I’m going to take a break from my Dave Moore series today, if only because I rather like this piece I’ve been working on and want to present it to you.
“Fog” is likely the most well-known poem by Carl Sandburg without Chicago in its title, and it appears in many school textbooks where it serves as an introduction to metaphor. The Carl Sandburg who wrote it didn’t intend it to be a lesson. I think he wanted to write a Modernist, Imagist poem, the way a small group of others were writing them in the era roughly 100 years ago.
One thing I’ve learned searching out pieces for this project was that Modernism in its High Modernism guise has overtaken the work done by those preceding Imagist pioneers. As those who’ve visited here during cruel April Poetry Month will know, I enjoy somewhat those knotty, learned, collaged and college-ruled works that T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland laid out. And World War I, we should not forget, was a terrible disaster with near untellable loss of life and loss of hope for its generation. WWI probably had to change things. The Carl Sandburg who wrote his early Imagist poems went about his pre-WWI world with an open heart and open eyes. In his poetry and in his political writing there’s a panorama of evil and survival, loneliness and stubborn love.
So, to reduce “Fog” to a lesson on metaphor is to amputate that context, and to forget the Imagist quest to renovate entirely metaphor as it had been received by Sandburg’s generation. Imagist poems often wanted to break through the fourth wall of metaphor, to make it more than an a decorative, this stands for that, analogy. “Fog” is fog, and the cat is a cat. Yes, they have meaning beyond that, all reality does.
You could start by asking yourself, if this is a real cat then, what kind of cat is it?
A house pet, one used to demanding the pricey wet food and best place on the dry, warm bed? No, it’s on the docks. It could be a ship’s cat, a fellow laborer, or a feral cat making do with what it can find there. It can’t call attention to itself for its prey and its own risk, and so it’s silent—and like its life and labor, obscured by the fog, by the cat’s own actions and the actions of the world. Sandburg sees his worth to see that.
That’s an Imagist poem, a direct presentation of reality, with no false rhymes or conventional or show-off imagery. There’s love and respect in it too, for the working common of us, singing the insubstantial and all-covering fog of our lives and labor, that save for the notice of the poet or artist, is silent and then moves on.
That, dear readers and listeners, is why you should pay attention to Carl Sandburg, who’s nearly fallen out of the cannon of important Modernists and consideration as an important poet, who is, I tell you, as you are, more than an example of metaphor.
Did I skip over Dave Moore the poet and writer to get to Dave Moore the words and music guy? Perhaps. Let’s step back away from the 1980s and recap a bit in word-print silence, without the musical noises at the beginning.
I met Dave almost exactly 50 years ago in 1968. And my first encounter found him reading his poetry in a church. He was also publishing what would have been called an “underground newspaper” in those days, an occasional Ditto-machine-printed* dozen pages or so of social, political and cultural comment, which I eventually contributed to. 1968 was a fabled year, like unto 1989 or perhaps some year coming soon in our current folly, full of momentous and contentious events. Odd as it may seem, it felt important to engage with them on paper, even for a small audience.
Dave left for Wisconsin to continue college, I ended up in New York to not. We didn’t see each other for over five years.
When I decided to cover Bob Dylan in reverse, and left New York for Minnesota in 1976, I ended up staying with Dave for a while and helping him work on rehabbing a run-down house he was living in. Dave had hooked up with a group of writers, the Lake Street Writers Group, all of whom lived a few blocks from that central east-west commercial/industrial strip in Minneapolis. As a group it was an unusual mix, including bartenders and low-paid workers, most with some college under their belts, but now in their mid-20s trying to figure out what to do with life that didn’t formally give college credits. These experiences gave the group something of a blue-collar, we’ll earn our cultural worth, not be awarded it, air that I liked. I too joined in the group.
Besides the usual get-together/critique/talk thing that writers’ groups have done forever, the Lake Street Writers Group ran a little magazine, The Lake Street Review. The first two bootstrap issues were printed on Dave’s Ditto machine, the magazine’s post office box was Dave’s too, and Dave was co-editor in the beginning along with the founding spirit of the enterprise, poet Kevin FitzPatrick.**
I asked Dave what poetry he remembered writing or publishing from this era today, and he reminded me that in the mid ‘70s he was concentrating more on stories. “Oh,” he recalled, “There was a song ‘Ballad of Mr. Lake Street vs. Mr. Id’ in the Lake Street Review.” That piece of Dada was attributed to John Lee Svenska in print, but it would have predated his work with Fine Art or the LYL Band by several years.
What would you get if you combined blue-collar with Dada? One answer would be some of the first songs Dave wrote for the LYL Band. Yesterday’s “Evil Man” would be one example, the man in the title morphing from childhood bully to sociopathic businessman to stickup man. You could see this as a new expression of the notable Woody Guthrie line about “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen,” but by having the evil man fade in and out of these equivalented roles from verse to verse, the Dada this-beside-this comparison is made. In today’s piece, Dave’s early ‘80s song “The Night Inspector,” the Ubu Roi rides a fork-lift in a factory. To give you some relief from the audio quality of the archival recordings from the early ‘80s, this performance is a later one where I sing Dave’s song with acoustic guitar.
*I’m reminded that Fugs’ founder Ed Sanders was able to raise his ruckus in the ‘60s Greenwich Village scene at first by being the owner of a similar machine on which he printed his own little magazine and flyers. Ditto machines were better than Mimeograph machines. Mimeo machines printed in purple and their printed pages stank of that can’t-be-healthy-for-you volatile ink that is probably responsible for some of you getting lower mid-century grades than your parents expected on school tests. Ditto machines produced pages that looked more like “real” printed work with dark black text.
**Kevin FitzPatrick has continued to write poetry dealing with this milieu for his entire career, including a great number of poems, too rare in our culture, that deal with the complexity of day to day work as an employee. Here’s a link that will let you read part of his introduction to some selected poems of his, where Kevin talks about the life experience from this Lake Street Review era that helped inform his poems.
The ‘70s outburst of new bands that were called punk, then new wave, and finally indie can be traced to a beginning (or beginnings), and here’s what’s too-little recognized about that: it started with poets and writers.
Some who know that punk didn’t start with Johnny Rotten, say that it all can be traced back a band that called itself Television who convinced a desperate bar owner that his Bowery bar called CBGB should let them play music there in 1974. Television wasn’t a gigging band, rather it was the idea of two poets, friends since high school who had moved to New York City and started to call themselves by suitably poetic names: Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell.
But even before that, two other NYC writers were combining poetry with rock’n’roll: Lenny Kaye, a guitarist and rock critic with tendencies to musicology, and Patti Smith, a poet who thought that if she wanted rock’n’roll to be a fit subject and context for poetry, maybe the sound of rock should come along explicitly. In 1971, the pair linked up to perform at St. Marks in the Bowery with Kaye on electric guitar, at a long-standing reading series (instigated by Paul Blackburn, who we’ve met here previously). Eventually there would be a band, the Patti Smith Group, but that band started as an idea of two writers, and for awhile it was just Kaye’s guitar and a piano player with Smith’s chanted vocals.
So how far back does that idea go, two poets or two writers, imagining a rock band? Let’s set the New York wayback machine 7 years further back, to 1964. Two poets and well-rounded Greenwich Village bohemians Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg looked at the folk music scene, understood that the term means what it says, that any odd folk were allowed to make music, and so they gathered some handy musicians and imagined a band they called The Fugs. Their first recording was called on its first pressing on Folkways “The Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction,” and it was produced by Harry Smith, the important folk anthologist, but they eventually became a rock band touring with an irregular accumulation of Village musicians. Besides having the foundational indie spirit of we’re going to make music without asking for permission, The Fugs were also sometimes gleefully obscene—something that bohemian poets had already done, and they brought this with them to music. In today’s world of autotuned rappers, their sexual hijinks may not shock as much now as their naked-to-the-world out of tune vocals.
And what bridges the Fugs to the ‘70s NYC punk-rock poets? Poet Lou Reed, musician John Cale, and eventual English Literature PhD Sterling Morrison formed the Velvet Underground. Like the other poet bands, the idea of forming a group preceded any complete organization into a band. The Velvet’s original drummer famously quit when the band got its first gig, because he thought accepting any gig would be selling out.
Do you notice a rhyme scheme here? None of these situations started with a full band of musicians looking for their chance. These weren’t musicians looking to get poetic, these were poets looking to get musical. Of the seven writers above, I believe only Kaye and Reed had ever played a gig before they dreamed their bands. What musicians were recruited, what musical skills would be developed or obtained, all came after the idea, an idea that was launched in performance before it became fully-formed rock band.
I’m not suggesting this is the best way to start a band or establish a career, because this is pretty much the way the LYL Band started. Dave remembers that Fine Art had looked to him for words, and once asked, the words that could be songs started building up in him. I had been writing songs for a year or so before I came to the Twin Cities. I had an acoustic and electric guitar, Dave had old upright piano in his living room. Sometime a few months after Fine Art got underway, in 1979, we started playing together, a two-person version of the traditional song pull. He’d do a song and I do a song and we’d try to figure out what went with what the other was playing.
Whose idea was it to form a band? I think it was likely Dave’s. Dave’s not entirely sure. The broader gestalt of punk and indie breaking out was part of it, including the example of Fine Art of course. We both shared an appreciation of The Fugs, and that anarchic idea of band that would perform any idea for a song, even if their musical execution might be imperfect. Hell, their LP title “Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction” could have been our tagline too.
The idea of just an acoustic piano and a single guitar as a band was incomplete and we knew it. Even in the loosest standard in the era, we couldn’t be a rock band. As Dave’s songs built up, we performed at a few open mics acoustically as a duo, and we started to call ourselves “punk-folk.” We played several midday informal gigs at the Modern Times restaurant on Chicago Avenue (I worked nights, which cut into more conventional times) and from this short-lived noon-time schedule we named ourselves The Lose Your Lunch Band.
Still a duo in 1982 we recorded our only “official” release, the mostly electric (Dave had bought an old Farfisa organ) “Driving the Porcelain Bus.” Recorded by Colin Mansfield on what was probably the same 4 track open-reel deck that recorded those Husker Du demos. You can see that we weren’t shy about the emetic band name, but it had nothing to do with the songs we were singing. We sang songs about political subjects, blue-color experiences, and satirized the Me generation. “Driving the Porcelain Bus” was probably the first cassette-only release in the Twin Cities indie scene, but it came before there was a regular distribution method for pre-recorded cassettes. Besides the usual direct sales, I reverse-shoplifted the cassettes (each packaged in a folded brown-paper lunch sack with the track list printed on the paper) dropping them into spaces in the LP bins of record stores. I wonder if any clerks remember being asked to ring up a strange recording that wasn’t actually in inventory?
It was the Reagan decade, the rise of the new affabulatory GOP. Dave had lots of song material. We’ll continue the story of Dave’s new-found songwriting in another post, but here’s today’s audio piece: Dave Moore performing his song “Evil Man” live at the Modern Times sometime in the early ‘80s with the two-person LYL Band. Dave is pounding the house piano within an inch of its life and has a vocal mic. The MT sound system had one more channel which meant that I’m trying to get my little guitar to be heard over the piano while shouting backing vocals into the mic halfway down my body to where the guitar was. I believe I recorded this on a portable cassette recorder sitting somewhere on one of the restaurant’s side tables. As they say in collector’s circles: archival interest sound quality.
This month, I’m going to start a series here featuring the words and music of Dave Moore. This is different—and not—because long-time listeners will have heard Dave’s voice and words here from the beginning, but this time I’m going to expose a little more of Dave’s range of work. If you’ve come here expecting our usual eclectic mix of poetry from various eras with music, don’t worry, we’re not abandoning that (and there’s lots here, just look at the archives on the right), I’m just taking some time to present something different, and “something different” has been my aim since the start.
I’m going to try to put Dave’s stuff in context, at least the way I’ve seen it. I’ve known Dave for 50 years. He was writing poetry before I met him, and he’ll write things for the page to this day, but he became a songwriter and he has had a long-running one-panel comic for decades too. I’ll start by talking about the songs.
A little over 40 years ago Dave’s words were used for the lyrics of a third of the songs on one of the pioneering Twin Cities punk/new-wave/indie records: 1978’s Fine Art’s Fine Art. Dave didn’t perform with the band, and as far as I know, he didn’t have any direct input on the music the band created for the songs. Fine Art existed from just before their only LP was released until around 1983.
That you haven’t heard of Fine Art is likely derived from several reasons. The biggest one is that they, unlike some later Twin Cities’ Indie bands, never made it nationally, but I remain puzzled as to how they have disappeared from the memories, books, and posts of those who have sought to cover the local Minnesota-based heroes that made and made up the late 1970s scene that produced The Replacements, Husker Du, and Soul Asylum, and even to some degree Prince, a scene that was then the platform under an even later generation of Twin Cities connected indies like Babes in Toyland, The Hold Steady, or the Jayhawks. Like other cities who experienced the eruption of indie bands in the late 70s and early 80s, the Twin Cities has its own selection of “They were so good and original, how come they never made it as national acts?” bands. The Suicide Commandos, The Suburbs*, and The Wallets were unforgettable to most who saw them locally, but their national/international profiles never really existed, and are now, like our weather will be soon, below zero. Fine Art, who have a good case to being seminal to the scene, who staked their own distinctive sound within it, are forgotten even locally, and that pains and puzzles me.
So, if you make it through this post, you’ll know more about the band Fine Art than anything you’ll be able to find in a book or on the web. In talking about why they didn’t make it into history, I’m going to try to sneak in why you should care about what they did.
OK, what were the problems and obstacles that explain why you haven’t heard of Fine Art, even though they helped break the ground for a significant Indie rock scene?
Their name, Fine Art, can be understood unironically. Their leader**, Colin Mansfield was a highly experimental guitarist, and his compositional ideas were not punk pure nor entirely pop accessible. A sizeable portion of the Twin Cities scene followed the early 80’s movement to make hardcore music which was intense not only in its volume and velocity, but in the kind of loose authenticity that later was called grunge.*** “Art rock” was another of the labels hung on “Progressive Rock,” and that was the enemy to this segment. Fine Art, particularly in it’s early days, could be just as much (or even more) a focused frenzy as, for example, Husker Du,**** but that band had a non-sequitur, non-significant name, and Fine Art’s name on a concert handbill may have suggested the wrong thing to some of the market.
They were song-oriented. Despite the continuing connoisseur appreciation for Grant Hart, Paul Westerberg, and Bob Mould as songwriters, the early TC live indie music scene then was not conducive to them. PAs, live board ops, and venues tended to make all the bands vocals unintelligible. On record, the songs come through, but Fine Art issued too few recordings: essentially one self-titled LP of an early version of the band before they were fully formed, and one EP, Scan, that better represents the middle of the band’s life. I’m unaware of any other Minnesota band with the breadth and quality of material from this early ‘80s era which left so little recorded legacy—but then that proves my point I guess, how would I know if such other bands existed?
Live shows. The power of Fine Art in a live show could be substantial, perhaps most intensely on a small stage in a small room, but despite having exceptional singers/front-women over the band’s lifetime, they didn’t always come over on the First Avenue mainstage, the largest venue to present indie acts by the early ‘80s. Their contemporary local heroes The Suburbs (who like Fine Art never limited themselves to hardcore punk-rock moves) would in this era have one of the most dynamic high-energy live shows I’ve ever seen. Last night I watched Sammy Hagar on TV relating what he thought the wisest words legendary concert promoter Bill Graham had imparted to him: “It isn’t the audience’s job to win you over, you have to win them over.” Sammy Hagar, then as now, wouldn’t be a cool re-teller of an always controversial promotor’s bromide, but Fine Art in all it’s incarnations, had a cool stage demeanor, putting out the best music they could devise without a smarmy sales pitch, but also never explicitly pulling the audience into their vision. This stance works more often after you’ve become famous, or (paradoxically) after you’ve become famous for not catering to audiences in an overt way, but it’s the more difficult shot to make, and Fine Art didn’t make its shot.
I was going to write even more dancing-architecture about Fine Art on stage when I discovered that there is available a good quality film of them just past the midlife of the band, performing at the famous 7th Street Entry small room in Minneapolis. This was a good lineup for the band musically, and the performance is about as open and inviting as any I recall seeing. The short film misses some of my favorite numbers, any 45 minute film would, and in particular it includes none of the songs that best showed singer Kay Maxwell’s more exploratory vocal work. But, apropos of my point above, this is about as open and warm as they got, even in a small club. Guitarist Colin Mansfield even smiles. On stage. While the camera is on him.*****
They didn’t tour. I can’t say for sure why they didn’t. Any bootstrap band has to commit to a “get in the van” leap even for an Indie tour. This means no income other than chancy part-of-the-door proceeds and increased costs even if only for gas and repairs. Hometown relationships will be sacrificed. And the logistics for a six-person band with two women are a much greater challenge than for say a three person trio male bonding road trip. Realistically, if they had toured, would out-of-state audiences have reacted differently than Twin Cities ones? In some markets I think it’s possible, but far from assured.
Front women. Throughout almost the entire run of the band’s life it used dual female lead singers. This was unusual in this era, locally and nationally, but more so in Minnesota indie circles before the mid-‘80s. Gender mix at indie shows in this era from my memory showed a higher male attendance, and the tastemakers were almost entirely male. Early versions of the band paired Kay Maxwell with Terri Paul until Terri Paul left to marry Suburbs’ principal Chan Poling. Maxwell then was joined at the front of the stage by violinist/vocalist Jennifer Holt, who in turn left to form Tete Noires, another needs-to-be-remembered-more Twin Cities band that prefigured the Riot Grrl idea of the later ‘80s. In theory, you could expect CIS sex-appeal to be a marketplace-trumps-art plus, but remember Fine Art wasn’t a band that wanted to explicitly ingratiate itself with audiences, and the band’s songs almost never featured conventional or playful boy-girl romance or sexual come-ons. In fact, most Fine Art songs throughout the life of the band took a distinctly cool look at relationships and their frictions with individual autonomy, something that pop and rock music didn’t allow female singers to do much in the 70s.****** In this skeptical and examining regard, they were doing in the small Minnesota scene what some post-punk bands in England and the US coasts were doing. My guess is, that to the extent the young men of the Brent Kavanaugh generation heard the lyrics at a gig, or absorbed the stance portrayed by the singers on stage in a non-literary way, Fine Art wasn’t going to be their new favorite band. Would it be better if they listened? I certainly think so.
Today as I think through these things I wonder what would have happened if I was rich and possessed a time machine, could I use cubic money and hindsight to change things? Could I have tried to break them as a recording act without local scene cred? No assurance in that. Try to move them to New York and ace out Blondie, but end up as The Shirts instead? Move to Athens Georgia and try to be the B52s, but end up as Pylon? I suspect the best bet would have been to move them to England, an even more imaginary gambit, but it was a scene more capable of breaking unusual bands because the extensive network of critics and music press there competed relentlessly to find unusual bands to champion.
OK, we’ve left Dave Moore for awhile here, so let’s circle back. Fine Art had women frontmen who handled the vocals. That means that Dave’s lyrics first were sung by women. A song like “Nailed,” performed by Fine Art on their LP and regularly in concert afterward, is ostensibly a vampire blues that might have been the text from an issue of Tales From the Crypt, takes on a different cast sung when sung by two women in harmony. Lines like “I gave you my body, and you took it too. Always thought you’d give it back—shows how much I knew” change in that context.
Here’s Dave Moore’s lyric “Nailed” performed not by Fine Art, but by the LYL Band. Colin Mansfield wrote the music for Fine Art's "Nailed," and we only approximated it. I’m doing the lead vocal, though Dave peeks through on backing vocals. If you watched the Fine Art/7th Street Entry video you may be able to put together a mental construct of what the “real thing” sounded like on a good night. Let me assure you, it was even better than what you are imagining.
Because what’s more punk-rock than footnotes
*The Suburbs are perhaps the most similar Twin Cities band to Fine Art in style. Their principal Chan Poling brought a broad outside musical background into his band as did Fine Art’s Colin Mansfield. And at their best, each band’s rhythm section was solid, and their approach to songwriting eclectic and unafraid of oddness. The Suburbs had the more dynamic live show though, even on a large stage, and the conventional all-male lineup presented a show that could be enjoyed without further thought by the plastic beverage cup waving male club goer. My impression was that the Suburbs were soon a very consistent live draw for any venue hosting them, and Fine Art never was that. Of course, all that talent and appeal didn’t mean that even The Suburbs made it past local hero standing.
A survivor band version of The Suburbs still exists, and Poling (who performs with them) has gone on to a successful career in music that continues to today.
**I don’t know exactly how the band was organized, but Colin Mansfield, along with his then wife Kay Maxwell and outstanding rhythm guitarist, the late Ken Carlson were the three members who participated in every version of the band, and though music and lyrics were contributed not only by Dave Moore but as well by the rest of the band, I always got the impression that Colin was the organizer and collator of that process.
***As a marker for this aesthetic, I’ll note that Soul Asylum first performed under the band name Loud Fast Rules. The Replacements, whose IP holders should see about the availability from Blackglama of the phrase “What becomes a legend most,” were able to gain attention as the ultimate in anti-showbiz casualness, where a sloppy show meant that they really meant it.
****Colin Mansfield from Fine Art produced Husker Du’s first demos and their initial single, which sounds less like later Husker Du and more like Fine Art. After Husker Du broke up, Colin and Du bassist Greg Norton formed a short-lived trio Grey Area.
*****In my experience Colin Mansfield was a pleasant, understated and helpful man, as well as quite a musician. I once suggested, from my position on being less than any of those things, that it might help if he looked more animated and moved by the music on stage, and he asked back if there wouldn’t be some visual value in all that sound coming out a still and undemonstrative musician. We both were probably right, but he was right from a position of greater talent and achievement.
******Here for example are some of the other songs from that LP issued at the band’s beginnings in 1978, and remember all vocally performed by women: “Don’t Tell Me That,” “Too Much Pride,” “I’ve Got to Protect Myself,” Rapist,” and “Speak My Language.” Ken Carlson wrote the first three, Andy Schirmer wrote the third, and only the last was written by one of the vocalists, Terri Paul. It’s an odd dynamic isn’t it? Songs of self-assertion, anger, skepticism toward love relationships as a system, sometimes inward turning pain, written largely by men to be sung from the viewpoint and voice of two women. I don’t know if this was planned, my suspicion is that was something of an accidental combination which the band allowed to happen and then grew to embrace. I never asked. I don’t even know if any of the band men thought of themselves as feminist, and it wouldn’t shock me if any of the women in the band would have stories where the men failed to show feminist understanding. Human beings, they’re like that.
Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.
Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.
I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.
And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”
I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.
One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events, the feeling and her point, ties to our own.
“Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.
My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.
October 4th is National Poetry Day in the U.K. this year, an event similar, though more condensed, to the National Poetry Month in April promoted out of the U.S.
No one’s revealed why April for the Poetry Month, though Chaucer and T. S. Eliot may have put in their votes, and the reasons for the fall date for Poetry Day could be arbitrary too. But autumn would have an emotional claim. Fall is changeable in weather, an underrated Spring of warm days and cold shuffling themselves. It has its long-established events: school years underway, harvests and harvest festivals, the closing of summer venues, Halloween, Veterans Day/Remembrance Day. Fall can also be an easy metaphor for approaching death, but poetry is one buffer we use to handle that subject anyway.
John Keats wrote one of his last and finest poems to the season almost 200 years ago in the autumn of 1819. It’s full of the strengths of Keats’ writing. Even in his time Keats was both praised and dismissed for the sensuousness of his poetry, and not a line goes by without some sensation of taste, touch, color and sound, and all that is contained in beautiful word music and an off-balance rhyme scheme that may couplet-rhyme two lines together, or tantalizingly wait two or four lines for the rhyme.
Even if some of his words are 200 years old antique, or for us Americans, peculiarly English, he crams all these sensations in his poem without them seeming forced, as if they were special or unnatural “poetic” things. Many of the sense words in this poem are of ordinary manual labor: load, bend, fill, set, reap’d, laden, press, and borne.
Where he is outrageously poetic is that this poem is an apostrophe. The entire poem is addressed, just as the title says, as if the season was a person, “To Autumn.” A poet doing that today would, intentionally or otherwise, produce a humorous effect. Still, if we allow it, the second stanza gives us a leisurely fall, a farmer taking a break on a warm autumn day from rural labor, hiding in a barn, or taking a nap in a half-harvested field, but yet also returning to pressing cider from apples down to the last drop, and bearing away hand-gathered food on his head “like a gleaner.”
Gleaner is one of those antique words. It was a practice in some places to allow the poor and those without land to gather what leftover grain might be left in the fields after harvest. Just this week I was reading on the always Interesting Literature blog that Keats may have had this practice on his mind as gleaning had just been outlawed in England, and that other images in the poem may have had social resonances with Keats at the time.
The poem’s final stanza retreats with distant banners flying, a symphony of extreme audio dynamic range. The infinitesimal sound of gnats flying is a choir. The wind crescendos and decrescendos. Lambs bleat loudly and then there is silence. Crickets arpeggiate for time. Birds whistle, twitter and leave in the sky, migrating away, and the poem ends.
Keats himself ends as a poet, this being one of his last works. He leaves for Italy in hopes it will help his tuberculosis, which it won’t. He’s dead in about a year.
Earlier this month I mused a bit about renowned poets’ “batting averages” when I use their words here, that the hall-of-famers and MVPs don’t always get the most likes and listens, that many of our most popular pieces use words from poets that are much lesser known. Of course, those levels of response may be secondary to the music Dave and I supply and our performances having their own range of attractiveness, or it could be that the subject matter of the popular lesser-known poems resonates in some way with audiences.
Perhaps it’s just random fate at play, but poet and artist William Blake never attracts much of an audience here, though he remains dear to my heart for his stubborn individual persistence and production. Blake is an 18th Century writer who looked backwards to Milton and Dante as much as he predicted the early 19th Century romantics. In America, he’s loved by some outsider poets such as Allen Ginsberg* and Patti Smith, but in England he may be encountered as the lyricist of a national anthem “Jerusalem.” Compared to our founders of American Modernist verse, he can be in his “prophetic books” more long-winded than Whitman—and yet also as seaming simple and elusive as Emily Dickinson in his short lyrical poems. If you hear Blake as hard to value or difficult to appreciate quickly, you are likely hearing him right.
Take the piece that the LYL Band performs today, “A Poison Tree.” It’s Dickinson-short, and like some Dickinson, if you give it only cursory attention, it seems like a simple moral tale. It certainly starts off like one. To paraphrase, I was mad at my friend, but we were open about it, and it all blew over; but with my enemy, I kept my anger a secret from him and it didn’t go away. This poem was even once published under an (ironic) title “Christian Forgiveness,” and that may be what you expect to hear extoled. After its few moments this poem ends, it goes away, and that could be what you think you heard. But it’s stranger than that—unedited fairy-tale strange.
By the third verse the poet/speakers’ hidden, festering anger, has produced an apple, an Adam and Eve apple, a Snow White apple. Sure, magical realism, expected poetic imagery this. How’s the plot going to go on from here? Will he wicked-witch-trick the foe into eating the apple? Will he somehow reconsider his anger and resolve it? Will he somehow eat the apple himself by some misapprehension? Will he patent the apple’s genetic design and make so much money that the foe will be forever jealous?
Two lines into the third verse, it goes somewhere else than any of those easily comprehendible endings. The enemy sees that apple, that property of our poet/speaker. He wants it! He breaks into the speaker’s garden and steals it undercover of the night. Thus, the poison apple kills the foe. And the poems speaker sees this and is “glad.” Roll the credits, and anyone who’s been paying attention should walk out puzzled.
What the fruit!
Could Blake be saying that hidden anger is dangerous material, you need to be careful with it, as stuff could happen? Or is it a more elaborate allegory? Is Blake saying that our enemies will covet our anger, even if we think we are keeping it hidden, and the foe, seeking to seize this anger (perhaps it’s righteous or powerful) will kill themselves? Or, in the context of Blake’s overriding mythos—where the righteous, authoritarian deity, similar to the Old Testament Jehovah, is not simply good, and must be opposed—is Blake demonstrating that our festering anger will turn us into a trickster god who will allow the fall of man from Eden? Or is this a simpler anecdote about passive-aggressive sins, where the story is: well I was mad at him and he was my enemy after all, so why warn him off from my poison apple, he had it coming?
To those attracted to it, “A Poison Tree’s” power derives from this mystery couched so simply. But if it only confounds you, that’s OK too. The Parlando Project tries to vary things—not to confound you, but because we’re attracted to a diversity of ways this can work or fail.
*Allen Ginsberg sang Blake poems regularly, once issuing an LP of his performances with an eclectic group of accompanying musicians and performing them live. His unguarded and guileless performances of Blake were one influence for what I do here.
Remember back a few episodes when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.
Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.
Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.
Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.
I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.” I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl” instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.
I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl” here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again.
As long-time listeners will know, the Parlando Project likes to vary what it does. Loud, immediate and approximate rock’n’roll, string quartets, folkie and electronica tinges combine with words that I look around for—different stories each time, most of them not mine.
Are we now going to vary from Bronze Age Chinese poetry collected to instruct politicians? Or from the W.H. Auden-who-can-bring-the-funk remarks of Jimi Hendrix’s ET visiting the Third Stone from the Sun and marveling at the chickens?
Well, maybe a little.
And so, we’re going to descend into parody today. Mad magazine imprinted me on parody while young, and Weird Al Yankovic never did a thing to cure me, and here I am an old man who still can’t help making up travesty-lyrics to songs he hears, which distresses my son who likes to sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” with his sincerely growing voice, while my questionable tenor tries to make that into a dissertation on salad vs. main-course silverware: “Fork with the Longest Tine.”
To the possible detriment of today’s piece, I didn’t choose anything as well known as one of Joel’s hits. In tryouts, just one of the folks I’ve sung today’s piece to even recalls the original song it references: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” That may say something of the fragmentary fame of Leonard Cohen in the United States. Back in the Sixties, a couple of his songs “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” were fairly well known from cover versions, and his 21st Century song “Hallelujah” became even more well-known after being sung by John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright—but “Famous Blue Raincoat” despite dozens of covers, just hasn’t penetrated the U.S. mind. There may be reasons for that. It doesn’t have a hooky chorus, even Leonard Cohen himself thought the lyrics were confusing, and to the degree it has an accessible plot it’s about a complicated love relationship far from the common I love her/him, or her/him has left me and I’m so sad or angry about that. My favorite part of the song was its uncommon ending, where it’s revealed to be a letter of sorts, signed with solemn irony “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”
And that was the hook for today’s parody. I thought of another Cohen living in New York City, who is a principal in another romantic entanglement, whose feelings about it are multivalent, and whose sincerity is a changing thing.
Here’s one more musical piece from the anthology of ancient Chinese poetry collected by Confucius and his school and known as the Confucian Odes or The Book of Songs.
This one may be my favorite, though my performance of it dates to a time before I could find literal translations to check against the extant English ones. Perhaps even more so than our last episode, “Wild Plums,” this presents itself as an expression of lover’s desire. You might find it similar to the Bible’s Song of Songs in that regard.
When I was young and looked at commentary on the Song of Songs, I was surprised to find that some scholars believed it to be a spiritual metaphor rather than some too-hot-for-school love poetry. My take then: those scholars must be prudes.
With the Confucian Odes, remember that the Confucians thought their collection of folk-poetry was not just a piece of cultural curation, but required reading for advanced participation in society—not just for poets or humanities majors, but also for politicians and bureaucrats, a class the Chinese Empire needed a great many of. There is commentary on “Cold Is the North Wind” that says then that this song expresses a hardship or grievance experienced by some province or another, or that the lover’s desire is a metaphor for political concern. After you listen to “Cold Is the North Wind” you may think that must be willfully obtuse. “What part of the ‘I’m lonely, it’s cold in this bed alone, and I want you right here, don’t they get?” you might be thinking.
In both cases, the Song of Songs and “Cold Is the North Wind,” I’ve come to a slightly different view. Poetry, sometimes when it’s at its best, binds the image and what it’s representing in a way that doesn’t privilege one over the other. William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” isn’t some symbol which we need to decode as a handy emoji for the usefulness of tools in ordinary work, and “Aha! We’ve solved the poetry puzzle for today!” it’s also a freaking red wheelbarrow in a chickenyard and it’s wet with rain in a way we can feel and see if we allow that. Separated lovers are separated lovers, and their ache we can feel, but that ache specific to that need and pleasure is something we can feel again in other intensities. And that act of listening to these words (or listening to them on the page) binds us to the poem in the way the poet binds the image to the things the image is like.
There’s something there for future bureaucrats and politicians.
There was a time, also in my youth, when we thought songs might be able to do that. Someone who listened to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Patti Smith, or other Smiths and Jones would be changed not necessarily into record store clerks or musicians but into more empathetic people whose imaginations would be wider than the immediate space around them. To what degree were we wrong? One provisional answer: “not entirely.”
If there was a modern Confucian school sitting somewhere in the English-speaking world, what would they collect to instruct future government members and business functionaries?
Is love enough in dealing with matters of translation? I want to talk a bit about some issues with this, and while it may start out sounding esoteric, stay with me, I’ll end up as immediate as anything.
Listeners know I’ve presented Chinese poetry here before. Collected classical Chinese poetry goes back to around the 10th Century BC, materials gathered from an oral tradition around 700 BC and written down by Confucius or his school, and also a later golden age in the 8th Century AD for litearary Chinese poetry. In Western terms, that’s from the time of the Bronze Age Trojan War to the time of Homer to the European Dark Ages.
If you enjoy thinking about large amounts of time, consider those dates again, that’s 1,800 years between the time of the oldest Confucian Odes (or the Book of Songs as it is sometimes called), and the time of Du Fu and Li Bai, and then over 1,200 years until now, a total of 3,000 years—enough time to get through that bookshelf of books I’ve put off reading to do this project. Or if you’re a listener and want to relate this to the oral culture of the Modern or the Bronze Ages, in that 3,000 years span you could listen to every one of the 20 million tracks on Spotify 26 times each and still have time to go for a night walk in the country while trying and failing to count the stars.
Let us contemplate the differences inherent in that much time. How different was the culture of Du Fu’s time or his anonymous predecessors who sang the Book of Songs before it was a book? I can’t even begin to compress those differences into a short post.
We sometimes speak about unchanging “human nature” when talking about such a great divide of time and place—and yet, then we turn the page (or flip to a new browser tab) and read about how technology and social changes may have significantly altered how humanity works in a decade or two. How much differently did a poet or a listener/reader evaluate, create, and experience poems then, compared to now?
Both of those conclusions could be true (essential, retained, human nature elements and change that is not slowing in velocity), each moving from opposite edges of the human experience in proportions hard to measure objectively from inside it.
Into this gap steps the translator (and in our case here, also the performer) who seeks to render the written record of these poems from a place so far away in time that great geographical distances seem minor. The task of translating a hundred-year-old poem from French to English is difficult enough—but this?
Should there be any surprise that many of these translations will seem inaccurate and differ significantly between themselves in their approximations, or that areas that would be understood by the poet or their more contemporary readers remain mysterious?
Greater scholarship and cultural knowledge than mine may help in these approximate efforts at translation and performance, but even then, one should understand the difficulties and likelihood of success. And yet I do it. I want to try to grasp this, however imperfectly, not because I am Du Fu, or his nearest like extant, but because his story is different.
I promised I’d eventually get immediate. Here’s the first level of the now: think of the occurrences in our times where a choice to use, perform, or even experience cultural expressions of our contemporaries will draw condemnation on the grounds of cultural appropriation, non-identical background tone-deafness, of just plain laughable or painful ignorance on the part of the artist (that last often two sides of the same flaw).
Some of these are very practical objections. In financial (as opposed to artistic realms) cultural appropriation impacts people’s livelihoods. Yet there’s no Du Fu or other 8th Century Chinese man to perform his work with a closer understanding today. And Du Fu himself, as a neo-Confucian, probably realized that his appropriation of Confucius’ literary appropriation of the oral tradition Book of Songs material would be different and inexact in his own way.
Even if we’re necessarily failing, creating in our errors a cultural “telephone game,*” if we do this humbly and with respect for our forebearers, ancient or contemporary, I believe it’s honorable work.
Here’s a second here and now: I mentioned I was re-reading some translations of the Confucian Odes because my wife sent me a copy of one of those poems in translation, the one I’ve reworked into today’s piece which I call “Wild Plums.” This was a gift of love I received in gratitude—even if the composer/performer-with-a-pedantic-streak part of me wanted to know who translated it, and if I could find a literal raw translation for another perspective on the work.** And here I found this, which indicates that it was not intended originally in Chinese in the way the translation presents it in English. My guess is that the translator loved the word music they found in it, and that the lure of that lead away from the original text’s meaning.
As best the literal translation can transfer an original meaning to me, the woman who speaks in it is either claiming that she has so many suitors that a successful one will need to up his game to make the cut (a Bronze Age “No Scrubs”) or it’s a portrayal of an eligible woman who is being too picky about a husband and has driven suitable mates off.
So, the poem that my wife sent me is probably not accurately translated, and yet it expresses something that was engendered in the translator by it, and by the caroms of life that bounced off my wife and to me. And that poem’s yearning, and the music of it in English has its own beauty, like the love that brought it to me.
And so that is what I adapted and performed. I’ve added some additional refrains to further emphasize the musicality of the piece.
*Also called “Chinese whispers,” unintentionally helping me make my point.
**that my wife is willing to tolerate this dreadful mix of traits is one of her charms.
National news and household events continually waylay my attention. Dejected gutters, palace intrigues throwing glances on complicated and duplicitous political alliances, and a middle-schooler with the sniffles—how can one weigh these things against this small but welcomed audience here for music combined with poetry?
And so, I found myself short of material as I got ready to record with the LYL Band this week, a problem that the domestic, the national, and the poetic world combined to answer.
My wife had sent me a poem from the Confucian Odes recently, a loving gesture gratefully received, and as beautiful as it was, I wondered about the poem and its English translation because of my work here. As the news sticks its tongue out at me with screen-edge notifications (mutterings about the Emperor and his possible private derangement issuing from the far-off capitol) I read again some of those Confucian Odes, an ancient anthology designed to instruct not just scholars or poets, but politicians and bureaucrats.
What an odd idea. I suppose distributive requirements in American colleges still require some exposure to literature for those who will eventually serve in those roles, but this anthology was considered core material in Imperial China. And the Confucian Odes are not grand works of moral or civic uplift, rather they are compressed, tiny reports of humble activities, decisions, and situations. They sometimes imply or depict correct behavior, but they don’t explicitly end with a moral. Their lesson may be, in the largest part, that the reader must study them and find the lesson in the everyday.
How different would our Emperor or his retainers be if this was their schooling?
One collection I read mixed in later classical Chinese poems with some of the Odes. It was here that once more I was pulled in by Du Fu, one of those aspiring bureaucrats who was steeped in those odes, but who lived centuries later at a time his country was in rebellion and upheaval. The Confucian ethos elevates faithful service, but who was to be served was shifting with the tide of rebellion. Reading Du Fu’s poems from the 8th Century as a small-part-citizen witnessing an empire disrupted in folly can have eerie resonances.
Late Thursday night, worried about material to record the next day, I began to translate Du Fu’s “Jade Flower Palace.”
I could not find a clean literal translation of the original ideograms for the entire poem, only for about half the lines. I was able to find three previous English translations, which I could at least triangulate for the parts I didn’t have the raw stuff for.
Looking at what I had, I noticed that Du Fu was making constant juxtapositions, comparisons of contrast. Even the opening lines had water pushing and wind sighing and reflecting. That seems conventional, even a commonplace like “oh no, the wind and rain” in an English folk ballad, but it’s followed by a jump to rodents running through a roof, so close to a translation of the English idiom “bats in the belfry.” I decided to take Du Fu as intentional here. Events may seem to push you, or you may sigh and accept them, but “Rats are running in the rafters.” The ruin is real, and for that matter, your mind may reflect that too.
What follows is part "Ozymandias" without Shelly’s political radicalism, and part ghost story. A ruined palace, once as lush as Mar-a-Lago, haunted by ghosts. I was puzzled by the “green ghost fires” referred to in this section, what with my limited knowledge of Chinese culture. Those three words are wonderous, but I still don’t know exactly what Du Fu is describing. Are there actual fires, lit as protection from ghosts (akin to the tradition of ghost lights in theaters)? Why green? Is it brightly colored moss or overgrowth in the ruins? Is Du Fu seeing luminous ghosts (instead of hearing them as he does later in the poem)? I can’t tell. Looking at some online material on Chinese ghosts, I see that this end of August/beginning of September period is sometimes celebrated as “ghost month” in China, and various things are done both to connect with or protect oneself from various spirits. Offerings, such as burning a pile of currency may be left out. I have no idea if that goes back to Du Fu’s time, but in our current world, the thought of a burning pile of greenbacks to keep one safe from long dead rich people sure seems like a vivid image. And water is running over the palace’s roadways. Just what is the sea level of Mar-a-Lago if global warming isn’t only a political question?
As you listen to “Jade Flower Palace” perhaps you’ll want to pay notice to Du Fu’s subtle use of juxtapositions. More so than the other translations I read, I sought to bring those forward in mine. Translators seem to differ on Du Fu’s final lines, and that was a part where I didn’t have a literal translation to draw from. As midnight approached, I left two alternatives for my decision of what the final line should be to follow “There are many paths away from here.” It could be “How long are any of them?” or “None of them go on forever.” In the morning I decided that I would keep both, another juxtaposition.
In the performance on Friday I used this as our band warm up, where we loosen up our old and demented fingers, a cold first take. I repeated the first two lines once more at the end both to emphasize that they should be heard as more than commonplaces, and as a reminder (to invert a proverb of mysterious origin) that history isn’t necessarily instructed by rhyme, but repeats.
I spent Saturday riding my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail and visiting Hibbing, the Minnesota Iron Range hometown where Bob Dylan grew up non-ferrous.
To the visitor, the landscape there has a strangeness. Since the late 19th Century, open pit iron mining has been the industry of the region. An open pit mine is not the kind of underground tunneling and mole-dark pick-axe work you might visualize when you hear the noun “mine.” Instead it is the removal of cubic miles of earth with explosives and huge shovels, work my wife describes as “making your own Grand Canyon.” The iron gives exposed rock and dirt a Martian red hue, and this colossal earthwork of generations of open pit mines has added extra hills, ridges, gorges, and small lakes. Though trees and brush eventually regrow and give these acts of men something of the appearance of nature, some hills retain the terraces where the trucks moved—giant Northern ziggurats or Mayan temples, now sprouted with pines—the Hanging Gardens of Bob Dylan.
Since Bob Dylan grew up here, the strangeness of this landscape may not have impressed him in his youth, but an adulthood away from there might have eventually revealed its uniqueness. It is a singular place on a Labor Day weekend where one can see the mark of daily labor sculpted in a giant tableau.
How many of us can say the same for our labors? Children are raised, daily cares are met, that meeting makes a decision, a sick person is comforted and will live another couple of decades, the number of widgets on the planet increases infinitesimally, a project that will impact things for a few years is completed. In contrast, in the land around Hibbing, Virginia, and Mountain Iron, vistas are forever altered to mark a work life.
An artist’s work, for all the literary pretentions to immortality, is at least as ephemeral as other work. The work is finished, and the earth has not changed its face. The work is read, seen, heard by its handful, and it melds at best into a memory in some part of those.
So, punch a clock or not, these are the same jobs, the same work. The poem, the performance, the painting, no less, no more, the product effort of applied human energy as any other work.
Occasionally, someone gets to be a Bob Dylan, and the vistas change. Leonard Cohen said that giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain. I stood next to my bike on the state’s highest bridge spanning a man-made gorge. Maybe somehow, subconsciously, that gave Bob the idea.
Today’s audio piece will not remind you of the Bard of Hibbing, as it is a fuzzy epitaph using Mellotron instead of giant earth-moving trucks to get its rocks off me. Here’s wishing all Parlando Project listeners a lanquid fall into the fluffiest snowbank.
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.
Last episode I spoke of Mina Loy and her pre-WWI adventure in Italy with the Futurists who would eventually become Italian Fascists. Loy utilized Modernist tactics in her own art and writing, but she was apparently wise enough to see the violence and totalitarianism in that Italian strain for what it was and extracted herself to less authoritarian circles. I’m unaware that Loy ever presented herself as a politically engaged artist, but the various Modernists she associated with after the end of her Italian adventure tended to the unaffiliated or left-wing side of Modernism.
Another woman, and American this time, had encounters with the early German Fascists, in the era between the two World Wars. Her name was Dorothy Thompson. Thompson is another example of fleeting fame: she had a substantial mid-century multimedia presence through her books, journalism, and work in broadcasting. One of her roles was as a “Foreign Correspondent,” something of an antique designation now, but one that required that individual to live overseas and to report wisely what was happening in that country’s culture and politics. In Germany she was savvy enough to cover the rising profile of a fringe politician, Adolf Hitler. In 1931 she was able to wrangle an interview with him. This is some of what she wrote:
“When I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany….In something like fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man.”
Thompson was nobody’s fool. She wasn’t alone in underestimating the possible impact of Hitler, this “little man,” based on his personality flaws. The canny observer in her was able to figure that he might be able to achieve titular leadership of the German government as part of a coalition with other minority parties, as Hitler indeed did little more than a year later. When asked what his program would be, Hitler was forthcoming: “I will found an authority-state, from the lowest cell to the highest instance; everywhere there will be responsibility and authority above, discipline and obedience below.” Hitler was generally not a secretive, conspiratorial revolutionary. This was his electoral platform. In evaluating that statement, Thompson compounded her error. Thompson concluded:
“Imagine a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights?”
That wasn’t a prediction, that was a rhetorical question. She didn’t think it could happen.
She published her article that year, and many thought her view the informed opinion that it was. If TL;DNR existed in 1931 you would summarize: Hitler is a clown car short of a few clowns.
Thompson shortly realized she had been wrong. Less than three years after she had disparaged him in this widely read article, Hitler made Thompson the first foreign journalist formally expelled from his new Germany. Had she helped or hurt Hitler by underestimating him? It didn’t matter, she had belittled him. Soon enough the world would be at war due to this insubstantial and insignificant man, this laughingstock.
She had a dark-humored quote on the matter. “Some got sent to camps. I got sent to Paris.”
Thompson was married to another writer who was extraordinarily famous between the wars, Sinclair Lewis. In America, another politician was drawing a mixture of scoffing scorn and fear as he moved to run for President in 1936, Huey Long. It’s thought that Lewis availed himself of Thompson’s experience, as he began to furiously write a novel about how a Fascist could unexpectedly be elected as the U. S. President. For his novel’s title, Lewis created an unforgettable phrase: “It Can’t Happen Here.”
The novel’s main character is a journalist, one who clearly knows that the forces which rise throughout the novel are evil, while underestimating their danger, but like Thompson he is able to recognize his error and take action.
We are now living in a time when that phrase that Lewis used for his title may seem more present than memorable. The alternative voice of this project, Dave Moore, has changed Lewis’ tense and described—what—that 1935 novel, or something else? You decide if he changed the story.
Today we return to the early 20th Century Modernists with a piece using words by Mina Loy. Last episode we had a poet taking a political stand: Longfellow aligning himself with the movement to abolish slavery. Decades later, the Modernists joined political movements too.
One might suppose that since Modernism sought to overthrow the old cultural order and revolutionize artistic expression that many Modernists would be attracted to political radicalism—and to a large degree that’s so.
You might also assume that these artistic radicals would be leftists, aligned with the growing Socialist movements in England and the United States, or attracted after 1917 to the as then untested promise of the new Communist government in Russia. Or perhaps they’d make common cause with anarchism. Or maybe they’d create their own playlist mixing all of the above.
And yes, you can find that. Carl Sandburg in the U. S. Midwest, most of the Surrealists, bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village, Herbert Read and some other British Modernists.
However, one can also find Modernists who aligned with the right wing in this era—and not only garden-variety Tories, or even those who allied themselves with the “respectable” racist strains of U. S. politics. Even in the years before WWI, the social theories that would coalesce into Fascism found adherents in the new literary avant garde. As to Americans, the most famous case is the indispensable Modernist poet, editor and promotor, Ezra Pound, eventually charged with treason at the end of WWII.
Modernists seemed something like stem cells as their artistic revolution kicked off—they could develop into followers of any kind of political radicalism. At a time when political engagement for artists was common, there must have been a feeling in the air that a side must be chosen if one was to be a thorough-going cultural Modernist.
So, much as the French Surrealists once sought to make Communism a dictate for membership in the Surrealist movement, the slightly earlier Italian Futurists eventually made Fascism a core value of their artistic circle.
It’s now we get to Mina Loy. No, not the delightful Hollywood actress—that’s Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy was the stage name for the woman born Myrna Williams, and it’s just possible that Loy could have been chosen to refer to Mina).
It’s 1905. Modernism is kicking off first in the visual art world, followed just behind by the poets. Loy, in her 20s, has already done the visual art thing in London and Paris, but her marriage is failing, and she’s just had an infant child die. To change her life, she moves to Italy. She befriends Futurist artist Carlo Carra, and if you follow along on your Futurist score-card she had love-affairs there with two principals of Italian Futurism: F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini.
Let’s re-set our scene. Here’s a young woman in a foreign country going through life stress events. The art-world is shifting under everyone’s feet. As a movement that will eventually fancy itself outright as the cultural well-spring of Italian Fascism, the circle she’s fallen in with isn’t just about making it new, it’s militaristic, paternalistic, nationalistic, and it worships violence. That isn’t what jealous opponents say about Futurism, it’s what its own manifestos brag about.
As preparing actors say, all that would be part of the work to figure out what Mina Loy is experiencing. Here’s another bit of business you might grab onto: young, ambitious, male artists. I doubt some not-uncommon tropes have changed in that field.
Mina becomes a poet. A fierce poet. Artistically she uses some of the new ideas that the Futurists are thinking about. Her poetry moves between time and tenses, voices and outlooks, in machine gun bursts. Conventional expression and sentiment? Blow them up, run them over with a locomotive. Sixty years later Harlan Ellison would write “Love is just sex misspelled” and be thought provocative. Mina had already been there in the horse and buggy era. How can a woman keep her selfhood (or for that matter, how can any human being do so) in the minefield of desire and relationships? What is deep and inherent in motherhood that society will not express openly?
Though she used some of the artistic ideas of Futurism as effectively as any writer, Loy seemed to resist most of its political ideas and she satirized the pretentions of the “Flabergasts” while writing about her Italian time as being in the “Lion’s Jaws.” Leaving Italy, she next moved to New York, where she joined the Greenwich Village circle.
Today’s piece uses selections I took from a 34-poem sequence called “Songs to Johannes,” inspired by the relationship with Giovanni Papini (Johannes and Giovanni are variations of the same root name). Loy published these in 1914, near the end of her Italian time. Within the little-magazine world of Modernism she made an immediate impact. Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein said good things about her work. Legendary founder of Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe seems to have been scared by Loy’s frankness. Amy Lowell, poet and influential anthologist, was so put off she is supposed to have said that she would not publish in any magazine that printed Loy.
If the patriarchy may have lost the battle with Mina Loy, for a long time they seem to have won the peace. It was only in the last few years of the 20th Century that Loy’s poems of the first part of that century began to be looked at again. Now, Loy has become a key poetic Modernist for literary scholars tired of the usual sausage-fest, but that opens up the danger that work like “Songs to Johannes” may be introduced, academically, like this: “Loy in effect diagnoses an end to love poetry in the light of historical circumstance, anticipating that poststructuralist line of inquiry which urges a rereading of ‘lyric’ as a culturally responsive construct. Instead, her poetry constitutes a critique of the very demand that lyric expression be viewed apart from the social world.”
There’s nothing wrong with that view, but I find Loy’s pre-WWI writing here a lot more immediate assuming one has some applicable life experience to bring to it. Her diction sometimes reminds me of Emily Dickinson, and like Dickinson figuring out what is ironic, and what is earnest, and what is both, can sometimes be a challenge. In performance, any of those three choices seem to work for most phrases here. The greatest error would be to make them all of the same tenor. Also, like Dickinson, Loy will move from speaking concise abstraction to vivid metaphor using very few words. The high minded and the sensual nitty-gritty are juxtaposed.
My appreciation for this sequence grew tremendously as I constructed this performance. There are strong images, richly ambiguous expressions, and yes, lines that one could deconstruct at thesis length. I didn’t even have room to include the phrase from “Songs to Johannes” that I’ve chosen to title today’s selection, but I can never look at a plump rococo cherub again without recalling it. But the real gift I got, the unique gift of art, is that I could experience some of Loy’s pre-WWI moments in the hot-house nexus of Fascism and Modernism. “Pig Cupid” would probably be more authentic if this was performed in a woman’s voice, but alas my voice is what I have available today.
A couple of episodes ago as I presented a performance using words by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I mentioned that his prestige has fallen greatly.
How far? His Wikipedia article shares some snark:
“Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career…nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”
“Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow.”
And Lewis Mumford sums up his significance with a dagger by declaring that Longfellow could be completely removed from the history of literature without much effect.
Furthermore, while there’s no modern bon mot to extract from the Wiki, Longfellow’s didacticism, a huge defect if detected in modern poets, is noted. Even during his lifetime, that rankled the Transcendentalists, always looking for the more inexplicable sublime.
Akin to one our Parlando Project principles, Longfellow took the idea of “other people’s stories” to what are now considered ridiculous lengths. Instead of writing of intense internal experiences as Emily Dickinson did, or expanding the fleshy personal into a democratic universal as Whitman did, Longfellow wrote about many cultures and translated poetry from many languages. The term “cultural appropriation” didn’t exist as such then, but Longfellow could easily be charged with it. His best-known epic poem, Hiawatha, which has left its imprint all over my region’s place names, is an earnest and non-hateful mishmash of the mid-19th century’s limited knowledge of indigenous Americans mixed with some contemporary to the time German romanticism. Longfellow would be a cultural criminal if he hadn’t already been reduced to a laughingstock.
OK, so what. All of these charges are true, but here’s what they leave out. To say Longfellow was “an American poet” is like saying Elvis Presley was a rock’n’roll singer. He proved that could be a thing, that an “American poet,” could connect successfully with a wide audience. He imitated Europeans and English romantics. Yes. Who the hell else was there to imitate? He wasn’t as original as Dickinson or Whitman. Yes, and neither is most any other poet you could name, now or then. And Mumford’s dagger? Alas, that can be said of most writers, because literature is a vast swarm of similar literary genetic ideas, but if there wasn’t a Longfellow, someone else would have to establish the idea of a popular American poet. That alternate-history someone else might have been good or bad, but it likely would have lead to some difference, even if the difference would be some other writer to rebel against.
I too wish Longfellow had tempered his didacticism, even if that is a large part of what made it possible for him to succeed. Most Victorian poets suffered from this, and it’s part of what the Modernists sought to break free from. To the degree that we are now Post-Modern, we can reassess this. Can poetry stand for something and still be art? If that is difficult to do, should it still be attempted?
Today’s piece is an example of Longfellow taking an explicit stand, and one could also suppose the charge of cultural appropriation could be leveled here too. In 1842, as opposition to slavery started to gather force in the United States, Longfellow wrote a short collection of poems on the “issue”—yes, human slavery, for and against, it was a debate. Longfellow explicitly released this collection for publication and distribution in support of the anti-slavery cause.
“The Witnesses” is from that collection. In it I think Longfellow transcends propaganda for this noble cause and demonstrates his effectiveness as a poet. He audaciously takes the notorious Middle Passage of over-sea slave shipment as his subject here. Though those travails were not his personal experience, the obscene losses at sea in the shipment of chained-up human beings is portrayed. I chose to further highlight Longfellow’s concluding phrase to all this. “We are the witnesses!” he writes, as the still shackled skeletons speak in his poem—but of course, un-romantically, their remains cannot speak. The poet, the reader, the performer, the listener, are the real witnesses here.
A short note. Wouldn’t you know it, after spending a good part of this year exploring the early 20th Century Modernists, I now have been using 18th and 19th Century sources more this summer. One of my favorite blogs, My Year in 1918 recently noted how I was tackling those WWI-era writers with my musical pieces for her readers who might want to sample that.
Well, I’ll return to those literary Modernists soon. After all, one of my principles here is to try to mix things up, to not be predictable or to always rely on my established favorites. But even today, I think I’ve been tipping my hat to another key early 20th Century American Modernist. As I was writing and performing the music for “The Witnesses,” with its variations on folk-style melodies that twisted between strains and finished with a louder cadence that didn’t resolve the multiplicity, I asked myself “Where’d that come from?” Early this morning it occurred to me: the composer Charles Ives, who was working at almost the same time as those literary figures.