Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Just about everyone I know thinks of Jack Kerouac as a novelist who wrote poetry. But what about Gilbert Sorrentino? Before Mulligan Stew and the other long prose fictions that made Sorrentino justly famous as a novelist, he was a successful poet (and a superb critic of poetry). Along with the then-LeRoi Jones, the always-on-the-road Paul Blackburn, and youngsters George Economou, Rochelle Owens, Robert Kelly & Clayton Eshleman, Sorrentino was part of Projectivism’s presence in & around Manhattan throughout the 1960s & ‘70s. Sorrentino’s Selected Poems covers the period 1958-1980. But I’m not aware if there has been much, if any, poetry since. It’s as though the man had one successful career & then chose to follow it with another, very different such career. Not unlike Bill Bradley, an athlete, then a politician.

Another poet with an even more ambiguous relation to these genres has been Toby Olson, again a second generation Projectivist. Because he’s published in both forms throughout his life, I’ve always suspected that his work has been underestimated in each form. The very same silliness that bedevils the bookstore clerk who cannot decide whether Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate is fiction or poetry*, let alone Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, plays out in the minds of readers more generally when it comes to considering the lifework of different authors. Case in point: Hilda Doolittle.

Almost everyone thinks of Doolittle as a poet who also wrote some fiction, as well as translations & memoirs. Yet H.D. published, for all extents and purposes, just a dozen or so books of poetry during her lifetime, going long periods between volumes after the appearance of her first Collected Poems in 1925. And that number shrinks if you treat Trilogy as one book, instead of three. During this long productive career – just under half a century – Doolittle also wrote 19 novels and collections of stories, according to Susan Stanford Friedman’s 1987 chronology of H.D.’s writing, published in the special issue of Sagetrieb devoted to Doolittle’s work. They include the following:

<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Paint It Today, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Asphodel, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Pilate’s Wife, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Palimpsest, novel (interlocking stories)
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Nike, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Hedylus, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>HER, novel (published as HERmione)
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Narthex, novella
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Usual Star, stories
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Kora and Ka, novellas
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Nights, novella
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Hedgehog, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Seven, stories
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Bid Me to Live, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Majic Ring, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>White Rose and the Red, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>The Mystery, novel
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Magic Mirror, novel

Not all of these novels ever made it into print. Friedman’s note for Nike simply reads “Destroyed.” Biographer Guest politely notes that “Hipparchia: War Rome (Circa 75 B.C.)” has “none of the polish or professionalism” of H.D.’s later work, and I would pass a similar judgment on Paint It Today. Friedman lists Pilate’s Wife as “submitted and rejected,” & White Rose and the Red as “probably rejected.” Yet 19 booklength works over a 35-year span (H.D. appears to have begun writing fiction in 1921, after her life began to stabilize somewhat with the presence of Bryher; the final item, Magic Mirror, was written in the mid-1950s) demonstrates a considerable emphasis, a commitment of time & effort. Indeed, between the first Collected Poems in 1925 and her next book of poetry, Red Roses for Bronze, in 1931, Doolittle produced seven novels & collections of stories, plus the verse drama Hippolytus Temporizes plus her work on the film Borderline.

One could make the case that Doolittle was, in fact, a novelist – tho not a successful one – who wrote poetry at least as much as she was a poet who wrote fiction. While that may seem like a difference within a distinction (& vice versa), it has, I suspect, real consequences in terms of how H.D. saw herself & thus how she envisioned her career as author. Did she feel satisfied? Was she pleased at what she had accomplished? These are, I think, legitimate questions. During a poet’s life, they have everything to do with how the writer decides what’s next, and even how to proceed. At one level, the writer in me would love for an Emily Dickinson, say, to understand the breadth & depth of her achievement, the power of her impact on the world. At another, younger writers are constantly confronted with options, nearly every one of which is an incentive to stop writing poetry. What if, for example, Jack Spicer had finished his detective novel & it had proven to be a best-seller, followed with a major motion picture? What if, in precisely the other direction, Trout Fishing in America had not been so fabulously successful? Would Richard Brautigan still be alive today? Would there be a west coast tradition of the humorous lyric as widespread as that which flowed from the New York School? So many what-ifs flow out of such a distinction: was a H.D. a novelist who wrote poetry?

In practice, I haven’t seen anything yet to suggest that this is how Doolittle saw herself, albeit I am still acquainting myself with the territory & I have a long way still to go. Nonetheless what I want to be conscious of, at least for today, is how the H.D. we know / I know is a construct. That is, we define her as the poet & in so doing condition many of our responses to new information, setting our expectations accordingly. The fiction that is in print, such as it is, for example, appears to have been published to fill out the oeuvre of the poet, not because anyone thought that it might transform a history of the novel (although, in fact, it is historically important to the degree that H.D. was writing overtly lesbian fiction at time when this was hardly done at all, & only at some risk). Which is to say that all of the reasons for publishing H.D.’s fiction have little or nothing to do with its actual quality as fiction.

* Hint: bad fiction, worse poetry.