Thursday, January 6, 2011

The H.D. Book

The University of California Press has just published volume 1 of the Collected Writings of Robert Duncan (1919-1988): The H.D. Book. The reviewer in the January 4, 2011, The New Republic describes it as “a wild, dazzling, idiosyncratic magnum opus that the poet composed between 1959 and 1964 and that is only now being published in its complete form, by the University of California Press. What began with a request for a brief birthday homage to the American poet known as H.D.—she had been born Hilda Doolittle—morphed into one of the greatest of all meditations on the nature not only of modern poetry but of the modern artistic imagination in its bewitching complexity.”

There is the obligatory reference to HPB in the review: “While some readers of The H.D. Book will be put off by the seriousness with which Duncan addresses the pop-esoteric texts of another era, especially Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, Duncan is making a decisive point here, arguing that the roots of modern artistic expression are as broad as they are deep.”

Duncan’s story is unusual: he was adopted by a theosophical family (based on the time and place of his birth). He later forged an identity for himself as a contributor to the San Francisco renaissance of the 1950s. Readers of Blavatsky News were already altered to Duncan’s growing relevance in a post on June 20, 2010. In The H.D. Book there are over a dozen references to Blavatsky, including a number of pages where he describes her ideas through a poet’s eyes, with the appreciation of an image-maker. “The magic of Blavatsky,” he writes, “the fascination of her writing, was never then to be the magic of an enchanting prose, evoking its life in us to become most real in the weaving of a spell that is also a music with many images and levels of meaning—the illusion of an experience. Her magic was to be, on the contrary, the fascination of an argumentative delusion, the pursuit of proofs and laws behind appearances.”

Duncan’s best-known poem during his lifetime was “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” that begins:

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

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