Who wrote the first modern English poem? When – and, indeed, where – was it written? There are numerous candidates, but one could do worse than propose the answer ‘T. E. Hulme, in 1908, on the back of a hotel bill.’
This poem, ‘A City Sunset’, would, along with a handful of others by Hulme, set the blueprint for modern poetry. If we most readily associate ‘modern poetry’ with brevity, precision of language, understatement, unrhymed verse, written about everyday and often very ordinary things, then we owe many of those associations to T. E. Hulme.
Hulme was a larger-than-life figure in virtually every way. Standing at over six feet tall, with a ruddy complexion, a willingness to argue with anyone (or, indeed, to fight them: he once famously boxed with Wyndham Lewis in Soho Square), he hailed from Staffordshire, the county that nearly two centuries before had given the world another magnetic man of letters, Dr Johnson. After a spell at Cambridge (from which he was sent down without a degree) and a brief adventure in Canada in his early twenties, Hulme travelled to London, where he founded a Poetry Club, argued with people, ate lots of sweets (he was a teetotaller and non-smoker who preferred suet pudding and treacle to cigarettes and alcohol), and wrote, in a flurry of activity, the manifesto for modern poetry.
Ezra Pound often gets the credit for having done this: the American poet and impresario later founded the Imagist movement with English poet Richard Aldington and fellow American Hilda Doolittle (known as ‘H. D.’), and wrote ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, a short rationale which sets down some of the rules for modern poetry which Hulme, five years earlier, had already formulated. Pound and Hulme were associates, although Pound would later – somewhat uncharitably – play down the role Hulme had played in the formation of Imagist practice.
We can precisely date the event on which Hulme set down his first poem: it was 26 May 1908. That, at any rate, is the date on the hotel bill, on the back of which Hulme began to invent a new idiom for poetry, one built on clear, precise language, what he would later term ‘dry, hard, classical verse’. The poem reads somewhat like a poet thinking out loud, composing as he goes, seeking out a new language; and Hulme often later claimed that many of his poems had been improvisations, composed to order in a matter of minutes, letting the images come naturally to him. This first poem, which was later given the title ‘A City Sunset’, contains the lines:
Where Hulme had started off the poem by rhyming – it had begun with a rhyme on conceits/streets – he now adopts the new practice of vers libre, or ‘free verse’, unrhymed poetry which shuns regular metre and stanza structure and which would later be memorably described by Robert Frost as ‘like playing tennis with the net down’. From this unrhymed free-falling emerges an image, or rather a pair of images: the sunset, that conventional poetic trope, is likened to a woman’s red robe being trailed along the tops of the houses.
From that simple germ of an idea, other poems developed: ‘Autumn’, in which the moon is likened to a red-faced farmer; ‘Above the Dock’, in which the moon reappears, this time as a child’s balloon; and ‘The Embankment’, where the star-filled night sky is likened to a moth-eaten old blanket wistfully longed for by someone sleeping rough on the shore of the Thames. In each of these short poems, two images – one associated with the infinity of the sky and heavens, the other associated with the small and everyday – are joined together, as if Hulme is seeking to bring the boundless space of conventional poetry down to earth. It is fitting, then, that modern poetry was first put down on something as unremarkable and everyday as a hotel bill. (Another of Hulme’s poems was written on the back of a postcard.)
This is micro-poetry, like the haiku which Pound, a few years later, would experiment with. Hulme’s experiments gave rise to Imagism, which is the first true poetry of the everyday: it often deals with ordinary details of the modern world, such as travelling in the Tube, walking the London streets, or watching the crowds of people as they leave the cinema. It predates the more famous ‘Pylon Poets’ of the 1930s by two decades. One of Hulme’s poetic fragments even outdoes the haiku for brevity, in comprising just eight words: ‘Old houses were scaffolding once / and workmen whistling.’ The network of sounds is intricate and carefully considered: ‘old’ gets a leg up from ‘scaffolding’, which encapsulates the word, while ‘were’ resurfaces in ‘workmen’, linking the two images together through such internal rhymes and echoes.
Of course, there is an alternative modern poetic strand, too – the more opaque and allusive style of a T. S. Eliot or a Geoffrey Hill – but the commonest notion of ‘modern poetry’ is undoubtedly Hulme’s. His is the one that has prevailed in the popular imagination.
Carol Ann Duffy suggested in 2011 that poems are a form of texting because of their condensed language and their brevity: a suggestive comparison for the poet who gave us ‘Text’, perhaps the first noteworthy poem about the experience of text-messaging. But English poetry was already growing smaller in form a hundred years ago, long before mobile phones and the world of the text message. Hulme thought poetry should be the sort of thing that a normal person could read and appreciate in the Tube on their way to work, or in the armchair after dinner. He left us a handful of poems which were later praised by T. S. Eliot as ‘two or three of the most beautiful short poems in the language’. He scaled down poetry, but his achievement is far from small: he helped to create modern poetry as we know it today.
For more about Hulme, see this new book by the founder-editor of Interesting Literature, Dr Oliver Tearle, T.E. Hulme and Modernism.