herself wrote at least six.
Part of why she made everybody crazy is she combined two traits that seldom come together: narcissism (intense self-fascination, intense self-approval) and what I want to call personal pacifism—the unwillingness to fight with (or ever to interfere with) others. She simply never attacks anyone or anything for any reason. Not with malice, not with ideas, not with helpfulness. It’s just not her way. And it’s not because she’s sweet; she wasn’t. Anyone who thinks she was nice should read her novel Hermione (sometimes called HERmione and sometimes called Her). But this is what I’m saying. Most people who are as not nice as she was end up Susan Sontagging their way through life, dogmatizing and being contradicted, battling their way in and out of people’s consciousness.
The mystery, the membrane-irritating mystery, is how someone with H.D.’s resources of elitism and self-love manages not to be aggressive.
She was a believer; she was born to believe. Anything ancient. Anything that looked like hieroglyphics, including a Ouija board. She was the kind of person who, in the car on the way to her wedding, might see a sign advertising a shoe outlet: WHY PAY MORE? DON’T DO IT! That “don’t do it” could cause her to pull over and have a long, panicked, tearful meditation.
Any kind of chance homonymy. A pear tree would also necessarily be a “pair” tree. Hmm. Pair of what. Also people should consider carefully before they call a place “Pennsylvania.” Sylvania—woods. Hmm.
She really was like this. Horoscopes, séances. Egyptological crapola in every flavor. And yet: mysticism doesn’t have any kind of sustained presence in any of her books except The Sword Went Out to Sea and Magic Ring, neither of which were published in her lifetime (not that she didn’t try).
It’s like with Pound’s fascism. It was supposedly so important to him, but the Cantos, if you actually bother to read them, are like a gallon jar of jelly beans with six or seven evil licorice ones in the whole jar. I never know what to make of this. It’s certainly not that he was ashamed to own his views in front of the public. H.D.’s case—the shyness surrounding her mysticism—is probably easier to understand.
The most presentable face of her will-to-believe was Freudian psychoanalysis, a thing about which she knew quite a lot, having had no small number of sessions with Sigmund Freud himself. She regarded herself as one of his star pupils.
Freud’s “teachings” were a context in which a “pair” tree, dreams about biblical kitsch, and etchings of the Temple of Karnak were all entitled to give long speeches. They had standing; they had authority. And Freud himself was a charismatic cult leader on the verge of death who might pass to H.D. the robes of the new religion. A religion, be it noted, whose only flaw was its insistence that God and gods and ghosts and heaven-haven were illusions without which mankind would be better off. This, of course, is where the “Professor” was sadly mistaken. H.D. hoped to make the necessary adjustments …