Magnum Opus

Cezanne Card Players Jed Perl in TNR:

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.