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ModPo – H.D.’s poems

So, in my last post about the Coursera Modern Poetry course, taught by the amazing Professor Al Filreis, I said that I hoped the next close reading exercise would be on a poem by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Sadly, it is not (it’s a comparison of two versions of William Carlos Williams’ poem Young Woman at Window and how it ‘measures up’ with the Imagist poets’ manifesto).

As I’ve said, I’m not quite managing to keep up with ModPo’s timetable as I would like due to RL pressures, but I would like to say something about H.D.’s poems and the readings done by Professor Filreis and his students in the course.

In reading Sea Rose, Professor Filreis made a very interesting point that the image is not, strictly speaking, static, but is instead slightly rotating before the reader’s imagination. The poem follows the rose from ‘the drift’ to ‘the sand’ to ‘the crisp sand’ and into ‘the wind’ via a set of prepositional phrases spread over the middle two stanzas. The reading also suggested that the poem might be a little too self-conscious about being an imagist poem, making it a programme of the movement. This is persuasive, I think, given the real similarities between Sea Rose and Sea Poppies, as though both are experiments of how such a programme can be put forward.

It was nice that the poem’s status as an imagist classic didn’t stop the readers from interpreting freely and introducing questions of symbolism, and the question of whether H.D. is addressing herself (symbolised by the rose) is a fascinating one. We can draw parallels between the author and the rose, and as the subject was somewhat shut down in the video discussion, I’d just like to draw it out a little here.

The professor and his students discussed, straight off the bat, the aggressively precise and stark language choices made my H.D. In calling the rose ‘harsh’ and using words such as ‘stint’ and ‘sparse’, which have harsh consonant sounds, there is a parallel between the poem H.D. presents and the image she presents through that poem.

In the next stanza, H.D. elevates the sea rose, which is ‘more precious’ than the ‘wet rose / single on a stem—’, the American Beauty rose. Of course, for the imagists, the sea rose and poems about it, which tackle and present the reality of a ‘natural’ rose, are ‘more precious’ than those laboured and cliched poems about the cultivated rose that has been dethorned and made plush and silken for the purposes of marketing!

The third stanza returns to the image of the rose, rather than a value judgment. It is ‘stunted’, ‘with small leaf’, and ‘flung’ and ‘lifted’ across the beach. Sea Rose was published in a collection in 1916, but the style of writing being used by the imagists and H.D.’s work herself had its critics, despite Pound’s enthusiasm for her work. In 1915, Harold Monro called H.D.’s work ‘petty poetry’ that showed ‘poverty of imagination’ or ‘needlessly excessive restraint’.* Like all authors who publish, H.D. would have been familiar with the ebbs and flows of success and acclaim, always tempered with a vein of critique. We could consider the rise and fall of the sea rose into the obscuring ‘drift’ and the unreceptive and harsh ‘sand’ as symbolic of this authorial experience, then.

The final stanza asks a rhetorical question about the value of another rose, the ‘spice-rose’, as compared to the sea rose: whether its leaves offer the same pungent and overflowing (‘drip[ping]’) ‘fragrance’. The spice-rose seems to offer an intermediate position between the American Beauty rose and the sea rose, more petalled and ‘rose-like’ to modern eyes. Taking an intermediate path, the poem almost modestly seems to invite an elevated position for the sea rose that is not excessive; it does not claim to exceed the American Beauty rose, but makes a claim for its own value to be recognised. Such modesty can also be interpreted as reflective of an author seeking to find their own place in the market and the ‘canon’ or hierarchy of poets.

This is a fairly sparse reading, I know, and in a close reading I would have done a lot more (and hopefully found some more sources!). I do not claim that this was H.D.’s intention in writing the poem, or that this is definitively what the poem ‘means’. I do think it is an interesting interpretation, and I thought it was a shame that it did not gain much traction in the actual discussion.

* See ‘A Genealogy of Modernism’

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