A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
To start: a personal admission, and dedication. This piece is for Jackie.
Every year we do a poetry week and for some reason Bookfox Jackie (known as Arty Fox in the den) encourages me to do a piece for it. This year, I was tearing my hair out I wondered what I should do. I have a strange love-hate relationship with poetry and it’s interesting to see that this seems to be a common theme for our Poetry theme week this year with Simon’s brilliant piece on his struggles with poetry and various admissions from some of the other literature-loving foxes that poetry is often problematic for them. Perhaps Sam’s highlighted quote from Veronique Omni’s “Beside the Sea”, a rather poetic disjointed novel showing the disordered thoughts of a tragic mind, says it best. The main character says:
“I like songs. They say things I can’t seem to say. If I didn’t have these rotten teeth I’d sing a lot more, a lot more often, I’d sing my boys to sleep in the evenings, tales of sailors and magical beds, but there you are, we can’t be good at everything, we can’t know how to do everything, all of it, that’s what I tell the social worker till I’m blue in the face.”
This is what poetry can do so well. It can hit us with an image, a song, a rhythm, a feeling, a sense and – most important to me – a doubleness, an openness to several meanings at once, which allows us in. It can be closer to the visual or musical forms than the novel with its characters, plot, and relatively straight-forward narrative sense. Poetry can be lyrical and sentimental or the opposite – spiky and unmusical, or so opaque as to leave you cold – both intriguing and maddening at the same time.
And with that little set-up, I turn to HD. And I turn to her because, again, like Blake, like Eliot – who I have covered before on Vulpes Libris – I was first introduced to her at university. Where I struggled with her. But she was the first poet who really got me interested and really thinking about the roots of language. Today, when I argue with my geeky boyfriend or my sister or anyone else about the appallingness of our spelling system and why I think we should keep it despite all the arguments against me – it’s to HD where my mind often drifts. Because she introduced me to the idea of a ghosts and histories being present in words. Indeed, how much of our poetry would we lose if we standardised our spelling system to match the US or started spelling everything phoenetically? Poetry mines words for their history and recognises their Russian doll type nature -how words can hold changing meanings in their spellings – changing languages, shadows of our history, roots of our culture. Is that (and the ability to enjoy crosswords!) enough to override all the literacy and accessibility arguments thrown at me by my partner and sibling? Well it depends on your point of view and I should point out that my own spelling is utterly appalling. But being someone who values the arts and their ability to carry hidden messages – I cannot give that up lightly, despite understanding all the opposing arguments. Poetry pampthlets are private but can be shared. The more obscure you are the more able to make points that can travel under the surface. Which is why poetry – however elite, however niche, however poverty-enducing for its creators – remains at the apex of our cultural experience and at times of oppression or totalitarianism is (alongside theatre) often the last place you can find expressed, however oliquely, dissident or rebellious thought and communication.
But, I digress.
On to HD…
HD (or to give her her rather less than glamorous real name of Hilda Doolittle) is not, in my view, a rival to Eliot or Stevens as is claimed on the back of my edition of Trilogy – the book that contains her three poetic works “The Walls Do Not Fall”, “Tribute to the Angels” or “The Flowering of the Rod”. Where I instantly loved Eliot and turned my nose up at and then came to admire Blake, HD is neither an instant nor a more analytic love of mine. Her poetry goes on a bit. And on. And on. The short snappy sentences too often unleavened by a musical touch. Quick sentences can be dragged down by words that would sound more appropriate in an intellectual treatise – somehow neither satisfying to the head or the heart. All that being said, she has wonderful moments, and as an Imagist poet, maybe that is most fitting.
The start of “The Wall Do Not Fall” is HD at her best:
An incident here and there,
And rails gone (for guns)
From your(and my) old town square:
Mist and mist-grey, no colour,
Still the Luxor bee, chick and hare
Pursue unalterable purpose
In green, rose-red, lapis;
They continue to prophesy
From the stone papyrus:
There, as here, ruin opens
The tomb, the temple; enter,
There as here, there are no doors:
The shrine lies open to the sky,
The rain falls, here, there
Sand drifts; eternity endures:
Then after another page of colons comes the conclusion of this first sentence:
The flesh? It was melted away,
The heart burnt out dead ember,
Tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered
Yet the frame held:
We passed the flame: we wonder
What saved us? What for?
The wonderful evocation of the ruined, bombed-out city left desolate by war, and the echoing of that war and that desolation into other times, other civilisations, other histories, is powerful. But also powerful is HD’s strong statement “the frame held”. We are still here. We don’t know why we’ve been saved or what for. But the frame held: the walls do not fall. Which, to compare to, say, Eliot’s The Waste Land – which showed a world of shattered and disintegrating civilisation after the First World War is – if not exactly cheery – more like a devastated but purposeful sigh of relief. The Walls, the frame – the roots and echoes of our civilisation – is still here.
For me, the walls that do not fall are an underlying connection, map, structure if you like connecting us to all those ancient civilisations. They remain standing no matter what the desolation is on the surface. H.D. compares bombed out London during the Blitz to the Egyptian tombs she had experience of seeing opened and excavated. The surface is wiped out and devastated – but the walls, the framework, the patterns are all still there.
This seems to relate for me to H.D.’s fascination with the roots of language. She loves to deconstruct words into other words – she plays with names of gods and twists their meanings – she echoes ideas and associations across times and places.
Unlike Eliot’s The Waste Land, whose wounded Fisher King sits on the river whilst his land falls sick around him, where “April is the cruellest month” because it is the month after the trauma where life is forced out of unconsciousness, bringing with it the cruelty of memory and desire, H.D’s vision of endurance is perhaps more traditional, and in that sense rather less arresting and striking. The Waste Land is steeped in depression, nostalgia and pessimism and was written at a time when Eliot himself had endured a terrible nervous breakdown (although he always denied that anything personal should ever be read into this great work). H.D. lost a brother, her husband had suffered badly from the effects of the first world war and she had miscarried, she always thought, through shock. For her, the losses of war were very real. Yet her poem remains grimly determined.
Both Eliot and H.D. seem obsessed with a past tradition, past cultures – but, again, where Eliot sees the shards of civilisation lying around him and seems to retreat under a rock whilst he presents a world of culture disintegrating into soulless and sordid minglings in grotty bedsits – H.D’s poetry is a grim, almost triumphant evocation of the endurance of civilisation, of humanity, the importance of poetry and words echoing through time and through different cultures, places and periods of history.
We have been tested to the maximum. But those roots holding us to civilisation cannot be rooted out. The fire may rip over the surface, may kill, may destroy, but those walls are still there – and those walls are, in my view, words themselves.
In HD’s work there is not just acceptance (like Elliot) but there is a sense of hope – however desolate – in that image of ruins. H.D’s faith remains that civilisation endures – carried by, echoing in, contained in, words. Or poetry itself.
the indicated flute or lyre-notes
on papyrus or parchment
are magic, indelibly stamped
on the atmosphere somewhere,
forever; remember, O Sword,
you are the younger brother, the latter-born,
your Triumph, however exultant,
must one day be over,
in the beginning
was the Word.