POETS Day! HD, as in Hilda Doolittle

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Yesterday was opening day. You’d think Major League Baseball would feature all manner of get out of work early fare for the first Friday of the season but it doesn’t. The earliest game starts at 6:40 ET. That’s a bit too late on the East coast and probably around midnight or so on the West coast, but I may be off there – the metric system never made sense to me. How do people play hooky to see a game that doesn’t start until they get off work? I don’t want to trot out “You’re either for us or you’re against us,” for MLB because they’ve been such a friend to POETS Day in the past, but I feel like they dropped the ball here. That said, baseball’s error is no excuse for you to lay down on laying down on the job. The weekend starts when you say it does. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Consider your boss and get your mind right. That’s the enemy. Hold nothing back. Dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass whatever norms and delicate pieties are left to preserve our hopefully durable civilization. Nearly all means are justified by the urge to prematurely escape the bonds of employment and settle in at a friendly neighborhood joint to watch yesterday’s highlights and some pre-game blather, tap your fingers impatiently on the bleachers of a local ball park, realize that it doesn’t matter how the long the line is for a hot dog considering that it’ll be God knows how long before the first pitch, or heavens forfend, throw up your hands in frustration and watch soccer. It’s your weekend. Do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


The anonymous writer of the bio for Hilda Doolittle at the invaluable Poetry Foundation notes that the poet suffers from early success. “H.D.’s justified reputation as the greatest and purest imagist paradoxically led to a critical cage whose perpetrators either lamented the fact that she stopped writing perfect gems or persisted in discussing five and ignoring 45 years of poetic development.” She wrote remarkably later in life and while I’ve read bits from that period I’m not at all as familiar with the later as I’ve become with the earlier. Scholarship since the 1970s, no doubt to the delight of the bio writer, celebrates the whole body of her work as remarkable. “Helen of Egypt” (1961) is held out as particularly significant.

Call me a Philistine, but I’m currently interested in her early Imagist period and will persist in my admiration of five at the expense of what followed. It was Glenn Hughes, author of Imagism and the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry (1931), who first referred to Doolittle as “the purist imagist.” In the 1913 issue of “Poetry” a set of three poetic principles as put forth by the three original Imagistes: Ezra Pound, Doolittle, and her husband Richard Aldington.

  1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose poetry in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

In the preface to the 1915 anthology Some Imagist Poets, the principles were expanded upon. By this point the movement rankled under the leadership of Pound and a minor uprising led to a more democratic approach to editorial decisions regarding their joint publications with Amy Lowell as coordinator.

  1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.
  2. To create new rhythms – as the expression of new moods – and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods.
  3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject.
  4. To present an image (hence the name: “Imagist”).
  5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
  6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.

You’ll note that the name shifted from “Imagiste” to “Imagists” under Lowell. As to “Imagiste,” Aldington wrote “What Ezra thought that meant remains a mystery… But why a French title for a collection of poems by a bunch of young American and English authors? Search me. Ezra liked foreign titles.”

Doolittle’s relationship with Pound was complex. They met in 1901 when she was fifteen and he was sixteen and began dating in 1905, despite her parent’s objections. The romance was on again off again but the on again periods were serious enough for two engagements, both broken off. Their involvement seems to have ended by 1910 when Doolittle started seeing Frances Josepha Gregg, but they remained in touch to varying degrees, usually as friends, for the rest of their lives.

Pound’s ideas behind the Imagiste movement seem to have coalesced in 1912 with the publication of his collection Ripostes. At least it was in Ripostes that he first mentions the word “Imagiste.” That year Dolittle mentioned to him that “Hilda Doolittle” was dated. He wrote “H.D. Imagiste” at the end of one of her poems and sent several, in his capacity as foreign editor of Poetry, to the magazine’s founder Harriet Monroe for publication.

H.D. was clearly someone Pound respected. It’s tempting to say that she was his early muse. He called her “Dryad.” It’s also tempting to say that whatever his esteem for or bond with her he recognized her value as a sterling example of his brand. She certainly saw “H.D.” as a curatable persona. Amy Lowell included a picture of her in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917) and H.D. was not pleased. “It’s not that picture, but any picture! The initials, ‘H.D.,’ had no identity attached; they could have been pure spirit. But with this I’m embodied.”

I don’t think Pound’s ego would allow anyone to outshine him in his own movement, but as an Imagist, it wasn’t just Hughes who thought H.D. stood out. In the May 1915 issue of The Egoist, the poet Harold Monro called her “the truest Imagist.” Again from the anonymous Poetry Foundation biographer, “H.D.’s ability to concentrate language, construct a musical line, and project intensity through the crystalline image gave poetic flesh to imagist doctrine… It is probably more accurate to say that imagist doctrine was developed to describe the poetry she wrote.”

This week’s poem appeared in the Lowell led Some Imagist Poets of 1915. Its title, “Oread,” refers to a nymph of mountains or mountain woods in Greek myth.


H.D. Imagiste (1886-1961)

Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.

I think the most interesting aspect of the poem is its “direct treatment of the thing.”

The image is either a wave in anticipation of breaking, looking like a mountain as it crests, or a tree covered mountain whipped by winds to appear in motion like a wave. Both are given equal weight.

One of the goals of the Imagists was to capture a moment. The first word of the first two lines and the last word of the second and third lines connect the water and woods in motion and substance and the final three lines describe action, but it’s personal action. They are “our rocks,” “your green,” and “your pools” that act on “us.” H.D. makes us connect with the mountain/sea as an actor that’s not hurling or covering; it’s giving us the concepts which we, having received, are allowed to imagine acting with “your”, now our, borrowed pines/wave. This is internal, an understanding of a relationship between two things at the instant when we see a sea as a mountain or a mountain as a sea so it is, in that moment of thought, neither. Similes, with “like” and “as”, are too drawn out to be emotionally satisfying to poets who seek, from Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” (Poetry, March 1913), “the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits.” The thing in the frame for direct treatment is the metaphor itself.

It’s an impressive six lines.

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