Friday, October 30, 2009
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.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Lately, I’ve taken a real interest in the history and theory of both metrical and “open form” poetry. I recognize this is not every one's cup of tea. Perhaps it's just a tick of mine left over from my foray into academe. Because like most people my real learning derives from my experience of poems themselves, read by myself at home, often aloud to my wife, or by poets themselves at readings. That, most of us agree, is how it should be.
The underlying assumption here is that good writing, or good reading for that matter, is not a purely technical or theoretical matter, but relational: whatever a poet’s technical mastery of metaphor and line or the reader's capacity for metaphysics, what is really demanded, what readers truly hunger for, is engagement with the full contemplative power of the poet’s mind and heart.
That presupposes, of course, delivery of same by the poet. It also introduces a conundrum about human nature revealed over a century and a half ago by the great American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Men," he said (I'm guessing when Margaret Fuller was out of the room), "imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.” The same, it seems to me, might be said about the writing of poetry. As a poet, your mind and heart will be discovered in spite of whatever else you may intend or wish to reveal, and that in as much as the practice of writing poems is thought to confer an aura of sophistication upon the writers of poems, true character, thought and feeling – or lack of same - will out.
Still, we are not pawns even to ourselves. To use a term I acknowledge has been somewhat overused lately, poets, like most people, have the capacity for “mindfulness”, for creating something above their patterns and habitual ways of creating, i.e. increasing consciousness of what they’re doing, thinking and feeling as poets, and then seizing control. It can't be an easy task, undoing ways of thinking and working that have become essential to our being. Still, if it could be done and the results found to be exciting for both the poet and the reader, then it might be worth incorporating into the poet's method.
These things, it seems to me, are not simply a function of talent or even of personality, but of education, philosophical direction and commitment.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
I’ve always thought the argument for or against a more nationalist stance in Canadian poetry a little odd. For me, it conjures up an image of some ghostly pater familias looming over the shoulder of poets in Vancouver or St. John’s working feverishly away at their verses with injunctions about the “spirit of place” and other such overworked nonsense whispering in their ears. The truth is the nationalist credo may form a critical backdrop against which some poets have worked, but the principal considerations for most remain, inescapably, the creation of decidedly personal poetic arguments clothed in fitting forms.
Those who feel resistance to cultural colonialism remains the sine qua non and distinguishing feature of Canadian letters, but are anxious to break free, might take comfort from W. H Auden. Auden famously turned his back on his native England on the eve of the Second World War to live in the U.S. Roundly pilloried by younger English poets who once venerated the complex "comintern" of English poetry, Auden later offered his deep-seated fears about his poetic powers atrophying to explain what drove him into the arms of America. England, despite a rich legacy, he said, had become “dead” for him.
England to me is my own tongue,
And what I did when I was young.
Auden settled into a house in Brooklyn, New York in 1940 where he lived for about five years and assumed American citizenship. His housemates included the wonderful Irish poet Louis MacNeice, composer Benjamin Britten, novelist Carson McCullers, the stripper Gipsy Rose Lee and Golo Mann, brother to Erika (who'd married Auden in the early 30's and so escaped Nazi Germany using a British passport). Their father was the acclaimed German author, Thomas Mann (see Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, two great novels). More importantly, Auden's poetry entered a new and arguably more interesting phase that ultimately prolonged broad interest in his career.
Am I suggesting that Canadian poets emulate Auden by abandoning Canada for other shores? Not really. His example simply reminds us that poets and writers of any significant talent should husband it carefully and that, stay or leave, interesting places can be found just by crossing the street into a different neighbourhood. Wander. Ponder. Puzzle out the different ways human beings choose to live. Consider if the landscapes you've been nurtured in might not be too familiar, too much filled with old and debilitating ghosts.
Several excellent essays in Stan Smith’s The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden provide detailed descriptions of Auden’s life and his development as poet in America, Italy and the U.K. If you don’t mind his great rant on how Eliot and Pound killed poetry for the 20th century and tricked Auden into following their lead, Karl Shapiro’s In Defense of Ignorance also provides some interesting insights into Auden’s work.
The real place to discover the man many believe was the principal trailblazer in 20th century poetics is in Auden's poetry, in particular W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Auden biographer Edward Mendelson (First Vintage International, 1991). A tremendous body of work, with only minor elisions by the master. Or for just a taste, see a wonderful love poem in the "Great Poems" link at the right of this page.
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