And Yet One Arrives Somehow

 

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Rolla by Henri Gervex

Arrival

by William Carlos Williams

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom—
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !


There is a tradition in poetry which I admire; that being established poets mentoring the next generation of poets who are pushing the current boundaries of poetry.  Many of my favorite poets have maintained a wide circle of friendships, and provided encouragement and criticism to new writers,  helping them to hone their craft.

William Carlos Williams is an example and maintained correspondence and friendships with many poets, including Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Charles Abbott, James Laughlin, Louis Zukofsky, and Denise Levertov to name a few. Levertov, a disciple of Williams’ Imagist style, wrote him an admiring letter when she was young, and included several of her poems. Williams wrote back, providing validation and the most generous act of all, suggested edits, to help refine her writing technique.

Levertov penned an interesting explanation of why modern poetry evolved in the 20th century beyond the confines of more formal metrical structure like sonnets.  In it she wrote:

“.….I do not mean to imply that I consider modern, nonmetrical poetry “better” or “superior” to the great poetry of the past, which I love and honor. That would obviously be absurd. But I do feel that there are few poets today whose sensibility naturally expresses itself in the traditional forms…The closed, contained quality of such forms has less relation to the relativistic sense of life which unavoidably prevails in the late twentieth century than modes that are more exploratory, more open-ended. A sonnet may end with a question; but its essential,underlying structure arrives at conclusion. “Open forms” do not necessarily terminate inconclusively, but their degree of conclusion is–structurally, and thereby expressively–less pronounced, and partakes of the open quality of the whole…The forms more apt to express the sensibility of our age are the exploratory, open ones.”

Excerpt from The Function of The Line, 1979.  Yale University Press.

It is an interesting idea, that the poets of the 20th and now 21 century have left structure and rhyme behind because there are no answers to the madness that befalls this world on a daily basis.  But there’s always been madness.  And in my opinion, if poetry lacks beauty, in some form, it lacks a timeless quality that is the cornerstone of verse that survives its epoch.  As readers we toy with darkness and enjoy rolling in the mud from time to time, but’s its the light of poetry that is the bread of life for our souls. Its why, when I ask someone, do you have a favorite poem, the answer if yes, is more often than not, a metrical rhyming poem.  A poem where there is a reassurance of an answer. Poems where there is something concrete in meaning or imagery for the reader to find, not words that were by design to be elusive, there is something for the reader to hold on to.

Wallace Stevens’ legacy is primarily his originality of free verse, but he wrote beautifully in traditional forms as well, even if he found “it sounded like the rise, of distant echo from dead melody, soft as a song heard far in Paradise.”


Sonnet

by Wallace Stevens

Lo, even as I passed beside the booth
Of roses, and beheld them brightly twine
To damask heights, taking them as a sign
Of my own self still unconcerned with truth;
Even as I held up in hands uncouth
And drained with joy the golden-bodied wine,
Deeming it half-unworthy, half divine,
From out the sweet-rimmed goblet of my youth.

Even in that pure hour I heard the tone
Of grievous music stir in memory,
Telling me of the time already flown
From my first youth. It sounded like the rise
Of distant echo from dead melody,
Soft as a song heard far in Paradise.

There Is Nothing To Do But Keep On

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T. E. Hulme

 

“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.
Night,
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.”

A Virginal

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,
Hath of the trees a likeness of the savour:
As white their bark, so white this lady’s hours.