Friday, October 30, 2009

Our stone

We all have one, right? A favourite used bookstore that always seems to have the book that fits our mood perfectly. For me it’s a little place here in Victoria called James Bay Coffee and Books. A single shelf devoted to poetry, with a surprising capacity for the arcane and the useful. For months I’d been looking for something that would capture the flavour of those years between 1910 and 1920 loosely referred to as the "Imagist Period". Two weeks ago it practically leapt into my hands: a slim volume entitled, auspiciously enough, The Imagist Poem (ed. William Pratt).

A touch of cold in the Autumn night
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over the hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded;
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

The poem is “Autumn” by T.E. Hulme, the person generally credited with having assembled in 1912 a small group of poets anxious to answer the new century with a new way of writing poetry (e.g. Ezra Pound, Edward Storer, F.S. Flint), a way of making poems that revolved around three principles: 1/write directly about the thing, subjective or objective 2/ use only those words that contribute to its presentation 3/wrap it in new musical rhythms; avoid the feel of the metronome.

Poetry has never been the same since. Others like Williams and Olson may have re-phrased the first principle a bit (No or Not in "ideas but in things”), but the intent, if not always the result, was the same: an absolute determination to use contemporary and exquisitely precise language to capture hard, clear images, and to displace traditional iambic pentameter with fresh rhythms suited to fresh meanings.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I leave it to the reader to judge how closely Hulme achieved the modernist intention in the first poem above (“white faces like town children” strikes me as less convincing than the rest of the poem), but preoccupation with the image for the those who followed became a near pathological obsession reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “Sun” painting. Occasionally this resulted in masterpieces like the second poem by Pound, two lines which more than any other came to define the temper of the 20th century. But even this poem, as clean and hard edged as its images are, seems oddly disconnected from Pound’s original intent: to capture, he later wrote, “a beautiful child’s face” and the faces of beautiful women; for me, “apparition” and “wet, black bough”, conjure up something far more ominous in that Parisian crowd than Pound allowed or perhaps even understood.

If Imagism taught its practitioners anything, it was the enormous difficulty writing a new poetry to compete with the force and subtly of the poetic tradition it was attempting to replace.

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