How do you view the plant kindgdom? As benevolent caregivers of our planet by providing oxygen and food for nearly every other organism? As a source of beauty and wonder? As the original source of energy of all fossil fuels? Or as complex, sophisticated warriors who ruthlessly stake out and defend their claim to a patch of soil, water, nutrients and sunshine?
If the last one surprises you, then you might not be familiar with the concepts of competition and allelopathy among plants. A corn plant that germinates and emerges only four to five days later than its neighboring plants will never catch-up. It is relegated to a second class existence, destined to become barren or at best produce a marginal withered ear, essentially a weed, compared to those plants that emerged uniformly only a couple of days sooner. This fight for resources that plays out in a corn field is not chemical in nature, its simply the advantage of being taller and first to grow, the larger plants dominate because they get more sunshine, which translates into more energy to feed a larger root system, which means the ability to intercept more nutrients and water in the soil. The smaller plants under the dense foliage are at a disadvantage they simply can’t overcome.
Some plants have additional weapons at their disposal for helping them and their offspring survive and thrive. The concept of allelopathy takes competitive advantage to another level. Allelopathy is when a plant excretes a chemical substance from its roots or a chemical is released from decaying leaves or fruit, that inhibits the germination, growth or fitness of other plants growing in its vicinity, thereby conferring an advantage to that plant or its next generation to dominate that space. Allelopathy is the explanation for why little grows under a mature walnut tree. It’s not just the shade from the canopy, its the allelopathic qualities of the natural chemicals released from the trees roots, leaves and rotting green fruits that prevents other things from growing within its reach.
The photograph above is a winner in this year’s historical photography contest in England and was taken by Matthew Browne. You can read the full article about it in the link below. It is a marvelous artistic image of a tree’s ability to envelop objects in its way. It is interesting to consider that the tree was already 300 years old when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. Looking at the image, given the serene gaze of the Buddha peeking out, you could debate whether Buddha is being born, emerging afresh or is being swallowed up and being destroyed. It all depends on your perspective. Are we coming are we going? I think the tree is embracing, telling us, like Shakespeare, “I engraft you new.”
“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
No, no! Go from me. I have left her lately.
I will not spoil my sheath with lesser brightness,
For my surrounding air hath a new lightness;
Slight are her arms, yet they have bound me straitly
And left me cloaked as with a gauze of æther;
As with sweet leaves; as with subtle clearness.
Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness
To sheathe me half in half the things that sheathe her.
No, no! Go from me. I have still the flavour,
Soft as spring wind that’s come from birchen bowers.
Green come the shoots, aye April in the branches,
As winter’s wound with her sleight hand she staunches,
I am a grave poetic hen
that lays poetic eggs.
And to enhance my temperament
A little quiet begs.
We make the yolk philosophy
True beauty the albumen.
And then gum on a shell of form
To make the screed sound human.
A lyric poem, typically one in the form of an address to a particular subject, written in varied or irregular metre.
Oxford English Dictionary
To Ezra Pound
by T. A. Fry
For your convictions, not the least of which Was treason: by what do I measure you? Was it romance or reason that carved your niche? An Imagist, whose chant was Make it New. The unkept vagrant of rebellious screed, Who Frost declared, “wanton and a poseur.” Should I forgive your racist, fascist deeds In lieu of your roiled poetic allure? Pound for Pound, man’s the most fallible beast. My own past mocks in brilliance and despair. If our life is but A Moveable Feast*? Let’s hope the worst is not beyond repair. And with words, left to time, an image paint, The truth of it; both serpent and a saint.
*Pound and Hemingway were long-time friends who both lived in Paris during the period Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast. The reference in the sonnet is an acknowledgement to shared passions and demons. Hemingway lobbied for Pound’s release from the insane asylum where he was incarcerated for treason in the United States from 1945 – 1957. Read my prior blog post, Make it New, for more stirrings on Ezra Pound.
IF Mercy were the friend of my desires,
Or Mercy’s source of movement were the heart,
Then, by this fair, would Mercy show such art
And power of healing as my pain requires.
From torturing delight my sighs commence,
Born of the mind where Love is situate,
Go errant forth and naught save grief relate
And find no one to give them audience.
They would return to the eyes in galliard mode,
With all harsh tears and their deep bitterness
Transmuted into revelry and joy;
Were’t not unto the sad heart such annoy,
And to the mournful soul such rathe distress
That none doth deign salute them on the road.
Ezra Pound’s life story reads like fiction. I can’t begin to approach the expanse of it in a short blog post, so I will begin where I will end, with mercy. Pound’s 1934 book Make it New, looked to the past and through a combination of translations, imitations and original material, sought to recast the old with a fresh voice. I am, of course, drawn to Pound’s translations of Guido Cavalcanti’s sonnets, but the sonnets are not reflective of most of Pound’s life work, in fact they stand almost diametrically opposed to Pound’s pursuit of a simpler modernistic style.
Pound was a driving force in the Imagists movement in poetry. It was Pound who saw the genius in T. S. Eliot when no one else would publish him and forwarded on a copy of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to Poetry magazine and promoted its publication. To a non-academic interested in poetry, I have been shocked how I seem to run into Pound at every turn. Pound befriended and promoted the careers of many leading modernist writers of the Twentieth Century. In addition to Eliot, Joyce, Lewis, Frost, Williams and Hemingway, he corresponded and helped the careers of Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Jacob Epstein, E.E. Cummings, Margaret Anderson, and Charles Olson as a short list.
I think the Imagist movement was probably the most important in English 20th-century poetry simply because of the sheer number of poets influenced by it. Carl Sandburg wrote in Poetry magazine in 1917:
“All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned.”
Pound developed his theory of being a poet in 1912. His aim was clarity. He was rebelling against abstraction, romanticism, proscribed rhetoric and over-use of adjectives. He laid out the following three principles for his writing:
Be direct regardless of whether the “thing” is subjective or objective.
Be brief. Use only words that contribute to the image, avoiding unnecessary words, particularly adjectives.
Be musical, make the words flow, but not necessarily in a pre-set rigid sequence.
Bravo Pound! I agree whole heartedly with this philosophy that the job of a poet is to make words that are meaningful sound beautiful. It’s why I find his translations of Cavalcanti’s sonnets remarkable. In his own writing he was moving away from classical poetry and yet he undertook the task to carefully translate 13th Century sonnets into the English language beyond just their meaning. He wrote in the forward:
“I have in my translations tried to bring over the qualities of Guido’s rhythm, not line for line, but to embody in the whole of my English some trace of that power which implies the man…. it was my first intention to print only his poems and an unrhymed (translation). This has not been practicable. I can not trust the reader to read the Italian for the music after he has read the English for the sense….”
For me, Pound is a symbol of the complicated personal contradictions that make us human. He was a modernist who translates classical poetry. He was a romantic in lifestyle and militant in his politics. He supported the Italian Fascist cause because he believed that only through conflict would come a new economic order that would create greater wealth equality, but he invoked racist ideology to further his cause. In his writing, he was just as inconsistent. He used translation and imitation to inform his body of work, yet was cutting edge in his modernist free verse. Through it all he persevered to an old age, despite reoccurring depression and an extended imprisonment in an insane asylum in the United States.
His writing veers wildly. He himself condemned his Cantos as “scattered and unfinished.” It was published despite its obvious flaws and received a literary award because his literary friends and political supporters hoped it would put pressure on the State Department to release him from the mental hospital where he had been confined after being convicted of treason in 1945 for his support of Fascism and Mussolini. When Hemingway won the Nobel Peace prize for Literature he told Time magazine “this would be a good year to release poets.” In 1957 the government finally relented and realized Pound was no threat to anyone and had suffered enough. He was released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and was quoted as saying:
“I never was (released). When I left the hospital I was still in America, and all America is an insane asylum.”
Pound was both contrite and unrepentant at times following his release in terms of his extremist right-wing views. He made contradicting statements regarding whether he had matured beyond his anti-semitic racism. I like to think he found some measure of clarity and peace in truthful contemplation late in life, as I nostalgically root for my literary heroes to do the right thing. In an interview by Allen Ginsberg in 1967, Pound described his life’s work as:
“A mess…my writing, stupidity and ignorance all the way through… but my worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything…I found after seventy years that I was not a lunatic but a moron… I should have been able to do better …”
Yes, some of Pound’s life and by reflection his writing is a mess and not very attractive. But some of it is beautiful. I think it is with mercy we should forgive this complex and imperfect man who had an impact on poetry that is vast and uncompromising. Where would poetry be without the unmeasured life of Ezra Pound? The current headlines in the United States on sexual harassment beg this same question: can we admire a person for their art, despite their despicable failings as a person?
The Seeing Eye
by Ezra Pound
The small dogs look at the big dogs;
They observe unwieldy dimensions
And curious imperfections of odor.
Here is a formal male group:
The young look upon their seniors,
They consider the elderly mind
and observe its inexplicable correlations.
It is in only small dogs and the young
That we find minute observation.
“Can there really be a form of verse where all that counts is the number of syllables in a line? No patterning of stress at all? What is the point?
Well, that is a fair and intelligent question and I congratulate myself for asking it.”
Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within.
by William Shakespeare
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
I think there is such a thing as Yin and Yang in poetry. I don’t mean poetry written to articulate Chinese philosophy, like the Dao, but concepts around the construction of poetry that are diametrically opposed and almost become mirror opposites of each other during the creative process.
To many readers, rhyming poetry sounds old-fashioned. To most living breathing poets, traditional forms of rhyming poetry is confining, too out of step with the current taste in poetry presented as cutting edge in MFA programs and journals. I like free verse, well at least some free verse. I think free verse is amazing when in the hands of a talented writer. I am a huge fan of William Carlos Williams, William Stafford, Robert Bly, Wallace Stevens, Ellen Bass, just to name a few, but I also think that a fellow Fry, (who is not a relation), summed it up pretty well when Stephen’s Fry declared that a fat lot of it is complete “arse-dribble.” Poetry is in the ear of the beholder. What I find compelling, other’s may find boring. But I find that there is a sloppy, narcissistic quality to a wheel barrow full of free verse that I come across which turns me off in far less than 14 lines. I particularly dislike the multi-page free verse poem that has not one meaningful thing to say to me, was written like an assignment from the poet’s shrink or divorce lawyer and is constructed like the concept of putting together pleasing sounds to read aloud was an after thought or actually repugnant to the writer. I give the The New Yorker magazine tons of credit for including poetry. Each week I hopefully seek out the poems only to find that 70 percent of the time I read them and say with my inside voice; “barf.” Am I that out of step with the rest of the world or is there something lacking?
How did we come to this point in literature, when for thousands of years, writers and listeners of poetry were grooving on rhymes and in the last 100 years, free verse has completely co-opted poetry as the dominant force? What caused this tectonic shift when rhyming poetry and poetic oral histories had relied on rhyme and meter to assist with memorization since preliterate society?
I don’t know, but my guess is that in the past 100 years, poets eager to be novel and find a unique voice have thrown the baby out with the bath water and the reading public’s response was a collective yawn. There are no rock star poets anymore. The reading public by and large stopped reading poetry about the same time that free verse became dominant. (A cause and effect I do not think is relevant, but why not throw around trashy accusations anyways.) Some infamous wit that I recently came across said; “there is no greater publishing disaster than the first printing of a new author’s book of poetry.”
I have set up this blog with the intention for it to be part of an art project next summer where I will ask complete strangers two questions: “Do you have a favorite poem? And Why?”. I intend to create a log of their responses and to keep a counter of how many of their favorite poems are rhyming versus how many are free verse. It will be interesting to see the results but I will wager that rhyming poems are going to win hands down. Why? Because we remember rhyming poetry, even if it is just a couple of lines, much easier than we remember free verse. The human brain is wired to be attracted to rhymes, it globs on to them, and keeps them deep in the recesses of our memories. I am amazed to hear my 86 year old father recite rhyming poetry he learned in a one room school house in Iowa in the fifth grade.
There are many brilliant minds that forged the path of free verse, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stephens both wrote eloquently on the nature of poetry, art and their vision of artistic expression. I highly recommend Wallace Stephen’s essays on the subject, Necessary Angels. Neither ventured into writing free verse recklessly. It was a life time pursuit based on a poetic ideal that they steadfastly executed with an artistic zeal. Given the back drop of WWI and WWII it is not surprising that poets in the 20th Century looked to find a new voice.
Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, members of the Black Mountain poets, together built on the foundations of free verse that had come in the generation before them and developed the concept of “projective verse,” a poetry that shuns traditional forms in favor of a freely constructed verse that is shaped by the process of composing it. Olson called this process “composition by field,” and his essay “Projective Verse,” was influential to poets in the 1950’s and beyond. Olson credited Creeley with articulating one of the basic principles of this new poetry: the idea that “form is never more than an extension of content.” This declaration is the Yang to a sonnet’s Yin, where with a sonnet content never extends beyond the form.
I happen to not like Charles Olson’s poetry. I think it is a big over-indulgent helping of very intelligent scribbling. Sorry Charles, I suspect that there is more than one doctoral thesis written somewhere that would beg to differ, but your writing does not speak to me, I can’t bear to drag myself to the finish line of a bit of it. However, I do like Robert Creeley. What does that say about my fickleness? It says, I like what I like and here’s one of Creeley’s I like.
by Robert Creeley
All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.
What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon so often? Is it
that never the ease,
even the hardness,
of rain falling
will have for me
something other than this,
something not so insistent–
am I to be locked in this
Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be, for me, like rain,
the getting out
of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
with a decent happiness.