To begin writing, we need to feel free: free of the pressure to conform to expectations, free of the inner critic that wants to censor what we write, free of worrying about whether the writing will be good enough. Before H.D. started work on a poem, she would deliberately splash ink all over her clothes. It sounds eccentric, but it was her way of liberating herself from inhibitions, making space for her creativity, achieving a necessary sense of abandon.
All her life, H.D. (who used her initials as her writing name) had to work hard to be free. She started out as the protégé of the famous modernist poet Ezra Pound, who sent some of her poems for publication in one of the most prestigious literary magazines of the day. He enlisted her into his own poetic movement, which he called Imagism, and her first collection, Sea Garden, published in 1916, epitomises the Imagist principles: it is direct, it uses no unnecessary words, and its phrases are musical rather than strictly metrical.
In ‘Sea Garden’ she uses natural imagery to explore human experience, and to transcend it. The poems are often structured on opposites or contradictions (is there any poet who uses the word ‘but’ more often than she does?). The book contains a series of subversive poems about flowers; flowers were a traditional subject for poetry, typically associated with ideals of femininity, but she took that Romantic convention and turned it on its head. The flower was generally depicted as passive, its perfect beauty delicate and shortlived, but hers are tough and resilient, surviving in the most inhospitable conditions. They grow on the seashore, taking root in the shingle, where they are battered by the forces of wind and waves. ‘Sea Rose’ is “sparse of leaf”, “caught in the drift”, and yet “more precious / than a wet rose / single on a stem”. ‘Sea Lily’ is “slashed and torn / but doubly rich”. Of ‘Sea Violet’ she writes: “your grasp is frail / on the edge of the sand-hill, / but you catch the light”. These flowers – these emblems of womanhood – are valued and admired not for their delicacy but for their strength, their tenacity, their capacity to thrive against the odds.
This subversive quality is present in all her work. Later, when she had moved beyond Imagism and out of Pound’s shadow, she wrote longer poems which took familiar myths and recast them from the point of view of their female protagonists, giving voice to those silent women whose stories had previously been shaped by male writers, allowing them to give their own powerful account of female experience.
H.D. fought hard for space and recognition in a male-dominated literary world. She wrote of her fear of being “smothered” or “smudged out”, and of her determination to be the poet, rather than the poet’s muse. In other ways, too, she lived outside societal norms of the time; she was bisexual, a pacifist, and fervently anti-Fascist. Her wartime poems return again and again to the celebration of survival against the forces of death and destruction; like the flower on the shore, the human spirit suffers but is not broken.
Near the end of her life, she was delighted to receive a poetry award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Having lived in England much of her life, she would surely have been equally pleased to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She would have been a great choice. Her work has such power and originality, and reading it aloud reveals its musicality, the spareness and vitality of the language. Here, she describes a paradox which any of us could recognise: our human tendency, even when we possess something precious, to go on wanting something different:
I know the insatiable longing
in winter, for palm-shadow
and sand and burnt sea-drift;
but in the summer, as I watch
the wave till its edge of foam
touches the hot sand and instantly
vanishes like snow on the equator,
I would cry out, stay, stay;
then I remember delicate enduring frost
and its mid-winter dawn-pattern;
in the hot noon-sun, I think of the grey
opalescent winter-dawn; as the wave
burns on the shingle, I think,
you are less beautiful than frost;
but it is also true that I pray,
O, give me burning blue
and brittle burnt sea-weed
above the tide-line,
as I stand, still unsatisfied,
under the long shadow-on-snow of the pine.