Old Shells, New Forms

Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

On this day in 1883, English poet and critic T.E. Hulme was born.  Considered “the father of imagism” his work influenced the modernists who were seeking new forms across the arts, finding that the old forms, like shells ready to crack, no longer served the honest vision.  At the age of thirty-four, he was killed by a direct hit from a shell during the first World War.

I will not pretend to give an overview of Hulme’s career. In honor of his birthday, I am assembling a verbal collage of phrases from A Lecture on Modern Poetry, an influential paper Hulme delivered at the Poet’s Club in 1908, which was published and widely circulated after his death.  The verses below are mostly collected from Hulme’s text, rearranged as one does with “found poems,” which are one of my favorite forms for listening to unfamiliar texts.

Toward verse, I anticipate criticism. Don’t call it the means by which a soul soared, but a means of expression. I suspect the word soul in discussion, its hocus-pocus like selling medicine in the marketplace.

We are not the Mermaid Club, but a number of modern people. I have no reverence for tradition, and certain impressions to fix. I read for models but found none that fit. Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

For the living, burdened with thought too difficult to express using old names, what possibility is there? The actor has no dead competition, as the poet does. Immortal arts need new techniques with each generation or risk an age of insincerity.

Consider decay of religion: dead carcass, the flies upon it. Here’s what happens when the spirit leaves the form.

After decay, a new form. I wish you to notice: the marvelous fertility, the fluidity of the world, its impermanence. If you prefer the ancients, consider the Greek theory of universe as flux, and how they feared it. The disease that followed? A passion for immortality. You know the rest.

Now we focus on impermanence. Leave the siege of Troy to the ancients. Let’s linger instead within the mind of the child by the drying lake. We cannot escape from the spirit of our times.

It’s a delicate and difficult art. A shell is a very suitable covering for the egg at a certain period, but when the inside character is entirely changed, to become alive, the shell must be broken.