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No Rule of Procedure: H.D. and Open Poetics by Alicia Ostriker


The Activity of Writing by Trinh T. Minh-ha

No Rule of Procedure:
H.D. and Open Poetics

(excerpted from a talk by Alicia Ostriker presented at the E.D. / H.D. Conference, San Jose State University, 1987)

An essential characteristic of the versification in Trilogy is its lightness. If you hold one of the great monuments of meditative/visionary poetry in English up to your mind's eye --Paradise Lost or The Prelude, say-- what do you see? Solid blocks, pillars of language, weighty-looking, mighty-looking; one might even say intimidating. If you hold them to the mind's ear, what do you hear? Blank verse paragraphs. Organ tones. Sententious sentences. A strong, energetic, relentless flow of verse in the long line, the pentameter line, which since the late 16th century has been the standard vehicle for public poetry; the line in which tragedy, weighty narrative, and moral discourse of all sorts take place; the line, in sum, of poetic authority. If we look and listen to H.D.'s male cohorts the visual solidity has broken up but the sound of power and authority remain, the sea-surge modulating into the didact in Pound, the liturgical, magisterial tones of Eliot.

Hold H.D. up to the eye and ear and we have something quite different, something which includes a great deal more space, more silence around the words as if pausing were as important as speaking. . . rather like a still small voice: not "authoritative" but intimate. For the lines are first of all short and slight--three stresses to the line, sometimes four, quite often only two, seldom (until later in the poem) five; and the unstressed syllables tend to outnumber the stressed ones. The voice has a definite forward momentum ("persistence," it tells us in WDDF 6 , is its virtue) in its run-on lines and enjambed leaping of stanza breaks, as well as its long suspended sentences, but it is also full of pauses, hesitations, little loopings of repetition and qualification.

What does this aspect of Trilogy' s music--the combination of forward momentum with lightness and hesitation--contribute to the poem's meaning?

Ultimately we are being invited to trust not a still point outside of ourselves, transcending this world, but our own interiority.

And what of rhyme? Here again there is a balancing, and this is one of the poet's most important and subtle techniques. Trilogy is, one might say, a poem that is neither rhymed nor not-rhymed. To the casual reader it will not sound rhymed, for there is no rhyme scheme in it, no recurrent abba or whatever, and because H.D. is a mistress of the inconspicuous off-rhyme, as well as of all sorts of interior sound linkages. Listen to the opening of "Walls" for a few of the threads of sound. We have (with brackets for interior rhyme-words):

(here) there / (your) square / colour / hare. . . (there as here), enter / doors, (here) there, endures, (everywhere) air. And later, fissure / endure / fire / floor / terror / ember / what for? Note the contrasting sound-and-meaning cluster of purpose / lapis / papyrus. . . stalks us / overtakes us / teach us; and again room / gloom as against Luxor bee. . . prophecy. . . sky. . . eternity. Among the alliterative and assonantal constructions we have gone / guns, p ursue / p ur p ose, p rophecy, p a p yrus, t omb / t emple, sh ri ne / sk y , ru in / roof / room gloom.

All through Trilogy there are chains of end-rhymes which may be local or may run through whole lyrics, but which are always inconspicuous and unpredictable in frequency, and which are reinforced by interior sound-echoes of all sorts. The reader experiences these, I believe, not as rhyme but (without thinking about it) as beauty and coherence. And this sound-play, I believe, is a formal correlative of the poem's premise that order, beauty and meaning remain permanently present in our shattered world, but not permanently obvious, and that the way to recover them is through the receptive psychic states of dream and vision which are to the (semantic) Word as the Word is to the Sword (WDNF 11, 20).
--Alicia Ostriker

Alicia Ostriker is the author of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, University of Michigan Press. Her new poem collection, Green Age, is just out from University of Pittsburgh Press. The complete text of this talk will be published in the forthcoming essay collection, Signets: Reading H.D., edited by Susan Stanford Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, University of Wisconsin Press.

Edna St. Vincent Millay and Nancy Boyd

When Edna St. Vincent Millay submitted "Renascence" to The Lyric Year, its editors wrote back a glowing letter to E. Vincent Millay, Esq. that began "Dear Sir." Even after Millay's gender and age (nineteen) were revealed and "Renascence" published in November of 1912, Arthur Davidson Ficke and Witter Bynner, established lyric poets of the period, remained skeptical: "The little item about her in the back of the book is a marvel of humor. No sweet young thing of twenty ever ended a poem precisely where this one ends: it takes a brawny male of forty-five to do that." However, Ficke, writing for the two of them, hastened to reassure the editor: ". . . if it's a real secret, we respect the writer of such a poem too much to want to plague 'her.'. . . "(1)

Millay was called Vincent by her family long before she masqueraded as a lyric David who seemed, for a brief moment, capable of toppling the looming giant of modernism. As late as 1924, Bynner compared "Renascence" favorably with "The Waste Land," but John Crowe Ransom set the record straight in his take on Millay, "The Poet as Woman," (c.1936) which is less an attack on Millay per se than it is yet another skirmish in the battle between the poetic traditionalists and the spokesmen for the New Critical masters: Pound, Eliot, Yeats, et. al. By this point, the lyric has been debased and feminized. It is woman's province, generally speaking her only province, though every once in a while a Marianne Moore will prove to be of a sufficiently masculine cast; similarly, men themselves may sometimes choose the "lesser" lyric realm. Actually, Ransom isn't always wrong about Millay--but once he makes her the generic woman poet, he has, in effect, barred women from the modernist canon.

Maybe this is one of the reasons we don't like Edna. If women hadn't written gushy romance-plot poetry for so many years, Ransom might have been forced to address Mind Loy or H.D. Instead, Millay played right into his hands with her histrionics, her "poetess" act. Her flamboyant public guises, as Greenwich Village bohemian, and, later, as prima donna of the poetry reading circuit, made her--as Richard Wilbur has remarked--the most thespian of poets.

But such theatricality, such a signature of excess, is precisely one of the things I find intriguing about Millay. It brings me to issues of subjectivity and masquerade--of subjectivity as masquerade--and back to Ficke's initial insistence on a fake feminity, a "her." In her 1929 piece, "Womanliness as a Masquerade," Joan Riviere, who was Freud's translator and colleague, undercuts his famous feminity essay by suggesting that no line can be drawn between "genuine womanliness and 'the masquerade.' "(2) In its most playful form, masquerade reveals the social construction of subjects by exaggerating gender characteristics to the point of burlesque. In less overt fashion it points to fictional "duplicity" in seemingly straightforward autobiographical pieces. The unified self may be almost too easy a target at this point, but what would happen if one were to reexamine those (stylistic) identities that have been viewed as one-note (no matter how fine their music) and lacking in complication?

For several years, Millay wrote short, satiric magazine pieces under the pseudonym of Nancy Boyd, a name as blunt and discordant as Edna St. Vincent Millay is dignified and mellifluous. If Millay writes: "And you as well must die, belovèd dust, / And all your beauty stand you in no stead," Boyd counters: "Scene: A studied studio, in which nine o'clock tea and things are being served by Miss Black, a graceful sculptress, to Mr. White, a man of parts, but badly assembled. Miss Black is tattoed with batik; Mr. White is impeccably attired for the evening as a professional violinist." Collected and published under the title Distressing Dialogues, and boasting a foreword by none other than Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Nancy Boyd pieces often take the form of playlets in which the deliberately overdone stage directions proliferate, threatening to suffocate the dialogue proper with their lists of costumes and coy poses. Boyd satirizes Greenwich Village life (I imagine this would go over well with her readers), but when she speaks of the girls who stand around on golf-links while Arnold Genthe takes their photograph, I remember the famous portrait of Millay under the magnolia trees at Vassar, taken by none other than Arnold Genthe, and wonder about her own sense of her role.

Fortified, as it were, by Nancy Boyd, I plan to keep reading Millay. Did she gain her artistic majority, or did she forever play, adeptly, the ingenue to a grateful house that was loathe to offer her another part? Some places to look for answers: the frightening, perhaps subversively sentimental maternity in "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver"; the debris of marriage and identity in "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree"; her dedication of Fatal Interview to Elinor Wylie, which suggests that her truest loves are a (Donne-ian) form and its initiates.
--Deborah Woodard

1 MacDoughall, Allan Ross (ed.), Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, New York, Grosset & Dunlop, 1952, p. 18.

2 Riviere, Joan, "Womanliness as a Masquerade," in Victor Burgin, James Donald, Cora Kaplan (eds.), Formations of Fantasy, London, Methuen, 1986, pp. 35-44.

Deborah Woodard is a candidate in the English Ph.D. Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. New poems appear in South Coast Poetry Journal. Other work has appeared in Seneca Review, Antioch Review, Carolina Quarterly, Beloit Review, and Poetry Journal. . . .

Visuals in this piece by Susan Bee, co-editor with Mira Schor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G.

The Activity of Writing

. . . Neither entirely personal nor purely historical, a mode of writing is in itself a function. An act of historical solidarity, it denotes, in addition to my/the writer's personal standpoint and intention, a relationship between creation and society. Dealing exclusively with either one of these two aspects, therefore, proves vain as an approach. So does the preaching of revolution through a writing more concerned with imposing than raising consciousness regarding the process by which language works, or regarding the nature, activity and status of writing itself. . . .

No radical change can occur as long as writing is not recognized, precisely, as a mode of social inscription or as "the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of (her)/his language." (R. Barthes). This calls for a conception of writing that can no longer naïvely be reduced to a means of expressing a reality or of emitting a message. To lay emphasis on expression and on message is to forget that, even if art is said to be a "window on the world," it is only "a sketched window." (V. Shklovsky). And just as sketched windows have their own realities, writing as a system by itself has its own rules and structuring process.

The ABC lesson says that for letters to become words and for words to take on meanings they must relate to other letters, to other words, to the context in which they evolve--be it verbal or non-verbal--as well as to other present and absent contexts. (Words are think tanks loaded with second- and third-order memories that die hard despite their ever-changing meanings.) Thus, writing constantly refers to writing, and no writing can ever claim to be free of other writings. . . .

So where do you go from here? Where do I go? And where does a committed woman writer go? Finding a voice, searching for words and sentences: say some thing, one thing or no thing; tie/untie, read/unread, discard their forms; scrutinize the grammatical habits of your writing, and decide for yourself whether they free or repress. Shake syntax, smash the myths and, if you lose, slide on, UNEARTH some new linguistic paths. Do you surprise? Do you shock? Do you have a choice?

--Trinh T. Minh-ha,

from Woman Native Other, just published by Indiana University Press. Filmmaker, writer and composer, Minh-ha's works indude En miniscules (poems), Le Meridian, Paris, and her most recent film, Surname Viet Given Name Nam, premiering this October in San Francisco.

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