Ever wanted to visit an old school flame? Maybe not even for romance, just to catch up on what they’re doing, or to let them know what you’ve been up to? Well, in 1911 24-year-old Hilda Doolittle visited London to meet up with Ezra Pound who she knew from the University of Pennsylvania.
Pound was up to something alright. Along with a small group of men including F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme, he was planning to tear down and repave English language poetry. No more stentorian Victorian third-generation copies of Romantic verse. No. No extra words. No dusty ornaments. Metaphors as decoration? No. Instead: direct treatment of the thing! Incongruous emotional language in tired verse? No. Strict rhythms and forced rhymes? No.
The group were poets, not just theorists, and they were trying to create yes poems to those no ideals.
Hilda showed Ezra some poems and asked what he thought of them. Pound was cat on mouse with that sort of offer, because there was no larger reserve of literary opinions in London at that time than Pounds’.
He liked them. He said Doolittle was already doing what they were formulating. And then with his characteristic audacity, he took his blue pencil to the bottom of Doolittle’s poems and wrote “HD, Imagiste.”
Oh, and Pound was the overseas conduit for new poetry to Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry magazine. Off he sent some of Doolittle’s poems with her new pen name applied.
Doolittle never liked her family name anyway. She kept the shortened name but dropped the French addition.
“The Pool” is one of the most anthologized of H. D.’s early short Imagist poems. One can think of it as a just as short, just as spare, contrast to William Carlos Williams’* “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “The Red Wheelbarrow” wants us to clearly see something mundane as meaningful, as beautiful. “The Pool” wants us to impressionistically see something mysterious obscured by water, never framed sharply. WCW seems comforted by and comfortable with the wheelbarrow and chickens. H.D. seems at least a little taken aback by what she sees in the pool, as does what she sees there (it “trembles.”) That it’s the subject of a poem tells us she’s fascinated by it, but we’re not sure she likes what she’s seeing. WCW’s rainwater on the wheelbarrow seems like magnifying-glass raindrops. H.D.’s pool water applies an obscuring filter.
What’s in the pool? Is it some alien-looking sea creature? See below for another possibility. And here’s a third.
Is this poem a riddle to be solved? If you like, it can be. One reading has it that what she sees is her own reflection, and the strings of the net she dips into the reflection make it “banded.” She can’t catch her reflection or fully understand herself, so the ending without naming the thing in the pool “reflects” that.
We’re still celebrating National Poetry Month, so three ways again to hear my musical setting and performance of H. D.’s “The Pool” today. There’s a graphical player below for some, and a brand-new lyric video above. Just want the audio, but don’t see a player? This highlighted link will open a new tab with its own audio player.
William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell is an unusual book. Its subtitle: Improvisations promised me more than it delivered. Improvised or semi-improvised poetry, that true Jazz poetry where the author composes on the spot from themes or from spontaneous inspiration is something I admired and—to a degree—practiced in my youth. The improvisations of Williams’ book are usually classed as prose poems, but I don’t find much music in them nor a sense of surprise or discovery. They do reflect the influence of Dada and Cubism, and if I could hold my attention on them longer, they might still bring some pleasure and illumination to me—but so far I haven’t been able to do that. But nearly half the book as published is prologue and that was more rewarding to read.
One can get a real sense in the prologue to Kora in Hell of where Williams found himself a century ago when it was written. There’s a lot of self-assertion, a lot of names dropped, a lot of debates on poetry and art where Williams as the author of the piece gets to be not just a debate participant, but the moderator, editor, and director of the debate. Poets Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, H. D. and Alfred Kreymborg make their appearance. In visual arts Duchamp, Man Ray, and Charles Demuth are referenced. Earlier this year I also noted that a forgotten Modernist poet and editor Orrick Johns has one of his poems quoted in the prologue without attribution.*
The point Williams seems to be making over and over again in the prologue is that he is just as important, connected, valid and artistically insightful as any of these. One can easily view this assertion in a multi-valent way. Williams could easily have felt isolated and left out, now resident in New Jersey and earning his living with a bourgeois job** as a physician. And however genteelly it’s couched, most artists must engage in self-promotion—it’s unlikely that any ego-less man or woman ever set out to write a poem or paint a picture. And the point he’s making, that he, Williams, has something worth considering has since been validated by the canon-setters.
In the case of two poets, Pound and H.D., Williams has a personal history, having known them in his college years. And it’s an exchange of letters with H.D. excerpted by Williams in the prologue to Kora in Hell that I used for today’s audio piece. In her letter H.D. is offering gentle advice regarding something Williams has written. She’s noticed some stuff that seems derivative and that she feels doesn’t represent Williams’ individual inspiration. She sets that observation in the context of a writer’s calling and the sacredness (in her view) of the artistic enterprise.
Two initial American Modernist poets: H.D. and W.C.W.
Williams, the home team here, gets to respond in the bottom of the inning and he shrugs briefly before thundering. He doesn’t really address the substance of H. D.’s feedback so much as he jumps on the “sacred” sentiment it’s couched in. Sacred in Williams’ mind is associated with singular artistic criteria, the kind of thing that Eliot and the New Critics of High Modernism are starting to create in a revised standard version—and he’s again’ it. When Williams says “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other” it sounds as a ringing iconoclastic statement, but what does he mean? Is he saying “There’s so much crap around that folks think is great art, so who should care what little mistakes us Modernist innovators make.” Or is it something else? Is he perhaps saying something akin to a maxim I repeat here often, that “All artists fail.” Is Williams claiming that to attempt some impossible sacredness, forgetting that the artist will fail, will harm the work from that intention?
There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.
He then closes, in a sentence as musical as anything in the prose poems that follow, with a Dada litany. A half a century later, another Dada-influenced artist who influenced me, Frank Zappa, would phrase the same principles when he said his artistic rule was AAAFNRA, “Anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all.”
I’ll have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but this is long enough for one sitting and it’ll give me a little space to talk about the music in today’s piece. I got to use two new components in composing this. The opening section features a fine pipe organ virtual instrument from Garritan. In a vary real sense, the pipe organ was the first, wholly mechanical, embodiment of the synthesizer, and I personally can’t play or compose for it without thinking of Michael Barone and his long-running radio show “Pipe Dreams” featuring that instrument. The orchestra sounds are from Sonuscore’s The Orchestra which is a novel approach to orchestral virtual instruments. My initial encounter with using The Orchestra mirrors most other reviewers: it makes adding orchestra colors simpler than most while giving indications that it can be used deeply if one gets under the hood of the default ensembles.
This may be a good time to explain how I use virtual instruments here, and particularly orchestral instruments. I’m thinking that many of our casual listeners when they hear Dave or myself chanting or singing away with everything from a string trio to larger ensembles that I’m just dropping in some loops or samples from a recording. There’s a good deal of that done on the Internet with poetry and I won’t knock it.*** After all, I subscribe to the maxim of Duke Ellington’s that Peter Schickele sustained “If it sounds good, it is good.” However, because I consider myself, despite my limitations, a quasi-musician and an intentional composer, I choose not to do that. Those string and orchestra parts are played, on little plastic keyboards or with a guitar MIDI interface. Sophisticated musicians probably already know that because even while using orchestral instruments my harmonic framework is either based on rock’n’roll/blues and their common “three-chord trick” or on older drone/modal folk music traditions.
So the opening H.D. section of today’s piece is a three-chord trick, something that any garage band or punk musician would understand. And the William Carlos Williams part that follows is simpler yet harmonically, based on just C to D major chords, though the color notes of the electric guitar solo extend that slightly. When someone asks what kind of music I write I’m at a loss for useful words. I’ve said extended folk music and I’ve said punk orchestral.
To hear me present the epistolary dialog between H. D. and W.C.W, use the player below.
**I have no idea of Williams’ intent in that “day job” choice—or even how good or bad he was as a physician—but given the latency and indirectness of writers and artists impact on their fellow human beings, such work may be a useful adjunct to the writing life. I myself spent nearly 20 years of my working life in the lower levels of nursing. As I told my wife recently in a moment of clarity, I figured that if I couldn’t help myself at least I could be some help to others. Young artists: consider this.
***I must also mention modern hip-hop production which has developed a class of composers who are very adept in using samples, bits of recordings, and timbral eclecticism in a way that if someone had described it in the mid-20th century it would have seemed the very essence of an elite and esoteric avant garde, and thanks to a blessed (as in The Beatitudes) audience, and a good dose of the ever-popular folk music elements: intoxicants, sex and violence, they’ve made widely-heard popular music with it. This strikes me, along with Bob Dylan completing the Modernist revolution in poetry, as the most significant and surprising artistic events of my cultural lifetime.
With a poem, mystery and ambiguity can be often served best alongside brevity. H. D.’s “The Pool,” which supplies today’s words, is a fine example of this. It’s a condensed tale of an encounter that takes seconds to read, but longer to absorb.
We last met H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) here with her tiny but fierce poem “Oread.” In that case, the title let us start off the poem knowing the main character of the poem. “The Pool” offers us no such clue with it’s somewhat generic title, and it throws us in the deep end by beginning with a question: “Are you alive?” Five spare lines later it ends still listing questions: “What are you..?” It’s called “The Pool,” but the unnamed thing in the pool seems the subject.
Go ahead, listen to the musical performance of “The Pool” now (the player is below), because encountering it in mystery is important. The poem is so short and yet multi-faceted, I repeat some of its words, extending the listener’s experience of the words a bit longer, encouraging you to not let go of them too fast.
H. D. must have intended this to be mysterious. Various “solutions” have been suggested, though they would reduce the poem to a riddle. When I first read it, I assumed the object the poem’s speaker is questioning in the pool was a fish, taking the metaphor of it quivering “Like a sea-fish” literally—but would someone describe a fish as “like a fish?” Over at the always “Interesting Literature” blog a commenter suggested it could be H. D.’s unborn child, an ingenious solution, consistent with the quivering and the water and possibly with the “banded one” epithet for the object, if one thinks of the womb as a band. H.D. was pregnant for the first time in the year the poem was published, and if this is part of the poet’s intent, the opening question is achingly poignant, since that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. But if that is the largely intended experience to be drawn from the poem, H. D. has given us no internal clues in the words to lead us there without knowing now obscure biographical details regarding her life and the poem’s publishing date.
Is that meaning there unintentionally? That’s certainly possible. The New Criticism writers assumed intent, honoring the artist, but modern Deconstructionists would find this a moot point. It wouldn’t even matter to them if H. D. had written the poem a year or more before it was published, before her pregnancy, as a reader could choose to experience the poem as about pregnancy with no intent on the part of the author.
My second reading of the poem takes from another context, H. D.’s love for classical Greek lyric poetry. Any situation involving looking into a pool and becoming entranced with what one sees suggests strongly the myth of Narcissus. At the very least from H. D.’s other work, we can assume that H. D. would have recognized the likelihood of this reading. But if this was her intent, why not call the poem “Narcissus?”
In the tiny amount of words in this poem, the net and the “banded one” are all that lead us away from Narcissus. Is this poem in fact a representation of a modern experience stated directly with no excess words in the manner of the Imagist credo? If so, what could one see in a pool that is banded and is like a fish. Some crabs have banded leg markings, that possibility exists, and the “I touch you” line takes on a new context if one imagines the crustacean strangeness and pincher-claw danger of touching a crab in a tide pool to see if it is alive.
“I touch you”—or not. A banded hermit crab.
Or the modern, direct experience could be intended as an echo of Narcissus, a moment when the speaker of the poem sees their reflection in water and assumes, as Narcissus did in the myth, that this thing in the pool is an entrancing other. And the net then, an expression of the inability to capture our selves. Interesting Literature suggests that the “banded” could be the net interrupting the reflection with its strands. An echo then of a Narcissus’ reflection, and Echo is the name of the nymph who tricked Narcissus into the reflection lock.
That would explain why the poem isn’t called “Narcissus.” In this modern encounter, the speaker doesn’t lock forever in contemplation of the unknowable reflection, spending five lines there, aware of Narcissus’s plight. The net becomes the thing that, this time, breaks the spell. And what of the “banded one?” Is there a pun there? I didn’t see it reading the poem on the page, but my overlapping voices in the performance made the phrase sound like “abandoned one.” Narcissus wouldn’t abandon the entrancing reflection, and by extension, is bound by his attraction to his perception of himself.
Perhaps H. D.’s “The Pool” is all of these things, perhaps even something else as well. Mystery and ambiguity is sometimes best served by brevity. Go ahead and listen to my performance of “The Pool” again, it may reflect something else. There’s two ways to hear it. Some will see a player gadget below, but other ways of reading this blog won’t display that, and so I offer this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window and play it.
We’ve already met most of the small circle of poetic Modernists that assembled itself in London before World War I. From the United States, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and her one-time fiancé Ezra Pound; and from England, the combative and influential T. E. Hulme, and the risen from poverty F. S. Flint. Other poets, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost, touched them tangent in England, but were still bent with the gravity of what Flint called, and Pound promoted, as Imagism. If you’re new here, you can check our archives (now almost 200 audio pieces) and you’ll find all of them represented.
Today we use the words of the man we’ve left out, Richard Aldington. Another Englishman, he married the American H. D. in 1913. He worked with Pound to promote T. S. Eliot. Unlike T. E. Hulme, he survived WWI, but many said his combat experience changed Aldington, and retroactively the diagnosis of PTSD has been associated with him.
His long career had more than a few bridge-burning episodes, all disputes which I know not enough to have an opinion on. Partially because of this, Aldington is not well-remembered as a poet, even though at the start of the Imagist movement he was universally considered a principal.
Aldington, wearing an example of regrettable fashions of the early 20th Century
Like his partner H. D., Aldington looked to, and translated, classical Greek poetry; and like Pound he was fascinated by Chinese and Japanese compressed poetic forms, and produced work connected with these traditions. Today’s piece, “The Poplar” isn’t one of those poems. In some ways “The Poplar” reminds me of F. S. Flint (that other too often forgotten early English Modernist), as it’s free verse in Flint’s “unrhymed cadences” mode. It’s blissfully easy to read. It’s homey and unfussy images remind me of T. E. Hulme. It’s odd now that we think of Modernist poetry as requiring obtuse and learned images, when it’s founders like Hulme and Aldington in this poem have no images that wouldn’t be clear to a grade-school student.
Musically, today’s piece has a core guitar part that I played on a small acoustic guitar I’ve owned for 35 years now, but instead of “real strings” (which in my case would be “virtual instruments” where various notes and articulations of actual acoustic string instruments are sampled and then played by a keyboard or a guitar MIDI controller) I used a virtual instrument which sampled a 1970’s vintage keyboard “strings” instrument. I feel the dual falsity of this instrument, a simulation of a simulation, produces something that has its own validity. I also wanted to use a harmonium, but I don’t have that available as a real instrument or a sampled one. The closest I could come was a slightly modified “toy organ” patch which had some of the wheezy reed timbre I wanted.
Enjoy “The Poplar” by using the player below. Even though it’s from the dawn of modern English poetry, it remains fresh because it’s not that well-known; and it doesn’t ask you to enter some dimly-lit labyrinth of images you cannot decipher. Yes, elusive images can have their pleasures, but so do these.
How did you spend your extra hour given to us by the Daylight Savings Time changeover? Some spent it snuggled with a loved one, or others for splendid dreams given time for extra chapters. I spent my night and hour wrestling with another poet’s poem and creating and performing music for it.
A few posts back we presented William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a widely anthologized and very short Imagist poem. My current feeling, shared in that post, was that Williams really was talking about a red wheelbarrow, a simple tool used for important tasks. Of course, he was also aware that the rain-glazed red paint of the wheelbarrow and the white chickens around it was a bold visual image, consistent with the modernist art he appreciated, and that he didn’t mind the provocation of calling attention to this without elaborate justification, any more than a classical painter or poet would think they would have been required to tell us why we should give a fig about Artemis.
Here’s another short Imagist poem, this time by Hilda Doolittle, who wrote as H. D. H. D. knew William Carlos Williams from when Williams was a college student, but then H. D. knew or crossed paths with many of the principals of Modernism over her lifetime. Modernist poetry admitted more women creators than painting or music, or most other arts at the start of the 20th Century, but that’s a low bar to clear. H. D. cleared it however, and she continued to run her own race on her own course from the start of her career.
Another episode from HD’s remarkable life: she was present when King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1923
H. D.’s 26 word poem is much different from Williams’ 16 word one. It’s much stranger, and the internal state the external images present is more complex than even many longer poems reflect.
In some ways, the title “Oread”, the effective 27th word, helps us. For those not up on Greek mythology, we can look it up, it’s a mountain nymph or spirit. Like many Greek nature spirits, an Oread is female.
So, from the title of the poem, we can say that it’s an Oread that’s speaking—but even if we grant that, this ain’t Tinkerbell. The supposed nymph is commanding nature, as a full-fledge god or goddess or a magician would. And the Oread is not asking it for protection, or forbearance, or even for it to put the hex on someone else, it’s asking it to do it’s best to overcome her. “Whirl” “pointed” “splash”, and “hurl” are some of those 26 words.
Another huge difference between Williams “Wheelbarrow” and H. D.’s “Oread:” the former is intensely visual, the later, just as intensely, tactile.
And who’s the Oread talking too? Three words in, it seems to make that clear: “sea.” Except the sea is described largely as a forest—a forest that can splash and form pools, but a forest at least as much as a sea. The sharpest readings of this is that the Oread is speaking of the sea with the images of the forested mountain (waves are like trees, water drops are like the needles of pines), but by saying it so, she is saying that the overcoming she commands is a merging of two like things.
I’m left with a conclusion that this is a spell of desire. Whether it is sensual, spiritual, or artistic desire makes no difference in the frenzied merger that is being called into being.
So, what did I do in writing music and performing “Oread?” I repeat most of the lines at least twice, to emphasize the incantational aspect. Despite my recently expressed desire to re-explore artificial drum machine sounds, the percussion has lots of little instruments for a ceremonial air: shakers, maracas, cymbals, tambourine, even a chiming triangle. The main musical motif is a four-note synthesizer phrase that seems to be looping, but once again isn’t, as permutations occur throughout. The bass part rarely plays the same note as the synth motif, a musical effect that can be likened to “rubbing,” an apt metaphor for this sensuous poem.
Just after the start of the 20th Century two teenagers met at the University of Pennsylvania. One was 16 years old, a smart and cocky boy without much in the way of money, who had somehow managed admission to the University at such a young age. The other was 15 and the only daughter of an astronomer and professor at the college. So devoted was the girl’s father to his astronomy, that it’s told that his wife needed to come by during the colder months with a kettle of hot water to unfreeze his eyelashes from the eyepiece of his telescope. This professor was the enlightened sort of early 20th century father who believed in women’s intellectual equality. He dreamed that his daughter would become another Marie Curie.
However, the two teenagers soon fell in with each other, and science was not in their bond. Poetry and the arts were. A year or so later, a new freshman arrived at the University to study medicine. That freshman was William Carlos Williams, and he would complete his studies and become a pediatrician and family doctor who practiced for decades in Patterson New Jersey while writing purely modern poetry. The boy and the girl fell in love, and were secretly engaged, knowing that the boy’s lack of money and established career would prevent the girl’s father from giving permission of them to marry.
The 1985 movie “Real Genius” is a documentary of this meeting between two teenagers in college.
The girl grew up and was sent to Bryn Mawr, a woman’s college that was known for having a tough “men’s curriculum,” following her father’s hope that she would become a scientist. There she met Marianne Moore, who also became a noted modernist American poet, but at Bryn Mawr she failed in her studies. The American oracle Barbie would later proclaim: “Math is hard!” and a career in science was out.
But wait. What of that cocky boy? Oh no, he’s gone to England! And double oh no, he now engaged to another woman there. After all this, we can now begin our story again.
This now young woman who had already met and befriended William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, went to England to meet back up with the young man she had fallen in love with as a teenager. The young man was Ezra Pound, and the young woman was Hilda Doolittle—but she wouldn’t be much longer.
Sorry, “Real Genius” its really about how Tears for Fears was uncool, but now is kinda cool.
And here are the real and young Ezra and Hilda.
Pound was in England trying to stir up a poetic revolution, something that would forge past the reformation of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites and give poetry a fully modern cast. Hilda showed Ezra some of her new poems, and Ezra did three things that he would do repeatedly for other poets in the next couple of decades.
He immediately recognized that Hilda was writing the kind of fresh, spare, honest poetry that he thought necessary to break the grip of the past. He would see to it being published.
After admiring it, it took his pencil to it, and slashed out parts of the already concise poems. I can hear some of you drawing a breath on that, considering the sexual politics, ready to cry “Asshat!”—but that’s Pound, even with poets of genius: cut it, pare it down, make it new, not one extra word. A few years later he’d do the same thing to T.S. Eliot, and the surviving variorum manuscripts show why Eliot called Pound “The Better Maker” of “The Wasteland.” Pound’s editing pencil seemed to teach like the sensei’s stick, and once shown, poets like Hilda Doolittle and Eliot understood how to do the same thing themselves.
And then he took that editing pencil and signed Hilda’s poems “H.D. Imagisite.”
That last move was another part of Pound’s talents. He was probably more successful in launching other poet’s careers than he was his own. He had a shrewd promoter’s eye. “Imagiste” or “Imagist” was the name Pound would give to the modernist poetic movement that would during the years of WWI as radically reshape English poetry as the war would reshape the maps of the world, and here he was saying, rightly, that H.D.’s poems would be the ne plus ultra of that movement. As a name, H.D. was as pared down as the new poetry would be. If he’d lived long enough to see video screens with 1024 lines, he could have said calling them HD for “High Definition” was a tribute to his call for seeing things truly. And H.D. masked Hilda’s gender, still important in a world where women were widely thought to be incapable of great art. The former Hilda Doolittle didn’t object. She’d never liked the family name (“Do-Little” she thought it scanned) and besides, her sexual identity and friendship affinities were at least HD.
Let me admit that this post is unfair to H.D., the writer of the words of today’s piece. We’ve gone past my customary length limits and we’ve only barely touched on H.D.’s talents and extraordinary life. I’ll need to revisit her work soon and give H.D. her due.
What can I say about today’s piece “Heat?” Well it’s an appropriate July poem, and the titular heat, in true Imagist fashion is both a closely observed thing: actual summer heat, and an image that, without simile or extra framing, is imbued with complexity. Last episode we had Pound/Li Bai, two men, showing desire and longing in the “River Merchant’s Wife” with only a few actual named emotions or feelings. H.D., the better Imagist, shows female desire with not a single named emotion. The poem’s final phrase:
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
is sensuous beyond words—it’s only 13 words to be beyond after all—and with four p and s sounds it holds four kisses.
To hear my performance of H.D.’s “Heat,” use the player below. And thanks again for the likes and the social media shares!