Tuesday, March 6, 2012



H. D. and Erich Maria Remarque were contemporaries, more or less. And both felt the impact of WWI, as did the rest of the world. But the two writers felt it in entirely different ways and at a crucial point in their becoming adults.

H.D. was an American who was famous, at least to my generation of poets, mostly for being the object of an early rivalry between the better known poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams back when H.D. was still a teenager named Hilda Dollittle living in Pennsylvania.

With input from both she grew as a young poet and with help from both her unique approach to the poem, as they used to say, was widely recognized as important in her own day. Until the second wave of feminism in the 1970s rediscovered her work and her importance to an earlier generation, she became victim in the 1950s to neglect and/or relegated to trophy girlfriend in the early development of the supposedly much more important male poets Williams and Pound.

Barbara Guest face a similar fate when she was coming up as a poet in the 1950s. The only woman among the first generation of the so-called New York School poets, at least as seen by many critics and poets including some of the men of that generation, Guest suffered the same kind of neglect and marginalization.

Thanks to the so-called Language Poets of the 1970s, as well as that second wave feminism, Guest's work became more iconic, at least for many of those Language Poets and feminists and even others, since. [Full disclosure, I knew Barbara, but admired her work long before we met.] So she seems like the right person to do a biography of "H.D. and her world" as the subtitle has it. And she is.

Guest's approach is thorough and unbiased. She pulls H.D.'s covers where necessary, and restores balance to the extremes of seeing her work as "minor" or else placing her at the center of a scene she never was the center of. It's in some ways a story of a kind of privilege, both as the well educated daughter of an important scholar and as an attractive woman in a world where she came of age just as women were getting the vote, i.e. still mostly "a man's world."

There's a spoiled quality to a lot of H.D.'s decisions and actions, but there is also a vulnerability and even neediness that generates sympathy, at least from me, and more importantly that puts her poetry in context and at the same time reveals its originality and importance. Probably only a poetry geek like me would want to wade through what is at times a complex story, but having come upon a remaindered copy (it came out in 1984 and I always had it in the back of my mind to read) several weeks ago, it took first place for awhile in the stack of books on my night table. And for this poetry lover and student of American poetry in the 20th Century in particular, it was well worth it.

While H.D. was spending time coming of age and eventually moving to London and traveling around the continent after WWI, Remarque was trying to find a way of making a living, becoming a newspaper writer, and ending up in the German army during WWI where he got close enough to the front to have witnessed battlefield devastation and share the perspective of the veterans of that war's pointless slaughter. So when he wrote a novel about it, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, it hit a nerve the entire world, even beyond the Western world, reacted to making it an instant classic except to those who needed to glorify war like the emergent Nazis in the 1930s.

The subtitle of Hilton Tims' biography of Remarque, which my friend the poet Ray DiPalma sent me a copy of because he thought I might dig it and as usual he thought right, is "The Last Romantic" which of course is a ridiculous overstatement, but nonetheless captures Tims' approach, or one of his main themes, which is all the great beauties of the first half of the 20th Century who Remarque had relationships with.

H.D. had many lovers as well, and both seemed destined to never find the one they were looking for, or rather to be satisfied with the ones they thought they were looking for but ultimately ended up disappointing or being disappointed by. Remarque, in particular, seemed plagued not only with the kind of post-success letdown that often follows such an enormous triumph as ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT was with worldwide translations and then the Hollywood film version that was an even bigger success, but also seemed challenged to overcome early romantic failures.

Two unique personalities and creative forces, one with continued worldwide success (ALL QUIET is considered the definitive and greatest anti-war novel and film) the other close to forgotten except among scholars and fans of 20th Century English language poetry, but for my taste, both worth reading about. 


tom said...

I first read HD in college in the mid-to late 60's. Oddly at a university that was primarily a science and engineering school. But we had good history and english teachers and in poetry we were introduced to many writers we never knew in high school. Both biographies sound interesting and I will look around for them. Just out of curiosity how do you feel about ordering books for kindle. My list of books to get is beyond what I have available and I've run out of room for bookcases. My wife doesn't like the idea of piling books on the stairs.

Lally said...

Yeah, I'm beginning to see the argument for ebooks or reading on kindle. But for me, as I'm sure is true for you too and others, the look and feel of a book is such an integral part of the experience. But then so were record albums, both LPs and the actual real albums that collected a group of 78s when my older siblings were young, also had a unique look and packaging that was important, and yet I have adjusted to listening to "albums" on CDs or just single songs on iTunes. My guess is some books are more compatible with the kindle kind of format than others. I haven't ventured there yet, but the one I'm working on now I think would be a good candidate for kindle so we'll see.

tom said...

We bought my daughter a kindle touch before she went to china because we knew that would be the easiest way for her to take her favorite books with her. I bought my wife a kindle fire and she downloaded a bunch of the free classics. But, she doesn't use it much. All the kids from 4 grade up in our school district now have iPads. They use them for writing and for reading. And some of the sneaky brats have actually downloaded contemporary fiction to them and are reading. So I guess there is a use and it is coming. Still, I wish I had more room. We have culled our books 3 times this year and still are full. Most are mine and my daughters. I'm guessing you are working on prose?

Lally said...

Anything to promote reading is cool with me for the most part. As for the one I'm working on being "prose"—depends who you ask I'm guessing. But I don't want to jinx it so 'nuff said.

tom said...