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.