Thursday, 15 January 2015

Notes on H.D.

This semester, I'm GAing for Women's Modernist and Contemporary Poetry, which so far has been absolutely fascinating. Despite my long sojourn in the realm of literary studies (an undergrad in English, currently a grad student in the Creative Writing program) I have never taken a course focused on women's writing. This strikes me now as kind of odd: I myself am a woman with a desire to write fiction and poetry and engage in the world through words. There's a kind of stigma attached to women's studies, as if by taking such a class I would put myself in danger of becoming a radical feminist. Foolish, I know. Especially as Margaret Atwood, Madeline L'Engle, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickenson, Mieko Ouchi, and so many other women writers have so strongly influenced my life journey. They deserve to be celebrated and studied just as much as the male-heavy literary canon we tend to fixate on in the Western tradition.

This first week, we've been looking at H.D., also known as Hilda Doolittle, or H.D. Imagiste. The last name there was ascribed by Ezra Pound, who forwarded her poems to Poetry magazine in 1913, establishing H.D. as the foundational Imagist poet. Imagism was a short lived poetic movement which had three main "rules": that the "thing" described was to be dealt with directly in a clear and concise way, that no word was to be used unless it pertained directly to what the poem was describing, and that a dynamic musical rhythm was to be used instead of a metronomic pulse. Despite its limited time period as a movement, its effects on free verse (also known as vers libre at the time) have proven to be long lasting.

H.D. had a crazy life story. I won't write it all out, but you can read a more in-depth version on The Poetry Foundation's website. She was living as an expatriate in Europe when most of her work was published, and was highly active in the literary community, editing for magazines, writing poetry, novels, memoirs. Her interests included Classical Greek mythology and poetry, psychoanalysis, and the relationship between genders. H.D. became her preferred pen name, as it was androgynous and represented "pure spirit", without ascription of gender, background, or context. She became incensed when fellow poet Amy Lowell published a photo of her without permission. She had many lovers throughout her life, women and men, and her sexuality is often encoded in her poetry.

"Oread" is used most often to exemplify H.D.'s early style that became known as Imagism. The poem is one stanza and clearly presents a moment with a kind of natural force. The repetition of"whirl" and "pines" is evocative of a prayer or chant. The wildness of the scene is emphasized by the violent "whirl" and "hurl"; the poem settles at the end into tranquil pools of fir, a kind of fusion between the ocean and the forest. Susan Holbrook suggests that these two diametrically opposed forces of nature which often stand for male ("pointed pines") and female (the sea), morph into each other without dominance or submission. "Sea Rose", from her collection Sea Garden (1916), considers the beauty of a rose that has been through storms and seas. Her search is for a new kind of beauty, unconventional and wild, beauty formed through struggle and conflict.

your grasp is frail
on the edge of the sand-hill,
but you catch the light -
frost, a star edges with is fire."

~from "Sea Violet"