Research Report: A Poetical Essay H.D.’s Trilogy as Witness

Though untraditional in its approach, Trilogy is a poetry of witness. While a more traditional approach to this genre focuses its attention, at least in part, on the act of recounting perception factually, Trilogy seems to be concerning itself with the act of recounting perception conceptually. Conceptualization is a form of interpretation. To conceptualize is to form a concept out of observations, experiences, and interpretations. It’s obvious that Trilogy does not fall into the more recognizable categories of poetry of witness. However, Trilogy is witnessing London during the Second World War. The references to war and the physical surroundings may be obscured, but the obscurity speaks volumes. There is something to be learned from an understanding of why H.D. interpreted the cultural landscape surrounding London during World War II through a cast of mythological characters and esoteric symbols.


Gaining this kind of understanding of Trilogy is not easy. I’m beginning to think the problem has something to do with categories. Poetry that is conceptual in nature is not necessarily conceptual poetry. Does that mean we can’t use some of the same techniques and tactics that are used in an analysis of conceptual poetry when approaching an analysis of poetry that is conceptual in nature? Conceptual poetry is analyzed in some very unique ways because conceptual poetry is unique. As is poetry that is conceptual in nature. These are pieces of writing that amplify the imagination and its interpretive capabilities. I can’t help but think it’s possible Trilogy gets short changed because it’s difficult to figure out how to make those amplifications sing.


Conceptual poetry is not a term used lightly in the contemporary literary landscape. Loosely defined, conceptual poetry is a piece of writing in which “the idea or the concept is the most important aspect of the work,” (LeWitt 1). Essentially, conceptual poetry “prioritizes an understanding of the ‘general concept’”  (Dworkin ii). This means that for conceptual pieces of writing the concept is considered more important than the writing. The concept is also considered more important than ever reading the text (seriously). For this reason, among others, let me be clear in saying that I do not mean to suggest H.D. is a conceptual poet or that Trilogy is conceptual poetry. What I do mean to suggest is that an attempt to understand the idea or ideas H.D. was working with while writing Trilogy might prove beneficial in our understanding of why Trilogy is considered poetry of witness.


An analysis of a conceptual piece of writing involves articulating the writer’s purpose and aim. This would involve an explanation of at least these three factors: the idea(s) behind the writing (the why), the procedure that was involved in its creation, and the framework in which the piece of writing exists.

The framework in which Trilogy was written has everything to do with the year and the place. H.D began composing Trilogy in 1942. She was living in London and the Second World War was officially in its third year. During the early 1940’s, H.D. was a part of London’s literary community where “eschatological themes colored literary debates” (Acheson 189). In Literature eschatology is a thought or belief concerned with questioning: what happens after death or the end of the world and life as we know it? (Murfin 152). There was so much interest in this apocalyptic mode of thinking that a group of writers banned together and called themselves poets of the New Apocalypse. Through poetry “they attempted to formulate a response to the war that addressed what they thought to be the underlying evils of the age that had led to it” (Acheson 189). H.D. never identified herself as a poet of the New Apocalypse, though she did share their apocalyptic thinking and neo-romanticism aesthetic. The difference between H.D. and the poets of the New Apocalypse can be seen throughout the pages of Trilogy. Within the writing there is “the construction of a better world” that exists post war (Acheson 189-190). Trilogy is a piece of writing that is constantly revising an orthodox understanding of the relationship between the past, present, and future. It’s important to understand this in light of the fact that H.D. lived in London during the Blitz bombing attacks and she never fled. The Blitz bombings took place on and off for fifty-seven days (Pyle). Reflecting on the framework of her life in London perhaps answers why there are so many empty tombs, old ruins, and references to Atlantis within the pages of Trilogy. I would argue this sense of apocalypse surrounding her writing in Trilogy is in itself a form of witnessing. 


Trilogy is not just apocalyptic. It is also full of constructed mythologies and forward thinking. Forward thinking is referring to the tone of the writing. Looking at the tone brings us to another of analysis borrow from conceptual poetry: thinking about procedure. This forward-thinking tone is often seemingly speaking to the future. For example, in Poem [4]: be firm in your own small, static, limited / orbit and the shark-jaws / of outer circumstance / will spit you forth: / be indigestible, hard, ungiving (9). When this tone arises in Trilogy it’s working against the apocalyptic scenery, in that it is creating a forward movement, the same way an apocalyptic image creates a backwards movement. As readers, we experience these movements (if at all) subconsciously.


 With that in mind, I think Trilogy is quite special in the ways in which it uses temporality and language. H.D. is using language and temporality as tools for creating poetry in which apocalypses and constructed futures do not only coexist but also bleed into one another. This intermixing fuels a poetic landscape that is really quite complicated. The perspective Trilogy provides does not fear the end of life but instead relishes in this beautiful mash-up of past, present, and future all the while concerning itself with constructing something better for the future. H.D.’s use of the female characters is an example of her efforts at constructing something better for the future.


Temporally, Trilogy is quite interesting. By managing to avoid establishing time in a linear fashion H.D. opens the poem to the possibilities of the past, the present, and the future. Though there are cycles that occur within Trilogy’s temporal landscape the text itself is not merely cyclical. H.D. creates a temporality that is entirely open to the past all the while continuing to move forward. Thinking about this openness to the past and forward movement in regards to being a piece of poetry of witness is quite interesting. The witness perspective provided in Trilogy is unique, but I certainly leave feeling as though I’ve witnessed something. 


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