The poet H.D., Hilda Doolittle, is a major twentieth-century writer whose fame begins and nearly ends in 1913 with publication of marvelous short poems that remain axiom and paradigm for the literary innovation called lmagism. Probably because she was a woman, and a contemporary of strong male literary achievers, her later long-poems, such as the three-volume Trilogy written during World War Two bombings in London, and the epic Helen in Egypt, published just before her death in 1961, are less known.
American poetry burst forth in this century with the nonlinear narrative epic where the poet's persona vibrates as hero, juxtaposing elements without regard for chronology or decorum. Ezra Pound's Cantos took on all the history of the world; William Carlos Williams personified the city of Paterson, New Jersey; Hart Crane transformed the soaring construct of the Brooklyn Bridge. H.D. chose to transform the myth of Helen of Troy, to free the image of the beautiful Helen from burdens of time and history. Film art is especially capable of freeing an image from its past associations. Cinema offers us a clue to the evolution of H.D.'s style.
In the late 1920s, H.D.'s life was daily involved with filmmaking and film criticism. She was then living in Territet, Switzerland, where her close friends Kenneth Macpherson and his wife Bryher edited the avant-garde film magazine Close Up, attracting a circle of enthusiastic cinéastes. H.D. published a series of film reviews in Close Up and, in 1930, she played a leading role opposite Paul Robeson in Borderline, a full-length experimental film made by Macpherson.l H.D.'s essays on cinema prove her knowledge of film editing to be technically sophisticated, accurate and visionary-designations which apply to her poetic art. A note of clarification: it is not the purpose here to assert that H. D. deliberately incorporated cinematic techniques into her language. This analysis discovers word tension and action that is controlled by analogous techniques.
It is likely that H. D. was drawn to the efficiency with which cinema can visually portray the influence of conscious and unconscious memory upon present experience. The sense of past-present-future as continuum informs her perceptions throughout her work. It may seem paradoxical that the poet praised for hard crystal imagery used these images to create poems that might dissolve the boundaries of time, that might evoke mystical or mythic realities. Cinematic illusion depends entirely on paradox-offering artistic advantage by manipulating successions of fixed frames. It is worthwhile to read Helen in Egypt at one sitting, to experience its dynamics in the space of a few hours, approaching the work passively, as though in a cinema, allowing the changings of images, voices and sounds to move us as they will. Cinematic parallels exist in the book's structure, scenario set-up of language, and in poetic techniques which correspond to film editing practice.
The structure of the book is organized into sequences of three-line stanzas, each verse sequence preceded by a statement in prose, differentiated by italics. At first, the prose appears to be an argument or introduction, but close attention shows the alternations of prose and verse to be integral to the poem's structure. The prose acts as another voice, one which continually intercedes as counterpoint to the highly subjective, emotional, inner points of view in the poetic lines. In a recording of H. D. herself reading aloud a passage from Helen in Egypt, the change in voice can be heard, clearly differentiated by the poet's tones. 2
This structure suggests a cinematic parallel. While watching a film, we experience dual levels of consciousness-the view dictated by the camera lens interacts with our conscious awareness of the self as onlooker. No matter how powerfully, even hypnotically, the film may play upon our imaginations, a certain conscious intellect stays active. …