The Four Elements
In my previous lecture, I chose a certain poem of Sir Walter Scott’s to show how at one point in his career he elevated his voice to the lofty heights of the Calliopean muse. In essence, he created an artificial voice with to which to sing about his subject. Just as a poem’s form can be divided into MEASURE & MOULD, so a poet’s voice is divided into two composite halves; the MOOD & the MUSIC. The Mood is something of a trance which envelops the poet’s as they compose their piece, while the Music is the pure artifice of the poet as they translate their Mood into words. The order would be,
Mood (then) Music (then) Measure (then) Mould
Once the first words have appeared – i.e. the music – they must be organised onto the page in a certain measure, from vers libre to the complex phonetic accention of Spanish poetry. After the Measure, the individual lines will then be organised into the poem’s Mould, giving us the final aesthetically pleasing & sense-stirring soundscape of a poem.
These four individual parts of a poem neatly correspond to the four elements. The Mould, of course, would be the very-solid Earth, the beautiful brick-work which furnishes a poem with its infrastructure. The Measure would be Water, like the Mould it too is of a physical nature, but more pliable, more fluid, & as we follow a line we do indeed flow along its course. The remaining two elements are of the metaphysical kind, with a poet’s Mood being a Fire, which lends the poem its spark of creation & keeps the mind cooking throughout its composition. Finally, we have the Music - Air – which is filled with the heavenly wind & instrumental breath of a poet’s voice. There is, by the way, a fifth element also – Magic – which only a few poems are ever privileged to possess.
There is a poverty to the art of Poetry in these these our modern days, for many poets have lost not only their form, but also the focus to fully balance & utilise the four poetic elements when writing their poems. Their moods are often confused with the electric static of modern society, leaving us with rather chaotic ramblings that appear to the reader as something of a surrealist painting. In fact, modern art & poetry are have much in common as they reflect our social zeitgeist like cutural bedfellows. Take the following published poems for example.
There is No X on this Map in Any of Its Usual guises
We are marks on this map.
Its vellum was cut
from the finest part
of the last unicorn’s dorsal skin.
No: The horn was broken up
and sold by the carat
when the beast was a foal.
No: The arrow is purely for decoration.
Wait: Lift your left palm.
Under it (a little moist)
is the design of a tattoo
your next lover will acquire
in the first weeks of your courtship
to amuse the man she will leave for you.
Now you see
that it would be prudent
not to mention this map
to those who come after. Or at all.
Judy Brown (Loudness, 2011)
Mhari & Annika
A lot of people listening to it
Have these stripes that belong to different parts of the country then we have twodays dancing festivals & some traditonal festivals & probably since I was five I have gone
My mother was a dancer it was great
It’s probably awful ya
Annika’s English is awful
But it’s poem
He’s going ti make a poem out of it?
How Finnish & Estonian are speaking English” oh my god
I had so much wine
William Letford (Bevel, 2012)
Hmmm…. interesting musings yes, but is this poetry, or ‘poem’ as Mr Letford inquires? It is definitely not Ozymandias ,by Percy Bysshe Shelley;
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
The difference between the two modern poems & Shelley’s is that our long-dead Romantic keeps his focus throughout the composition. This was assisted, albeit, by the fact he was engaged in a sonnet-writing competition with John Keats & Charles Lamb; but this is testament to how focus can propel a poet to the finish line, so to speak, rather than tail off quite bluntly in a drunken haze as did Mr Letford.
Here is a poem of my own, written many years ago, concerning the advent of Spring. After it I shall analyze how each of the Four Elements affected the poem.
Wool white wilderness
Pendle to Chelsea garden
Mist lock’d frost & snow
Beams of warm amber
Penetrate the morning mists
Snowdrops drink the thaw
O trees! Such budding!
Thy delicate bursts of green
Amidst the celadon buds
The burgeoning woods promise
Their blossoming hues
Pinks & pastel whites
Lend the tender blossoming
Hints of sensual scent
Year’s first warm morning
Lone bee stalks the wilderness
Birds breeze on the wing
Sol gestures higher
Colors surprises the eyes
Spring! She smiles at last
Mood / Fire
‘Spring’ is something of an ode I decided to write in order to record the various sights & sensations which the year’s first sensation convoked throughout its three month-course.
Music / Air
With this particular season full of life & promise, I chose my language accordingly, as in ‘first warm morning,’ & ‘burgeoning woods.’ The poem also contains many ‘pastoral;’ moments to help invoke a natural scene, such as when a ‘Lone bee stalks the wilderness,’ & ‘Beams of warm amber Penetrate the morning mists.’
Measure / Water
Although having a preference for syllabic metres, I appreciate the sheer energy & vitality that vers libre has given the Poetic animal. Indeed, it was like an adrenalin injection between the breast-plate into the very heart of the Art. It has won for itself a place at the high table of metre, but as I have already lectured, it is not the boss, only a meter among equals. As for the rest, I shall leave it to Robert Graves, who in a letter to Wilfred Owen during World War One wrote;
Owen, you have seen things; you are a poet; but you’re a very careless one at present. One can’t put in too many syllables into a line & say ‘Oh, it’s all right. That’s my way of writing poetry’. One has to follow the rules of the meter one adopts. Make new meters by all means, but one must observe the rules where they are laid down by a custom of centuries. A painter or musician has no greater task in mastering his colours or his musical modes & harmonies, than a poet.
In my poem, ‘Spring,’ the measure is the Japanese, which alternates syllabic patterns throughout its stanzas, in this case 5-7-5.
Beams of warm am-ber
1 2 3 4 5
Pen-e-trate the morn-ing mists
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Snow-drops drink the thaw
1 2 3 4 5
Mould / Earth
Continuing with the Japanese theme, the form I chose was the Haiku. The nature of this highly traditional, highly ritualised has always been to record nature & especially the changing of seasons. We shall return to this excellent little form in a future post, but for now let us return to the four elements, of which the Haiku’s ‘Mould’ is one. When offering Spring as an example, I’m not saying my poem is better than Brown’s or Letford’s, but I believe I have achieved more of a concrete effect than their efforts. It is this effect, then, that is crucial, & to a prisoner serving life in a windowless cell, on 23 hour clampdown a day, my poem will be of more service than the tattoo of Judy Brown.
When looking at the hundreds of thousands of post-war poems published across the planet, what the hell are we meant to preserve for posterity. This saturation has diluted the Parnassian waters to such an extent, that almost anything can be petrified on the page & sold as poetry. For example, this is a poem by Linda Chase from the 2002 New Poetries III anthology published by Carcanet.
Last Logging On
It’s a Friday kind of thing
between signing off & signing on –
leaving the office & going home.
Do I mind that you think of me –
that you send me a message saying
I am beautiful?
The word beautiful makes me close my eyes
to remember what it was like. I cant imagine
who has sent this message, nor to whom,
though I know these people well
when they have nothing to say,
Monday to Thursday
It’s just not William Blake, is it?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Or Wordsworth, invoking Milton as he crossed the Thames;
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet the heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
The three modern poems I have included in this lecture a quite symptomatic of the general malaise which has struck poetry in recent decades. These, & vast multitudes of others, are lacking in body; their mould & measure crumbling to dust in our hands. They are genetically defective organisms which should be better left in pickling jars in some research laboratory in the Arizona desert rather than be offered to the public on silver platters. David Sneddon, in his ‘The Trouble With Modern Poetry – a Personal View’ (Sonnetto Poesia, v.9 2010), writes;
I have a love-hate relationship with modern poetry. I don’t speak from ignorance. I have studied it widely. I find the best really very good, but I also find some poets celebrated by the poetry establishment either very patchy or truly awful. Much of what is praised today is the Emperor’s New Clothes, & I wonder if it’s not simply just from the affection & weak-mindedness that some commentators seem to state a love for the dullest of it. And yet, it is considered almost blasphemy to speak out against them. It seems that, in poetry terms, being PC means being Politically Correct, & that means liking excessively intellectualised poetry & felling superior about it.
Saying all this, certain modern minds actually prefer these Pollock-splashes of paint, thus we modern poets should learn how to appeal to such minds – for none may be discluded – by handling the proper sentiment in the most universal fashion; i.e. to blend writing in a modern tone with the music of our ancient art. I guess what Im trying to hammer home is the necessity, not the absolute vitality that poets begin to raise their game, go out & live life, go home & study your craft, & write poetry to be remembered, rather than gaze wistfully at a facebook message like Linda Chase.