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Magnum Opus

The book that could save American art.

I am besotted with a new book that is also an old book. This is The H.D. Book, by Robert Duncan, a wild, dazzling, idiosyncratic magnum opus that the poet composed between 1959 and 1964 and that is only now being published in its complete form, by the University of California Press. What began with a request for a brief birthday homage to the American poet known as H.D.—she had been born Hilda Doolittle—morphed into one of the greatest of all meditations on the nature not only of modern poetry but of the modern artistic imagination in its bewitching complexity. Art, Duncan exclaims, makes “what is not actual real.” I am glad to be reading Duncan’s text as we head into 2011—the second decade of the century after the modern century. There is no nostalgia in The H.D. Book. Duncan’s modernism is at once lofty, optimistic, activist, and open-minded. Published a half-century after it was written, The H.D. Book reads like a clarion call. At a time such as ours, when artists are either embattled or co-opted, either locked away in some ivory tower of their own invention or overtaken by market forces and political forces, Duncan argues for the most strenuous artistic ambitions as a dynamic democratic possibility.

In The H.D. Book the great enemy is T.S. Eliot. Although Duncan cannot but admire The Waste Land, he will never forgive Eliot for being so quick to isolate tradition from the present, for giving art, as Duncan puts it, “a histrionic remove.” While Duncan welcomes all the difficulties and obscurities of modern art, he sees them as inextricably related to the pluralism of modern experience. This, I believe, could be Duncan’s great contribution to the arguments that are going on in the art world and the literary world right now. The modern masterwork, according to Duncan, is a new kind of symposium, richer than the Platonic dialogues because it involves gathering together so many more elements. “To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included,” he writes. “The female, the lumpen-proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure—all that has been outcast and vagabond in our consideration of the figure of Man—must return to be admitted in the creation of what we are.” Where Clement Greenberg, in his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” saw the modern artist in flight from the heterogeneity of modern life, for Duncan the task of the modern artist is precisely to wrest some new alchemy from life’s crazy quilt richness. No wonder Duncan speaks so warmly about collage—the art brilliantly practiced by his life partner, Jess—where “from what has been disregarded or fallen into disregard, genres are mixed, exchanges are made, mutations begun from scraps and excerpts from different pictures …form the figures of a new composition.”

The H.D. Book is itself a literary collage that contains both polemical rhapsodies and plangent autobiographical passages. Duncan begins with a recollection of a high school classroom and a salute to a teacher he never forgot, Miss Keough, who from time to time “would present some poem or story as if it belonged not to what every well-read person must know, the matter of a public establishment, but to that earlier, atavistic, inner life of the person.” It is with Miss Keough that Duncan first encounters the work of H.D., the words “Fruit cannot drop/through this thick air…,” heard in “that early summer of my sixteenth or seventeenth year.” “Just beyond the voice of the poem,” he continues, “the hum and buzz of student voices and the whirr of water sprinklers merging comes distantly from the world outside an open window.” The juxtaposition of inside and outside, the masterwork and the ephemeral, is essential to Duncan’s story. Duncan never wants us to forget that his brave and unconventional modernism is a product not of London or Paris but of Northern California, where “in smoky rooms in Berkeley, in painters’ studios in San Francisco,” he read the work of Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Edith Sitwell. “I read these works aloud; dreamed about them; took my life in them; studied them as my anatomy of what Poetry must be.” High art, he tells us over and over again, is an American possibility. While some readers of The H.D. Book will be put off by the seriousness with which Duncan addresses the pop-esoteric texts of another era, especially Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, Duncan is making a decisive point here, arguing that the roots of modern artistic expression are as broad as they are deep.

I have been reading The H.D. Book off and on for the past month or so. Duncan’s bold words have lifted my spirits at a time when the worlds of art and literature that I care about seem not only dangerously embattled but, worse yet, hopelessly distorted and demoralized. The Guggenheim Museum has had a huge hit this fall with “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936,” an exhibition in which some of the grandest achievements of cosmopolitan modernism are wrenched into a scheme that leads straight to the totalitarian abhorrence of modernism. And the culture wars have heated up again. A flagrantly opportunistic right-wing attack on the inclusion of a video by David Wojnarowicz in the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, has been met not by a high-spirited and altogether necessary defense of the freestanding value of art but instead by liberal parochialism and identity politics. I would not presume to imagine what Duncan would have thought about either of these exhibitions, though I expect he would have been pleased that Jess is included in “Hide/Seek.” Duncan’s 1944 essay, “The Homosexual in Society,” published in Dwight Macdonald’s short-lived magazine, Politics, is mentioned in the catalogue of “Hide/Seek,” but I am not sure if the organizers see Duncan’s point, for he views the gay artist not as the spokesman for a particular identity but as a member of a larger community devoted to “a creative life and expression,” and inextricably tied to “a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations.”

Duncan’s views on the vexed relationship between art and politics are a fascination. The H.D. Book has sent me back to the correspondence between Duncan and Denise Levertov, a meeting of minds in the 1950s that began to come apart in the late 1960s, not because of differences the poets had about politics qua politics, but because of their increasingly disparate attitudes about the relationship between art and politics. Duncan felt that Levertov, in the vehemence of her political views, was losing her grasp of the freestanding value of art. He writes very much as the author of The H.D. Book, and views art as a particular resolution of the challenges life has to offer, not the only resolution, certainly, but one that deserves its own kind of respect. “Our partisan feelings and resolutions,” Duncan writes to Levertov in 1971, “act as censors of the imagination that must go deep into the well we would call ours—not into a redundancy of how we would like to think of ourselves, but into some imagination of what that depth would be if it weren’t ‘ours.’” Later in the same long letter he explains that “I am and remain a pluralist. Within the plurality of forces the Heraclitean opposites have the drama and pathos of a heightened figure upon a ground in which a multitude of figures appear.” It is those Heraclitean opposites that Picasso grapples with in his classicizing works of the years during and after World War I, some of which are included in “Chaos and Classicism.” Picasso’s neoclassical vision, so full of drama and pathos and unresolved, insoluble tensions, has nothing to do with the conservative or traditionalist labels that generations of art historians have slapped on his uncompromising canvases.

The wonders of The H.D. Book are almost without number. Duncan gives his readers inspiriting glimpses of literary culture in early-twentieth-century London and of his own midcentury San Francisco. He writes movingly about William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, about André Malraux’s views on the history of art, and he has strong things to say about Calder’s mobiles and Picasso’s interpretations of Velézquez’s Las Meninas. Duncan’s mood is by turns metaphysical, perfervid, scholarly, awestruck, and cryptic. “To write at all is to dwell in the illusion of language,” he explains, “the rapture of communication that comes as we surrender our troubled individual isolated experiences to the communal consciousness.” The H.D. Book, scrupulously edited by Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman, is a work of exacting and extravagant optimism. As I look forward to museum shows that are opening in the next few months here in New York—especially “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914” at the Museum of Modern Art and “Cézanne’s Card Players” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—I can almost hear Duncan’s words in my ears. “From what has been disregarded or fallen into disregard, genres are mixed, exchanges are made, mutations begun from scraps and excerpts from different pictures …form the figures of a new composition.” Everything begins with the shuffling of a deck of cards or the strumming of some popular tune on an old guitar. Those are, as Duncan would have it, tenuous experiences, temporal experiences, not yet actualized in the sense that a work of art is an actualization. It is Cézanne and Picasso who take the deck of cards and the old guitar and make them “real.”

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.