Whose fault is it when a poem is hard to comprehend, to understand? The first thought may be that it’s the fault, or even intent, of the author. Communication via written language has its weaknesses, but we know from our day to day lives that it can convey information successfully. Poetry, particularly poetry of literary repute, has a reputation for frustrating expectations of understanding.
For thoughtful people there should be second thoughts on this matter. If a writer, a poet, asks for a certain level of engagement, knowledge, curiosity, and openness are they always being unfair? I’m willing to grant they can ask too much, but asking too little of an audience of readers has costs as well. Here’s a principle worth remembering as you approach poetry (or other arts): poetry isn’t about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas. Experience isn’t permanent, one-sided or clearly binary. If we for an instant experience something as a simple truth, a moment of clarity, poetry can express that—but properly comprehended simple truths exist in a contradictory and changing world. Sometimes we can misunderstand a simple poem as much as a more esoteric and confusing one.
Early English Modernist poetry, particularly those poets around the Imagists, wanted to explore these things. It may surprise you, but many of its pioneers before WWI made a choice for clarity, for simplicity. It did to me. I came to the early works late, already steeped in the poetry of the post-WWI High Modernists: Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Paul Eluard and Dada and Surrealist associated writers. But look at the pre-WWI work of some English modernists, like this poem by T. E. Hulme, a poem that has been identified as the first Modernist poem in English, “Autumn.”*
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.
Does it seem strange to you that such a poem could change things? It’s so un-assuming, so easily grasped. Two homey images that require nothing in the way of pre-requisites to visualize, though it may be helpful to be as Hulme was, a rural person who had migrated from the fields of his childhood.** If one pauses and looks again, notice what’s not here: length, words naming emotions instead of objective description (save the single “wistful” which carries power in its exception) and rhyme. A not strict, but appreciable meter appears gradually with the final three lines, but the previous four are free
Today’s audio piece presents another poem by T. E. Hulme, one that isn’t easily understood at all. Hulme often wrote his pieces to demonstrate the theories of Modern English poetry he wanted to bring to the fore critically, and like “Autumn,” the rest of his extant work has a radical clarity. Hulme scholar and professor Oliver Tearle reports that today’s piece “Conversion” may have literally been a blackboard example of a revamped kind of poetry. If so, those looking at the chalk marks may have been as puzzled then as we are now.
“Conversion” starts off conventionally enough: a walk in nature, and hyacinths are in bloom. It’s beautiful and fragrant. We are altogether conventional here, save for the free verse. Then the next two lines are a clear image, but not necessarily an expected one: imaginarily our poet is drugged and kidnapped. In Hulme’s era a rag soaked in some ether or chloroform was a standard illustrated weekly/pulp fiction trope for this, but flowers as an agent is not unprecedented either (Midsummer Night’s Dream) and in the poem the scent of the flowers is associated with this. For all Hulme’s Modernist intent, this does seem to follow a lot of fairy story plots from Tam Lin to “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” The two lines that end the kidnap incident are uncharacteristically sound rich for Hulme: “Motionless and faint of breath/By loveliness that is her own eunuch.” It’s like Yeats or de la Mare broke into the poem for a moment.
What happens next? I’m not sure anyone can explicate the final three lines in a way that we all will say “ah hah!” to. Did Hulme’s inspiration fail him? Are we just not paying enough attention? Even Tearle, the man for whom I’m indebted for introducing me to Hulme, seems puzzled.
I have a theory, one that greater scholarship or historical knowledge than I have might bolster. The word “eunuch” in the poem is our fuse. Eunuch in the context of Hulme’s time would likely bring to mind the Ottoman Empire and the exotic non-Christian Middle East. Exoticism is a complex thing, elements of fascination and sublimated desires are part of it, as are, alas, stereotypes and racism. But one common trope in the European mind of the time was the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of women in eunuch-run harems of Ottoman rulers. My guess is that’s what Hulme is referring to here, and that it might have been familiar enough to his time and audience to assume the reference would be understandable even in this highly condensed poem. The poem’s hard to explain title “Conversion” could also be fit to this idea.
Mysterious Victorian abductions, non-Christians portrayed as evil so that Europeans can look at pictures of ladies breasts.
That still makes the final three lines hard to follow. Is Hulme’s personae in the poem female, or is this a male-male cross-cultural bondage fantasy? Does it end with the death of the personae or just being carried away in quasi-erotic bondage? Come on Hulme, you may be using some unenlightened xenophobic twaddle for your image here but give us a clue!
“Final river” (Tearle reads the mythological river Styx here, and domo arigato Dr. Tearle) “without sound” seems to lean to drowning death. The one thing I came up with trying to figure this out is the apocryphal tale of the 17th century Turkish Sultan Ibrahim (“The Mad”) who was said to have had his harem of 280 concubines thrown into the Bosphorus to drown, a punishment that otherwise would be fit for a peeping Tom-Turk spying on the ruler’s harem.*** But by now I’m feeling like Wylie Coyote standing on thin air trying to explain those sparse final lines.
Drop all the guesses and dodgy cultural stereotypes, even if we blame the author for them, and “Conversion” may still work to some degree, after all what I think the images set out to do is to convey that the apprehension of beauty can involuntarily change one by confusing our priors. The philosophic idea is not instantly clear, its images are problematic and opaque, but the words and the sounds of them intrigue. This “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all” as André Breton later wrote.
Of our three London-based “School of Images” pioneers, only Pound would later write “High Modernist” poems with such knotty allusive problems. F. S. Flint drifted out of poetry after WWI, and Hulme was killed in that war. Pound admired Hulme considerably, and T. S. Eliot spoke highly of him too. Those two may have chosen to follow the Hulme of “Conversion” more than the Hulme of “Autumn.”
Well, this is a long post, and once more I’ve run out of room to talk much about the music and performance of the piece. I decided to make the musical setting discontinuous to reflect the confusion of the narrative and I hope I’ve brought out the mystery and lyricism of Hulme’s poem in my performance. The woodwind instrument featured at the start and finish of the piece is a virtual instrument version of the duduk, a gorgeous-sounding free-reed instrument that might be found around the shores of the Black Sea. I also couldn’t resist blowing a chorus on the Telecaster, an exotic instrument as old as I am, designed by a radio repairman on our western shores. The player gadget is below. Text of Hulme’s “Conversion” can be found in Terle’s post on the always Interesting Literature blog.
*Like the “first rock’n’roll song” or “the first rap record,” there are probably lots of candidates, but it’s still helpful to have a marker to say about it: “This is different, and points to how things can be changed.”
**One cultural-particular is present: in the sunburnt face and white colored children of its two images, it’s not melaninanicly universal, but the particular in the case of poetry can still speak to us. Around the time Hulme wrote this, Charlie Patton was probably singing the floating blues verse that Son House later recorded “My black mama’s face shines like the sun…”
***”Michael Cohen, I like grand viziers who don’t get caught. I’ve got to get me some of the best people.