The H.D. Book: A Clarion Call for all Artists and Writers


In school I took a class on female poets and was instantly taken with the poetry of H.D., especially her later work Trilogy, a savage and mythic poem about rediscovering meaning in the ruins of war. One of the founding Imagists, H.D. was Ezra Pound’s muse, D.H. Lawrence’s “platonic lover” and friend and one-time patient of Sigmund Freud.

Her eventful life was mirrored in a poetry that was at once impressionistic, mythic, occult and sensual.

Her poetry spoke to me by its spare form, built on concrete impressions of natural and mythic landscapes, all of it imbued with spiritual concerns. A lapsed Catholic, I have never given up on the idea of some originary spring where all this interestingness wells up from — and that can be dipped into freely given the right conditions. And H.D. spoke to me by marrying the mundane with the transcendent in a way that hinted she knew the way to the source. Whatever that source might be named.

But then I forgot about her for some time, as happens with writers we love.

And then, at the beginning of this year, at The Green Arcade  bookstore I remembered her again because another poet I admire, Robert Duncan had apparently written a big book about H.D. which was also a big book about everything. The “final” version of all Duncan’s working notes and chapters was published posthumously in early January and entitled The H.D. Book, a meticulously-edited, painstakingly-assembled text that is one of the “great ‘lost’ texts in the history of American poetry.”

The H.D. Book, at nearly seven hundred pages, began as an homage to one of Duncan’s favorite poets and evolved through the years into an associative, hermetic, and far-reaching atlas of all things poetic. An atlas masquerading as a manifesto. A poetics as a call to arms. An anatomy of the collective artistic psyche of the mid-twentieth century.

Over this weekend I plan on starting it with the same zeal that I began 2666 or The Brothers Karamazov.

The publication of Duncan’s magnum opus has produced ripples of excitement in worlds beyond poetry. For example, Jed Perl, the art critic at The New Republic had this to say:

“Published a half-century after it was written, The H.D. Book reads like a clarion call. At a time such as ours, when artists are either embattled or co-opted, either locked away in some ivory tower of their own invention or overtaken by market forces and political forces, Duncan argues for the most strenuous artistic ambitions as a dynamic democratic possibility.”

Perl’s entire appreciation is worth reading.

As is Erik Davis’ review of The H.D. Book at Bookforum.

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →