T.E. Hulme's 'A Lecture on Modern Poetry' (1908) records this transitional moment, where a recognizably modernist poetry emerges from nineteenth-century aestheticism. It was composed and delivered at an early stage of modernism's development and is a very clear example of how modernist poets tussled with their recent poetic past to establish what they saw as a distinctively modern poetry. If we want to know what kind of poetry Eliot, Hulme and Pound thought of as modern when they embarked on their careers, this lecture is an excellent starting point.
Hulme writes that he began to compose poetry because 'there were certain impressions which I wanted to fix'. However, no existing form seemed to him to be suitable until he encountered symbolist free verse (1994: 50). Drawing on an essay by the French symbolist Gustave Kahn, he argues that periods of intense poetic activity are brought about not by social or political changes, but by the invention of new verse forms that can express the age. Free verse, Hulme writes, is particularly suited to the expression of modern life and the modern sensibility — and his definitions of these are highly instructive. He distinguishes between 'the old poetry', written in the metrically regular epic or ballad forms and concerned with heroic action, and modern poetry that 'has become definitely and finally introspective and deals with expression and communication of momentary phases in the poet's mind' (1994: 52, 53). Clearly, this is a polemical distinction and Hulme's description of 'old poetry' is deliberately unspecific, but his connecting of the modern with the expression of individual consciousness immediately alerts us to the aestheticist and symbolist heritage of this passage.
But what would Hulme's 'modern poetry' actually look like? He has established that it would be composed in free verse, but he also, towards the end of the lecture, emphasizes the importance that the poetic image will play. Hulme's modern poetry will apparently be made up entirely of images, piled up, he says, in different lines. This method is designed to convey the intensity of the poet's experience to the reader with the greatest immediacy possible. In this way, he argues, poetry is the 'direct language' because it 'arrests your mind all the time with a picture'. Prose, on the other hand, is an 'indirect language' made up of images once fresh, but now decayed into conventions and clichés. 'One might say that images are born in poetry', Hulme writes, 'They are used in prose, and finally die a long lingering death in journalists' English' (1994: 55). In this statement, Hulme not only elevates poetry over prose, he also hints at one of the reasons he does so. For many literary figures of the period, journalism was the enemy, a utilitarian way of writing that transmitted information (or disinformation) with little interest in intellectual subtleties or style. Hulme's comparison between journalism and poetry alerts us to the fact that his whole lecture might be understood as an ambitious attempt to carve out a new place for poetry (rather than the novel or the newspaper) as the privileged expression of the modern mind. Hulme hopes that modernist poetry, like aestheticism before it, will preserve 'the place of sheer color and intensity' from the utilitarian drive of the journalist (Jameson 2002: 225).
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