Saturday, August 31, 2002

During his life Robert Duncan alternately called his booklength critical project both The H.D. Book and The Day Book. Individual chapters appeared in journals such as Caterpillar, but the volume as a whole has never appeared. The copy I’m reading comes from a pirate typesetting that I don’t believe was ever released in hard copy. In this sense, the version I have is not unlike the Frontier Press edition of Spring & All that Harvey Brown produced in order to provoke New Directions into republishing that great lost work of Williams.  


People have speculated over the reasons why The H.D. Book is not in print, and conspiracy theories on the topic are not unpopular. But in some sense, the book’s problem lies precisely in its genius – a work of criticism with no argument, no theme, no development, no expository equivalent to a plot. It certainly has nodes around which it turns again and again – Duncan’s autobiography, the poetry of Hilda Doolittle, the poetics of the high modernists in general, the “wars” between various occult practitioners extending outward from Blavatsky, seers that Duncan both cheerfully acknowledges as frauds and insists must be taken at full value. Any given chapter, any given paragraph may turn to one of these topics, or sweep between any two of them (Duncan’s sense of pace seems slow precisely because it is governed by rhythm).


So what we as readers must then confront is a text that straddles genres neatly between critical theory and autobiography and proceeds, as Shklovsky would have noticed, as plotless prose, a work whose point is never to get anywhere, but always to bring the reader into the presentness of reading itself. The H.D. Book is hardly the first such critical work in English – there is all of Stein’s lectures and critical prose, and again Spring & All. But in fact none of these have ever had an easy or simple publishing history, as Duncan himself certainly understood. In the 1950s, he had been the only writer of any note to acknowledge Stein’s influence whatsoever.