Saturday, 22 April 2017

Expanding the Poetic Field. From Ford Madox Hueffer to Kate Tempest


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 urged 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.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Lines from the Edge of Darkness


We who live in regions of relative stability and prosperity in the so-called developed world and who are free of the uncertainty and the unpredictability that are part of daily life in war zones will occasionally be startled out of our false sense of security and certainty. Such occasions though generally rare, will often have a transformative effect on our lives. Yet we seem to maintain our sense of privileged steadiness in the face of a constant stream of disturbing images and reports that fill the electronic and print media. Such images remind us daily of the reality of ongoing wars, the horror of terror attacks, and the despair of vast numbers of families and individuals who have left everything in order to seek refuge from violence and danger, from ruined streets and houses, from bombs and bullets.

The psychic numbing we collectively experience is a peculiar aspect of contemporary reality. Images of cars and trucks crashing through crowds of people, smoke and flames issuing from the explosion of precision-guided missiles and cluster bombs, grief and carnage from the acts of suicide bombers in mosques and churches, though ever-present on our screens and in our printed media, are all somehow strangely distant. It was therefore as a great personal shock to witness at close range the immediate human anguish of catastrophic injury in a young man from a nearby town.

While waiting to be discharged after recently spending a day in the emergency ward of a regional Victorian hospital, I became aware of unusual commotion outside the double doors that separated the ward from the outside world. The doors suddenly sprung open and a young man in his middle to late twenties, barefoot and dressed only in a pair of shorts burst into the main corridor in extreme distress. He repeatedly called for help and in his agitation, ran straight past the monitoring station where several doctors and nurses were quietly gathered. I noticed that shards of skin were hanging from one of his arms, and that both of his legs and much of his torso were bright red in colour. A doctor asked, "What happened?" Between his anguished calls, he cried out, "Petrol fire! Petrol fire!" I heard someone say "Get him into a shower" and two doctors sprinted after him as he headed towards the main body of the hospital.

Some ten minutes later, he was escorted back into the emergency ward and led into the cubicle alongside the one in which I was situated. I could see that much of the skin from one of his arms had been stripped from his flesh. He was still in a state of extreme distress. Between barely muted screams he continually called out, "Help me! Help me!"

Among those present was the head of the Emergency Department, a senior practitioner who gently and firmly reassured the young man that the situation was well in hand. He calmly and repeatedly drew the young man's attention to his breathing while simultaneously instructing a younger doctor to slowly administer a 10 cc injection of ketamine quietly adding, "You may need to do this four or five times" while continuing with his quasi-hypnotic instruction to breathe slowly and deeply.


My thoughts were then overwhelmed by a flood of images, many of which had been dormant for decades. I recalled a young Vietnamese girl who had been caught up in a napalm attack running naked down a dusty road. I saw a Buddhist monk determinedly sitting within a storm of raging flame. I remembered the flayed inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki wandering dazed and despairing through their smouldering streets. Then came memories of the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, of the chimneys at Auschwitz, of the vast charnel grounds that Europe had become during the first and second World Wars. And then came a further wave of images of the children of Gaza, of phosphorus bombs streaking through a UN compound, of furious explosions in Kabul, Baghdad, Aleppo and Mosul. And I recalled the vast arsenals of stored nuclear weapons with which the earth is so heavily seeded.

I thought again of the extraordinary privileges and the freedoms that we who are strangers to the terror of war zones and the horrors of extreme poverty, drought and famine take so much for granted.

At a time when military planners gradually intensify their demonic work of softening the world up for a normalisation of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the ever-growing fields of war, let our hearts more fully awaken to the pain of the world and to the pain of those innocents caught up in war and preparations for war.




This post introduces Lines from the Edge of Darkness, a collection of thirteen original poems written over the past two decades reflecting on war and its consequences written over the past two decades.

The Poems

Glowing Cores
Golden Prison (The Curse of Tyranny)
Burning Horizons
In Memoriam
Terra Calda
Falling Veils
Georgius Rex
Desert Storm II
Ramallah (Remembering Rachel Corrie)
Dancing Dust
Sisters True
Careful Now
It all Depends on Who You're Fighting

A PDF copy of Lines from the Edge of Darkness can be downloaded here.

Vincent Di Stefano M.H.Sc., D.O., N.D.
Inverloch, April 2017


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