- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
"The guiding light throughout is Duncan's clear, though subtly resonant prose, which lets even lengthy sentences carry the reader smoothly along from beginning to end."—Foreword Reviews
"I am besotted with a new book that is also an old book. This is The H.D. Book, by Robert Duncan, a wild, dazzling, idiosyncratic magnum opus. . . . The wonders of The H.D. Book are almost without number. [It is] a work of exacting and extravagant optimism."—New Republic
"Profoundly coherent: a strikingly original and provocative articulation of an American literary vision that is engaged simultaneously with Romantic enchantment, modernist formalism, and an arguably postmodern concern with citational networks, self-displacement, and the shadow play of a language always larger than us."—Bookforum
"Into this eldritch tapestry Duncan weaves patches of poetic autobiography, strands of family history and reflections on his intellectual development."—The Nation
As regards the Lost Word, it is explained that the sun at autumn has lost its power and Nature is rendered mute, but the star of day at the spring tide resumes its vital force, and this is the recovery of the Word, when Nature with all her voices, speaks and sings, even as the Sons of God shouted for joy in the perfect morning of the cosmos. —A.E. Waite, The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross
It is some afternoon in May, twenty-five years ago as I write here—1935 or 1936—in a high school classroom. A young teacher is reading:
Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air ...
The patience of her voice, where hope for a communion in teaching still struggled with a resignation to institutional expediencies, the reaching out of her voice to engage our care where she cared, had a sad sweet lure for me. But now, as she read the poem, something changed, became more, transformed by her sense of the poet's voice, impersonating the poet H.D.
... fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
To recall the poem, blunted and rounded in the heat, is to recall the first reading, and leads me back to that early summer of my sixteenth or seventeenth year. Just beyond the voice of the poem, the hum and buzz of student voices and the whirr of water sprinklers merging comes distantly from the world outside an open window.
Inside, in a room that was hers and an hour that was hers—for each period in the schedule of my school day still in those years would become a realm of expectancy for me—the poem came as an offering. It may have been a diversion or a reward after duties in our course of instruction. She had presented it as something more, a personal communication. "I have brought a poem today, not as part of your required reading," did she say? or "not belonging to English Literature, but to my own world, a confidence, a gift, or share?" It was clear, anyway, that for her as for us, much of what we had to read was the matter of a prescribed course and not of our own explorations. We were a group set apart from the mass of those attending high school, a few by their special aptitudes, but most of us by our being the sons and daughters of college graduates, and all of our courses of study were designed to prepare us for entrance examinations for college. We were in the proving ground of the professional middle class, where we were to learn by heart the signs and passwords of that class. Not only cases and tenses, histories and zoologies, but news reports and musical appreciations and the reading of novels and poems were to become critical tests in the would-be initiate's meeting the requirements of a cultural set.
Books had opened in childhood imaginations of other lives, dwelling in which the idea of my own life to be had taken on depths and heights, colors and figures, a ground beyond self or personality in the idea of Man. In fairy tales and in romances, old orders overthrown by the middle class lived on in the beginnings of an inner life, kings and knights long deposed by merchants and landlords, peasants and craftsmen swept aside by the Industrial Revolution, once powers and workers in the realities of the actual world passed now into the subversive realm of the irreal. In each of our histories, we were to repeat the historical victory of the Rise of Capitalism. Were there "Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn," we were schooled not to be taken in by them but to take them in, to appreciate the poet's fancy, even as our forefathers no longer worshipped grove and fountain but exploited wood and water power as public utilities. English Lit with its reading lists, its established texts and tests, was to map in our minds the wilderness yet to be converted to our proper uses from the already developed areas of our real estate. Work by work, author by author, the right roads were paved and marked, the important sights were emphasized, the civic improvements were pointed out where the human spirit had been successfully converted to illustrate the self-respectability of civil men, and the doubtful, impulsively created areas or the adventuring tracks into back-country were deplored. If we, in turn, could be taught to appreciate, to evaluate, as we read, to improve our sensibilities in the ground of other men's passions, to taste and to regulate, to establish our estimations of worth in the marketplace, we were to win some standing in the ranks of an educated middle class as college graduates, urbane and professional, as our parents had done before us.
But there were times when Miss Keough all but confided that the way of reading required by our project was not only tedious but wronged what we read; and there were other times when—even among these things we were supposed to acquire among our cultural properties—she would present some poem or story as if it belonged not to what every well-read person must know, the matter of a public establishment, but to that earlier, atavistic, inner life of the person. Scott's Ivanhoe and Thackeray's Vanity Fair would be essential to our picture of English culture and society, but Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights or Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles were of a different order—the whole confidence and tone of her speaking was of an other order when she came to these works that she took as revelations of a life back of culture or society, of a life she wanted us to find. All the status of appreciation and knowing about things, of reading skillfully and remembering points that were important for tests in what you read, seemed nothing at all when compared with the alliance one's own life might make in love with other lives revealed in men's works that quickened such a sense of kinship. She would introduce certain writers, reading aloud in class or lending a book for us to read at home, with some hesitation and decision that gave the lending or reading aloud an importance in my personal relation to her, fearfully and in that bravely, as if, were I to come to the heart of the matter of them, I would come too to the matter of this woman's heart and to my own too.
This poem "Heat," by H.D., I understood was offered so. It belonged not to the order of poems and stories that we must know all about if we were to be accomplished students. It belonged to the second order that seemed to contain a personal revelation. It was the ground for a possible deeper meeting with her. At times like this, reading to us, she had the shy confidence of a child searching out her companions, sharing with us corners of a garden that were secret or magic places, risking our blindness or rejection of the gift, bringing forward treasures or keys, taking us to see her familiar animals or friends, in order to place her life in our keeping. She was trying us, not demanding response but testing for an affinity.
"This is the fine thing"—was that part of the transformation of the reading voice? a serious regard? "This intense care that can so distinguish its feeling of thickness and pressure, this is the rare courage?" There was her admiration for the sensitivity and the intensity that the poem made available, but there was her shyness too, as if what had been disclosed in the poem touched upon a similar disclosure in herself. The voice told us that something was at issue. The way the poet H.D. admitted—let in—to her self through the poem, and then, in a double sense, admitted to the listener or reader, being almost a victim of the thickness of air, the bluntness of fruit, to let life use you like this, was not shameful but heroic. To reveal, even if it be shameful in other eyes (as crying out, "O wind, rend open the heat,"—being intense that way about trivial things like pears—threatened the composure of household, gang, school, and city or state, and was shamed, put down, as one must put away childish things), to propose the truth of what was felt, to articulate just the emotion that was most vulnerable and in need, took courage.
Courage, yes—but there was something more. This poem in itself was necessary in order for what it evoked to be kept alive as a living power. It was the sense of the necessity that what was felt be kept that filled the poet in writing. To find out feeling meant to evoke a new power in life. To feel at all challenged the course of everything about one. To articulate the feeling, putting it forth in a poem like this, brought others into the challenge. To strengthen response was to strengthen and enlarge not only the resource but the responsibility of life ahead. It was something larger than being courageous then—a trust in living, not only to use things but to be used by them, a drive that broke through the restrictions and depressions of spirit whereby men were shaped to a conventional purpose.
Falling in love, a conversion or an obsession—these were close to what the poet knew in the poem, seeing the world in the light of a new necessity, a being in-formed. "O wind, rend open the heat,/cut apart the heat," meant that the poet submitted her will to be shaped by what happened. A longing? Or prayer? Addressed to a natural force in a world in which inner and outer nature were one?
In the heat of the afternoon. Outside, the whir of sprinklers, the glare, the blur of voices. Inside, from that murmur, there was a place of refuge, a silence created in our attention. Classrooms were for us—certainly for me—in high school meeting rooms. What I was to become was there for me in the presence of a few teachers, as it never had been at home, it seemed, as it never was to be later in university lecture halls until after ten years I was to return to study with Ernst Kantorowicz. Yes, there were others, but this one, this grave young woman in my adolescence, attended the possibility of a poet in me. She could be a task mistress where the preparation for college entrance exams was concerned. She had, after all, to project an authority over us. She was paid to carry out the intentions of an educational system that was devoted not to the discovery of self but to self-improvement. She must have endured, as we endured, a tedium then, but the dreary tasks of accomplishment and graduation could vanish in moments when work itself took on another meaning.
What I was to be grew in what she was. "I want to know what you will make of this," she would say, giving me Lawrence's The Man Who Died or Virginia Woolf's The Waves to take home with me. I was not to sum them up, not to know something about them so that I could do well in an examination, but I was to grow through them and toward them in some hidden way. What I would make of The Man Who Died or The Waves would be what I would make of myself, the course of a life. These works were keys at once to responsive chords in myself and to the music they belonged to, to the company of a larger life, and to my work there. A larger life—la vita nuova, Dante had called it—may be opened to us in some such way, because we fall in love, as I surely was in love with her, discovering in a teacher that which awakened an objective for ardor. "La gloriosa donna della mia mente," so Dante addresses Beatrice. It was a responsibility to glory that she touched in me.
For my teacher brought me, where I sought to find our meeting ground in these books, not to some estimate of their literary worth but to the love of a way of being that they had known. H.D., Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, had found a realm most real or most alive or most individual in their writing. Wasn't it that they intensely showed what they were? Daring the disregard or scorn of conventional readers, if they might find the regard of the true reader? What other men kept to themselves, reserving certain thoughts and feelings as private properties, these sought to reveal, not as public property, but as belonging to a community of feeling.
The intensity of my own spirit was lifted from the shame it had seemed to incur in adolescence—for intensity, in itself, in the genteel household was uncouth—lifted toward a worth, a share, a fire or flame out of a fire, that through my teacher's eyes I saw disclosed in these writers was a thing—the thing—to be loved. The ardor for the truth of what was felt and thought, the faith in passion, was a virtue, a power of man: to search out a life within life.
The thick air of adolescence, the thick air of Bakersfield, the heat of the valley town where I grew up from the age of eight until I went to college, the pervasive oppressing atmosphere everywhere of social forces seeking to govern and direct a maturation of their purposes in me, blunting the edges, pressing up, gave substance to the immediacy of the poem as she read. There was the charged most real sensual image in the poem of a feeling of my self.
She must have said something about "Imagism." Certainly she had talked about imagism in discussing another poem—"Patterns"—by Amy Lowell. But Amy Lowell's garden had been descriptive in its appeal, leading us to picture the scene. Images there had illustrated the area of the poem, words chosen to call up visual representations, smells, and sounds. It was not far from Keats where we had learned to observe the sensual loading in which the picture evoked by the poem was enriched. Amy Lowell was flat work, it seems now to me. It did not sound the depths.
In the poem of H.D.'s, the image stirred not only pictures from my knowledge of a like world, from the shared terms of orchard, pear, and grape at the stem, and the shimmering medium of air in the heat; but it stood too for another statement, arousing and giving a possible articulation to an inner urgency of my own to be realized, to be made good. The poem had a message, hidden to me then, that I felt but could not translate, an unconscious alliance that made for something more than a sensual response. We were directed to imagine the scene, but the actual poem involved something we almost forgot in the suggestion of pears and grapes, of air so thickened and shaped in the heat that it cunningly fitted thickness and shape of fruit so that the suggestion shaped the poem itself. 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.
We had heard of the heat of composition or inspiration that was like a forge in which words or metal yielded to man's shapings. It was a good thing, like the heat that brought pears to their shape and ripeness. And this poem had been shaped, hammered or cut, but it had too, not perfection but the organic irregularities of being felt out from within that life forms have. It had not the regularity of an imposed system, of repeated patterns of stress and syllable, alliteration and rhyme conforming to a prescribed scheme; but its form grew, as living forms do, in the faith or feeling of its own being, transforming itself, using inheritance and environment, tones and cadences, as they happened, toward its melody. Just beyond the threshold of our untrained ears were the rhymes built up in the tone-leadings of vowels and the variation of consonant groupings: "it" to "thick," "fruit" to "through," "air" to "pears," "rounds" to "plough," and the r, the d, the p of "rend open" to "drop" to "presses up." The short lines of the verse forming had their rhythm by the measures of changing numbers. The poem was finely conditioned, felt along the track of some inner impulse. It had form that was H.D., as the leaves of an oak have a form that is the signature of the oak. It had form not by convention kept but by the pulse of its own event.
There was another expression we had read or heard of that was echoed in the poem: a cry that rent the air. Something about to happen that would challenge inheritance and environment. "Rend it to tatters," H.D. asks of the wind in the poem. The address and the evoked image in their message concentrated a likewise hidden prayer of adolescence, that this intensity, this threatening to come to a conclusion, this susceptibility to be shaped, not be rounded in the oppressive thick air of home and town toward homeowner and townsman, but be broken and town toward homeowner and townsman, but be broken or break forth into something yet to be known. The thickness and heat that ripened was the intensity's own medium of life. All about one, one saw the process of the town's shaping unruly youth into its citizens, pressing desire into the roundness of available civic enterprise, thickening the fire of the spirit into energetic figures that would be of public use. O, let my youth be rent open by some new force, the soul prayed: let a path be made, like a wind rending what cohered toward an end of energies into even, if need be, an incoherence, to free movement from its impending goal, enlarging the demand for form—
Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.
Excerpted from The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan, Michael Boughn, Victor Coleman. Copyright © 2011 the Jess Collins Trust. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted February 13, 2011
No text was provided for this review.