Gary Burnett: On "Oread"

Certainly "Oread" is a good poem for Oppen to have chosen for his critique, as perhaps the single most anthologized H.D. poem as well as one which Pound singled out as an exemplum of Imagism. And it is such an exemplum; it is short, direct, definitely without "slither." And yet it seems ultimately to revolve around something other than either Oppen's ideal of accurate perception or Pound's demand for "objectivity" as a poetic ideal:

Whirl up, sea—

whirl your pointed pines,

splash your great pines

on our rocks,

hurl your green over us,

cover us with your pools of fir.

Of course, in the terms Oppen establishes, this poem does depend on a fallacy; the speaker given by the title, the Oread, a mountain nymph, by her very act of speech—by giving "advice" to the sea—projects a consciousness into something which must otherwise remain outside of the terms of the human. Still, H.D.'s distance here from rigorous vision is not exactly the failure of accuracy implied by Oppen's critique, but the sign of a fundamentally different poetics. As Susan Stanford Friedman has pointed out, ". . . 'Oread' and most of H.D.'s imagist poems are phenomenological in emphasis; they are poems about consciousness, not the world of objects external to consciousness" (Psyche Reborn 56). More radically, I would suggest, it is not concerned at all with either the sea or the fir trees as such, but with a complex set of identifications of the self with the activities and objects of the poem. It simply is not the poem Oppen—or, for that matter, classical Imagism—assumes it to be.

As titular figure, the Oread is necessarily the prime locus of the poem's consciousness and activities, placing the words spoken not only within a consciousness but within a consciousness inseparable from her material surroundings. Her projection of consciousness into the world around her—her act of Imagist "weakness" in giving advice to the sea—Is less a mistake or failure of poetic nerve than an acknowledgement of the potentials of the poem, a discovery, as it were, of potential identities at work within the images of the poem. In the image complex of "Oread," it is clear that consciousness inheres not only within the Oread herself but also within the pines surrounding her and the sea beneath her. This spreading of consciousness out from the poem's center—and not the accurate perception of any actual seacoast—is the basic activity of the poem: the sea, pines, and rocks are, so to speak, entities and not things—they are beings in their own right rather than mere items in an Imagist poetic inventory. In this context, it is significant that "Dryad"—a tree nymph to go with the pines of "Oread"—is one of the several names used by H.D. and one of the names identifying the autobiographical heroines of her novels; though never quite present, this Dryad gives to the poem a second locus of consciousness, one belonging both to the author and to the speechless pines, forming a complex figure by means of which the poem can take on more importance than it may initially seem to possess. And since such a Dryad, absent and yet present in the figural pines, is a figure for H.D. herself, she functions strongly as a literally missing—and yet determining—factor of the poem's meaning. "Oread," that is, is not only "phenomenological in emphasis," but is a poem about nothing less than the very creation or discovery of an identity within and through poetry.

The Dryad, precisely because she is missing from the poem, gives it resonance as a poem of this kind—a poem about the identity of a poet named "H.D.," a poet whose very name—a set of initials—is emptied of any firm demarcation of identity; as Susan Friedman has pointed out, too many people respond to the name with the question "H.D.—who's he?" ("Who Buried H.D. ?"801). At the same time, however, the very emptiness of the initials makes possible—indeed, demands—an ongoing play of the multiple possibilities of what such an identity might be, both as a simple demarcation, a name, and as a complex engagement with the permutations of gender and identity itself.

In this regard, the publishing history of "Oread" is of some importance. It is an early, "Imagist" poem, and yet was not collected until 1924 in Heliodora, a volume which in its title explicitly plays on the poet's enigmatic name. This is not to imply that her two earlier volumes—Sea Garden of 1916 and Hymen of 1921—are not concerned with the relationship between image and identity, but only that "Oread" becomes part of the collection in which this concern is for the first time explicitly foregrounded. In the 1925 Collected Poems, "Oread"—along with several other early poems—was removed from its place in Heliodora and placed in an earlier section under the title "The God." The reason for such a move is unclear; perhaps intended to restore a more accurate chronology, the shift of this poem in particular suggests a more significant concern. Though "Oread" is not actually a part of Sea Garden, it constitutes a central statement of the ground which that first gathering takes as its own: the ground which is the line of the surf, neither actual shore nor actual sea, but a complex and interactive meeting line, an interplay of both. And this ground—precise yet somehow double, an Imagist "outline" of sorts yet an outline built up out of its own intense shifts—is the guiding metaphor for H.D.'s earliest poetry.

From "The Identity of 'H.': Imagism and H.D.'s Sea Garden." Sagetrieb 8.3.

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Criticism Overview
Title Gary Burnett: On "Oread" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Gary Burnett Criticism Target H(ilda) D(oolittle)
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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