BLUNTING THE PEARS

Today we will look at a poem by the Imagist poetess known as H. D. — which she preferred to her more prosaic name, Hilda Doolittle.

Born in 1886, she had a strong interest in expressing herself through what she considered an ancient Greek aesthetic, which was also the case with another noted female of the time, the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927).  While Duncan expressed her concept of Greek influence through dance, H. D. used poetry.

When reading H. D. through her earlier poems, one always has the feeling she is trying to write as though she were an ancient Greek, strongly influenced by poems of the Greek poetess Sappho, from the isle of Lesbos.  The earlier poems of H.D. always remind me of the 19th-early 20th century notion of old Greek marble statues and columns — carefully chiselled, pure and white and hard.  But that, of course is a misunderstanding, because as we now know, such statues and temples were originally colorfully painted.

Still, H.D. is often interesting in her sparse aesthetic.
HildaDoolittle

Here is part II of her “Garden” sequence.  This second part is generally better known than the first, probably because it is less obscure and consequently more accessible.  It is commonly titled:

HEAT
O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters. 
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. 
Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

The setting of the poem is a very hot and still day — the stillness making the heat even more unbearable. In this discomfort, the poetess invokes the wind (much as an ancient Greek would call upon a god or goddess). In doing so, she treats the heat as a material thing with some solidity.

The poem  has essentially three parts:

In the first part, she speaks of heat as though it were cloth.  She uses the word “rend” (meaning “tear apart”) twice:

…rend open the heat
…rend it to tatters

And she uses “cut”:

… cut apart the heat

Then in the second part, she expresses the solidity of the heat like this:

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

She is giving her psychological impression of the heat; that it is so thick fruit cannot fall down through it.  Instead, the heat “presses up and blunts the points of pears” — that is, it flattens the bottoms of the pears.  And it presses in and “rounds the grapes,” pressing the softer fruit into small, round globes.

That is of course all fanciful, but it expresses her perception of the heat as having volume and force.

In the third and last part, she uses the word “cut” again, but this time she is using the image of a plough cutting through soil, instead of the tearing and cutting of cloth.  She asks the wind to

Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

That again gives the heat a sense of solidity.

In short, the poem expresses the discomfort of a hot and airless summer day, when one longs for a cool breeze to cut through and disperse the oppressive heat.  H.D. does this with few and simple words, and a bit of imagination.

I would like to add a word about nomenclature.  You perhaps noticed (though more likely if you are younger than older) that I used the word “poetess” for a female poet, which has long been standard practice in English.  In recent years however, there has been a movement toward using the formerly masculine-only noun “poet” for both male and female, just as in the theater it is now common to hear the word “actor” applied to females as well as males.

I understand the thinking behind this.  It stems from a sense that the use of “poetess” or “actress” somehow diminishes the work of the female, placing it in a separate category that may be viewed as less in dignity or skill.  That is something added by culture, however, not something inherent in the words.

I have used “poetess” here not with any sense of difference in quality or standing, but simply because to me it is more expressive and specific when referring to a female writer of poetry, just as “poet” does the same job for a male.  I like knowing when a person is male or female, because it evokes a more specific image in the mind.  I know there are today those who like to avoid gender titles, and if that is their preference, that is fine — as long as it does not become a case of invoking the “word police” for those with different preferences, and as long as no disrespect to an individual is intended.

There are some languages in which traditionally the distinction we have in English between “him” and “her” is absent.  That is the case in Persian.  When reading Persian classical poetry, there is no “him,” no “her,” only the word “u” (pronounced “oo”).  Unless there is something in the context that specifically indicates this “u” is a male or female, we simply cannot tell if a fellow was writing about his love for another male or for a female.  No doubt that could prove convenient in repressive times and places.

Similarly, in Chinese the word “” can signify either a male or a female — a “he” or a “she.” Modern Chinese has changed that a bit in reading and writing (though not in speaking) by adding a second character to the writing system that is pronounced the same, but nonetheless is understood to signify a female — using a different character than that used for the male “tā” ().  It was done by simply removing the “man” radical from the left side and replacing it with the “woman” character ().

The thing I would like you to remember is that when I use “poetess” or “actress,” or similar gender-specific words, it is because I like their specificity, and for no other reason.  But if a particular poetess tells me she prefers to be called a “poet,” or a certain actress prefers “actor,” as her title, then I am happy to oblige.

David

 

3 thoughts on “BLUNTING THE PEARS

  1. Thank you for introducing me to H.D. The photograph is of a handsome woman; I can imagine she walked with gracefulness in her step. There is a definite feeling of oppressive heat in the poetess’ words.
    That is how it is here today, oppressive, almost too warm to sit in the garden this afternoon. What’s needed is a good downpour!

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