Sometimes, choosing one’s initials as a penname gives a writer a trademark—the Harry Potter series’ mastermind J. K. Rowling in particular comes to mind—but it doesn’t necessarily make them memorable. Such is the case with the accomplished but nearly forgotten American poet Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961), who throughout her career went by the simple, to-the-point alias H.D. while publishing her work. Although H.D. made significant headway in reviving readers’ interest in ancient Greece by adapting antiquity themes to modern tastes, she never received the same recognition Irish-born writer James Joyce did for the very same experiment executed with his Ulysses.
And while H.D. was a cutting-edge poet vital to the rise of Imagism, a twentieth-century literary movement in which authors rejected old-fashioned long epic narratives in favor of focusing on specific objects or ideas, she’s not considered a true “leader” of the genre like her contemporary Ezra Pound or even the Pulitzer Prize-winning Amy Lowell. All the more reason for the literary world to take another look at H.D.’s reputation and reconsider her merits.
H.D.’s life was one of a dedicated academic and bohemian. She studied at the Bryn Mawr College for women, where she focused on Greek literature before eventually dropping out to pursue a regime of self-disciplined autodidacticism that suited her better. She was bisexual and formed romantic/professional partnerships with poets Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington as well as the novelist Bryher. Her participation in the Imagism campaign took place primarily in the years following World War I, when she and a group of literary acquaintances made the British Museum Reading Room their headquarters. Tag-teaming with Pound and Aldington, she helped compose and publish a 1913 manifesto in Poetry magazine on Imagism which lay down the ground rules for the style, titled “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” These executive decisions were supposedly made over tea and snacks in the British Museum tearoom in a typical intellectual fashion. And yet while Aldington and Pound remain staples of university course syllabuses for their contributions to modern poetry, H.D. is, tragically, often excluded.
H.D. does have her champions among modern scholars. Author Alicia Ostriker penned a rousing defense of her for The American Poetry Review in 1983, insisting that H.D.’s self-assured handling of mature, intimate themes as a woman-poet in the war years is in itself an incredible act of bravery. Ostriker also asserts that H.D. possessed a sensitive but commanding writing style that distinguished her from other poets. “First of all, H.D. is a visionary poet,” Ostriker writes. “By this I mean that she is one of a tiny group of poets for whom, behind the flux of secular existence, there exists permanent sacred realities that are both supremely beautiful and supremely forceful.” Critic Burton Hatlen completed an in-depth study of H.D’s 1916 collection Sea Garden in 1995.
Here’s an excerpt of H.D.’s poetry on which Hatlen focuses specific attention and singles out as being an outstanding example of Imagist prose:
“Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.”
“In the Romantic tradition,” Hatlen comments, once we arrive at subjectivity we generally stay there, so the sudden deflection away from overt subjectivity is startling, and marks this poem as distinctly ‘modern.’” Readers of the twenty-first century, regardless of whether or not they are well-acquainted with Imagism, are free to access H.D.’s poetry and formulate their own opinions. In that sense, the countless, grueling hours that H.D. spent in the Reading Room refining her craft and making history will not have gone to waste.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct an HTML error.