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Lisa Stewart (Elise), British poet and founding editor of the international journal Decanto, and Mary Ann Sullivan, American poet and founding editor of The Tower Journal, interview one another about Hilda Doolittle’s imagism, how it evolved, and how it relates to contemporary poetry.
MAS: Ezra Pound ‘branded’ H.D. an imagist when he wrote the word ‘imagiste’ on a revision of one of her early poems. Pound later defined imagism, characterizing it as brief, precise and solidly detailed. H.D.’s poems, particularly her earlier poems provide readers with concrete images of the external world, often fusing them with mythical images derived from ancient Greece. Do you find it odd that lean images reliant both on myth and nature can lead the reader to profound thought and emotion?
LS: Poetry is a very personal thing, and one can only interpret a poet’s work and what it means. Having said that, I believe although Hilda draws on the solid detail, images that can be easily accessible to the reader, for example, in the following poem,
Rose, harsh rose
marred and with stint of petals,
meagre flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,
than a wet rose
single on a stem-
you are caught in the drift.
that there is a deeper form that goes beyond the structure and solidity, that becomes more fluid and un structured and freed within the depths of emotion, touching the metaphysical depths, and allowing readers to project their own interpretation of what is meant or derived from within. There is an undercurrent of something far deeper than the structure of the poem.
LS: Do you think the term ‘Imagist’ defines Hilda’s poetry?
MAS: Partially, yes. H.D. craved images, but she also demeaned them. In her autobiographical book HERmione she writes. ‘She must have an image no matter how fluid, how inchoate… Names are in people, people are in names.’ But she also identifies the inadequacy of images, ‘Pictures were conclusive things and Her Gart [H.D.] was not conclusive. She wanted to climb through walls of no visible dimension. Tree walls were visible, were to be extended to know reach of universe.’ So there is a dichotomy. Her poetry sometimes began not with an image but with a metaphysical struggle, the end of which was a deposition of an idea into concrete letters and words that ultimately render mental images in the mind of the reader. In HERmione she explains, ‘she felt psychic claw unsheathe somewhere, she felt herself clutch toward something that had no name yet.’
LS: Do you think H.D.’s use of imagism evolved?
MAS: Yes. It expanded beyond sight to the other senses. Her sequence poem, ‘The Flowering of the Rod,’ for example, weaves the smell of myrrh, the feelings of hot and cold, the whisper of a male voice, a mythic image of Mary Magdalene and the mage Kaspar.
In one part of ‘The Flowering of the Rod,’ speaking of the lines and marks on a door she says, ‘as if each scratch and mark/were hieroglyph.’ As if the concrete world itself is a sign of something mysterious and wonderful beyond. But also in this poem she extends the ‘sign’ beyond the sense of sight. Take for example these last lines from her poem ‘The Flowering of the Rod,’ which evokes the sense of smell.
She said, Sir, it is a most beautiful fragrance,
as of all flowering things together;
but Kaspar knew the seal of the jar was unbroken.
he did not know whether she knew
the fragrance came from the bundle of myrrh
she held in her arms.
She grappled with words and the images created by them. She insisted music was a better medium than words for capturing and expressing ideas and emotions. In her autobiography HERmione she explains, ‘There was a sort of “composition” of elements that her mind, fused to the breaking point, now apprehended. The catch was that her perception was ahead of her definition. She could put no name to the things she apprehended, felt vaguely that her mother should have insisted on her going on with music.’
Knowing how she longed to express the unnamable in music, do you think H.D.’s expansion of imagism to other senses distinguishes her as a woman poet?
LS: It helps her to have the tools to reach deeper and beyond the image, to dig the foundations and build from the resources of the elements of life, of nature, of the structure of humanity and beyond.
Hilda’s work is beautifully proportionate. It almost resonates in a chord of many strings that portrays external images and internal emotions. Her independence as a poet was heightened by her power to play many tunes in both the visible and invisible chords of words. Although her work shows signs of great resilience, there is, however a sense of vulnerability also,
Yet though the whole wind
slash at your bark,
you are lifted up,
aye-though it hiss
to cover you with froth.
But this vulnerability is resurrected by an inner strength.
That is part of the appeal of Hilda’s work, to convey and enlighten both in image and beyond. To lay bare the image in its most delicate state, but to ensue with determination, even until the end: to engage with the senses at the very natural level of spontaneous reaction. That is how her work expands beyond the imagist label. Her work is very powerful as it contains all of the elements, evokes the senses and touches the deepest emotions.
LS: Is there a connection between this kind of imagism and digital poetry?
MAS: Yes. H.D.’s imagism combined multiple images, fusing images of humans with natural and mythical figures, joining that with sounds like the buzzing of a bee and the whisper of a voice. Digital poetry has the potential to do that very thing, but in a sharper way, incorporating actual sounds with animated images and hieroglyphics. Digital poets who read H.D.’s work find inspiration. H.D. cherished Greek poetry and its orphic, bardic traditions, intermingling subconscious images with natural ones, using the vibration in the timbre of the voice, the sound of words. Digital space makes it possible for us to hear and watch poets recite their poems. It’s peculiar, really. The more digital poetry evolves the more it discovers ancient Greek roots.
Why do you think H.D.’s poetry is relevant today?
LS: Although the imagist movement was short lived, there has remained a strong influence which has continued throughout poetry, witnessed clearly in the work of the Objectivist who came to prominence in the 1930s under the auspices of Pound and Williams. The Objectivists worked mainly in free verse, clearly linking Objectivism’s principles with Imagism’s.
Imagism influenced a number of poetry circles and movements in the 1950s, especially the Beat generation, with their performance poetry, and the Black Mountain poets. So maybe it is not so much lost, but has evolved, as poetry always does, into something new.
Do you think that the imagist movement has an influence or relevance in poetry today?
MAS: Yes, for young people in particular who crave images and sounds and carry their portable devices with them everywhere. There is a connection between imagism as it evolved in the work of Hilda Doolittle and contemporary digital poetry which animates images and uses sound, bringing the mind of the reader, (the listener, the viewer) to conceptualization and emotion. It’s odd but the more digital poetry evolves the more potential it has to return poetry to its ancient Greek roots. Remember, Greek poetry was performed aloud and considered spontaneously inspired; H.D. appreciated Greek orphism, which electrified her imagism.
Lisa Stewart (Elise) was born and lives in West Sussex, England, and is the founder and editor of Decanto poetry magazine. Decanto is an international print magazine currently in its 7th year. Her work has been included in various magazines and anthologies, having received highly commended, and winning 3rd place in “Rubies in the Darkness” poetry competition in 2007. Her previous poetry collections include Another Sentiment, Last Lament, and For All Eternity. Paradise, her new collection, will be widely reviewed later in the year.
Mary Ann Sullivan, the editor of The Tower Journal, teaches “Politics and Poetics” for the Doctor of Arts Program at Franklin Pierce University where she is the Founding Director of the Digital Poetry Center. The British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) has published online her digital poem, “Shaking the Spiders Out”. The New York Times called her first novel, Child of War, an earnest first novel, and that book was named a Notable Book in Social Studies by the National Council of Social Studies. She earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Norwich University, and a Doctor of Arts Degree with a concentration in Digital Poetry from Franklin Pierce University. She is an Associate Professor at Hesser College in New Hampshire where she teaches writing.