Wednesday, October 28, 2015

TE Hulme at night

Since I'm supposed be the guest at the latest Write Night, a monthly event at Titirangi's Te Uru gallery where scribes 'discuss projects, seek advice' and 'eat biscuits', I've been thinking about the literature of the night. For me, TE Hulme's 'Autumn' is the finest night-time poem in the English language: 

A touch of cold in the Autumn night -

I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a 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. 

Hulme is the only man to have been expelled - or sent down, in the charmingly indirect parlance of the English - twice from Cambridge University. He was sent packing in 1904 after some mysterious 'boisterousness' at a party on the River Cam, then spent years wandering through the cafes and salons of Paris and the plains of western Canada, before producing a long, fragmentary manifesto called 'Cinders', which mixed pessimistic statements about the frailty and fallibility of human beings, vivid travel sketches, and calls for a way of thinking and writing that was 'dry and hard'. 'Cinders' earned Hulme a recall to Cambridge. He was expelled a second time when his love letters to a teenage girl were uncovered by that girl's father, who happened to be one of his teachers. The letters' dry and hard prose style alarmed the don. 

Oliver Tearle thinks that TE Hulme was the first modern poet in English, and he's quite possibly right. Along with his mate Ezra Pound, Hulme inveighed against the beautiful imprecision of the late nineteenth century. The two modernists poured DDT over the luxuriant plantations of Swinburne and Tennyson, and raised austere Japanese stone gardens on the ground they had ravaged. 

Learning from the haiku writers of Kyoto as well as the telegraph operators of America, Hulme and Pound replaced extended passages of narrative and explanation with unexplained and therefore exhilarating leaps from one object or event and another. Decades before the internet was a twinkle in the eye of Steve Jobs, they had already mastered the hyperlink

Like so many ferocious innovators, though, TE Hulme had a secret, and perhaps subconscious, love of the past. The severe shapes and surfaces of his poems can't hide his affection for the English landscape, and for the poets who have celebrated that landscape. 'Autumn' seemed shockingly short and coarse when it was published in 1909, but the poem helped renew a pastoral tradition that had become exhausted in the late nineteenth century, because it found fresh images for old conceits. The contrast between a healthy countryside and a baleful urban world, which Raymond Williams and William Empson have identified as essential to English pastoral poetry, informs Hulme's picture of a ruddy-faced moon and pale 'city' stars. 

By the time he volunteered for frontline duty in the First World War, Hulme had decided that he was a 'sort of a Tory', and had become friendly with the neo-royalist, anti-democratic Action Francaise movement.  

The author of 'Autumn' was blown apart ninety-eight years by a German shell. His comrades had heard the weapon's whine and dived to safety. Hulme, who had a half-finished manuscript about modern art in his pocket, had been too busy thinking to move.  

I don't mourn Hulme in quite the same way I mourn other great poets who died in World War One, like Isaac Rosenberg and Georg Trakl, because if the author of 'Autumn' had lived long enough he might well have followed Ezra Pound into the ranks of Europe's fascist movement, and tarnished poems like 'Autumn'. 

If you're in Titirangi tonight I'd love to talk about TE Hulme with you over a biscuit or three. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

'In the ash-pit of cinders, certain ordered routes have been made.'

1:48 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I missed this (post and talk). (I havent read the post through yet, just Hulme's name caught my eye). Hulme didn't write many poems but some are extaordinarily good, quite strange in fact. Ted and I were discussing some of them a while back. He was associated with Pound of course.

Pound's "usura" Canto was admired by Ginsberg (who is Jewish and wrote the great poem 'Kaddish'). I was reading Usura (and some Cantos) again last night
and Pound's whole premise is flawed, just as Eliot's is with his 'and a lustreless protrusive eye, stares from the mud'....'the Jew's under the

lot' (the rotting civilization). Litvinoff wrote a great poem that was an answer to Eliot at a reading. Eliot turned up and was the only one to say it was a good poem! Spender who loudly claimed he was as Jewish as Litvinoff, tried to stop Litvinoff reading it. Eliot had republished poems after WWII (like Joyce he seemed indifferent overall to both World Wars, neither make much comment on either war, but Joyce in Ulysses has Bloom who is Jewish as his main character): but both poems, if you take out their supposed "meaning" are quite great, and Eliot's poem NEEDS the 'lustreless eye' - anti-Semitic or not they are both superb poems. Pound's fascism was strange. It was if he hankered after some inviolable past, which would not really have interested the Nazis very much. His economic theories were wrong. Banks and lending and credit actually create wealth and finance art which contradicts Pound's ravings.

But both Eliot and Pound remain 'seminal' as they say. In time, and Harold Bloom plays with this, they may slip from top place as you know Martin Seymour-Smith felt they would, although he liked Wyndham Lewis, another facsist writer who recanted.

Many of the great writers, musicians and artists were fascists. Celine for example who I am reading now. Knut Hamsun. The Manns are suspect, Richard Strauss, even Yeats with his fondness for eugenics.

12:13 pm  
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9:45 pm  

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