“It is a delicate & difficult art fitting rhythm to an idea…communicating momentary phases in a poet’s mind.”
T. E. Hulme (1883 – 1917)
Trenches: St Eloi
by T. E. Hulme
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)
Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.
The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:
My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.
Every 200,000 years or so the Earth’s polarity switches and the magnetic poles rotate, with the compass needle swinging from north to south, and then in another 200,000 years, back again from south to north. The current magnetic field of the Earth is weakening. Although this change doesn’t happen on a human time scale, there are many scientists who feel that another polarity reversal is “imminent” in the next 10,000 years. The magnetic pole wanders around at the top of the world about 50 miles a day as the Earth spins, in search of a good jumping off point.
In poetry, polarity shifts happen every generation. I can relate to the passion of the Imagists, who rebelled against the stuffy confines of romanticism and decided to rip-up the rules of poetry during the early 1900’s. Why do I relate to this period when rhymes were being left behind for something more abstract? It’s because part of my fascination with sonnets is it feels like I am rebelling against the current pervasiveness of free verse. I feel the pull of poetic polarity reversing and with it the liberty to not necessarily beat the “iambic pentameter bongos,” as Billy Collins would say, but to try and find a new language within the sonnet form. I find writing sonnets an act of rebellion with every rejection notice I receive, in the same way that I can imagine Hulme, T. S. Eliot, Pound and William Carlos Williams found it liberating to break free of it.
I have given a lot of thought about what it is I find attractive about the period of 1900 to 1950 in poetry. I think it’s because I can relate to the language, there are not many old English words in use during this time that make sonnets and poems of a slightly earlier period sometimes difficult to understand. I like the tension of discovery within literature during this period. The expanse of poetry being written at the start of the 20th century is a connection to parallel movements in philosophy, painting, physics and politics, the old romantic classical period of elitist imperialistic politics not yet waned and the new modernist approaches of creative thought and social justice evolving. This tension between old poetic forms and new fresh creative approaches infuses both with a fluidity of language that I find pleasing to my inner ear and a strength of character for the forcefulness required for change that is inspiring. The early 20th century is the final period before technology reshapes the world in every way. And yet, without technology, all of my endeavors into poetry would not have been as likely or even possible, as the world comes to me magically through my little Chromebook and me to it.
One of things I enjoy about sonnets, is almost every poet, even the modernists from 1900 to 1950, published at least one sonnet or a poem that is based on an evolution of the sonnet structure. Its fun to dig around and try and find the toss off, that may not represent the vast majority of a poet’s work, but was included none the less, just to show how high up on the poetic tree they could lift their leg and mark their territory. This is a period, where the magnetic pull of sonnets and classical rhymes still heavily influences creativity, the attraction of Dante and Shakespeare still strong, that even the most ardent modernist is compelled to roll up their sleeves and try their hand, just to prove their greatness against the best.
Here’s one of Ezra’s original sonnets. I particularly like the lines, “Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness. To sheathe me half in half the things that sheathe her.”
by Ezra Pound