EXPRESSIONIST POEM

writing th expressionist poemIntroduction

The term Expressionist is probably more useful in the visual arts, where the focus is on the action of painting — the sheer vitality of the brushwork, the strength with which the painterly elements operate on the canvas. In poetry the term is often applied to German poets of the 1910-20 period, who rejected naturalism and romanticism to express important inner truths. The style was generally declamatory or even apocalyptic, endeavoring to awaken the fears and aspirations that belong to all men, and which European civilization had rendered effete or inauthentic.

Expressionist could therefore (though in practice rarely) be applied to Beat poets and other advocates of open form, or to Sylvia Plath in her blacker moods, but here we try to create something more in the Surrealist/Symbolist manner of Hart Crane.

Starting

We start by putting the whole draft on paper in an elevated, somewhat surrealist style. Back in the starting a poem page we derived:

I was glad of the frank ordinariness of the earth beneath —
Though the grass was unruly, and in the laid path
I noticed it pushing itself, lush and insistent;
As much as expectantly on those summer evenings...

We use these portentous rhythms to sketch developments in an ex-colonial country, to comment on the old inequalities and the still unequal opportunities:

Perhaps it was the unwholesomeness of the soil beneath
The fat grass, or the rancorous trees, or ache
Of hard-turned earth, the spade-marks still uncouth, that made this
The dead-lands, the many-lands, the pungencies without voice.

The cicada is cancerous in the dry bones, and sometimes
What seems detritus is but a seed-pod that in the late sun
Is luminous, almost cavernous with white, as they were,
Squatting, smiling at evening, tottering into as it went on

From wasteland to farmland, to the continual lifting
Of the land by the great contraptions, the belts rattling
And the air pinched with the smell of diesel and sweat
Of small people running as the oil through the small furrows.

But now there is no succulence here but a dry twister
Of grief that trundles across the scandalous greens that
Are sedulously watered. Each day the chauffeured race
Come with their polished knuckles and laughter, and under

The bright parasols the day is cut into a thousand colours
Of banter, and the sleek limb lifts through the snakeskin and
Instep away from the hemp fields, the unfulsome ones, and I don't
Know if the trees in their darkness could  hold such grief.

The sense is a little obscure, but the metre seems useful. How does it scan?

Perháps it wás the unwhólesomeness óf the sóil benéath
The fát gráss, ór the ráncorous trées, or áche
Of hárd-turned éarth, the spáde-marks stíll uncóuth, that máde this
The déad-lánds, the mány-lánds, the púngencies without vóice.

Accentual verse with approximately 6 stresses to the line. We say 'approximately' because there are marked differences in the quality of the stresses:

The fàt gráss, òr the ráncorous trèes, or áche

And doubt as to whether lines 2 and 4 are not closer to 5 stress lines:

The fat gráss, ór the ráncorous trées, or áche
The déad-lands, the mány-lánds, the púngencies without vóice.

Not blank verse, however, as these are not pentameters, and there is also a sense of completeness in each stanza, helped by the phrasing:

Perhaps it was the unwholesomeness of the soil beneath
The fat grass | or the rancorous trees | or ache
Of hard-turned earth | — the spade-marks still uncouth — | that made this
The dead-lands | the many lands | the pungencies without voice||

Developing Expressionist Aspects

In the earlier PoetryMagic site, I worked this material towards a style more acceptable to today's editors, but here, if only to point out difficulties, I suggest we do the opposite: try for something more ostentatious in colour and rhetoric.

Unwholesome is the soil beneath the fat grass, and the trees
lean out of rancour into an acid shade, pricking the skin.
Infections of the spirit that would turn cropland to farmland ache
in the wired fields and in the cut-marks of the half-turned earth.

Cancerous is the cicada to dry bones in the morning,
and the seed pods rattle in the sharp sun, abundant
and biblical in white. The wind totters into prophecies
but is tattered, spent as the trees along the flat horizons.

These are miasmas, too many of them, the concessions in parchments
rolled and unrolled in the great contraptions, the leather belts
rattling and the air pinched with the smell of diesel and sweat,
with the children running as dark oil through the neat-cut furrows.

Now there is no succulence of profit, but a dry twister of greed
that trundles across the scandalous greens, sedulously watered.
Each day comes a chauffeured race, with their polished engagements
and a laughter of hard knuckles and in the numbered accounts.

Around them the parasol of day shakes into a thousand colours
of banter, and the sleek limbs lift smoothly through snakeskin and silk:
an instep away from the hemp fields, the unfulsome ones, and even
the clouds in the darkness did not know they could hold such grief.

Assessment: Where Next?

Once the rhythms are got into mind, this is an easy style to write in, accommodating whatever the free-floating imagination suggests should be the next phrase.

And therein lies the trouble. Either we trust in words themselves as adumbrations of some inner meaning, given at least to the writer, or we must deal more fully with the issues raised. Hart Crane tried the first, and at times achieved a rare physical immediacy in deeply memorable phrases, conveyed with an imagery that was sufficiently intoxicating to need nothing else. But those times grew increasingly rare, and long passages of The Bridge degenerated into windy rhetoric. The belief of the Symbolists, that language will suggest its own ceremonials to those who serve her faithfully, still asks for some sustaining vision to celebrate.

Lacking that vision, the poetry may attract the criticisms levelled at Pound's Cantos, and much of Modernist poetry, that somewhat unoriginal thought is being dressed up in an unnecessarily difficult style. Many controversies are raised by the passage above, and not only political correctness and post-colonial studies suggest that more is needed — not perhaps the research paper, but an extended piece of writing that understood sufficient of third world problems to avoid stock responses. I should greatly enjoy reading such a piece, but am not minded to try myself. To wrap matters up, I make a few improvements below, but the content remains a problem.

Zimbabwe

Unwholesome is the soil beneath the thin grass, and the trees
lean out of rancour into an acid shade, pricking the skin.
Infections of the spirit that would turn cropland to farmland ache
in unroofed buildings and in the cut-marks of the half-turned earth.

Cancerous is the cicada, as are dry bones at evening.
They flare out, the seed pods, into a Biblical white.
Each day the tall wind here totters into prophecies
but is tattered, spent as the trees along the flat horizons.

Miasmas of the past, and too many concessions in parchments,
rolled and unrolled in the great contraptions, the leather belts
humming through an air smelling of diesel and a sweltering
of children drowsily coloured in the long green furrows.

But now there is no succulence of profit, only a twister
of greed trundling across the scandalous greens, sedulously
watered, and a new chauffeured race, with their polished engagements
and a laughter of hard knuckles and numbers in locked accounts.

Around them the parasol of day shakes into a thousand colours
of banter, and the sleek limbs lift smoothly through snakeskin and silk.
An instep away, and not in the mortuaries, lie the unfortunate ones,

 

 

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