Hybrid H.D.

 

by avon
By the Maury River–closest I’ve got

 

I’ve been swimming around in H.D.’s work since my undergraduate years, on the recommendation of the writer I eventually married. I started with her memoirs of Freud and Pound, trekking up to the sunny top floor of the University of Southampton library to find them, then worked backwards to the poetry, which became central to my 1994 dissertation and then my first book, The Poetics of Enclosure. I’m a poetry professor, primarily, with a deep love for lyric and lyric sequences, so most of the H.D. I teach is from the Collected Poems. But it’s been a 21st century thrill to watch a few of her other books come back into print, midwifed by generous H.D. scholars. The latest is the paperback version of By Avon Riverscrupulously edited by Lara Vetter (published in 2014 in hardcover, but now an eminently teachable $16.95 paperback, folks!).

The reason I use the word “hybrid”: H.D.’s book, like some proto-crypto-creative-writing-PhD-thesis, consists of three longish Shakespeare-related poems plus an extended prose meditation, full of quotes, about Elizabethan verse. Vetter’s introduction explains the project’s origin in three trips H.D. made from Blitz-ravaged London, at the close of World War II, to Stratford-upon-Avon. The first, on Shakespeare Day 1945, was almost a pilgrimage. As Vetter puts it, “Shakespeare is an icon, standing in for England in times of strife” (26). H.D. loved England and was thrilled to celebrate its survival, along with many other pilgrims, by immersing herself in English art and history. I agree with Vetter, however, that H.D. was far from Bardolatrous. By Avon River represents Shakespeare as a genius but also a poacher, implicated in British imperialist violence. Interestingly, too, Shakespeare is not so central to H.D.’s project as her title might imply. The literary-critical part of the book really concerns not so much Shakespeare as his milieu–less-celebrated poets, some very obscure now. And her poems revolve around a character referenced in The Tempest, Claribel, who never even appears onstage. Shakespeare mentioned her, more or less, and then forgot her.

By Avon River is resonating with me in part because of its hybridity. First published in 1949, the book did well–never a given for H.D.–receiving many laudatory reviews. This makes it an important precursor for later literary experiments. As Vetter argues, and as Cynthia Hogue reiterates in her back-cover endorsement, women writers late in the modernist period deserve more credit for their “hybrid works located at the juncture of personal, national, and nationalist concerns.” Hear, hear. But let me add: trying to publish hybrid work, many decades later, is still awful. I haven’t yet placed my creative- critical ms, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, even editors have praised it to me, and every time I reread it, too, having come to doubt myself, I get convinced all over again that it’s strong work. It’s just in the margins between everyone’s carefully articulated marketing plans.

And that connects to something else I appreciate about By Avon River. I read it as the meditation of an artistically ambitious woman nearing 60 who feels connected to Shakespeare (through bisexuality, among other ways) but knows she is not the Bard, not the poet who most indelibly articulates her time and place, if the 20th century even has one. I’m nearing 50 and while remaining as ambitious for my art as any poet you’ll ever meet, I find myself thinking a lot lately about my own unimportance. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s a condition I share, after all, with pretty much every other member of the human race. Sane people, I suspect, keep this demoralizing truth in the back of their minds and just keep trying to do their best work anyway.

H.D. writes of the more than 100 Elizabethan poets and dramatists whose names survive: “Not one is negligible” (76). She quotes their verses admiringly anrosemaryd speculates about their lives, respecting what it means to pen even just one poem that lasts for centuries. Their achievements, she insists, “must not be forgotten” (97). She also writes appreciatively of Shakespeare saying farewell to the court, and his own stature, through The Tempest: “there is no hint of bitterness or rivalry. If he is to be elbowed out, he will at least, give at the last, a demonstration of good manners” (101).

H.D. didn’t know if any of her own work would delight readers in 2017, and none of us knows if it will three centuries from now. In By Avon River, I hear her pondering this unpredictability and deciding she can live with it. All poetic effort matters, in the end, because the many strivers make a few shining successes possible. Besides, she’s on the side of the little guys, having vowed to be one of the historians, one of the rememberers. Bless them all.

I read her focus on Claribel in her lovely verses the same way. Maybe Claribel is not the hero of the drama, but “It is enough,/ I live forever” (61). H.D. knew, likewise, by the mid-forties, that she did have at least a small place in literary history. I personally rate H.D.’s work infinitely beyond footnote-status, but it’s bracing to dip into her thoughts about ambition and history and remember that she was just navigating currents, too, at water-level-perspective. Who knows where any of us will wash up?

The embarrassing grant genre of the “career narrative”

Posting this feels way scarier than uploading bad selfies to Facebook. The genre potentially fuses bombast with whining: “I am the most awesome candidate in your enormous pile of awesomeness” with “please please I NEED this.” But many of us at least consider applying for grants from time to time, and I thought it might be helpful for others to see one take on a common assignment. I am not posting the “statement of plans” for a variety of reasons, but hey, this whole blogging enterprise is heavy on “career narrative,” right? Below is a draft towards some fall applications, so it is not from a winning application and probably won’t be–the odds are always terrible. As I brag below, though, I’ve been lucky before, so I can’t be the worst career narrator ever. Hope this helps someone.

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Taking Poetry Personally integrates intellectual and artistic concerns I have pursued for twenty-five years. Most of my scholarship zeroes in on lyric poetry, and since studying for a B.A. from Rutgers College in the late 1980s, I have been writing sound-driven short poetry as well. Focusing on this genre and its hazy boundaries means considering medium and reception ever more deeply—hence my current project on how and why to read twenty-first-century verse.

I earned my PhD from Princeton in 1994 with a dissertation that became the basis of my first book. The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove (Tennessee, 2002) investigates the lyric poem as a virtual place. Each poet under consideration—Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and Rita Dove—treats the lyric as a contained space. Moreover, each poet uses enclosure as an idiom defining women’s verse and conveys a complicated relationship with that evolving tradition. Domesticity, maternity, sexuality, and other aspects of women’s experience and embodiment suggest “closure,” even as “open” form becomes the reigning ethos.

I completed this project as I earned tenure at a rural liberal arts college, Washington and Lee University, submitting final revisions in September 2000, a week before the birth of my second child. At the time, my English Department colleagues and I taught seven writing-intensive courses a year on a long academic schedule that abbreviated the summer research window. There was no junior leave, though a grant from the American Association of University Women funded one summer’s research. During my post-tenure sabbatical, therefore, as I marked up proofs and nursed a new baby, I contemplated what I actually wanted to write, now that scholarship no longer seemed like a dire emergency.

I discovered an ambition to pursue a riskier project by asking questions I felt unqualified to answer. In a new line of research, I assembled a history of poetry performance in the U.S. I also considered what it means to discuss sound in the twentieth-century lyric poem, and what poets and critics intend when they refer to “poetic voice.” All these problems extend in some ways from my first book’s preoccupations with the lyric as a genre and the complicated feedback loops between poets and audiences. The project I eventually developed—Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Cornell, 2008)—represented both a fresh start and a return.

Voicing American Poetry explores voice as a defining medium and figure throughout a wide range of poetic movements and affiliations. In addition to chronicling conventions of poetry recitation, I analyze Edna St. Millay’s performance persona on the stage, the page, and in radio broadcasts; Langston Hughes’ inventive translations of sound culture into print; and the illusion of poetic voice in collaborative projects by James Merrill, David Jackson, Denise Duhamel, and Maureen Seaton. A final chapter compares conventions of the contemporary academic poetry reading to slam poetry.

I remain proud of my first book, but when I developed this second project, with more publishing experience but without terror of publish-or-perish consequences, I produced a study that meant more to a larger audience. A sabbatical fellowship from the National Endowment from the Humanities in 2005-6 enabled its completion through a fifteen-month work marathon and also significantly increased the final project’s visibility. Voicing American Poetry was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association’s book prize but also reached students and specialists in creative writing studies. I still receive notes about it from literary magazine editors and meet audience members at poetry readings who know me through this scholarship. This project persuaded me that high-stakes, accessibly written criticism still has an eager audience—and that boldness pays off.

The other commitment I made during that first sabbatical was to my own poetry. I had been pouring all available publishing and networking energy into scholarly production, desperately needing advice and new mentors: as I finished the PhD, one of my dissertation directors collapsed and was nudged into retirement, even as the other was denied tenure and left for the west coast. Yet I never stopped writing poetry, and my poetic obsessions with sound, place, and story had often intersected with my teaching and research preoccupations. Now I resolved to give this kind of writing high priority. I allowed more time to write, revise, and submit poetic work, with limited success at first. My knowledge of contemporary styles, coteries, and venues deepened after a few years of reading. Good magazine publication credentials accumulated. I published my first collection, Heathen, in 2009. Heterotopia, judged winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize by David Wojahn, followed in 2010. A 2012 novella in verse, The Receptionist and Other Tales, received notice on two prize lists that generally recognize prose fiction: it was named a James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor Book in 2013 (“for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”) and was nominated in 2014 for the Ackies (the Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of recommended academic novels). My next collection, Radioland, will appear late in 2015.

A 2007-2010 stint as department head subtracted from research and writing time, but one transformative adventure occurred shortly afterwards. In 2011, I received a five-month Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship to Wellington, New Zealand. My original plan was to develop a book-length study of twenty-first-century poetic networks. One chapter would focus on the International Institute of Modern Letters, New Zealand’s first academic creative writing program, as an example of institutionally-fostered community. The experience confirmed my sense that while twenty-first-century poetry in English is marked by national border crossings and is liberated by virtual networks from complete dependence on urban centers, mutual presence remains vital. The increasingly electronic nature of our professional and creative relationships paradoxically makes local scenes more powerful and live performance more rewarding.

The Fulbright vastly widened my reading and my own international connections, resulting in essays, interviews, reviews, poems, a special co-edited poetry feature in Shenandoah, and other projects still in the pipeline. A related article I had envisioned as part of the book, “‘Salon with a Revolving Door’: Virtual Community and the Case of Wom-po,” appeared in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Yet this venture also persuaded me to reconceive my book project. I remained committed to writing about twenty-first century poetry and its border crossings—I intend to shape critical conversation about this emerging field in which my pedagogical, artistic, and scholarly interests so often converge. I realized, however, as I began a blog called “The Cave, The Hive: Poetry’s Possible Worlds,” that a different kind of book, a riskier one, might reach a broader audience and have a greater impact.

Blogging about poetry taught me what appeals to readers in real time. I describe above how reactions to Voicing American Poetry have unfolded over years; suddenly I had data within hours about what kinds of posts inspire comments and social media shares or attract new subscribers. These brief, informal essays incorporate literary criticism, but require weaving argument and narrative together. Doctoral students are taught to efface the personal roots of their research obsessions; university press editors often invite more autobiographical reflection; but in a blog post, the conditions of writing come to the fore, inflecting critical judgments and ideally rendering them more urgent and persuasive. I began to apply this experience in longer essays and two acceptances persuaded me I was on the right track. In a more personal mode, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand” appeared in the Gettysburg Review and was later featured by Poetry Daily. “Undead Eliot: How ‘The Waste Land’ Sounds Now,” forthcoming in Poetry, is criticism dangling only a few shreds of autobiographical material, but I could not have written it before starting that blog.

Writing Taking Poetry Personally has been difficult in every possible way. I spent a year working out the best possible structure. Each chapter requires great quantities of research into reading and literary world-building, and then effacing that research, so the scholarly scaffolding is present but not dominant. Prose memoir, too, is more emotionally challenging to write than autobiographical lyric, in which image offers a handy bypass around the trickiest terrain. Literary pressures shape each sentence as well as the exigencies of scholarly reasoning; resolution of narrative suspense must converge with the argument’s periodic conclusions. Yet this feels like important, exciting labor for which I am well equipped. Not only blogging but programming community readings and teaching introductory poetry courses to undergraduates for more than twenty years—all have sharpened my insight about what kinds of poems and presentations appeal to different audiences. And my critical impulses have always tended in a literary direction. Why not strain every skill at my command and exercise every unlikely ambition? Whose permission would I be waiting for?

Taking literary criticism personally

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, there’s a lull in your chores and caretaking responsibilities (ha), you need a break from your own writing, and you’re at liberty to read anything you want. What would you rather pick up?

a) a novel

b) a collection of poems

c)  a magazine full of models who make you feel pocked and frumpy (whoops, gave that one away)

d) a book of literary criticism or theory

Now, scholarly books vary as wildly as any other kind: they can be moving, enraging, clumsy, hilarious, tedious. The best are much more engaging than a badly-written mystery or mediocre poems. And if you’re really invested in a certain field of knowledge, there is occasionally a work of criticism that you’re genuinely excited to pick up—wow, what is x going to say about y? There are even genres related to criticism that anyone might read for fun, such as biographies or memoirs of literary figures, fictionalizations of their lives, or literary responses to famous works, such as Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres. Still, latter categories aside, I read criticism and theory only when I’m preparing to teach or write about related material—that is, only the stuff I need, and only during hours designated for work. Maybe I’m lazy, but I’m guessing even the nerdiest English professors find most books of literary scholarship less than fun to read, even when they’re competent, clear, and informative.

When I read advice essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how academics can learn to prioritize their writing, I think of this Saturday afternoon dilemma. There’s a reason people can’t get the writing done, and it’s not just how distracted we are these days or the perennial difficulty of plunging into demanding projects. I mean no disrespect to the work itself or what we learn by writing it. It’s incredibly hard to produce competent, clear, and informative literary criticism—painstaking work demanding one’s full intelligence and art. Then editors and peer reviewers inform you how much painstaking revision you have to do. Then it takes forever to get published. The whole enterprise is heroic. The problem is that even when these heroic feats are successful, almost no one wants to read the stuff.

There are reasons to write criticism anyway. Bits of the process can be fun. I like reading closely, putting sentences together, and, of course, getting some rare words of praise or a merit raise. Sometimes, too, a literary argument feels truly important, even field-changing; I want to write it and some people will need to read it. Mostly, though, while it involves a brutal amount of labor, finally submitting the ring to Mount Doom doesn’t change anyone’s life much. Deep down, most of us are too sensible to believe that writing literary criticism is the most important thing I could be doing with my short life. So we fritter away time we could spend on writing it—the hours we don’t have to spend on job requirements or supervising a child’s science project or buying groceries—by helping students, baking muffins, posting birthday messages on social media, reading that bad mystery, drafting blog posts. In short, we focus on what does feel important or fun.

I’m committing this particular bit of frittering because I said something too flippant in a department meeting Friday. Deep down, I intoned, leaning across the table with an expression of existential despair, I think scholarly writing is a mug’s game. Perhaps I’m exaggerating my performance a little, but I said those words. Later, I thought, “Gee, maybe that wasn’t such a constructive remark for a senior person to level at a roomful of other English professors at various career stages.” There used to be voting members of the department who had published more scholarly monographs than I, but they keep moving to places like Alaska and the dean’s office, so I have become shockingly senior, a sort of middle-aged tree left standing in a forest recently attacked by the lumberjacks of fate. My eccentric pronouncements might therefore be demoralizing, or even alarming, to colleagues who know I’m currently teaching research writing in a gateway course for English majors and may, in fact, evaluate their own promotion files.

It’s not that I have lost faith in the profession. It’s important to learn how to ground arguments in textual detail, find out what others have written on related subjects, and document how your thesis modifies the existing conversation. I’m beyond grateful when a smart article helps me understand a great poem better, and when good notes allow me to follow another scholar’s tracks. Undergraduate English majors and advanced degree programs should require the skills good scholars practice.

I just think what counts as good scholarship is appallingly narrow, and sometimes we make ourselves miserable trying to follow professional scripts that were ill-conceived in the first place. For the PhD and for promotion at most institutions, sure, you write what they tell you to write, and possibly you resent it, but if you do snatch up that holy grail of tenure at an institution where you can bear to remain, you should ask yourself what is the best way to spend my talents now? And there are myriad good answers, including I’m not going to kill myself anymore to accomplish quests that only a small group of people appreciate unless I’m having a seriously good time on the way. I know that I need to write pretty constantly. I love writing poems so much I would keep at it even if I never had any audience at all. For me, though, the pleasures of generating well-researched prose are mixed with quite a bit of pain, so I’m becoming more focused on outcomes as I choose projects–not the money I’ll earn (again, ha!), but will this project really matter, and to whom?  

Right now I do feel sure about what I’m writing. I’ve changed the subtitle of this web site to match my book in progress, which is critical and theoretical but also narrative—what Joyce Carol Oates just called bibliomemoir in a review for the New York times. Taking Poetry Personally addresses how and why we read twenty-first-century poetry. It’s a crossover project, meant to interest general as well as specialist audiences–to expand poetry’s audiences, in fact, by drawing attention to poems I love. Each chapter is keyed to a single poem reprinted in full, so it will be a sort of anthology, too.

I find these chapters insanely demanding to research and write because I’m doing all the scholarly legwork and then hiding it (maybe the endnotes will disappear entirely in later versions, though I’m keeping them for the moment). But it’s the most important work I can think of to do right now. Since I’m tenured and otherwise credentialed, and I’m part of the gloriously open-ended and generalist-valuing enterprise that is liberal arts education, why should I do anything else? I retain huge respect for good scholarship in conventional modes and the dedication it takes to produce it. But I’ve rounded the turn now into the second half of my time on the planet, and writing in a respectable, professorial way for tiny audiences just seems too low-stakes. Most days, when it comes down to it, I’d rather bake muffins.

Poetry as speculative fiction; or, being naive

I don’t share in ritual contempt for literary criticism as an enterprise—how could I and still bear to live with myself?—but having spent too much of the summer engaged in a massive review of several critical fields, I feel annoyed about the whole endeavor. English Departments are full of brilliant, passionate people but most of them aren’t using their publishing powers for good: shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences? Dull writing is The Big Awful. If you can’t be consistently fascinating you should at least be clear and concise, and few of us meet that bar.

My peeve this week, though, is how every critic fondly dismisses the previous critic’s naïveté. Oh, Frye, he’s so naïve about genre. Oh, all those guys, they think literature is mimesis. Silly theorists. Here’s how things actually stand… I find myself wanting to answer with a manifesto claiming naïveté as my personal philosophy just to save everyone the trouble. It’s okay, Future Critic. I already know I’m benighted.

I really am doomed to be so damned. I’m writing a book about twenty-first century poetry, arguing that it’s all (well, often) speculative fiction or perhaps fantasy. Definitions of the latter tend to include the words “possible,” “knowable,” or “reality”—I can promise you this because I’ve read ALL OF THEM—with the frequent co-stars “strange” and “uncertain.” Fantasy is literature preoccupied with the question “what’s real?” or its corollary, “what are the rules?” Its arch-nemesis, according to various explainers, is sometimes realism and sometimes science fiction, both being arts invested in plausibility, whereas fantastic literature proposes that everything is more mysterious than we thought. I prefer “speculative fiction” as a term to “fantasy” because it suggests a useful kind of blurriness, potentially including straight-up genre books as well as all the crossover territory, but for most people it’s so blurry it doesn’t mean anything, so I may have to give it up. The working title of my book is Poetry’s Possible Worlds and since June I’ve drafted four chapters of a projected dozen. I’d like to sketch out the whole monster in the next thirteen months, but I’m burnt out right now and I teach full-time from September through May, so we’ll see.

I realized in early July: oh, I’m writing literary theory. Which is stupid, because I have a limited tolerance for reading literary theory; the gist is often interesting but the nuances make me sleepy. And sleeping through chunks of Jameson or Todorov is bound to make me extremely naïve.

Worse: I can’t even use the butt-covering jargon du jour. Poetry’s Possible Worlds is also a book about reading. It’s aimed at anyone with some interest in, though not necessarily deep knowledge about, contemporary poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem quoted in full. Permissions will be tricky, but it’s really important to me that readers have their own encounter with each poem before I start messing around with it. My premises are that it’s pleasurable to get lost in a poem’s pocket universe, that we should take poetry personally, and that we have a right to our own responses. The chapters add layers to those responses by telling stories about the personal contexts of my own readings—yep, that means memoir—as well as fiddling around with exegesis and what-it-all-means argument (a.k.a. theory). I think twenty-first century poetry is absolutely worth reading. I’m selecting focal poems with variety in mind (national and aesthetic diversity as well as diversity in race and gender), but my most important criterion: I have to find each poem powerful, and imagine it could detonate powerfully inside readers who don’t recognize allusions or linguistic fashion statements.

Anyway, you can see why I really need next week’s mindless beach vacation. The chapters are not very long (4000-4500 words each) and the writing has been really fun, but it taxes every resource at my command. The style is essayistic—driven not only by arguments but motifs and lyric association—and I’m including a scaffolding of endnotes, at least for now, to keep track of the sources influencing me most. I’m getting feedback as I go from my spouse, a fiction writer who’s really good at macro/ structural considerations, but mostly I’ve just been charging ahead like a maniac. I’ll probably send a couple of chapters out to lit mags that publish creative nonfiction with a critical bent, but I’m not ready yet. I need to be quite sure of where I’m going first. Plus, creative writing just needs more fermentation time as text than the writing that appears in scholarly journals, which is really just a delivery system for ideas—the sentences need to be balanced and elegant, with no clumsy transitions, and that takes multiple rounds of scrutiny.

This is the most urgent book I can think of to write at this moment. Caring so much about it makes the work harder. I know my argument is idiosyncratic. Some people will think I’m diminishing poetry, or fantasy, or both. Others will find huge blind spots in the poems I include or neglect. There will be too much criticism for some readers, too much personal crap for others. The experience of writing it reminds me more of poetry composition than criticism-writing, in large part because of the driving terror. After all, if something about the jostle of the words in a poem doesn’t delight, confuse, or outright alarm you, why are you writing it? Who knows if you’ll ever have readers, so you have to imagine them and forget them. You have to please yourself.