The Vital Image: A conversation on H.D. (archive)

Elizabeth Fogle received her B.A. in English Literature from the University of Georgia in 1996, her M.A. in English Literature from Wake Forest University in 1998, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Poetry Emphasis) from Georgia College in 2007. . She is the current Program Chair for the General Arts and Sciences Major (GAS) and the Associate Degree in Letters, Arts, and Sciences (2LABC). Fogle also served as Penn State Behrend’s Administrative Fellow for the 2010-2011 academic year. Her poetry has been published in such journals such as Broad River Review, The Broken Plate, The Dos Passos Review, Harpur Palate, Interrobang?!, Limestone, Nimrod International Journal, Tidal Basin Review, and The Tusculum Review. I met Elizabeth while we both attended an MFA program and shared a love of H.D., Anne Sexton, and John Berryman. This conversation is an extension of those conversations a half-decade ago.

C. Derick Varn:  Why do you think H.D. is a truly vital poet?

Elizabeth Fogle:  Well, she is most widely known as a Modernist… and I think more so than the overwhelming personas of Pound and Eliot, her work more fully represents the real sort of struggle of artists in that period. With the other “high” modernists, we get a true sense of the nihilism, futility, and world-shock. But with H.D., we see an artist trying to make sense of the rubble, connect with both history and build a new future. As if she is saying, this is where we came from, this is where we are, this is where I think we can go.

When I think of the longer works of many Modernists (the pieces that I for one admire most)… Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Pound’s Cantos,and even Williams’s  Paterson, we enter admirably but often inaccessible landscapes. With H.D.’s Trilogy, we have something else entirely. While holding true to the ideals of Imagism and Modernism, she creates work that is inviting and accessible while still being cold, austere, and war-torn. That isn’t to say that she is important because she’s easier to read (though many may argue she is), but she seems to include the reader in her intellectual and spiritual discovery and exploration of a ruined Europe, instead of by virtue of obscurity, excluding.

If the point is to use a common vernacular to illustrate as Yeats declared in “The Second Coming,” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and to create art that is a direct treatment of the “thing,” then I would say H.D. is wildly successful in ways other Modernists (aside from Gertrude Stein and perhaps Williams) were not.

What makes her stand out from the other modernists and imagists?

Aside from her gender and her expression of interest in exploring that gender (which I’ll approach later), H.D. differs from other modernists because of her persona… The creation of herself as a persona (H.D. versus Hilda Doolittle… though Pound was the first to use that professionally for her) and her constant work to remove herself from her work, her pursuit of creating art that was not tied up even remotely in autobiography (something she would later argue was actually largely futile).

When I think of other modernists, I think of bombastic sorts of personalities or artists very active in writing to defend their work through manifesto. Even Williams and Stein are guilty of this (though perhaps not Lowell). I see H.D. just doing her work, exploring what she thinks in important. Though creatively, she always stuck to her guns, she never seemed to be this sort of overwhelming personality that I associate with other modernists of note, especially, the more vocal “high” modernists she associated with (Pound, Eliot, Joyce). The amount of restraint in her work is incredibly admirable.

For myself, I first came to H.D. in a graduate seminar on American Women poets, though I had read a few of her anthologized poems before. This definitely colors some of my perception of her work, but in many ways I see her as a jumping off point for later poets such as Levertov, Rich, Ostriker. Before feminist revision became a thing, she was already looking backward and trying to find woman’s place in the ashes of Europe. She was going to Greek and Egyptian female figures for inspiration and response. She was interested in deciphering a hidden history of the feminine. What separates her from someone like, say Sexton, who came much later is that she does so in a somewhat genderless way. Where Sexton goes to specific fairy tales or witches and midwives, H.D. goes to the alchemist, the pre-science scientist searching to turn iron into gold. While she is never gender-neutral (as if such a thing were even possible), her brand of exploration is through a less overtly feminine symbol, the alchemist… though the work she does there is decidedly feminine, echoing Psyche shining a light on her invisible lover, Eros.

What is the immediate influence of H.D. on your own poetic work?

My personal copy of Trilogy is incredibly worn — pages falling out of it and the cover a Rorschach of coffee stains. I’m currently interesting in writing longer work of persona and historical revision, so I turn to her work often, especially The Walls Do Not Fall. I don’t really write like her, but I have issues with over-writing, so I find her restraint, minimalism and adept use of symbol inspiring. Reading her helps me pick up the pen and slash away. She, along with the obvious Anne Carson, has helped me see how to introduce argument into longer poems… though I tend to move about more in narrative than lyric (though I’m trying to use multiple narratives lyrically). I think in many ways, I see H.D. how she didn’t want to be seen by Pound… a touchstone and even a muse. Someone who’s existence (or for me, body of work) buoys me into finding my own way through long, sequential poems.

It seems that even though I admire very many poets who are doing a lot of that work, it’s not too popular (or easy) to publish in journals these days. Since I’m rather stuck in this mode at the moment, it means my poems are harder to place than they once were. I think of a work like Trilogy and I’m okay with that. H.D.’s work reminds me this futile act of writing poetry is really about the futile act itself. The art. It helps me forget ego, which is hard to when working as an English Lecturer who needs to publish as part of a career.

Beyond that, I also have a fascination with Greek mythology, so there’s a natural draw. I’m also very inspired by her use of parenthesis and stanza break.

What do you make of H.D. dependence on classical literature?

I don’t really think that it’s a dependency for her so much as an action of reinterpretation and exploration. Many of the feminist revisionist that came after (Sexton, Plath, Ostriker, Rich) refer to H.D.’s work as an inspiration to look again at the old stories and to see themselves and the women they know in them. I really think any act of feminist revision (of which I feel H.D. is a pioneer) isn’t so much a rehashing of old stories, but an effort to understand the self and womanhood within a European literary tradition. So many of the women in these stories only have identities based on relationships to male heroes or advancing their quests. Some don’t even have names… only known as wife of, mother of, or daughter of. (Though that can also be said of many male characters, also.)

Her work with Psyche/ in her Trilogy and Helen in “Helen in Egypt” strikes me as a way to make sense of the modern. In Trilogy, she is wrestling to make sense of a war-torn Europe and it is a strikingly hopeful collection. I think she looks back in order to mine a sacred feminine that has always existed in our literatures. By channeling this feminine, she is able to look forward to a Europe that can blossom and reinvent itself after decimation. The old symbols have failed her, failed “western” culture. She still believes in humanity and the classical ideals that helped form the society she lived in, so she searches for missing perspectives, missing voices, maligned figures (with Helen) to fill in the gaps and perhaps recreate the world as she feels is should have been all along. It’s almost as if Europe is physically wounded in “The Walls Do Not Fall” and instead of a scab or a suture, she envisions a chrysalis from which a new creature with butterfly wings ( a symbol of Psyche) emerges.

Do you see her influence increase over time or do you feel she is still under-read?

I think her influence is definitely increasing. There is new interest in female moderns for sure. Lowell has had the largest resurgence, probably because she had the farthest to come. Moore never really fell out of fashion (probably because she was so very admired by male and female writers and often referred to as genderless in her subject matter — something I definitely disagree with). H.D.’s association with other “high” moderns such as Pound and Eliot definitely kept her on the radar over the years, but usually only her Imagist work. Her later work is so different. It’s narrative, rhetorical, and even emotional. There’s much more emotional appeal with her already palpable intellectual appeal. I think that later work of hers is making a resurgence in anthologies and the like. It’s definitely canonical again. I know my students enjoyed reading her later work as much as something like Williams’s Spring and All (which is finally back in print as an individual collection).

(Originally posted here)

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