Let’s return to sing the poetry of a man who’s far better known in Great Britain than in the United States, Edward Thomas. Thomas had a remarkably short run as a poet, only writing verse for about two years after befriending and sharing thoughts about writing and the observation of nature and the countryside with Robert Frost during the latter’s stay in England just before WWI.
Thomas was no longer young when he started writing poetry, and he had scratched out a living as a freelance writer for several years before he met Frost. None-the-less, two years is a very short time to develop as a poet, and today’s piece “Gone, Gone Again” may show some rougher places commensurate with a poet who hasn’t fully developed his game.
As I worked with “Gone, Gone Again” to develop it as an audio piece with music, some of its odd poetic faults continued to jab at me, but as is sometimes the case with the Parlando Project, I grew to appreciate the poem and Thomas’ unique read on time and life more fully from the effort spend with it.
The poem’s meter is awkward and uneven, the rhyme unpredictable. A casual reader could hear it as doggerel. As the poem reaches its conclusion, with the only perfectly rhymed quatrain in the piece, the sentence seems twisted in order to make the rhymes.
How much of this is intended and how much of this is a beginner struggling with the verse? Who can say. From working with it, I think the rhyme scheme that refuses to be—well, a scheme—is likely intended. It does keep you off balance, but I think it’s effective. The meter with its odd steps, is likely just as intentional, though I’m still not sure it works as well for the performer or listener. Even in the performance you’ll hear today I didn’t reproduce Thomas’ text correctly, rounding off a few of the rough spots, and revising the last line of the fifth verse. Another musician who has worked with a great many poems, including a number by Thomas, gracefully manages to sing this poem unaltered, though I’m now somewhat attached to my “mistaken” changed line.
What then comes from repeated readings, or from the time I had to spend with this poem in order to turn it into a song? First off Thomas is playing with time. He starts off with a common trope: and end of summer poem. How many of us are having this same thought, “Where did the summer go?” Almost as if he’s leaving his own critical note, Thomas’ second stanza says right out, “Not memorable.”
And then he adds: “Save I saw them go.” Already, the poem starts its turn into a poem about survivor’s guilt.
In the next verse, we’ve gone from a ballad stanza style rhyme scheme, to a verse that starts with a rhymed couplet, followed by an unrhymed couplet. You really feel the lack of rhyme every time you sing or say “The Blenheim oranges/Fall grubby from the trees.” The curious pendant in me had to find out what a Blenheim orange is. It can’t be an orange, can it? As the sentry in Monty Python’s Holy Grail reminds us: “Found them? In Mercia? The coconut (like the orange) is tropical! This is a temperate zone.”
The Blenheim orange is instead an English apple variety. Blenheim orange is a flavorful name though. It’s even an alternate title under which the poem is sometimes published. Assuming intention, Thomas may have chosen it not just because the apple is named the same as an imposing palace in Oxfordshire, but because the palace, and presumably the name of the apple as well, comes from a battle that was already 200 years ago when Thomas wrote his poem, a key engagement in the European War of Spanish Succession.
This may be too subtle by half, a College Bowl or Jeopardy-level question about history that almost everyone in the audience will miss.
Here’s where the play with time part returns. The poem next visits an abandoned house site, a trope that Thomas’ friend Robert Frost would go to more than once in his own rural poems.
Thomas is writing his poem in the context of WWI. During his entire poetic practice, he was grappling with the question if he, nearing 40 years old, should volunteer for battle service in WWI. He’s considering this well past any illusions of a grand battle adventure. He’s well aware that modern warfare has turned technology into an efficient killing machine, in his disconcertingly brutal phrase, turning “young men to dung.”
How long as this house been abandoned? Since the war of Spanish Succession? Since the outbreak of WWI (which might be the cause that river barge traffic is absent and those apples falling unpicked)?
Here the poem completes its turn: a compressed meditation on the losses of the cycle of life with or without the fortunes of war, four warm months started us off, May to August; now life is four as well “Youth, love, age, and pain.”
Thomas’ conclusion is stoic, fatalistic. The final verse’s schoolboys are a rich image, at once nihilistic vandals and the reduction of reason and textbook learning to emptiness. In Thomas’ time, WWI has broken the world, and he eventually decides that the call of duty, however irrational, is the only way to take part in the mending and solace of tradition.
Here’s an audio piece that begins in the midst of a common life event: when a son leaves home to go off on his own independence. While this leave-taking could be for a job, or for military or other service, in the modern world, it might well be for college.
Other than its late summertime setting, and the odd moment when the son in this story is thinking of something he’s read in a book as much as what his father is saying as he leaves, there’s nothing in it that indicates the child is leaving for school. Perhaps the son or the reader in this opening scene thinks that such a leave-taking will be the story of “One Summer Morning, Which Isn’t,” but eventually things open to a broader story.
Many who read an earlier version of this were puzzled by the title. “Why isn’t it, that, one summer morning?” they ask. I once revised the title to answer the puzzlement, but today’s version instead revises the text of the piece to try to better convey what I wanted to get at under its original title. Even that first morning in the opening is seen from two very different perspectives, and as the story expands I try to show that leaving-takings are, strangely, always present, they are not only a moment or a single day. Am I successful in that effort? I’m not sure. It’s gone through several revisions over six years, and by now I’m not even sure it’s a poem, if it isn’t more of a compressed short story. Well, the new draft is done, and it’s ready for you to hear it performed.
Here is a short piece about an intense memory experience, where you believe you are fully re-experiencing something from earlier in your life. This is not déjà vu, and I don’t even know if there is any similar widely used term with plentiful accent marks over top the letters for this. And since this is a subjective experience, I can’t say for sure how common it is; but for me it happens fairly often. In these moments I’m not merely remembering something, I feel I’m re-living it, with access to the entire sensory experience—but the experience is felt by a mixture of the past me mixed with the present me.
This can be pleasant or not, but it always feels spooky to me. Subjectively (there’s that word again) it feels like the nature of time itself is being exposed, that the concept that time passes could be an illusion, that all time is happening now. Or that time may move in a boustrophedon manner wrapping back and forth next to itself.
I suspect some of you are going “Oh wow, that’s heavy.” Some “That’s some mystical B.S. there!” Others may wonder if chemical intoxicants are involved (short answer, nope). Some of you may even be puzzled about what I’m talking about, not having had the experience, or having had it and not stopping to fully encounter it.
Still, this is a subject that poetry allows, because, like all arts, poetry is about sharing the subjective human experience. Now-a-days this sometimes goes by the rubric “sharing one’s own truth.” I’m not fond of that phrase, though I believe compassionate people use it with good motives. Somewhere I’ve picked up the first principle of objective truth, even though that cannot be knowable out to all its edges, even if it must be handled with approximations.
So, I will make no Blakean claims of mystical revelation with “Summer For,” but you may still find this an interesting experience to share for three minutes, along with some skittering acoustic guitar accompaniment.
The Paris Review recently selected four guest editors, poets who will be asked to help select and present poems during a project in the upcoming year. To introduce their project and these editor/poets, they asked the poets for remarks on “Where is poetry now?” Each of the poets had interesting things to say, but I was struck particularly by part of what Vijay Seshadri said.
Seshadri is a contemporary poet of some accomplishments, awards and note, but I had not noted those things, nor could I recall any of his work before reading his remarks. That alone could be remarkable under the subject of “Where is poetry now?”—but let us ascribe that to my own focus and hit and miss reading habits for now. Seshadri addressed the question I’ve brought up here a number of times: how can or should poetry address political and social questions?
Seshadri tells of a recent poetry workshop he taught. He describes his students as “young, sensitive, and deeply empathetic.” Looking to current events in the United States, he asked them “to consider the children in cages,” implying that he would like them to address that with their workshop poems, but he found that they could not do so in the work they presented, at least during the week-long workshop. Another writer could have used this observation as a springboard to that hardy perennial topic: “What’s wrong with the younger generation?” or its broader targeted version: “What’s wrong with our culture or society?” Seshadri didn’t.
What did he say instead about why this might be difficult for artists, and what they might do about that difficulty? This is what I present in today’s audio piece, using words of his that I extracted from his remarks. I use as an epigraph a line from one of Seshadri’s poems, and the title I use "Poetry vs. Children in Cages" is my own concoction, but I hope I am being fair to his thoughts.
These are important questions. I know many of the readers here are poets or other artists. You may not agree with Seshadri’s thoughts on this, but you are still charged to think about this. Perhaps, like Seshadri’s students, you won’t have an answer in a week’s time, but that’s not a reason to stop thinking and trying to find a way to address our world.
Today’s episode is something of a companion to our last one, what with moths appearing in each. Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson let the Book of Job fly in with her moth, and today Thomas Hardy’s open summer window lets in four bugs.
Our scene? A summer night, window open, a 19th Century lamp letting Hardy literally and literarily burn the midnight oil. The breeze and light brings on the bugs, and beside the moth we get a daddy-longlegs spider, a fly, and a dumbledore. Besides it making his rhyme, I think Hardy must have liked that charming name for his fourth bug, which is either a bumble bee or a beetle, though either will disappoint Harry Potter fans brought here by a search term.
What was Hardy writing when the bugs arrived? He doesn’t say, though of course to be meta, it should be this poem now shouldn’t it—but even if it was some other piece, the bugs interrupt it, marching over his just-penned wet ink and drawing his attention away to their antics. Susan Gilbert Dickinson called her moth “silly” and Hardy had them more or less performing a Three Stooges skit bumping into the glass of his artificial light.
Susan Gilbert Dickinson wanted to remind us of that harrowing Old Testament lesson that God can crush a human as easily as a bug. She wrote “Irony” and underlined it over the top of her poem’s manuscript. Hardy writes a slightly different conclusion. After watching his fab four beetles make a farce out replacing the poet on top of his manuscript paper, he ends by declaring that those insects know more about nature than he does. I think that little insect play on his desk reminds him that he, like other poets, can bungle the job of reading the book of nature as often as not.
Just as the last time I worked with Thomas Hardy poetry, the melody just flowed out effortlessly when I went to set his words. I quickly had the basic vocal and guitar track, and then added a couple of cello parts and an additional guitar melody that followed what I had so easily fallen into as I sang Hardy’s words.
That electric guitar melody line uses a DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal which I’ve been using a fair amount here lately. It’s a very flexible effects pedal, but I won’t interrupt this with any more guitar nerd material than that tonight.
Increasingly, I am comprehending the miracle of Emily Dickinson. Fifty years before Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme constructed a compressed modern poetry replacing conventional imagery with fresh and direct observation, a woman in a rural town in the woods of Massachusetts had already practiced their innovations over a thousand times.
Through a series of happy accidents, Dickinson’s poetry was preserved and published at the end of the 19th Century, just before the Imagists launched their Modernism ut even then, she was still like one of those unexploded bombs dug up by a construction crew decades after the war. Even after publication, the framing of her poetry still obscured it. Her posthumous editors cleaned up her punctuation and gave the poems titles, and so on the page they looked normal. As these were poems by an Emily, they were clearly the work of a woman, and so they were read as women were generally understood, even when not pressed between the boards of a poetry book. And Dickinson herself designed her poems to draw you in with their modest length, their frequent use of pious hymn meters and stanzas, their homey rhymes. Even into my mid-20th Century lifetime, it was perfectly possible to be aware of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and not be awed.
“Hey Joe, there’s a big chunk of metal buried way down in the mud! Here, listen when I give it a bit of a whack with my pipe wrench…”
Some early 20th Century Modernists looked more closely, and maybe saw some of what was there. Carl Sandburg straight-out called her an Imagist in his poem. I am unaware of how much attention the other early Modernists gave to Dickinson, but just on a promotional level, it might not be advantageous to talk much about poems written decades ago when your brand is “Make it new!” Remember too how Pound jabbed at Walt Whitman in his tribute poem: Walt Whitman you were a hacker out there in some unharvested forest, I’m a fine wood-carver able to bring out the finest detail. Dickinson’s near-rhymes and loose but familiar meters may have been read as imperfections to Modernism.
It took the last quarter of the 20th Century for Emily Dickinson to finally be seen, and we are still seeing more now as we look closer. What if, back in the mid-19th Century when Dickinson was creating this unprecedented expression, one had been able to talk with her about it? The value of writers’ groups, seminars, and MFA programs is not universally acknowledged, but most think these things at least have some effect on those who participate.
It just so happens, that occurred. Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson give us some of her ideas, but as I read that correspondence I see Dickinson adopting masks, some playfully, some for protection. And Higginson, as varied as he was, was not, as far as I know, a poet, and therefore there was no chance that he would use Dickinson as a model for his own writing. But Dickinson’s long-time friend, neighbor, and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a writer who dabbled in poetry.
No other person saw as much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry while she was still alive as Susan. It’s also probable that no other person other than Emily Dickinson’s sister Lavina (who seems to have had no artistic interests) was as intimate with the author. There is even speculation that there was an erotic bond between Susan and Emily.
Today’s piece uses a poem by Susan Gilbert Dickinson that shows some of the same elements one finds in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Given that the prolific Emily Dickinson experimented with her expression, if “Crushed Before the Moth” was slipped into some complete poems of Emily Dickinson volume it would not seem entirely out of place.
What elements of “Crushed Before the Moth” are Dickinsonian? A short line length (six syllables, though not Emily’s familiar 6/8/6/8 hymn stanza). Alternating rhymed lines with un-rhymed, though here first and third not second and fourth, and the rhymes are all perfect rhymes except the final “moth.” Even the use a Bible verse (Job 4:19) is not unprecedented in Dickinson, who though a religious dissenter, was steeped in a Christian religious culture.
The poem begins, just as many of Emily’s poems will, with a close observation of nature. In Job, the moth is only a passing metaphor, in Susan’s poem it’s an actual moth, looked at closely enough to see the texture of its body in the evening. The moth is treated here as an Imagist would. It’s not some intellectual counter, a rote symbol only standing for something else, but an actual animal in an actual evening. The second stanza continues in the same vein, the moth the morning after, though with more characterization.
The concluding three lines, though they contain the only Emily-like slant rhyme, are the least like Dickinson’s poetry. That kind of envoi ending with a clear and orthodox moral lesson is not something Emily would write in her mature poetry, and the “Is this thy stronger host” line sounds unnatural and stilted.
Still, this might be the first poem ever written that imitates Emily Dickinson’s strengths and innovations. That Susan Gilbert Dickinson was a more orthodox Christian than her friend, and like all of us, not the genius that Emily Dickinson was, doesn’t keep her “Crushed Before the Moth” from being an effective poem.
Two threads are here, waiting to be woven together. One thread: those young pre-WWI Modernists, the other: writers in old age.
Young: Mina Loy, Alfred Kreymborg, Glaspell and Cook of the Provincetown Playhouse early in their careers, workers shaping modern literature—though none of them are remembered much now. Older poets: Longfellow, Donald Hall, and even Sarojini Naidu, Dave Moore and I, all speaking for carrying on past youth. Longfellow of course is no longer read for his intrinsic value, Naidu’s poetry is not read in the West, and Donald Hall concludes in his late-life essays, that he, like the majority of poets who receive prizes, notice and ample publication in their time, will be unread 20 years after their death. Moore and I of course are in a different, more perilous, class of ranked achievement. If Hall is right, Dave and I can look forward to equaling prize winner and American Poet Laurette Donald Hall’s status (unread, forgotten) in only 20 years!
There’s your writer’s affirmation for today.
What happened to those bright young Modernists? Cook died young. Kreymborg, that pre-WWI networking avant garde-ist, had a long post-war career judged by literary critics as undistinguished. Glaspell had an increasingly difficult second half of a career, though she won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931 for a play that few praise now, the sort of late plaudit that sometimes comes to pioneers when prize committees compensate for overlooking earlier achievements. Like Hall, Mina Loy lived into her 80s, but unlike Hall, the last half of her life seems fallen from any career path. So, even before she died in 1966, she’d already achieved Hall’s 20-years-past-death status.
In 1960, Loy was 77 and living in the Western US when young poet Paul Blackburn was sent to interview her. A creaky two-hour tape exists of the encounter. Loy’s memory of things a half-century old seems spotty by this time, and this once eloquent poet grasps for words, even her own words, when asked to read her still modern sounding verse from her youth. Her readings are flat, though she occasionally is stirred by remembrance of the times and places when the poems were written. Once or twice she humble-brags or finds sincere surprise at how clever she had been. Listening, I wanted her to claim outright the fierceness she had shown back then. Instead, she seems an old 77, tired and distracted.
Blackburn is patient, and he rarely man-splains or talks over Loy, something I would be all too prone to do if I was the man holding the microphone. He seems to genuinely admire Loy’s poetry as he seeks to add to a record of a career that was forgotten then, and he wants her to know that in 1960, at least one reader “gets” what she wrote in 1914.
Just past one hour in the recording, something extraordinary happens. Blackburn, touched by one of Loy’s recovered memories, a feeling perhaps amplified by additional visual clues he would have in the room that are not imprinted on the audio tape, exchanges with Loy a memory from his own youth during the second instead of the first world war.
I have taken that story, much as Blackburn expressed it that day in 1960, with some minimal editing and shaping for the words of today’s audio piece.
Of course, we’ve now largely forgotten Paul Blackburn as a poet too, following Hall’s law. Blackburn died too young, and more than 20 years ago, but his story struck me as a tightly expressed spontaneous poem. What was this: a poem he had already written, one he was paraphrasing from memory for Loy? Was it a poem he was thinking of writing as he interviewed the aged poet, perhaps thinking the tape recorder could serve as well as a notebook jot to put a first draft down? Was Blackburn simply a practiced poet who could orally improvise from his skills a well-shaped improvisation?
Whichever, I think it’s beautiful. His story combines looking back at youth and a landscape that is no more, with Dante’s Inferno moved forward to Greatest Generation Pittsburg, and it has a closing that contains a remarkable Imagist jump into synesthesia. I call my arrangement of Blackburn’s anecdote told to Loy “Seventeen Almost to Ohio.”
It’s now 1916—well not really—but allow me immediate mode for the time being. Some early 20th Century Modernist characters we’ve already met are about to collaborate in New York City with a largely forgotten figure whose words we’ll meet today.
The Provincetown Playhouse, that CBGB’s of Modernist American Theater, has moved its organization from the remote Cape Cod artist’s colony to New York’s Greenwich village, and they’re still looking for new types of plays by new playwrights. How about drama using Modernist poetry?
Verse drama, despite continuing productions of Shakespeare, is a thing that often generates rumors of revival while never really reviving. In 1916, the Provincetown group was open to trying this. Which poets can come up with something?
Alfred Kreymborg could. Kreymborg was a leading networker or influencer in the New York area for Modernist poetry. Ezra Pound, and then Amy Lowell, would publish anthology books of Imagist Poets. Harriet Monroe out of Chicago was also gathering new Modernist work for Poetry magazine. In 1916 Kreymborg would do the same in New York, with a magazine and anthology book series called “Others.” Kreymborg had also been writing poetry, short poems mostly, all of them free verse. Now a play.
The play he wrote is an odd thing to describe. Titled "Lima Beans,” it’s a two-character play about a couple. The husband loves lima beans, the wife decides he might also like string beans and surprises him with the new beans—but no, he loves lima beans. He stalks off, angry. She scrambles and gets some lima beans. He realizes he loves his wife, returns and she’s got lima beans for him. Kiss. Curtain.
I guess this could be a Seinfeld episode plot decades later, but that’s not how Kreymborg uses it. He writes his play with litanies of repeated words, hocketing between the two voices. After reading the play this month, I’m guessing a performance might sound like a cross between Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham and a late 20th Century Minimalist musical work by someone like Phillip Glass or Meredith Monk. Or as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan would have it, Waiting for Godot, but with vegetables—and a little sex in it. That musical comparison is particularly apt, because even though the play did not use musical accompaniment, Kreymborg saw it as a musical structure.
So here in 1916 we have the Provincetown group, putting on a play that pioneered a performance aesthetic that still seems audacious 50 or 60 years later. Who are you going to get as actors to realize this: words and a presentation of thought conveyed musically, without actual music?
Poets. In the role of the husband, William Carlos Williams. In the role of the wife, Mina Loy, who had just arrived in New York after getting away from those Italian Futurists. Neither poet had acted before, but Kreymborg rehearsed the two poets until they could present his free-verse vision.
I toyed with the idea of trying to realize Lima Beans here, although with music this time. But it really needs two voices, and I wasn’t sure that a short section could do justice to the structure of the piece.
In it’s place, I looked for a short poem of Kreymborg’s to use instead. This proved more difficult than I thought it would be. I read his two poetry collections from this era, but no poem grabbed my attention. As in the play, he’s looking for a new poetic language in these poems, but it’s hard to grab the emotional center of many of them for performance.
In the end I chose today’s piece: “To W.C.W. M.D.” It’s dedicated to William Carlos Williams. This might be more of Kreymborg’s log-rolling networking skills on display, but its subject also answered a desire I have to do a piece remembering my late wife Renee Robbins in some way today. As best as I can penetrate the emotional core of this poem, it speaks of the need to separate and not separate from those that have died.
Musically, the piece is based on one stacked chord, E minor7/11, but the notes are spread out between the instruments. Besides drums there are two bass guitars, piano, two viola parts, a violin part, and a clarinet in this.
Complaints about the size of the audience for poetry are far from new. So to, complaints about the quality of its audience. Throughout the course of the 20th Century, one increasingly common theory has been to assume that a quality audience for poetry is likely incompatible with a quantity audience for the art.
We’ve just about used up two decades of our century, and that theory is still around. This quantity/quality audience-linkage belief is not always stated plainly, but it’s not hard to see its presence. Poets that rise to modest or surprising audience size will sometimes face some degree of backlash from critics. It may naturally be so that their poetry is less worthy by some criteria, it could be coincidental, honest criticism. It may be that it’s hard to find an audience for poetry criticism, as it is for poetry, so writing about better known practitioners who have failed in some way helps grow the audience for the critic.
Another way to hold to this theory is to limit what poetry is allowed to do, to narrow its practice or even its definition. Spoken word or slam poetry—not really poetry, or it encourages a poor selection of poetry’s virtues. Song lyrics—self-evidently a different art, though given that the consensus canon of poetry is so different among itself, surely difference alone cannot be the criteria. Mix those two as rap or hip-hop and risk both explanations of why it’s not poetry. Short, aphoristic poems—too insubstantial. Long poetic forms once much in evidence, like the poetic epic or verse drama—no longer living forms of the art for the most part, if for no other reason than the type of poetic techniques the modern academic poet often uses can wear out an audience in a matter of minutes.
Myself, I don’t disagree or agree with those judgements in particular cases, and they could even be theoretically correct, I just viscerally dislike the idea that this thing poetry is so small and limited, that it’s a desert island disc for a few scattered islands, deeply loved by solitary coconut eaters with a very constricted shoreline.
When I break out of those narrow roles and rules for poetry, I will fail, and I do get discouraged. My limitations are bothering me two years into this project; and 240 published audio pieces later, I may be running out of rules to break and the motivating pleasures of audacity.
Here’s a piece using a poem by someone who somewhat agrees with me: William Butler Yeats. In one way it’s specific to him, and his time. I’ve recently honored two working-class sport fishermen in one of my favorite pieces so far this year, but the fisherman in Yeats’ title, the simple man working his craft on nature to help feed himself rather than for hobbyist enjoyment—well, he, even in a much poorer Ireland of 1916, is admitted as imaginary.
Otherwise, how about those folks listed in the middle section of today’s piece that are harshing Yeats’ mellow? How little imagination is needed to see them today?
I admire Yeats in this poem, embracing his failure, even though he brought immense poetic talents to his work, so much so that I should be embarrassed to admit to that admiration. In one way, the fisherman here is Yeats, casting with deft wrist or verse but not in the course of the poem catching anything. There’s a saying in the fishermen in my family, “It’s called fishing, not catching.”
But the imagined fisherman is also that audience Yeats seeks. Maybe once, Yeats says at the end, maybe once, he can please an audience correctly, with a single valid poem and valiant audience—even if he can only see that audience in his imagination. I surely hope (and Yeats’ life helps me here) that the singular fisherman is an image for a possible greater audience, and not a headcount. After all, to write for something as large as “his race” (by which he means Ireland), is too small a target to hit, while that tweedy imagined fly-fisher inside his jacket might possibly expand to more countries, more times, more genders. In Yeats’ case, as with all artists, he failed; but he failed reaching for a larger audience with a larger poetry, a poetry which he risked allying with other arts. Many of us will not be able to accomplish that failure, but I’m glad Yeats tried.