Poems in Persons



We’re entering the final week of school, so I should be back on the job here with some regular postings as summer officially begins. I’m looking forward to diving into the pile of books and journals and words that will bring me back to the poet-self I like to inhabit now and then.

Speaking of the poet-self, someone recently queried a poetics listserv, asking for a “Defense of Poetry” that doesn’t put poetry on trial, which left me wondering if it is ever possible to adequately defend poetry without taking it to task – even if one is simply trying to justify poetry’s existence for the general public. Anyway along the way, this poet stated that he only wrote when he felt compelled, and not otherwise. I know folks write for varying purposes and with various callings (or not!). But coincidentally enough, I’ve been reading an old book from 1973 that seemed to complement the discussion called, POEMS IN PERSONS: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PSYCHOANALYSIS OF LITERATURE, by Norman N. Holland.

The book focuses primarily on the poet, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and her relationship with Sigmund Freud’s famous methodology. I’m going to excerpt from the book for now in an effort to 1.) provide some a possibly dangerous (or essentializing?) reading of the poet and her “compulsions” (I smell a little fringe “hysteria” brewing near the bottom of section VIII) and 2.) to tide you over until I can return to this ship, hopefully quite soon. And now, a decades’ old take on H.D. and her need for speed:


For H.D., as for many people, artistic creation has a religious meaning, but a secular eye can be content with a naturalist view: the act of “making” mythological images functioned multiply within H.D.’s ego identity, her “character.” For her, “signs” evidently achieved, with the least effort, the most effect on closing the gap, and she became the writer who wrote with her particular style. “Writing on the Wall,” she might have called it, as she first called her memoir of Freud.

Less clear with H.D. is an additional adaptation more formal writers make: a meshing of craftsmanship (as well as the original creative impulse) with personal style so that the hard work of formally shaping the medium also satisfies multiple needs of drive and defense. Thus Wordsworth can transform the “prison,” the “scanty plot” of the sonnet form into “brief solace” for those “Who had felt the weight of too much liberty.” Keats can speak of poetry “chain’d” and “fetter’d” by such restraints and yet say they become the Muses’ own “garland.” Forms in poems act like defenses in life, and defenses, as we have seen, to become part of one’s style or character, must satisfy drives as well as manage them. To be a formal craftsman one must be able to satisfy drives by his very formalism. Otherwise, writing would be a misery, not (as so many creative writers describe it) a compulsive need.

H.D., however, wrote fiction and free verse, and the “form” of her poems came more from her own drives and less from a received tradition than Wordsworth’s forms or Keats’. Craftsmanship there most obviously was, but of a certain kind. H.D. would set up fixed formal patterns in order to let them down. That way, she used them to create and then cross gaps. In a larger sense, H.D.’s forms involved an intense empathy with “signs” and alternations of identification and distancing rather than sharp divisions within a poem.

Nevertheless, despite the fluidity of her forms, H.D. amply demonstrates the essential thing about literary creativity: the making of poetry is simply one ego’s solution to the demands set by inner and outer reality. Writing itself—even the very manner and matter—works out a personal style that pervades the multiple functioning of the ego. H.D.’s inner needs and outer realities made “signs” the way to close a gap she felt between herself and her mother, her father, her brothers, a gap in her body, in her loneliness, and so on. “Signs” evidently achieved for H.D. the most effect with the least effort and hence became part of both her character and her poetry, her lifestyle and her literary style or, in the term of Yeat’s with which we began, her myth (Holland, 56-57).


And a bit more from an earlier section:

The analysis itself was, for her, a search for a missing object and an attempt almost concretely to remake it. “We had come together in order to substantiate something. I did not know what.” … “This pound of flesh was a pound of spirit between us, something tangible, to be weighed and measured, to be weighed in the balance and—pray God—not to be found wanting!” In the analysis, she felt, “Thoughts were things, to be collected, collated, analysed, shelved or resolved. Fragmentary ideas … were sometimes skillfully pieced together” like the jars and bowls and vases Freud’s office displayed. Her special “memories, visions, dreams, reveries … are real. They are as real in their dimension of length, breadth, thickness, as any of the bronze or marble or pottery or clay objects that fill the cases around the walls.” Such a wish for a rigid reality carries inevitably with it a fear: “There are dreams or sequences of dreams that follow a line … like a crack on a bowl that shows the bowl or vase may at any moment fall in pieces.”

H.D. makes a more familiar analogy to unconscious materials: Freud unlocks “vaults and caves” in his “unearthing buried treasures.” His findings can include “priceless treasures, gems and jewels” or junk: “What he offered as treasure, this revelation that he seemed to value, was poor stuff, trash indeed, ideas that a ragpicker would pass over in disdain.” The first object from below was the child’s own body products, precious in some contexts, trash in others.

In general, H.D. looks askance at products which are soft like rags. When, for example, Freud refers to an insight as “striking oil,” H.D. hardens his discovery into finding “the carved symbol of an idea or a deathless dream” or stresses “the outer rock or shale, the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of years.” Oil itself she makes a “concrete definite image.” “‘I struck oil’ suggests business enterprise. We visualize stark uprights and skeleton-like steel cages, like unfinished Eiffel Towers.” Then, having concretized or phallicized the oil, H.D. attributes to others the fantasy that psychoanalysis is a system for getting something precious out of you, “some mechanical construction set up in an arid desert, to trap the unwary, and is there is ‘oil’ to be inferred, the ‘oil’ goes to someone else; there are astute doctors who ‘squeeze you dry’ with their exorbitant fees for prolonged and expensive treatments” (Holland, 36-37).



If I had been a boy,
I would have worshiped your grace,
I would have flung my worship
before your feet,
I would have followed apart,
glad, rent with an ecstasy
to watch you turn
your great head, set on the throat,
thick, dark with its sinews,
burned and wrought
like the olive stalk,
and the noble chin
and the throat.

I would have stood,
and watched and watched
and burned,
and when in the night,
from the many hosts, your slaves,
and warriors and serving men
you had turned
to the purple couch and the flame
of the woman, tall like the cypress tree
that flames sudden and swift and free
as with crackle of golden resin
and cones and the locks flung free
like the cypress limbs,
bound, caught and shaken and loosed,
bound, caught and riven and bound
and loosened again,
as in rain of a kingly storm
or wind full from a desert plain.
So, when you had risen
from all the lethargy of love and its heat,
you would have summoned me,
me alone,
and found my hands,
beyond all the hands in the world,
cold, cold, cold,
intolerably cold and sweet.



–from THE WALLS DO NOT FALL (1944)

But we fight for life,
we fight, they say, for breath,

so what good are your scribblings?
this–we take them with us

beyond death; Mercury, Hermes, Thoth
invented the script, letters, palette;

the indicated flute or lyre-notes
on papyrus or parchment

are magic, indelibly stamped
on the atmosphere somewhere,

forever; remember, O Sword,
you are the younger brother, the latter-born

your Triumph, however exultant,
must one day be over,

in the beginning
was the Word.


One Response to “Poems in Persons”

  1. Jim K. Says:
    May 17th, 2007 at 12:51 pm eInteresting ideas. Cool poet…epic style.
    I am reminded of
    Georges Braque’s statement: “Out of limitations, new forms emerge”.
    Artist Arno Minkkinen quotes that often, and is an amazing example of it:

    Being a bit too multifaceted and unbounded,
    I find some form sometimes produces great results.
    How much and what kind works for some varies a bit.
    It’s good to try on suits a bit before you button them on.

    I used to be disappointed that the poetry I liked most I couldn’t quite do justice to.
    But our best outputs are not our ideal inputs, as I have seen with other poets;
    there is some complex relationship I haven’t figured out, so…best to be open
    to it all for now. The Art world has helped keep the Poetry mind open.
    Ultimately, the hope is that you produce this immediate induction and evocation
    in somebody, by various means. What actually happens in the receiver
    varies, but that is the beauty: we ply a subconscious lake we have barely charted.


AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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