I have for many years now held a deep fascination for Ford Madox Hueffer's Antwerp, a poem as little known as the man himself, a poem written in 1915 that vividly recreates the horror of the war fields of Europe during the so-called Great War and the even greater horror of mothers waiting at Charing Cross station for sons who would never return.
Antwerp ostensibly gives voice to both the mythic heroism and the wanton sacrifice of Belgian soldiers who, supported by British and French troops, instrumentally obstructed the German advance towards France in the latter months of 1914. In this unparalleled poem, Heuffer succeeded in accomplishing within himself what a short two years earlier he had sought to activate in other poets:
"Modern life is so ordinary, so hazy, so tenuous, with still such definite and concrete spots in it, that I am forever on the look-out for some poet who shall render it with all its values. I do not think that there was ever, as the saying is, such a chance for a poet. . . . . I am aware that I can do nothing, since with me the writing of verse is not a conscious art. It is the expression of an emotion, and I can so often not put my emotions into any verse. . . . I have been unable to do it; I am too old perhaps or was born too late - anything you like. But there it is. . ."Soon after writing this lamentation, the harrowed and harrowing Antwerp poured out of his quill in a gesture that revealed that one is perhaps never too old, that one is perhaps never born too late. What came between Hueffer's short essay Impressionism - Some Speculations (from which the above quotation is drawn) and Antwerp was, of course, the war. And the anguish, the pain, and the senselessness of it unleashed torrents of emotion within him that washed aside all poetic conventions. They brought forth what T.S. Eliot was later to describe as "the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war."
Hueffer's essay is an unlikely and generally unacknowledged manifesto that called for the transformation of poetic expression from the occasionally elegant (and often pretentious) formalism that characterised much of the poetry of his day:
"For a quarter century, I have kept before me one unflinching aim - to register my own times in terms of my own time, and still more to urge those who are better poets and better prose-writers than myself to have the same aim."Heuffer called for a movement of the waters of poetry into the stream of life itself, into the messiness of urban realities, the tenuousness of human relationships, the irruption of chaos into history. He urges the attention of poets to be re-directed to the ordinary, to the under-stated, to the over-looked, to the vulgarised, to the ever-present:
"Love in country lanes, the song of birds, moonlight - these the poet, playing for safety, and the critic trying to find something safe to praise, will deem the sure cards of the poetic pack. They seem the safe things to sentimentalise over, and it is taken for granted that sentimentalising is the business of poetry. It is not, of course."T.S. Eliot's epochal poem The Waste Land, where the ordinary and the extraordinary are interwoven as a fractured mosaic mirroring the profusion and the diffusion of early modernity, seemed to arrive on the scene soon after as a direct response to Hueffer's call.
As the moral and structural decay of industrial/technological civilisation began to manifest ever more strongly in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the poetic spirit quickened with a greater urgency and a greater poignancy in the chthonic tribalism of hip-hop artists who spoke life as it is lived both at ground level and within the elevated towers of corporate and political meddling.
If Ford Maddox Hueffer were a young man today, he would probably be completely at home among the courageous and energised hip-hop poets who call it as it is in all its pathos and all its passion.
One such poet is Kate Tempest, who in her powerful piece Europe is Lost, howls as a storm through the chaos and the excess of this time of troubles. The video clip below offers a dramatic portrayal of what not only Europe, but much of the rest of the so-called civilised world has become.