Susan Standford Friedman once wrote about H.D., quoting what Susan Howe had written about Emily Dickinson, “[she] ‘built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders.'” Examining the intellectual and artistic scope of these women, both as they border one another and as they traverse and negotiate the borders of their own times and traditions, is the work of our course.
In the year 1886, Emily Dickinson (b. 1830) died in Amherst, Massachusetts in May; in September, Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 1961, the year H.D.’s epic masterpiece Helen in Egypt was published and of her death, was one century from the start of the astoundingly productive five-year period in which Dickinson produced nearly 1000 poems. Dickinson would leave Amherst only a few times in her life, eventually secluding herself nearly completely in her home; Doolittle, who became the poet H.D., was an expatriate who lived throughout Europe and traveled broadly. Both women, one privately producing “books” of poems seen only after her death, the other centrally connected to major literary figures and movements, are among the best and most important American poets, and their work and lives resonate in ways rich enough to sustain a provocative co-reading. A study of Dickinson and H.D. is also a study of genre, sound, line, and form, of poetic voice, of gender, of women’s communities and male mentors, of indeterminacy and fluidity, of access to publication and wise criticism, of innovation and experimentation, of sexualities, of war, of the soul and psyche, of the divine, and much more. Strikingly visionary, both writers were nevertheless (or therefore?) critically contained as poetesses of the miniscule, crystalline, feminine lyric and diminished personally and poetically as “darling lunatics.” Our interests, of course, will be in (literary, sociopolitical, and other) discontinuities across the century of their writing as well as these and other similarities. In addition to deep study of the poetry, we will also read a great deal of their equally rich prose writings in the forms of novel, memoir, essay, and letter.