Tuesday Poetics – the four elements

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Welcome to dVerse, the poets’ pub. Tonight, I want you to think about the elements. Not our modern elements laid out so beautifully in the Periodic Table – no – I want you to think about the classical four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

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In the west, thinking about these four elements can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Philosophers debated the fundamental make-up of the world, and in around 450 BC the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles suggested there were four elements. Thinking around these became complex and sophisticated. They had specific characteristics – air was hot and wet, fire was hot and dry; earth was cold and dry, water was cold and wet(!).

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These elements don’t only appear in the Western tradition. Buddhist thinkers recognised four elements. Hindu philosophers added in “ākāśavyom, or śūnya (space or zero) or (aether or void)” – an element beyond the senses of touch, smell, taste or sight. The four elements were incorporated into the Islamic science tradition – in fact, they seem to have been acknowledged across Eurasia, and it’s probably impossible to say where or how this thinking originated. Trade routes across the continents spread ideas as well as physical goods.

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The four elements were important in medicine. The four humours (yellow bile: fire, black bile: earth, blood: air, and phlegm: water) had to be balanced for health, through diet and activity. We still use them today in astrology. I’m a Taurus, an earth sign. What sign are you?

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Tonight, I want you to pick an element and write a poem inspired by it. Think about what it means to you. Earth is dark and dirty, yes, but it’s the element that everything from daisies to sequoias springs from. Air is a gentle breeze and the hurricane that destroys. Fire is comforting on a winter night, but we’ve seen the horror of forest fires. Water makes up 70% of our bodies, it’s essential to life – and yet we pollute it as if it’s an infinite resource.

I’ve chosen four short poems, one for each element – as additional inspiration.

 

Earth:

 Soil-Song

I give what ne’er was mine-
To every seed the power
Of stem and leaf and flower,
Of fruit or fragrance fine;


And take what others loathe-
Of death the foulest forms,
Wherewith to feed my worms,
And thus the world reclothe.

John Bannister Tabb

Air:

Vortex

As the wind unscatters me
Spindle hurricanes unwind
Direction from my horizontal eye

Blow down the ocean’s fences
And approach my wreckless remnant
Bones bedenizened by birds:

Or contrive a moment from
Whatever sheaf of breath remains
To edge a word along a wind-left wall.

John Hoffman

Fire:

After The Fires, Give Us This Day

After The Fires, Give Us This Day-
In the orgasmic space
Frenzied infernos raging
Billowing smoke, flying mangled zinc
Glowing embers, charred walls
Wailing sirens and weeping women
Left homeless,
Now roaming amidst floating soot
A mother rakes the tangled debris
Of what was once her shack called home
Sobbing she sifts through ash
And scattered remains, a shoe here
A crumpled cutlery and torched cups
Between her and now
That’s all her remains
Her only hope-tomorrow

By Makhanda Senzangakhona/

Water:

old pond…..
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

Matsuo Basho

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