Here’s a story about a poem appropriate for this Memorial Day, though the story includes three Easter holidays.
First Easter: on Easter 1913 in March, a freelance writer, normally so pressed for a paycheck that he worked 15-hour days writing piece after piece, started off on a bike tour across Britain from his home near London to the south-western coast of England. Of course, there was a paycheck involved, a travel book was planned and resulted, which was called In Pursuit of Spring.
This trip started in overwork and near the ending of a glum winter, and finished in May with true spring; and this bicycle journey allowed the harried writer to expend a bit more focus on his writing this time. In the book, his trip ends in Somerset England, but a packet of photos he took during the trip indicates that he must have somehow crossed the Bristol Channel to Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. A tell-tale photo with his handwriting on the back was discovered recently, saying it was taken near Tinkiswood, the site of a Welsh Neolithic stone burial chamber. A year later the site was excavated, and 920 human bones were located. Welsh legend has it that staying the night in the chamber will cause any surviving visitor to go raving mad or become a poet. That wasn’t included in the book.
The overworked freelancer who took this journey was Edward Thomas. Shortly after the journey completed, he met a then little-known American poet who’s work Thomas had reviewed perceptively. The poet was Robert Frost. Frost read In Pursuit of Spring and suggested that Thomas should write poetry.
“How so?” asked Thomas.
Frost told him that Thomas had already shown close readings of the book of nature and the rhythm of verse in passages in In Pursuit of Spring.
So, at this time Thomas began writing poetry, extraordinary poetry that is little known in the United States, but which is much loved by poets and readers in the U.K. Some of it so concise and so infused with deep attention to the natural world’s calligraphy that it rivals classical Chinese and Japanese forms.
And World War I breaks out.
I’ve already written about Thomas’ dilemma in deciding if he should enlist in the war, and Frost’s part in Thomas’ ambivalence, so here I’ll just say that Thomas did enlist. The records say it was in a company called “The Artists’ Rifles.”
Can Americans of our time imagine such a military organization? Of course, artists of all kinds have served in America’s military services, but I can’t envision that sort of name being used here in place of something like “The Screaming Eagles.”
The second Easter: the somber name today’s poem was published under was not his. Thomas in his manuscript simply wrote down the Eastertide date in 1915 when he apparently wrote the first draft of it, two years after he’d started that trip that had indirectly formed him into a poet. That summer he was even stationed while on military training in one of the towns he’d passed through on the bicycle journey.
But never mind the name, what a poem. It’s four lines, a single quatrain. Decades later Pete Seeger wrote a song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” condensing an episode from a WWI novel expressing a similar idea. Seeger’s song is not long as songs go, but it’s a good length for a room to sing along to. Thomas’ poem has only started when it comes to its fourth line. The previous line breaks abruptly, enjambed, with “should” and its final line reveals itself as it unwinds in heartbreaking fashion.
And Thomas? A third Easter: another spring, 1917. His diary entry in France wonders if the enemy is unseen in the fields ahead of him, which he still must view with the precision of a nature poet. He pauses to light his pipe. A bullet pierces straight through his beating heart that will, do, never, again.
Our last poet, Margaret Widdemer seems to have done most of her adventuring in fantasy, but today’s poet, Elinor Wylie—well, she caused quite a scandal in the pre-WWI years. Widdemer may have dreamed of cavaliers and wearing leather in a traveling Romany wagon; but for Wylie, there’s biography! Elinor Wylie grew up in Washington D. C. the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s Solicitor General and infatuated with the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which, as we’ll see, could be a bit of a leading indicator. Elinor Wylie started right off by eloping with another would-be poet, Phillip Hichborn, shortly after high school. They had a child, but the match was not good, and the brief accounts I’ve read report the husband as “unstable” and “abusive.” Next, her story gets weirder. An older millionaire lawyer Horace Wylie, also married, began to, as Wikipedia put it, stalk her. Again, I lack details, but he apparently followed her about, taking care to show up often wherever she was. I’m not familiar with dating etiquette for married people in the pre-WWI era, but this sort of thing began to attract notice.
Bad marriage. Stalker. What to do, Elinor? She ditched her husband and fled to England with the stalker. Now we have full-fledged scandal. They hid out in jolly old for a while under assumed names. President Taft reportedly made efforts to bring her back. Eventually Horace Wiley got a divorce, Elinor’s first husband Phillip committed suicide, and WWI broke out in Europe. The run-away couple returned to the US, got married, and settled in New England where according to one biographer "Shopkeepers boycotted her, and she could buy no food. People began to turn away from her in the street. [The Wylies] were ignored in the worst way possible."
Back in the US, the marriage to Horace Wylie soured too. She was to have one more marriage, this time to Stephen Vincent Benet’s brother William Rose Benet. They eventually separated, but Benet continued to promote her literary efforts, until in 1928 at the age of 43 the writer, still writing under the name of Elinor Wylie, died instantly of a stroke at Benet’s home while looking over pre-publication galleys of her last poetry collection.
All that folly of love in one short life! Did she manage to produce any poetry worth noting? From a look at her first collection, written largely while she was still married to Horace, I found her poetry more immediately attractive when read in the present day than Widdemer’s work. It’s very concise, and often considerably musical. You can see the influence of Shelley in the intense feelings and in some of the elaborate word choices. During her lifetime, the musicality of her verse (like Teasdale, like Millay) was noticed and admired, but like all three of these skilled singers on the page, High Modernism eventually discounted that element of poetry and looked for grander, more elaborately worked-out themes. Strange how things work out.
Unlike Shelley, when time and death wore out the notoriety, the poet was more or less forgotten.
“Full Moon” shows Wylie’s concise intensity well, and it shows a flair for visceral imagery too. In search of music or from love of obscure words, Wylie crafts lines that sound great even if one must keep a dictionary window open to grasp their gist. Lines like “My bands of silk and miniver momentarily grew heavier” and “Harlequin in lozenges” start the first two stanzas. Miniver? I think only of a Greer Garson movie. It’s a fur coat lining. Harlequin, a stock pantomime clown/fool character sure, but what’s with the lozenges, is the harlequin mute because of a sore throat? Nope, lozenges also means diamond shaped, the traditional harlequin costume has a diamond pattern.
What’s it all mean? It’s not hard for me to see Wylie’s biography in this, the experience of being seen as the bad woman, shunned and condemned. I made a mistake in performing this, singing “carnal mask” instead of the more perfect rhyme Wylie wrote: “carnal mesh.” I noted it right off and tried to sing the verse again, correctly, but I ended up liking the mistake and left it in. Musically, I came up sounding a bit like a Nico solo record from the mid-20th Century for this, as I could hear Nico singing something like “harlequin in lozenges” and getting away with it a half-century after Wylie.
When I look at a more well-known poet or poem, I often find someone else less well-remembered connected with them. This sort of thing naturally intrigues me. Are we overlooking something of interest? Does this lesser-known person change our understanding of the more well-known poet?
I’ve noted earlier this month that Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1918 collection Cornhuskers—but that’s not the full story. For some reason, they decided to give out two awards for poetry that year, and another poet’s 1918 work was the co-recipient: Margaret Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise.
I don’t aim this project to literary scholars, who likely know more than I do about the poets whose words I use, but there are indications that Widdemer’s name would stump them too, even those whose field includes the Modernist era. From a look through Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise this can be partly ascribed to Widdemer not writing in the Modernist style that triumphed as the century continued. Furthermore, Widdemer’s outlook, though feminist, is middle-class and lacks the bohemian allure of Millay or even Sara Teasdale (the poetry winner the previous year). As time passes, rebels and poètes maudite often retain their outsider excitement while losing their air of present danger, and Widdemer offers none of that. And while I’m hesitant to judge from a skim through one book, a further issue is that she may not be very good.
Particularly for me, and for the Parlando Project, Millay and Teasdale’s words just want to sing off the page. Widdemer’s, though rhymed and following metrical schemes, generally don’t. There is a flatness to subject matter and a conventionality of imagery that fails to grab me as well. I would have loved to have picked up Old Road to Paradise and found something as interesting as Fenton Johnson, Edward Thomas, or Anne Spencer; but not this time.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Widdemer seems a level-headed person, and she is writing from a woman’s point of view that has fewer representations in the literary cannon of her era. What little I know of her biography says she worked to advance poetry and literary efforts. Could I find something to use? As I paged through Old Road to Paradise I marked “When I Was a Young Girl” as a possibility.
Why did this one stand out? It seems based on a folk song, but while it takes lines and tropes from folk songs, it presents an alternative viewpoint to the songs it borrows from. Since the post-WWII folk song revival, folk song has been even further associated with bohemianism and adventuresome living, even though the traditional texts used most often tell of sad ends.
From its title and often refrained first line, the folk song we can most easily connect with Widdemer’s poem is the female version of “The Unfortunate Rake” a 17th Century song with dozens of popular folk song variations, including the American cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo.” With the “When I Was a Young Girl” title it’s been sung by Feist and Marlon Williams, and back in the 20th Century by Julie Driscoll and Nina Simone. The general plot of these variations is that a young person is dying after a short, intense life of drink and venereal disease. The too short life of pleasure is valorized even if the song’s singer often remarks that they know they are doomed to hell. No wonder this song has remained popular—both sinners and saints, and listeners on a journey from either pole to the other, can find something in the tale!
Widdemer starts as some of these folk songs do, by telling of the excitement of their youth before the song’s present moment, though in her more circumspect telling, the young girl’s adventures are in daydreams and fantasies, including (in another folk song reference), a longing to run off with the “raggle-taggle gypsies.”
I used a minor key melody for this, not unlike that used in the folk song. I won’t spoil the ending Widdemer puts on her version of this story by foretelling it here, but it’s not where that folk song and its variations take you.
Here’s Carl Sandburg again, this time from his 1920 collection “Smoke and Steel.” Today’s piece “Long Guns” is a protest poem of a kind. A few decades later, around midcentury, the folk-song revival in America (which Sandburg had helped to kick-off with his pioneering American Songbag collection of folk songs) grew a wing that wrote protest songs. Bob Dylan, a man who thought enough of Carl Sandburg to want to visit him as he was revolutionizing songwriting, wrote a few of them himself, even though Dylan once categorized the usual efforts of the protest song genre as “finger-pointing songs.”
So how does one go about writing a protest song or poem? There are probably lots of ways, and some work more often than others. Sandburg, the early Modernist, would sometimes write Imagist protest poems, which is quite a trick to pull off, though the classical Chinese poets that influenced Imagism had figured out how to do this centuries before. “Long Guns” is more in Sandburg’s Walt Whitman mode though, what with its parallelism and lists.
Sandburg wants to call attention to the disorder of order established by armaments and guns, but rather than doing this in the order of argument as an essay would, or by leading off with some singular event that will arrest our attention, he starts by addressing an otherwise unidentified someone named “Oscar.”
This is puzzling way to start, and I had no idea why Sandburg did this. My guess is that most current readers will just figure Oscar is some random name, and stumble past this, but since I hate to leave specific things unexamined, I eventually had to try to figure out who Oscar is. And I think I’ve figured that out.
I’ll wager you haven’t heard of him, but it’s likely Oscar Ameringer, a radical humorist who was styled “The Mark Twain of Socialism.” Ameringer was Sandburg’s contemporary, and both spent time working for Socialist candidates in Wisconsin, though their time in Milwaukee missed overlapping by only about a year in the years before WWI. At least to fellow Midwestern Socialists, this call out to Oscar may well have been recognized when “Long Guns” was written.
After this mysterious opening, Sandburg lays out a condensed history of the world, a Genesis story of armed nationhood, a litany of the primacy of guns, speaking too of the long range artillery that had been part of the new warfare of the recently ended WWI.
And then, just past midway, Sandburg jumps somewhere else entirely—which is the freedom we allow poetry (as we allow it in music)—to a twisted fairy tale, the payoff. In the end, this is how Sandburg makes his protest point. We are like the child, and/or we are creating the child in that story.
In performing and presenting “Long Guns” I decided to throw a frame around it. A couple of episodes back I mentioned some other Modernists, largely, but not entirely, separate from the recognized literary Modernists. In the same early decades of the 20th Century, Afro-Americans were “making it new” with a different language and music, which was labeled “The Blues,” and from which Jazz and Rock’n’Roll and modern popular music draw even to this day. There’s no Ezra Pound or T. E. Hulme to point to here, a name that we can say sparked things off. Their 19th Century Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman-like predecessors are barely known as names. I still want to say more on this later, but as frame for “Long Guns” I used a blues line I know from the singing of Chester Burnett who performed as “Howling Wolf:”
“I wore my 44 for so long, it made my shoulder sore.”
What a striking and original line! If Li Po or Pound had written it, we might read it in a literary anthology. A man whose fear or anger must carry it like a heavy revolver, painfully, always. As it happened, I know it from Burnett singing it, as the Wolf; where as part of his performance style, his voice is unnaturally raspy, his delivery as if spoken by a spirit, perhaps not a normal man. A man who lives where the running of the world was all in guns. Is that a normal man?
Have you ever noticed how little poetry deals with the world of everyday work, with the employments that occupy such a huge part of our lives? Part of this is due to the positioning of art as an escape from all that humdrum and haplessness. We go to poetry, or to music, partly to divert ourselves from it. It promises us the respite of beauty, or at the least a music to shake ourselves down from the defeats and stress of it.
On the poets’ part, some of that may be because poetry is almost never their “day gig”—and the regular bills-paying job is, at some level, an embarrassment. After all, Lord Byron didn’t have that waitress job, Edna St. Vincent Millay didn’t have to sweat getting the reports done by EOD, and Homer didn’t have to stay awake wondering if he should raise a stink about how his co-workers are dumping too much of their work-load on him. Poets, if they are to make it to the level possible in our modern culture, can at best aspire to the level of college teaching with sabbaticals and a modicum of grants. That necessary rent-paying day gig is an admission that they are marginalized as artists.
Carl Sandburg seems unaffected by that problem, one of the reasons to treasure him in his years as a pioneering Modernist. Politically aligned as a socialist, some kind of workers-solidarity stance might be obligatory. Luckily, the early-20th Century Sandburg rarely reads that way, and his life demonstrates reasons why this is so. He was born of working-class immigrants, and all through his Imagist years, while he was focused on becoming a poet, he remained working class through and through.
You may not share Sandburg’s politics (any more than I share Ezra Pound’s), but even through the superficial changes in the decades since he wrote them, you can find in Sandburg poems a real, felt, understanding of day to day work for pay. His first three poetry volumes are filled with this understanding. Today’s piece, “Sunset From Omaha Hotel Window,” from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection “Cornhuskers” is suffused with this.
Much of Sandburg’s 1918 “Cornhuskers” seems to be reflections published some 20 years later of his experiences while still a teenager in the 1890s when he hoboed out west from his native Illinois, working day labor and various farm jobs. Some of its idiom is unclear to me. I am not sure what is simply obsolete vernacular and what is figurative language invented by the poet.
“Sunset From Omaha Hotel Window” tells you right off it’s allegiance to Imagism. It’s titled like a painting or an art photograph, and while Imagism wasn’t dogmatic about visual images, the visual arts were undergoing their own revolution influencing Modernist poetry; and as a practical matter, visual images have a directness that lend themselves to Imagism’s rejection of abstract and tired poetic tropes. And the poem’s first lines start, like many an Imagist poem, with colors and objects: a sunset over the Missouri river valley separating Omaha from Iowa. But then a line that’s a bit allusive: “The long sand changes.” My first thought was “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” That maybe what Sandburg was intending, but I don’t know if it’s some obsolete saying or something Sandburg invented. Sandbanks formed on a river channel are sometimes given this name, and that may be part of the meaning, and the wandering Missouri river has formed and erased many of them.
Later we meet up with two more lines like that: “Time knocks in another brass nail. Another yellow plunger shoots in the dark.” The first is partially clear, as the driving of a nail is a job of work with a sharply defined end. But why brass? It’s something akin to the still extant idiom “getting down to brass tacks” which is clearly understood to mean “getting down to the real, basic, concrete issues,” but the brass-tacks image that idiom presents, and its origin, is a mystery. The second part, the yellow plunger, I can’t quite say. I thought: meteor? Some meteors have discernable colors. The sun? He says in the dark, and his sunset is red from the first lines. As I sang it I just thought, shooting star, but I would welcome any ideas.
But the meaning of the poem is not hard to discern for any working person. As an Imagist, Sandburg doesn’t have to say what he’s feeling—weary, sad, cheated, worried, broke, lonely, unappreciated, angry—he just presents the scene. In my arrangement of this piece, I added repeats of Sandburg’s refrain “Today is a goner and today is not worth haggling over.” Time passes, work is done, and the issues of work, however numerous, enduring, undimmed, and uncontrolled by us are as stars—they are distant and present for a moment in Sandburg’s poem.
A few episodes ago I dropped a performance of Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come,” a piece where Whitman precisely states his understanding that he’s shown a new mode for poetry and allied arts, but that this new mode of expression will only be fully exploited and explored by artists in the future.
And of course, as Americans we’re still living in his future. And Emily Dickinson’s future. And Ezra Pound’s future. And to a degree we have yet to acknowledge, we’re living in Charley Patton’s future as well (more on that last one later).
So, in “Poets to Come” Whitman foretold his legacy, but did Pound and the other founders of modern poetry in English fully acknowledge their American predecessors? I’m not sure, this is an area I haven’t studied yet. I’ve already mentioned in earlier episodes that Pound and his British allies seemed eager to point to modern French as well as ancient Greek, Chinese and Japanese influences in their Modernist verse.
Could Pound have been embarrassed by his American origins? Could T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint have sought to emphasize the continental sources of their new aesthetic to compensate for their decidedly non-posh class status? That would be rash for me, who is not a scholar in this field, to claim on speculation. The strongest evidence in Pound’s case would be that as a man living outside the U. S., his cosmopolitan outlook was well-earned by his travels. Being drawn to the work of LI Bai or Sappho, or the French Symbolists requires no apologies.
Modernists who remained in America may have voted with their (metrical?) feet to more frankly explore the 19th Century American roots of modern poetry. A personal favorite of mine, Carl Sandburg certainly did this. That some of Sandburg’s longer poems sound too much like Whitman’s word-music has, I believe, disguised the degree that Sandburg was a committed Imagist, capable of writing spare, no-wasted word examinations of present objects in the Imagist manner. In his no-less than duality, Sandburg was the first successful poet to combine the innovations of Dickinson and Whitman.
Today’s piece combines two short poems, the first by Carl Sandburg and the second by the indispensable Modernist promoter Ezra Pound. Sandburg’s part “Letters to Dead Imagists” speaks fondly and perceptively about Dickinson and then moves on to tenderly remember Stephen Crane as a poet, who, like Sandburg, tried to combine Whitman with Dickinson. By calling them Imagists, the term Pound used to promote his “make it new” style of poetry, Sandburg is directly endorsing their claim to being pioneering Modernists.
In the second part “A Pact” we move on to Ezra Pound’s altogether more cranky voice, where he allows that Walt Whitman had broken “the new wood”, as if Whitman was some sawmill man who had roughly hewn some timber, which he contrasts to his, Pound’s, task and skill, which is to carve it artistically.
I’m unsure how much Pound knew about Whitman’s background, so when Pound talks about the “pig-headed father” I at first assumed that famously stubborn Pound was only projecting his own considerable intransigence onto Whitman. But the poem’s closing image, an extended riff on wood and timber, indicates that he may have known of Whitman’s father’s trade as a carpenter. Pound’s own family had connections with the lumbering industry. So in the end, when Pound proclaims that he and Whitman share “one sap and one root” he’s allowing they share the American grain.
In my episodic way here, I’ve touched on the rise of Free Verse in Modernist poetry. Free Verse poetry may still be rhythmic and musical, but it follows no strict meter, nor does it use any rhyme scheme. Now an established tradition, it came to poetry written in English in a non-straightforward way.
I think we can largely assign this happening to Walt Whitman, the American who was writing verse with eccentric line lengths and no rhymes by the middle of the 19th Century. Whitman did not immediately gain imitators in English, but French poets like Jules Laforgue took up the cause of Vers Libre later in the century. In Laforgue we can see a direct link from Whitman through his pioneering French translations of the American’s work.
The main thread of the Free Verse revolution for poetry in English then jumps to England, where before WWI Britons F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme made common cause with American ex-patriot Ezra Pound. Pound must have certainly been aware of Whitman (more on this later) and though I’m unsure if Flint or Hulme knew of the American poet, all three shared an interest in Modernist French poetry.
I can only surmise, but in starting their Free Verse revolution, it may have been advantageous for this small group to present this as a French idea rather than as an American one. At the beginning of the 20th Century, France was an established cultural force, a place from where new intellectual and artistic ideas were expected to emerge—and in painting and music Frenchmen were the leading edge of artistic Modernism in a way that Americans were not yet.
This strange path, from America to Paris to London misses one poet, a too often forgotten writer of Free Verse before the 20th Century, Stephen Crane. As a young man in his early 20s he was introduced to the just-published first collection of Emily Dickinson (1890), and mixing his take on Dickinson’s compressed musings on the infinite with the just-died Whitman’s Biblical cadences and love of parallelism, Crane in 1895 published a collection of short Free Verse poetry “The Black Riders.” Today’s piece uses the words of one of those short, untitled poems from Crane’s book.
If, a couple decades later, one of the short poems in “The Black Riders” was to appear in an Imagist anthology, on a quick glance or reading it wouldn’t look or sound out of place, but the pieces in Crane’s collection are not really Imagist poems, not even in the same way that sections of Whitman or Dickinson are. Crane’s “Black Riders” pieces are too full of abstract concepts and romantic notions—and even though Crane is questioning or mocking these concepts, he’s not presenting the issues through concrete new images as the Imagists would.
It’s interesting to wonder how Crane might have developed if he’d lived a full life, rather than dying at age 28 at the end of the 19th Century. Still and all, here was an American, in America, writing Modernist verse with Modernist attitudes while still a young man and with the 20th Century still on the horizon.
Last month when I dropped Sara Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care” hurriedly, I promised I’d return to Teasdale and say a bit more about her.
I’m not sure where Teasdale is in “The Canon” of modern verse now, but back when I was in college, she was even more left-out than Edna St. Vincent Millay, and for similar reasons. Teasdale and Millay were both contemporaries of the pioneering early 20th Century Modernists, both were published in their little magazines, received prestigious literary awards, and achieved a considerable readership in an era when page poetry had a more general readership.
But such status didn’t hold. As the 20th Century wore on, and High Modernism and academic-informed writing became the predominant style, Teasdale, like Millay didn’t seem to have the gravitas High Modernism required—after all, both wrote often about love and desire, a subject that if treated directly wasn’t thought serious enough. You know, “women’s stuff.”
If you’re getting the idea that by mid-century, Modernism was a bit of a boy’s club—well, yes, it was.
Teasdale had all of Millay’s problems with the curators of Modernism, and then some. Millay could write in the more modern style as well as engaging in somewhat old-fashioned-sounding sonnets. Teasdale was more adamantly a writer of metrical, rhymed lyrics that increasingly didn’t sound modern enough. Millay herself was a fiercely modern woman whose persona contrasted against any Victorian trappings in her poetic music, while Teasdale seemed less sure of herself. A typical no-win-situation for female poets by mid-century: assertiveness or originality couldn’t overcome the patriarchal attitudes—while submissiveness and reticence guaranteed its victory.
We’re decades past all that now, and we have a new century well underway. Today, it may seem like less of a crime for Teasdale to use the poetic music of 1875 instead of 1925 in this poem written around 1911. Publishing a poem like “Union Square” would have not caused Millay any second thoughts, but Teasdale went back and forth on that. In a fascinating run-down of Teasdale’s own doubts about the poem, Melissa Girard recounts early readers giving feedback like “Perhaps it is better, after all, to pursue the lovelier side of existence, and only give expression to what is unmarred in the realm of beauty.” And bizarrely, even after publishing it, Teasdale suggested “If the idea at the end of ‘Union Square’ had not been an accident suggested by rhyme, I should never have said what I said.” Say what? One of the beneficial side-effects of rhyme is that the search for it can work like Surrealist and automatic-writing techniques to jolt the mind’s search for language in directions it might not otherwise go—but none of the lines in “Union Square” where the poem’s speaker compares herself to the streetwalking prostitutes are rhyming lines.
I found it impossible not to sing this poem when presenting it, the poetry just demands it, even if the poem’s persona is expressing constraint. I think that contrast is what makes this poem, and Teasdale, worth considering.
Next weekend is the Minnesota sport fishing opener, and despite the late spring, the ice will be out on most of our state’s 10,000 lakes. Today’s piece, “Anglers” is appropriate for that.
I wrote the words for “Anglers” combining two things, one biographic and one literary, mixed with some phrases that occurred in my head.
The biographic? My grandfather died when my father was a young man, shortly after I was born. My father had four brothers and a sister, and the youngest of his brothers was only a few years older than I was. My grandfather never lived long enough to teach him much, and so my father helped teach his youngest brother some things their father did not live long enough to do. One of those things was sport fishing. As my young uncle grew up, he and my dad became fishermen of the most avid kind.
Over the next fifty years, the two men fished many places in Minnesota, but most memorably for me, in Canada. Not just on the border lakes like Lake of the Woods, but halfway up Ontario to lakes above the little town of Redditt. Their base there was a rustic fishing lodge: log cabins, outhouses, small aluminum rental rowboats to which they’d attach a c. 1930 Johnson Sea Horse outboard their father had long ago bought to their flat stern. Their routine, out with the dawn, fish until noon, pull in some inlet, fry up some fish for shore lunch, then fish again until late solstice dark. The poem I wrote doesn’t mention it but I was with them as a child on some of these trips, though fishing was not something I kept up with as I grew up and went East. The two brothers though continued their angling until my father finally became to frail and sickened with dementia to continue.
That’s the biographic. The phrases? I often write, at least in part, in my minds ear. Sometimes it’s entire first drafts of shorter poems that are composed there, other times it’s only beginnings or endings, or even phrases that somehow seem to mean to be in a poem. I’ve told myself an advantage of writing this way is that poetry often works best if it’s memorable speech, so composing this way pre-tests things by holding them in memory and seeing if they adhere.
As I get older it’s harder for me to memorize works in process, and this piece had only phrases and parts of the beginning and end stanzas in my head before I started my first paper draft. One of the phrases was the idea of the sport fisherman, the angler, being at right angles to the surface of a lake. Another was the phrase which occurred to me, “lattices of fishes,” which I simply loved the sound of, but also seemed like unto the vertical angle from the surface of the anglers in their boat.
It was that angle word-play that brought in the literary. The anglers point up and down in their angle from a surface. What do they point to? And lattices, obviously there’s another level under the water surface plane.
The literary? Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, wrote a poem I much admired about a story from the old medieval Irish annals. The story was some monks at Clonmacnoise in 749 A. D. who observed both an airship snagged on the tower of their monastery and a crewman of that airship who climbed down from it to free his ship.
In combining the two, I created the cosmology where the air breathing anglers on the surface of a lake are like unto angels, or the crewman of that medieval airship, to the barely comprehending fish who are brought across the airy plane. And that echoed the idea I had developed in my head from the anglers pointing up 90 degrees from the surface of the lake in their boat. They are pointing to the heavens, a place we can no better understand than the fish can know about the world of our air-breathing.
And there you are, that’s the entire poem’s metaphoric magic trick revealed. Yet that isn’t the poem, much less this audio piece that presents it. I still had to work on the language through several drafts, and I may work on it yet even after this presentation—but the poem and the audio piece is more than its images or its ideas, because a poem and a musical composition are both machines that think with sound.
Today is May Day, a day that combines many things. Neo-Pagans can point to it as Beltane or the morning that follows Walpurgis Night. Since the late 19th Century it’s been “International Worker Day” associated with labor and Socialist movements. It’s about midway between Spring Solstice and Summer Equinox.
It was also once a more or less secular holiday celebrated because by now it’s likely Spring in essence, not just Spring in some calendar’s notion in northern climes. A long time ago, in my childhood, in my little Iowa town settled by Swedes, May baskets were still exchanged—this before Easter had become one of the commercial candy holidays paired with Halloween. In Britain May Day still a bank holiday, celebrated next Monday with sundry celebrations.
In Minneapolis, this Sunday is the date of an annual parade organized by a local urban puppet theater. We will sit on the curbsides as Indigenous dance crews, drum bands, anarchists, political candidates, stilt dancers, decorated bicycles, giant papier-mache puppets, and various cause marchers pass by to music by flat-bed truck rockers and strolling brass bands. The Minneapolis May Day parade combines all those May Days into one thing, a Whitmanesque democratic cultural event, a container of multitudes spilled open on a city street.
I used to take pictures and film it, but now I just go and watch it. It may be just me, but in the past couple of years the level of invention in the costumes/puppets seems to have fallen off, but that may just be me and nostalgia filters. Ah, for the good old days of 2010! I’m holding that this is just random variation—but in the end it’s the gathering of South Minneapolis people, parading and watching who make me most appreciate it.
Today’s audio piece, "I Thought It Mattered," has words and music by Dave Moore, and it speaks of lifetimes, marchers and causes. I think it’s one of his best songs.