The Sanity of Poetry; or, H.D.
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Keenness, by Eli Siegel. And in the present section, Mr. Siegel is in the midst of discussing a poem by H.D., or Hilda Doolittle, to show what keenness is—in reality, art, and the human mind. Hilda Doolittle lived from 1886 to 1961, and between the years 1912 and 1918 she wrote some of the true poetry of America. Her life is a means of seeing Aesthetic Realism's greatness in explaining something not understood elsewhere, something still looked at in a barbaric fashion: the relation between art and mental difficulty or depression. Eli Siegel was born 16 years after her; and it is my careful opinion that the resentment and boycott of his work, including by many of the literary people who praised H.D., ruined her life.
I cannot give all the documentation for that statement here, or say with detail why the later verse of H.D. is, as I see it, unsuccessful poetically. But Hilda Doolittle, from 1920 on, was intensely troubled and suffered nervous breakdowns. In the 1930s her analyst was Sigmund Freud, and the 1982 biography H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet, by Janice Robinson (Houghton Mifflin), is written from the Freudian point of view. It is only because of the boycott of Aesthetic Realism that a statement like the following from that biography can be made seriously at the end of the 20th century: "Freud, as well as H.D., knew that what we call madness and what we call inspiration come from the same source" (p. 275). This idea—still current—happens to be one of the most ridiculous and hurtful notions in the world. It equates the best thing in humanity with the worst. And only Aesthetic Realism counters it clearly.
Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that all art—and everything good in the human mind—comes from the desire to like the world honestly, to be just to the outside world. And he showed that all mental difficulty arises from contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." In every person who has ever lived, he showed too, a fight between like and respect of the world and contempt for it is going on all the time. Because Mr. Siegel explained this fact, provided riches of cultural evidence, and fought for justice with fidelity and courage—contempt at last can lose and respect for the world win in every person.
The Source of Art
Let us take a description of H.D. at about age 18, by William Carlos Williams. He met her through his friend Ezra Pound; and in his Autobiography Williams tells of walking with her in the Pennsylvania countryside near her home, when it began to rain:
Instead of running or even walking toward a tree Hilda sat down in the grass at the edge of the hill and let it come. "Come, beautiful rain," she said, holding out her arms. "Beautiful rain, welcome." [New Directions, 1967, p. 69]
It was the desire to like the world—had with terrific keenness and width, exactitude and passion—that made for the art in the Pennsylvania young woman Hilda Doolittle. And we see this desire to welcome the world with her very flesh, in Williams's description of her and the rain.
He also tells of a time in 1906 when their crowd went to the beach at Point Pleasant, New Jersey:
There had been a storm and the breakers were heavy, pounding in with overpowering force. But Hilda was entranced....Without thought or caution she went to meet the waves, walked right into them....They dragged her out unconscious. [Pp. 69-70]
Here Hilda Doolittle is like the poet Shelley: though her insufficient carefulness can't be praised—she wanted to be affected up-close and without limit by reality as elemental, big, strange, powerful. Sometimes she called herself Tree: she wanted no barrier between her self and what earth is.
Eli Siegel is the critic who has explained that nothing is saner than art. The reason is in the following principle, stated by him: "In reality opposites are one; art shows this." Take, for example, these lines from H.D.'s "The Garden," which Mr. Siegel quotes in Poetry and Keenness:
Fruit cannot drop
Through this thick air;
Fruit cannot fall into heat
That presses up and blunts
The points of pears,
And rounds the grapes.
These lines arise from the desire to see something so justly that the structure of the world itself comes to be heard in them: the oneness of opposites. We hear something weighed down and thick—and at the same time each of those lines is sharp, precise. There is a feeling of ache, oppressiveness—yet it is inextricable from delicacy, tenderness, even sweet surprise. Look at the line "The points of pears": it has slow weightedness, but also, with those ps, the treasuring precision of a kiss. H.D. has used herself to be so fair to the world that her lines have what Eli Siegel showed to be the decisive thing in poetry: music.
But her biography and her own later writings make evident the fact that there was a different purpose in the life of Hilda Doolittle too: a purpose completely against art, which no one ever clearly criticized—certainly not Freud.
Contempt and Hilda Doolittle
The 1927 novel HERmione is autobiographical. And in it, H.D. writes this about her sister-in-law:
Minnie was like some fraction....Minnie's very presence depreciated the house front, steps, the symmetrical recumbent jade pillars of low carefully clipped terrace .... Ringed, washed-out blue eyes, Minnie and her eternal headaches[,]...her inferior little being. [New Directions, 1981, pp. 15, 21]
The source of these sentences is entirely different from the source of the lines about fruit and the thick air. The sentences are not exact; and they stand for what Mr. Siegel described as "the other victory"—opposed to "the aesthetic victory." "The other victory," he writes, "is our ability to depreciate anything that exists. To see the world itself as an impossible mess ... gives a certain triumph to the individual" (Self and World, Definition Press, 1981, p.11). H.D. went after that victory of contempt hungrily, and no one stopped her.
This is how she describes the person who introduced her to much of English poetry, who recited Swinburne's Chorus from Atalanta as he kissed her in the Pennsylvania woods. She sees Ezra Pound—called George Lowndes in the novel—as
making circus tent noises, little faraway miniature Punchinello....George being funny is piglike .... George ... was a hideous harlequin being funny on a woodpath...."You're nothing, George. I mean precisely nothing." [Pp. 42, 65, 66, 69]
Ezra Pound surely can be criticized, but this writing is contempt. It was her contempt that made H.D. agitated, tormented, depressed during the last 40 years of her life.
A Lovely Request—and Freud
I believe the large theme of H.D.'s early poems is: Will I be true to what I have seen as beautiful in the world, or will I betray it for something narrow in myself? In her poem "The Helmsman" she says, We were meant to be true to what is wide and big, here represented by the sea; but we've preferred something closer to ourselves, more comfortable, represented by land. And she requests of that bigness: Please—it is hard for me - make me be fair to you:
O be swift
we have always known you wanted us.
We fled inland with our flocks,
we pastured them in hollows.
We worshipped inland —
we stepped past wood-flowers,
we forgot your tang ....
Freud, H.D. says, told her she wrote about the sea because she was "stuck" in a pre-Oedipal stage and wanted to go "back to the womb." He also told her she had "penis envy" and wrote because "book means penis" (Robinson, pp. 279-81). Contemporary psychiatry is not Freudian; yet psychiatrists have not said that Freud's explanations were untrue, harmful, and an insult to humanity. It is Eli Siegel who had the courage to say this—and to say it when Freudianism was at its height.
William Carlos Williams, in his famous 1951 letter, wrote of Eli Siegel's 1925 Nation prize-winning poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana": "That single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world." He calls Eli Siegel's poems "the truly new," and writes about the anger Mr. Siegel and his work have been subjected to these many decades: "The other side of the picture is the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new" (Something to Say, ed. J.E.B. Breslin, New Directions, 1985, pp. 250-1). Yes, over the years various persons, including many with power, have resented Mr. Siegel’s beautiful honesty; his fresh, kind, vast intellect; and their own need to learn from Aesthetic Realism about everything. Their suppression of his work has brutalized the lives of millions of people, including Hilda Doolittle’s.
The following paragraphs contain some of his powerful, merciful, graceful understanding of poetry and humanity—and her. Had she been able to meet it, she would have felt as her friend William Carlos Williams did when Mr. Siegel spoke on poems of his: Williams said, "It's just as important—it's as if everything I've ever done has been for you" (The Williams-Siegel Documentary, eds. Baird & Reiss, Definition Press, 1970, p. 94).
In my own passionate gratitude to Mr. Siegel, I stand for Williams, H.D., and all the people of the future.