I don’t recall what review comment spurred me to ask for Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book for Christmas. It has been a long read, full of stimulating ideas about poetry and poems.
Duncan has an interesting take on form, shaped by his notion of what the work of poetry is. The H.D. Book places H. D. in the context of her two colleagues, once close, later moving in different directions, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Duncan sees each of these as working in poetry not as a life’s work in the sense of a career, but as life work. The driving force is this: “that in our concern to redeem, to save or keep alive the wholeness of what we are alive, we discover the work to do.”
Duncan describes the overall work of H.D., Pound and Williams as an organic process: “They move in their work thru phases of growth towards a poetry that spreads in scope as an aged tree spreads its roots and branches, as a man’s experience spreads; . . .” This organic property appears also in individual poems, the poet committed to the poem until it reaches the shape that belongs to it.
Structure, Duncan writes, “is not additive, but is fulfilled only in the whole work.”
He contrasts the work of Marianne Moore, using “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron’” as his example:
The number of stanzas is arbitrary. The poem presents examples of itself, a series that may be “complete” at any point because, otherwise, it is extensible as long as the poet’s rationalizations continue. The form of the whole in conventional verse does not rest in the fulfillment of or growth of its parts toward the revelation of their “life” but in the illustrations of the taste and arbitration of the poet.
Is Duncan asking too much? In his desire to lift up H.D. and her work, has he overstated the case? Or is he simply explaining why it is that the truly great poets are intimidating as well as inimitable?
His approach challenges the reader to take her own creative work with utmost seriousness.