Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book (U. of California Press, 2011)
Back to the monolith, its lovely repeating machinery. Duncan, l'obsédé toujours, somehow, and bothersomely, of les élus. The few, the call’d. Quoting what H.D.—“an initiate of the Freud cult”—says Freud insists: “My discoveries are a basis for a very grave philosophy. There are very few who understand this, there are very few who are capable of understanding this.” Too, though, there’s lines out of Freud’s 1915 “Thoughts on War and Death” counterpoint’d with a 1914 letter pertinent in the current “era” of rampant imperial lies—Freud seeing clearly “the cruelties and injustices for which the most civilized nations are responsible, at the different way in which they judge of their own lies, their own wrong-doings, and those of their enemies”:
The individual in any given nation has in this war, a terrible opportunity to convince himself of what would occasionally strike him in peace time—that the State has forbidden to the individual the practice of wrong doing, not because it desired to abolish it, but because it desires to have the monopoly of it, like salt and tobacco.
And (the elect’d), muscling together the company (“from each of these the cry goes up—to whom other than us, their spiritual kin—from an intense solitude”): “Not only Freud’s ‘There are very few who understand this,’ but Stein’s ‘Do you know because I tell I you so, or do you know, do you know. (Silence) My long life, my long life,’ or Joyce’s ‘Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights?’ or Pound’s plea from Canto CXVI:
I have brought the great ball of crystal,Or, talking of Ludwig Tieck’s “The Elves,” and pointing to “the people of some outcast area of the psyche itself . . . the people of the romantic impulse, mistrusted and disowned—the romantic fallacy, the right-minded call it”: “The magic of this source, whether it be an actual company, of poets or heretics, or a hidden area of the psyche, or a source of the poem, lies in its being secret to all who have not entered into its inner life.” Whence American romantic clubbery elideth it into control-befoul’d elitism?
who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
“Percept against concept.” Duncan’s impingement of Pound’s image (“that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in time”) and Williams’s “the local conditions’’ with a single skewer: thus unfolding “something actually seen in the process of the poem, not something pretended or made up.” (How’d, though, anybody, beyond the writer-assemblagist, know.)
How odd that I—loving to prattle about Fenollosa’s “no nouns in nature”—’d forget how he resists, too, rampant continual “abstract” verbery, making of nature a sentence (a named thing predicating). Duncan calls it “moving syntax.” Fenollosa: “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap-shots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them.”
Duncan’s stray quoting of H.D.’s remark (“Ion,” 1937) for “the valiant yet totally unselfconscious withdrawal of the personality of the artist.” And Eliot’s (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 1919): “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” Etc.
Duncan’s terrific ear for echoes:
. . . when The Pisan Cantos appeared in 1949 how closely Pound’s lines:If the hoar frost grip thy tentrecalled H.D.’s lines from Tribute to the Angels that had been published in 1945:
Thou wilt give thanks when night is spent.where, Zadkiel, we pause to give
thanks that we rise again from death and live.
The injustice (and oddness) of Duncan’s assigning “Pound, Williams, and H.D.” (and D.H. Lawrence, and Edith Sitwell) keepers of the “generative imagination” (“Pound called it”), those who “saw literature as a text of the soul in its search for fulfillment in life and took the imagination as a primary instinctual authority”—going to the extent of quoting Carlyle’s “The Hero as Poet”—“musical thought is one spoken by a mind that has penetrated into the inmost heart of the thing; detected the inmost harmony of it, namely the melody that lies hidden in it; the inward harmony of coherence which is its soul, whereby it exists, and has a right to be, here in this world”—and depositing Wallace Stevens (with Marianne Moore, and Eliot) amongst the “rational,” those who “remain within the rational imagination and do not suffer from the creative disorders of primitive mind, the shamanistic ecstasies and the going ‘after strange gods.’” (“Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan / Of tan with henna hackles, halt!” Etc.)
Unparallel’d and necessary, Duncan’s Spring and All reportage and rescue. (Found in the initial chapter of what’s call’d “Book 2. Nights and Days”—work originally print’d in Jim Harrison and Dan Gerber’s Sumac 1:1 in 1968, in that lovely period of détente in the poetry wars, post-New American Poetry, pre-Language writing, I suspect Duncan’s notes point’d the way to the 1970 Frontier Press edition, and defined the beast for innumerable up-and-comers. Ironically, pointing, too, in Williams’s “rancor” toward terms of subsequent debate, that “knowing touch of the artist, a stylish manoeuvre” versus the “heightened apprehension of what form means.” Duncan:
Looking back, Spring and All in 1922 stands a major realization of form. Its twenty-eight poems belonging to an open sequence of feeling, cohering, not in any plan or prescribed theme, but in the essence of their belonging to the pure intuition of the whole. As free as the new music of Webern or the new painting of Kandinsky. The work itself having the insistence of the formal. So much depended upon seeing what was being done. Charged with spring. With the spring of a new poetics. The sequence of discrete, sharply drawn, contrasting poems that are in turn parts of something else, elements thruout of a melodic structure. That can include (as the new art of the collage begins to include):That’s plenty. Serial and organic form in that “open sequence of feeling, cohering, not in any plan or prescribed theme, but in the essence of their belonging to the pure intuition of the whole.” (See Ashbery’s version: “form is that of a bag into which anything is dumped and ends up belonging there.”) And the put-on “period charades” of today? Legion, identify’d by slavishness, laziness, and dishonesty. And “reception anxiety”: “worried . . . about who and what belonged in the right thing.”
Wrigley’s, appendicitis, John Marin:
or after “The Sea,” “Underneath the sea where it is dark / there is no edge / so two—,” comes XXI “The Red Wheelbarrow.” For upon the “so much depends” and upon the “red wheel / barrow” the imagination must have a heightened apprehension of what form means to take hold.
A year of achievement. Surely he must have known what he had done. But it was a year of rancor for Williams too, for what he had done in Spring and All, to give simple things a power in the imagination, to compose so in the pure exhilaration of a formal feeling, was not recognized by those closest to him in poetry. Pound, writing on “Dr. Williams’ Position” in 1928, does not mention Spring and All, and he seems to be defending an art in its lapse. “Very well, he does not ‘conclude’”; Pound writes: “his work has been ‘often formless,’ ‘incoherent,’ opaque, obscure, obfuscated, truncated, etc.”
Williams had struck out to make a new claim for form and it had not been recognized. More than that, the impact of Spring and All was obliterated by the timeliness, the mise en scène, the very usable attitudes and conclusions of The Waste Land.
The Waste Land, as it seemed to the literati of 1922 to voice most to their time, appears now as a period charade; with put-on voices and some epitome of modernism-1922 played against cultural tones, orchestrated with Edgar Allan Poe and the Vedas. The “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag— / It’s so elegant / So intelligent” we all recognize as a knowing touch of the artist, a stylish manoeuvre.
The modernism-1922 is there in Spring and All, in the hey-ding-ding tough-voice of “Shoot It Jimmy!” and “Rapid Transit”To hell with you and your poetry—cuts in. But it is there an authentic part of the conflict the poet knows, in its own rights, as the red wheelbarrow is. For what it is. An insistence in the poem.
Yet. . .
Eliot must be part of our picture. He worried about social forms, about being in good form. He was never quite sure about the form, the beginning and the end of that first long poem. About what belonged. As he worried too about who and what belonged in the right thing, in literature, in the true establishment. About what to include. “Do you advise printing ‘Gerontion’ as a prelude in book or pamphlet form?’’ he writes Pound: “Perhaps better omit Phlebas also??? Certainly omit miscellaneous pieces.” “The poem,” Pound wrote Eliot, “ends with the ‘Shantih, shantih, shantih’.” A period charade? But it was the first poem in which the American mind lay so mediumistically open to the wastes of Europe’s agony. “The great catastrophe to our letters,” Williams recalls in his Autobiography:I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit . . . I had to watch him carry my world off with him, the fool, to the enemy . . .Yet . . . “This is not to say that Eliot has not, indirectly, contributed much to the emergence of the next step in metrical construction, but if he had not turned away from the direct attack here, in the western dialect, we might have gone ahead much faster.”
“He might have become our adviser, even our hero,” Williams puts it. But he left the American language, the speech of childhood, the common speech—not for English, but for the language of English literature . . . .