How were poets of the early twentieth century – who were not ‘war poets’ and did not themselves have first-hand experience of the Great War – to write for the generations in England, Europe and America whose countries were implicated in that slaughter and whose lives were shaped and dominated by that dreadful history?
The second of this year’s Cafe Writing Days looked at early poems by Ezra Pound – ‘The Coming of War: Actaeon’ and poems from Cathay in particular – and considered Pound’s decision to universalise the experience and tragedy of the war by taking us into the distant spaces of imagined Hellenic and Chinese cultures rather than dwelling on contemporary particulars. We used editor HM Tomlinson’s 1917 article, “On Leave” in The Nation to pose the questions to which Pound’s pieces seemed to be replies. Tomlinson puts himself in the place of an officer returning from France:
‘Coming out of Victoria Station into London again, on leave from Flanders, must give as near the sensation of being thrust suddenly into life from the beyond and the dead as mortal man may expect to know…You really have come back from another world… These people will never know what you know.’ Imagining an officer returning to the pleasant suburbs, he asks: ‘What would happen, if he uncovered, in a sunny breakfast-room, the horror he knows?’
Ezra Pound’s engagement with early twentieth century ideas about the primacy – almost the self-sufficiency – of the visual image shaped much of his poetry. The other poems we explored in this Writing Day, by two of Pound’s contemporaries, DH Lawrence and Rainer Maria Rilke, were all intensely visual and intensely imagined on the page. They also shared Pound’s preoccupation in ‘Actaeon’ and Cathay with what is universal rather than local and time-specific in experience. We spent time with Rilke and Lawrence as they reached beyond the human into a world of creatures innocent of the atrocities by which our species has laid such waste to the potential paradise of the world.
Rilke found the subjects for ‘The Flamingos’ and ‘The Panther’ in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris where the French artist Henri Rousseau also found the subject matter for his powerful last paintings, ‘The Snake Charmer’ and ‘The Dream’. The Parisian zoo, with its cruel architecture of narrow concrete pits and its forest of iron bars, was a tragic environment for its non-human inhabitants – as desolate as the city itself was for Baudelaire’s maimed human beings. We are an impoverished and blindly destructive species. But out of the bleak landscape of the real, an artist can choose to conjure a vision for a moment of how things might have been, and through his vision try to create and nurture the sympathies we need to redeem ourselves.
for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
The 9th April ‘Anthology’ already contains homage responses by Mary Beddall, Nikki Kenna, Sara Butler, Dawn Gorman, Sarah Gregory, Caroline Heaton, Morag Kiziewicz, and Linda Saunders to Alice Oswald’s wonderful poem ‘Various Portents’. Mary Beddall, Dawn Gorman, Sarah Gregory, Ruth Sharman and Shirley Wright have all sent powerful poems prompted by Henri Rousseau’s paintings. We are looking forward to receiving more!