“Writing. Love is writing.” — poet H.D., HERmione

“Words were her plague and words were her redemption.” — H.D. HERmione

It’s H.D.’s birthday today.

First up: I wrote a gigantic piece about H.D.’s film criticism for Film Comment. Turns out, it was the final piece I wrote for Film Comment before it closed its doors in the pandemic. At any rate: I worked my ass off on that piece, and am very proud of it!

My research for that one piece:

Eventually, I was like, “Sheila. You have got to start actually writing. The piece won’t write itself.”

Considering her name was Hilda Doolittle, it’s still a slight shock to remember she was born in Pennsylvania and not, say, Liverpool. Christened “H.D.” by Ezra Pound (her first boyfriend, and briefly her fiance), she was at the center of the Imagist movement in poetry. Pound saw her as the ultimate fulfillment of the poetic ideas he had been espousing.

Like the rest of the Imagists, H.D. was interested in direct and simple expression. It was the Imagists’ way of rebelling against Victorian curlycues and lengthy descriptions. Pare it down, and then pare it down MORE. H.D.’s early poems look almost like fragments (reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s poems). H.D.’s idol was Sappho – not just for the obvious reason. Saphho’s passionate responsiveness to … everything … spoke deeply to H.D. H.D.’s overriding desire in her work was to be overwhelmed (this explains her interest in mysticism later on). She wanted the poem to act as an agent, something that would not only transport her, but obliterate her. H.D. seeked transcendence, a prolonged state of exaltation not easy to sustain. This was also what interested her about film.

Here’s “Helen”, written in 1924.


All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees, unmoved,
God’s daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.


H.D., from Tribute to Freud:

But the Professor insisted I myself wanted to be Moses; not only did I want to be a boy but I wanted to be a hero.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Often, the poet appears in the role of a priest who has come to worship and celebrate a natural event. She prays that the event–the sea, the heat of the day, any item of real or imagined life–will overwhelm her. Through the ritual of her verse, she seeks an ecstatic loss of self, not unlike the lyric ecstasies of her treasured classical poet, Sappho. Invoking flowers in “Sea Rose,” “Garden,” and “Sea Violet,” H.D. describes a complex emotional state that mingles toughness and vulnerability, much like the androgynous poems she is fashioning–tender but strong, buffeted but enduring, responsive but hard, “cut in rock.” Though ostensibly about nature, these poems rethink traditional polarities of gender.

Ezra Pound, The Imagists, rules:

Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether objective or subjective; to use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation: as regarding rhythm, to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Like Ezra Pound, her close friend and colleague, H.D. seems to me essentially an American Pre-Raphaelite poet, a naming that I intend as a compliment since I deeply love the poetry of the Rossettis, Morris, Meredith, and Swinburne. Even as Pound assimilates Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Walt Whitman, so H.D. compounds Christina Rossetti with Emily Dickinson, and both together with the male sequence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Pound, and D.H. Lawrence.

Ezra Pound on H.D.

Objective – no slither; direct – no excessive use of adjectives, no metaphors that won’t permit examination. It’s straight talk, straight to the Greek!

R.P. Blackmur, Language as Gesture:

H.D.’s special form of the mode of Imagism–cold, “Greek,” fast, and enclosed–has become one of the ordinary resources of the poetic language. It is a regular means of putting down words so that they will keep.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Love poetry of the twentieth century is the most varied and sexually explicit since classical antiquity…Amy Lowell vividly charts the works and days of a settled, sustaining lesbian relationship, while H.D. projects lesbian feeling into Greek personae, often male.

Perdita Schaffner, on her mother:

Her descents into everyday life were an ordeal. She over-reacted. The least disruption set off total frenzy.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

H.D. had arrived in London in 1911, and her verse, written under the spell of ancient Greek lyrical fragments, so impressed Pound that a year later he sent her poems, signed “H.D. Imagiste” at his insistence, to Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry, the Chicago clearinghouse for modern verse. He told Monroe that H.D.’s poems were “modern” and “laconic,” though classical in subject…H.D.’s early poems — lucid, economical, often centered in a single metaphor — best exemplified [the Imagist] theory.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

The only woman in the first wave of major Anglo-American modernists, her work is different in kind from the others’, even in its earliest and purest Imagist forms.

Robert Lowell on H.D.’s vision of WWI:

Bombs falling on the British Museum.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

What seems clear is that her sexual self-acceptance, whether Freudian or not, gave her the creative serenity that made possible the wonderfully controlled, hushed resignation of her wisely limited farewell to D.H. Lawrence.

H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision, 1919:

The Madonna of the Rocks is not a picture. It is a window.

Amy Lowell, on first reading H.D.’s poems in a 1913 issue of Poetry:

“Why, I too am an Imagiste.”

(Side note: Ezra Pound, the founder of Imagism, was so irritated by what Amy Lowell did under its moniker, he referred to it as “Amygism” and founded another poetry movement, Vorticism, to distance himself.)

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

H.D. tried to discover how few words are required to make a poem, in revolt against the comparative excess and sentimentality of Victorian verse.

H.D., Asphodel:

“I mean seeing the Elgin marbles this morning gave me the same feeling and I didn’t know, don’t know whether I’m in Rome or Paris. I mean the Louvre and the British Museum hold one together, keep one from going to bits.”

Michael Schmidt:

She was the Imagist touchstone, an example of how poetry could be reclaimed from the excesses of the Georgians, where language generally seemed (to Pound) to exceed its occasion, and where the occasions themselves were merely conventional. In H.D. Pound found a concentration, an absence of sentiment, and accuracy of rhythm.

H.D., quoted in Glenn Hughes’ Imagism and the Imagists:

Ezra Pound was very kind and used to bring me (literally) armfuls of books to read …I did a few poems that I don’t think Ezra liked …but later he was beautiful about my first authentic verses … and sent my poems in for me to Miss Monroe [the editor of Poetry magazine]. He signed them for me, ‘H.D., Imagiste.’ The name seems to have stuck somehow.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Though the Imagist movement formally came to an end in 1917, when [Amy] Lowell published the third of her anthologies, both Pound and H.D. went on to write long, complex, many-layered poems that recall Imagism in their musical cadences, sharp juxtapositions, and free-ranging content.

William Carlos Williams, Autobiography:

[She was] wild… angular … [with] a provocative indifference to rule and order.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

H.D. often returns to such traditional female archetypes as the rose, the lily, Helen of Troy, Leda, and the Virgin Mary. Her engagements with this traditional iconography are revisionary. Her rose is not an idealized symbol of the feminine other, but natural and time bound. Although her poem “Helen” recalls earlier depictions of this paradigmatic beauty as the bleached-out object of idolatry, H.D. interrogates this idealization, suggesting that it culminates in hatred, death, and destructiveness.

H.D. on psychoanalysis:

I wanted to dig down and dig out, root out my personal needs, strengthen my purposes, reaffirm my beliefs, canalize my energies.

H.D., HERmione:

She did not know that all her life would be spent gambling with the stark rigidity of words, words that were coin; save, spend; and all the time George Lowndes with his own counter, had found her a way out.


Here’s a really nice post by my old friend Ted about H.D.

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21 Responses to “Writing. Love is writing.” — poet H.D., HERmione

  1. mutecypher says:

    Hi Sheila –

    I wasn’t sure where to leave this comment. I just finished your piece on H.D. in Film Comment. I don’t know if it was the big piece you mentioned in Concentration and Struggle…

    I loved your article on H.D. and her film magazine and her film writing. I was able to find her review of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc… She underlines her point in the sentence after the quote you use. “Worse than that it is a better Jeanne, a much, much better Jeanne that our Jeanne; scathing realism has gone much better than mere imaginative realism… a Jeanne that is going to rob us of our own Jeanne.” I think she’s chastising herself for not having a conception of Joan that reaches Falconetti’s brilliance! That’s how I read it. What a thing, to be so open and vulnerable in a review. I liked how she switched between “I” and “we” so much in that review. I think as vulnerable as she was being, she needed to feel that she was not alone in her reactions.

    She made me think of Donne’s Holy Sonnet

    Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
    As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

    But she did not want to be battered by Joan (not a criticism, just a description).

    I even got to learn who Telesilla was from her review.

    Your essay was excellent! Thanks for writing it. I had no idea that cinema inspired such writing so early on. I’m going to poke through the archives and see if I can find Bryher’s interview with Anita Loos now.

    I think you are creating a real space for “What Did Poets Think of The Movies.”

    • sheila says:

      Mutecypher – wow, thank you! Are you a subscriber? Is that how you read it? I think it’s going to be widely available in a couple of days – so I hadn’t heard anything from anyone yet. You’re the first.

      I’m so glad you liked it! Yes, that was the big piece! I have never researched anything so much in my life – mainly because I didn’t know anything about HD, beyond bare-bones about her poetry and her relationship with Ezra Pound. so it was fascinating to dig in and get a whole picture.

      I just wish more of her film criticism was avilable – the Joan one is definitely her most famous, and probably most accessible – and she didn’t write tons about film, maybe 10 or 11 pieces, but they give such a great “snapshot” of the time. I’m glad you found the Joan piece. it really is an extraordinary piece of criticism – I wish there was more film criticism like that now – kind of sitting in your own subjectivity and wrestling with a piece of work. That kind of writing can be AWFUL if the person is not a good writer – but here, I think she was truly rocked to the core, and knew how to express it.

      and yes, she basically felt that Falconetti’s Joan was too downtrodden. Too … ordinary. She wanted the “angels” that Joan listened to and obeyed – she wanted a sense of the holiness of this martyrdom (and like I said, Joan had just been canonized – and recognized, publicly, as a saint – after being killed by the same Church!!) It seemed to me she really wanted more of the sense that Joan was listening to God – as opposed to just trudging through the mud to her doom. This was HD;s “Joan” and she felt it had been supplanted by Falconetti’s Joan – which, as you say, is a testament to the power of what Falconetti did!!

      Interestingly enough: in my research on Sylvia Plath for that other peotry/movies column I did – she had a similar reaction to Joan of Arc which she saw at MoMA – not in exactly the same way – but she was wrecked by the film, she had to go “walk it off” afterwards.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! It’s a slice of film history that nobody is really aware of – the Close-Up book which my pal Jonathan gave me – which compiles all the writing – is out of print. But it’s all there. It’s weird, how it’s just not known widely. I have a great anthology called American Movie Critics – or something – and HD’s piece on Joan of Arc is included, but it’s interesting to see how film criticism developed over the years. I think we’ve lost a lot – maybe because now we’re so caught in our present moment that history is rarely brought into it. Instead, we get tons of pieces like “everything that happened more than 5 years ago is out of date and inappropriate” and … ugh. Enough already.

      At any rate – thank you very much for reading – and thank you so much for commenting! I so appreciate how deeply you get into things and bring your own taste and knowledge to it. I get a lot out of it.

    • sheila says:

      and yes! My goal with these essays for Film Comment is not to JUST talk to other film critics and serious “cinephiles” – a word I dislike. But to loop in people with other interests – lol – like poetry, or history, or … hockey!! whatever! I figure I have all this random knowledge, with all this diversity, it feels good when I can use it.

      • mutecypher says:

        Yes, I’m a subscriber. I got an email that the issue was available via an app called Zinio, so I grabbed it. I hope the magazine can come back when things get closer to normal. I really hope so.

        It’s interesting to me that Sylvia found the film also. I had never heard of it before the 2017(?) restoration. Joan’s canonization date is one of those things that I “know,” but it always shocks me when I recall it – how long it took. The film is just overwhelming and destabilizing, I can understand almost any reaction beyond indifference.

        Hockey! Outside of the occasional Zamboni driver becoming goalie-for-the-day (which is a seriously cool thing about hockey), I don’t know much about it. On the topic of sports, have you had a chance to watch any of The Last Dance? It is very good. Were you in Chicago during the Michael Jordan/Bulls era? Did you get caught up in that?

        • sheila says:

          // it always shocks me when I recall it – how long it took. //


          I’m so glad you caught up with this. It’s like Battleship Potemkin – one of the first early masterpieces of film – which still works today (as Birth of a Nation, for example, does NOT – innovations or no). Plus the fact that Falconetti gives one of the greatest performances of all time. You don’t even have to “adjust” to another style of acting – the way you have to with other silent films. She is raw. Powerful.

          And Antonin Artaud – the anarchist theatre director/producer/writer (Theatre of the Absurd is a standard text for drama majors – it’s some wacky stuff) – is one of the judgmental Church dudes frowning down upon her.

          And Last Dance!! No, but everybody has been telling me to see it. And yes, I was in Chicago during the Jordan/Pippen/3-Peat era – it was so freakin exciting to be there at that time, even though I was always still a Celtics fan (I can’t help it). I need to catch up with that doc – everyone has been raving about it. Mitchell did a commercial with Michael Jordan! said he was super nice and also smelled awesome. lol

          • mutecypher says:

            //and also smelled awesome//

            I remember you mentioning that you rode in an elevator with Mike Tyson and he smelled great. Funny the things we notice. Have you seen the recent clip of him working out? Dude still looks lethal!

            Mitchell – you need to show up and dish on MJ!

            I grew up a Lakers fan, but even I loved those Bird/McHale/Parish Celtics. Except when they were playing Magic and Kareem.

          • sheila says:

            yeah I grew up in a great Celtics era! But honestly Chicago (in my memory anyway) were WAY more insane about the Bulls – it was like the whole city was swept up in it. It was like Boston in 2004. Like, there were actual riots, and Michael Jordan had to go on TV and say “I know you all are excited but please stop tipping over garbage dumpsters, thank you.” at least that’s how I remember it.

          • sheila says:

            and Tyson! Yeah! His neck was as thick as my freakin’ thigh. It was wild. And his cologne did fill the elevator. Good cologne. High end.

          • mutecypher says:

            //Michael Jordan had to go on TV and say “I know you all are excited but please stop tipping over garbage dumpsters, thank you.”//

            I didn’t remember it was a thing, but in one of the clips in The Last Dance, Charles Barkley mentioned that when the Suns went to Chicago for game 5 in ’93 (they were down 3-1 to the Bulls), the Suns noticed that all of the store fronts were boarded up in expectation of riots. And then after the Suns won game 5 Barkley remarked/gloated to the Chicago press that folks hadn’t needed to board things up. It was vintage Charles.

          • sheila says:

            oh wow, Barkley – that’s so funny!!

            Yes, I remember watching one of the 3-Peat games on TV in the apartment I shared with Mitchell on Ashland – I had wanted to go watch it in a bar to soak up the excitement – but instead I stayed home. And I was glad I did. After the win, Mitchell and I watched a group of kids knock over some port-a-potties across the street in their jubilation – there was a wild almost violent feeling in the air. You wouldn’t want to be out there in it. I did not know about boarded-up stores but it doesn’t surprise me.

      • mutecypher says:

        Do you know what year/issue the Bryher/Loos interview was? I was able to find an archive of scanned Close Ups, but it’s not especially searchable.

        • sheila says:

          Yes there is a PDF online – it’s early on – maybe the 5th or 6th piece in the lineup?

          • mutecypher says:

            Found it, thanks! April, 1928 issue for anyone else interested.

            I liked Loos’ comment that “you cannot keep a good picture down.”

            It was interesting flicking through the issues and seeing ads for Sylvia Beach’s bookstore. Pretty cool!

            I hadn’t heard of Anita Loos before your recent post about her. I’ll have to keep my ears open for more.

          • sheila says:

            I know – Sylvia Beach!! Such an interesting group of people – they all knew each other. Oh for a time machine – which is why I so loved Midnight in Paris!

            Anita Loos is such an interesting woman. Glad to have introduced you to her. There are way more in-depth pieces out there about her than my little bday post here – lots of great stories.

  2. mutecypher says:

    I was intrigued that she and Yeats and D.H. Lawrence all wrote about Leda and the Swan. From what I can find, H.D’s was published first – in 1919, with Yeats’s in 1924, and Lawrence in 1929.

    H. D.’s is striking in that the swan is so vividly colored

    Where the slow river
    meets the tide,
    a red swan lifts red wings
    and darker beak,
    and underneath the purple down
    of his soft breast
    uncurls his coral feet.

    {and continues on in a languid way).

    Yeats’ version almost reads as a response…

    A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
    Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
    By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
    He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

    From your reading, do you think Yeats was aware of H.D’s poem? I realize they are describing the same incident and emphasizing different things, but that struck me. I don’t think of Yeats as someone who wrote in response to other poets, but that could easily by my ignorance talking.

    And Lawrence’s version is an invocation:

    Come not with kisses
    not with caresses
    of hands and lips and murmurings;
    come with a hiss of wings
    and sea-touch tip of a beak
    and treading of wet, webbed, wave-working feet
    into the marsh-soft belly

    I would imagine that he was familiar with H.D.’s version. I wonder if he was calling her back.

    Anyway… any knowledge or speculation about why Leda was a common topic for these three? I know each is separated by about 5 years, as far as Viva Las Vegas is from Whole Lotta Love. Maybe no common thread.

    • sheila says:

      I am sure Yeats was aware of HD’s poem! Ezra Pound – who basically pushed HD into the spotlight – and named her “HD” – was Yeats’ assistant and secretary. Pound basically traveled to Europe, found Yeats, and offered his services. Pound was not shy. It was a pretty small world – ex-pat Modernists, and Yeats was sort of an “elder” of Modernism.

      and then, too, DH Lawrence and HD were lovers. and their work often reflected and responded each other. almost like a secret code. The relationship didn’t last – and HD’s longest relationship was with a woman – but the relationship with Lawrence was super important, especially artistically.

      Pretty much all of those people were using old forms and writing about them in new ways – Greek mythology was a big subject – particularly in the wake of WWI, since these people – all of whom were in Europe – faced what looked like the total ruination of civilization. It was this disorientation that basically launched Modernism into the modern ago. HD was a precursor – so was Gertrude Stein – I mean, Joyce was too – Dubliners came out in 1904. Yeats’ Leda came out in 1923 – a massive year in literature – Joyce’s Ulysses came out in 1922 and changed everything. He was big on the Greeks too – I mean, Ulysses, amirite?

      Interesting – and deserves more study. I am sure there are other examples out there and would make an interesting “paper” I think!

      • sheila says:

        … and speaking of DH Lawrence … check out the post that just went live. I schedule these posts long ahead of time – since I’m basically recycling old posts every damn day due to my crazy archive – so I never know what’s going to go live. I do it ahead of time.

        So I was like, “Oh! DH! Hi! We were just talking about you!”

        • mutecypher says:

          I’m embarrassed. I thought I had already asked about Leda, DH and HD, but couldn’t find it when I searched your archives. So I asked again.

          Sucks getting old!

          • sheila says:

            wait … is this a repeat ask?

            I certainly don’t blame you, my archives being what they are!

            I was just taken by the coincidence that it’s Lawrence’s birthday!

  3. mutecypher says:

    Ah, a repeat of the topic, but not “do you think Yeats knew of the poem?” A little less chagrined now. Oy.

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