Robert Duncan's H.D. Book
Modernism and magic
Feb 1, 2011
In 1959, Norman Holmes Pearson, a friend of the poet H.D.’s as well as her literary executor, asked Robert Duncan whether he would write up something for the older author on the occasion of her birthday. Duncan, who considered H.D. (born Hilda Doolittle, 1886–1961) to be a spiritual and poetic initiatrix of sorts, agreed. Over the next five years, his tribute blossomed, or metastasized, into The H.D. Book, a hefty and digressive meditation on modernism, literature, and esoterica whose twenty-odd chapters appeared individually in a menagerie of mostly obscure literary journals. Given Duncan’s love of the serial form, it is perhaps appropriate that this sequence of pieces was never compiled in the poet’s lifetime. As such, The H.D. Book became something of a holy grail for serious Duncan readers—photocopies were gathered together and passed around, and a transcribed PDF of the collected pieces eventually made its way onto the Internet.
Duncan substantially revised The H.D. Book after its various chapters were published, and it is this version, clocking in at 696 pages, that the University of California Press is now releasing—the first installment in a projected six-volume collected writings (two collections of poetry and plays are slated to appear in 2012). But The H.D. Book could never quite be definitive. As the editors, Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman (who were also responsible for the samizdat PDF), explain, the manuscripts are afflicted with what we would call today a lack of version control, and some of the writings never made it past the notebook phase. But that, too, is appropriate, as there is no “finalizing” Duncan. Like the unruly Hermes who sometimes ruled over his verse, Duncan was a bit of a puer aeternus, seeking transports and conjunctions and, for all his catastrophic undertows, refusing ultimate accounts.
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