I’ve been unable to do as much as usual with this project for the past month for several reasons. One of those reasons was a trip to Massachusetts, which if this was a normal podcast would have already generated episodes of the travelogue sort. However, this project is about two palpable things, music and words (mostly poetry), that can’t handily be walked along, though you can tour their containers and neighborhoods. Perhaps that trip, in an indirect way, will generate episodes yet this summer.
I was finally able to visit Amherst and the house where Emily Dickinson lived nearly her entire life—and today’s piece uses words from one of Dickinson’s poems—but long-time listeners will know that Emily Dickinson is already a favorite source for words here.
No house, no state, not even any time or country can explain the genius of Emily Dickinson. For reasons of brevity, I’ll try to summarize by saying that she created and entirely new form of poetry, powerfully compressed, elusive and still approachable, and wholly without precedent. The things scholars can trace as influences can be found in her poetry, but no one else made Emily Dickinson poems out of that same stuff. And her poetry has largely not become obsolete. Over 150 years after it was written it still seems modern, maybe even more modern today than it seemed to the early 20th Century Modernists 100 years ago.
I’m attracted to shorter poems that unpack into larger things, and “Ample make this Bed” is that. It’s short even by Dickinson standards, eight lines, 34 words. If one pauses to puzzle at this meaning, the imagery of the grave is what comes to many reader’s mind. It can be read as a shorter companion to one of Dickinson’s most famous poems “Because I could not stop for Death,” but with a bed replacing the longer poem’s subterranean dwelling. However, besides its greater concision, “Ample make this Bed” is using another poetic form, one different from her longer poem. “Ample make this Bed” is an aubade.
An aubade is a poem where two lovers wish for the morning to never arrive. Since it is, in fact, arriving, they will deny it, wishing for their night together to remain forever. By using this traditional poetic trope, Dickinson has thrown a rich ambiguity into her 34 words. Although Christian religious belief has its variations, the traditional judgement day is the day of eternal salvation and the universe’s perfection. “Ample make this Bed” compares the morning of divine perfection to the morning that separates the lovers in an aubade.
Is this a statement that the sensuousness of human love can be judged greater than eternal salvation? Or is it a puritan statement that any such love will face its final end and judgement? Could it even be both, balanced on a knife’s edge?
Look too at two of those 34 words describing possibilities of this bed. Its Mattress, where the body rests, may be straight. The body has straightaway lifetime. The Pillow, where the mind inside the braincase rests, may be round, a line that doesn’t end.
Dickinson puts her poetic thumb on the scale with the most beautiful line in the poem: “Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise.” The poem has been puritan with its rhymes until this line, although elusive near-rhymes are present in the first stanza. Now it lets in richness, a rhyme internal to the line, before proceeding to the final perfect rhyme in the last line. Besides the line’s sound, the dawn of eternal judgement is— what?—so much noise. If Keats’ second inversion is so, then beauty is truth—and Dickinson may be indicating her thoughts on the matter.
I suspect no poet in the past couple of centuries has suffered a greater decline in esteem as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is not due to some scandal in his biography, for as far as I can tell he lived an admirable life, but artistically he’s been indicted with a number of crimes and misdemeanors. Before I go over those, let me briefly summarize the heights from which Longfellow has fallen.
He was the first self-sustaining professional American poet, the first to reach a considerable level of national and international success. By the middle of the 19th Century he was roughly as famous as Tennyson and Dickens, known and generally admired by his contemporary poets, and avidly read by a broad non-academic readership. He sustained this fame for several decades, and further, past his death in 1882. His general readership survived into my grandfather’s generation, and then through my father’s, and to a degree, into mine. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th Century, this engine of fame and readership broke down, and by now they’ve torn up the tracks of the Longfellow Line, and ragged grass has grown over the railbed.
I grew up reading Longfellow as the next generations might read Dr. Suess or Sandra Boyton in childhood. As I reached the age of ridicule, I could revel in Bullwinkle the moose in his parody poetry corner reciting Longfellow poems that I knew. Now Longfellow is probably not well enough known to satirize.
So, what are Longfellow’s poetic crimes? Meter and rhyme and a certain amount of antique diction—though we are willing to somewhat forgive the English romantics of the generation before Longfellow those afflictions. Earnestness and popularity, two things that no ironic 20th Century Modernist would wish to be accused of—but Robert Frost survived the later, while being seen (mistakenly) as expressing the former. Longfellow’s contemporary, Walt Whitman, explicitly sought to commit those earnestness and popularity crimes—though, as the old dis goes, for many years, Whitman couldn’t get arrested for it.
But Longfellow’s capital offense, the crime his reputation has been executed for, is simplicity and conventionality of thought. If I had to be Longfellow’s defense lawyer on this charge, perhaps I’d be reduced to throwing his case on the mercy of the court. Longfellow’s writing is often expressly didactic, and impersonal sentimental themes abound. Over and over again, he counsels perseverance and its seeming opposite, acceptance of impermanence. A more metaphysical poet would show his work and do more with incident to earn his conclusions. A more modern poet would make sure to make his life’s painful particulars his main subject.
Ironically, Longfellow’s life story is full of such material. Today we often think of poetry as an extension of memoir, and that writers earn their license to express things from their life stories. Longfellow would have had that license.
Some forms of Modernism believe that the best way to deal with complex emotion or great pain is to put it in the silences, in the blank spaces. The Modernists believed this would be more effective, because they are signaling with the constrained and minimalist expression that the thoughtful audience needs to seek for what is not said.
20th Century Modernists decorated their foreground with images, not antique forms of literary expression, and the complex message is encrypted in those images as if by steganography. Could Longfellow be doing something similar in the blank spaces between the lines of his hypnotic verse?
Today’s piece uses words from a late Longfellow poem “Morituri Salutamus,” a Latin title taken from the famous gladiator phrase “Those who are about to die salute you.” The bulk of this poem, written for the occasion of his 50th college class reunion when Longfellow was 68, is taken up with matter that might appear in a commencement speech or the granting of an honorary diploma. Its purported mode is lightly elegiac, advice to the young is given; but as it proceeds, Longfellow breaks into a not over-worn thought. He prepares for the poem’s final stanza by cataloging some few swan-songsters in literary history: Simonides, Chaucer, Sophocles.
Then in that final stanza, with supple verse, Longfellow concisely implores his aging generation (and himself) to continue to labor to create, to create better. That’s not a complex thought. Does it need to be? Is it easier or tougher to do because it’s a simple thought?
Here’s a short piece I wrote about the intimacy of sound. Part of the idea I used for this came from a remark Bobby McFerrin made about music: that we hear it because waves of sound touch a sensitive membrane inside our ear. How intimate is that!
Anatomically speaking, there is an accuracy there, but some would clarify, speaking strictly, that the brain is what gives us the sound we perceive, just as it does the seeing and so forth. Philosophers would also tell us that this distinction is important. They have made their case elsewhere, and I will not reiterate that here now.
There is a view that poetry too is about mental images. No doubt this is so. Language is full of strange ways of meaning to be understood. But all these exact pieces of information shouldn’t lead us to forget McFarrin’s point: when spoken, it’s still a sensual act. We hear poetry as information to some degree, but we hear it also as a musical sensation.
Our world is filled with information. We can sort it forever for meaning. But the feeling of our beloved’s voice on our ear is more than information or imagery. So is music. So is poetry.
Episodes may be farther apart this month, but I remind you that we have well over 200 audio pieces available in our archives for those looking for further listening.
July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know from web stats that this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?
Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It’s not merely as an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but as an act that founded the premiere modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.
Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead marking a beginning.
Therefore, today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane, William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy, which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.
In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.
Ironically, it’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain. Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?
The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution.
I’m not a fully-qualified Science/Speculative Fiction fan. I did read it when I ran into it as a young man. Dave Moore, whose voice, songs and keyboard playing you’ll hear from time to time here, read more of it. I’m not sure if Dave introduced me to Harlan Ellison’s work, but my memory is that he did loan me a copy of “Dangerous Visions” back in the Sixties. In that 1967 anthology, Ellison made the case that SF was the heir to a Modernist tradition of fiction using outrageous and unique situations—he was claiming SF could be more Kafka as L. Sprague de Camp.
It’s unlikely he was the only person thinking along those lines, but he certainly helped to popularize the idea at a time when an aging generation of SF writers, steeped in their pulp magazines and cents-per-word paychecks were in danger of losing touch with the younger post-WWII generation who were more likely to be college educated and experienced in some chemically enhanced inner-space traveling.
Ellison was an any-world-class curmudgeon. His non-fiction writing is full of enthusiasms and invective, with almost no middle ground. At times he reminds me of another late 20th Century artist/social critic: Frank Zappa. Both of them liked to remark that “The two most common elements in the Universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” Over the course of his career Ellison seemed to transform from a US-born angry young man punching mostly up to a more generalized misanthropy, where at appearances he would sometimes riff like an insult comic. He once called my late wife who he had just met at an event, “Cathy Carbohydrate.”
These two things worked together. SF had always had a darker side, and the border between it and the gothic strain of fantasy noir-ish mystery was crossed back and forth often. I believe a utopian, Transcendentalist wing of SF remains, but the terms SF and dystopia now seem to follow one another almost automatically.
Is this the artists’ fault or ours? A large question that.
Thursday night I read that Harlan Ellison had died. Friday I was booked to play with Dave. Friday morning, as I slept, I dreamed that Dave was showing me a binder full of typed manuscripts of stories he had written. As he flipped the pages I read parts of the stories. In style, they were the sort of thing a teenager just starting out would have written, so in the dream’s timeline they would have been written in the Sixties. In the dream, Dave, after learning of Ellison’s death, was telling me that Harlan Ellison had looked over these stories, and that Ellison didn’t like them very much, though he thought the last one had some promise. There was a short, encouraging note from Ellison scrawled in the margin on a page in the story. As I glanced up toward the middle of the page, I saw some dialog in which a character in the story was saying something. The character in this non-existent dream-story was named Octavia Butler.
Now I remind you: this is a dream. Dave never had Ellison critique any early stories he wrote. In the dream, these stories existed, in the waking world they don’t. But here’s the funny thing. I told you at the start that I’m not a fully-qualified SF fan. If you had mentioned Octavia Butler to me on Friday, the only impression I would have was that she was a writer. I wouldn’t have been able to name any of her work or have been able to place her in a genre. In the dream, I just thought it odd that Dave was using a writer’s name as a character in a story that the dream had had him writing 50 years ago. I was about to ask him why, when I woke up.
I biked off for breakfast and hurriedly came back to write “The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison.” Looking for info I might use in my song, I searched on Octavia Butler from my dream. In the Sixties Butler was a young, unsure author, fearing that she was “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless." While she was still in school, Harlan Ellison, this man with a reputation as a scouring critic, had told her she had promise and should go to the Clarion Conference and present her work there, a suggestion that lead to her first publication in 1971.
Nothing there I could use in the song as it turns out, but strangely this was also nothing I knew when I had dreamed that dream early in the morning.
That afternoon, Dave and I recorded “The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison.” In the waking world, Dave had not heard yet that Ellison had died.
Here’s a short piece using a poem by a person who started out her career as a poet but who spent the greater part of her life working for her country, India’s, independence: Sarojini Naidu.
Sarojini Naidu, like Edna St. Vincent Millay around the same time in the U. S., impressed people as a capable poet while still a teenager. Her talents lead to her being sent abroad to England for college, and eventually she connected with the Rhymer’s Club, the turn of the century London organization that was the last stop in the 19th Century for some of the poets who would launch the poetry of the 20th century.
Today’s piece, “The Poet to Death” was first published in England as part of Naidu’s initial collection of poetry The Golden Threshold in 1905. Fluent in several languages, the pieces in The Golden Threshold are in Naidu’s own English. Some accounts say that the young Sarojini was modest about her poetry at the time, worried that her work was less-substantial because it is lyrical and song-like, and retroactively English-language Modernism did discount that sort of poetic gift. So, while her poetic work is still remembered in her homeland, where she’s called the “Nightingale of India,” Sarojini Naidu will be a new name to most of our listeners.
During the WWI years Naidu transferred her focus from poetry to working for Indian Independence, a cause in which she became a principal, working alongside Gandhi and the other independence leaders.
Did the world loose a poet for India to gain its independence? Perhaps. I do not know enough to say. In her English poetry, I can see the influence of the earlier 19th Century English romantics, but her language is less extravagant. She can remind me at times of Christina Rossetti (listeners here will know I consider that a good thing), and “The Poet to Death” is a concise version of a trope Keats would use as well.
Today’s music employs a polyrhythmic blues. Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by the “till I am satisfied” line in Naidu’s poem to think of Muddy Waters and his “I can’t be satisfied,” though what I ended up playing has some elements of Skip James’ style. At a conscious level, I was worked on this thinking of poet Donald Hall, having read a review of his new collection of essays coming out this month, and then hearing later in the same day that he had died at age 89. In his last couple of decades, Hall has often written of what continues until it ends in the course of aging.
For some reason the version of the text I worked with did not have Naidu’s first stanza, which specifically speaks as a younger poet for death to stay his hand. In the remaining two stanzas, the age of the speaker is less determined, and so the situation is joined whether it is a young poet or old. The blossoms are always there a short time, at any age.
Back more than 200 years ago, poet, painter, engraver and mystic William Blake was reported to be conversing with angels in English trees. Last episode we had William Carlos Williams celebrating celebrity scientist Einstein in a blooming New Jersey night early in the 20th Century. Today we have Dave Moore in his backyard garden in Minnesota in our present century.
Is this poetry, song, or story-telling? It might be a little bit of all of them, but then labels are just sticky paper. Let me refrain this time from talking so much about the piece. I encourage you to just listen to the LYL Band and Dave Moore tell the story.
Metaphor, that stuff that helps make the music of thought in poetry, is the linking or liking of things. This is like that. This stands for that. The sensation of this is like the sensation of that. This reminds us of something else. The way I say this recalls the way one says that. Metaphor recombines the stuff of our world even though it’s a combination that only exists in the imagination.
Metaphor can make something clearer to an audience. It’s so useful in that way that one can barely explain anything challenging to an audience, even in the most prosaic day-to-day business world, without falling into metaphor. In poetry however, the bounds of increased clarity can be stretched, broken, and abandoned. Depending on one’s mood as a reader, this can be frustrating or a pleasing play of the mind. With the Parlando Project we perform the poems with music. One hope from this is that you can relax and let the beauty or strangeness of the words carry you over gaps in meaning. Sometimes you can enjoy a poem before you understand it.
William Carlos Williams who wrote the words in today’s piece, gives us Spring weather with Spring flowers and fruit blossoms, gardens and orchards, and all under a title that combines a famous saint with his era’s most famous scientist. He gives us almost no help in combining that title with the poem, other than yoking them together. The linkage of metaphor is much strained here, even when he further explains his title by adding a sub-title: “On the first visit of Professor Einstein to the United States in the spring of 1921.”
How are we to make the connection that will construct the metaphor?
My best understanding so far is that the connection is wonder and change. Recall our last episode, where in his “Queen Mab” Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic early-19th Century poet gave us a vision of the wonder of an immense cosmos, which Shelley’s own notes tell us he could also sense through the poetic/mathematical meter of the speed of light. The theoretical scientist and the visionary poet each seek to grasp some new metaphor of the world. Einstein was changing physics in the time that Williams and his fellow Modernists were seeking to change the apparatus of art. Williams elaborates on this theme mostly by vivid descriptions of the change of Spring. In the only mention of Einstein in the body of the poem, Einstein is “tall as a violet.” He is the Spring’s new growth.
There are a couple of obscure literary references in one section, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot or his imitators would have used. Who is “Samos, dead and buried?” I’m not sure, but my guess is that it’s Pythagoras of Samos, the famous classical Greek philosopher for whom science and the arts were one. And Lesbia? Catullus’ Roman poetic beloved, who we’ve met here in Elizabethan guise. It may be enough that they have ancient sounding names, and of such ancient classical modes, Williams, who is in some ways the Anti-T. S. Eliot, says “Sing of it no longer” as he moves right back into a present day of Spring. Pythagoras is dead, Catullus’ Lesbia is dead, and so is a black cat buried in a newly planted garden. Awhile later in the poem we may get one more connection to that cat part of this buried trio. A chicken-raising man who puts out poisoned fish-heads to keep the cats from his chickens. That man becomes like the Modernists, needing to kill the ancients to protect the new flock he’s raising.
As a side note, this poem’s chicken farmer, the white-haired negro, was quite likely the man whose rain-glistened red wheelbarrow sat next to the white chickens in William’s famous poem of admiration.
The poem closes with a sensuous image of Spring change, a night that grows warm as an orchard owner opens his windows and throws off the covers that were needed in the cold. In an earlier version of the poem, Williams had woven Einstein by name in and out of those Spring images explicitly, including this last one where Einstein was named as that man with the blossoming orchard, another grower of renewed things. In this later version, all these stated links to Einstein are removed (save for that one Einstein as a violet).
Was that a right choice? The resulting poem is shorter and more mysterious, but it also doesn’t make it easy to see what Williams is getting at. He’s using metaphor, but he’s removed all the connections. I decided to perform the later version. I think it performs slightly better, and perhaps the music makes the obscurities less taunting.
It’s not often that we think of English Romantic poets along with science. We tend to think of them as pure examples, an engraved picture of an enraptured youth subject to the throws of inspiration, to be found next to the words “poet” or “fool” in a dictionary.
Percy Bysshe Shelley is no exception to this. In my mid-20th Century American school-days he was seated with the Romantics, and biographically some mention would be made of his notoriety during his lifetime, the matter of which would be ascribed with a summary of libertine sexual behavior in the Byron and Shelley households. I suspect many of those descriptions, brief and bloodless as they might have been, were attempts to woo additional interest in poetry from otherwise little-interested adolescents.
Part of the joy of this project is finding surprising things in poetry among the accidents and intents of looking for material. At the end of last week, I read of the memorial service held for physicist Stephen Hawking at Westminster Abbey.
Vangelis is going to stream a musical piece with Hawking’s famously synthesized voice out to the galaxies! Somewhere out there, the odds say, a curious alien will detect this light-years from now; though probabilities also say they will have likely forgotten to bring earbuds along on their saucer-ride.
And there were celebrities! Elgar, Stravinsky and Holst were played! The ticket application form allowed future birthdates in case time-travelers wanted to apply to attend!
But reading on I find that astronaut Tim Peake read a bit of, what, Shelley. From “Queen Mab” some accounts said.
I find a copy of “Queen Mab.” Turns out it’s another kind of Shelley from the school-book aesthete. “Queen Mab” is a fairly long blank-verse epic, but I didn’t have to read far to find the parts you’d want to read for a cosmological tie-in. Right there in Canto II, Mab, the queen of the fairies, Uber’s up a human soul to her palace, which is more or less an atheist’s heaven, which is to say a philosophical location above the cosmos—and there, the human soul gets to observe the wonder of this perspective. Mind-blowingness ensues.
This is the kind of thing which visionary poets and scientists share, and that thing is wonder. Stacks of SciFi books would lift one nearly that high, but why couldn’t poetry, the literary artform best-suited to grasp tiny pieces of the un-graspable do this too?
Here’s something else I found remarkable, a series of notes on the issues in the poem, written by Shelly, a young man of 18 in the early 19th century. Here’s a portion of the first one:
“Light consists either of vibrations propagated through a subtle medium, or of numerous minute particles repelled in all directions from the luminous body. Its velocity greatly exceeds that of any substance with which we are acquainted: observations on the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites have demonstrated that light takes up no more than 8' 7" in passing from the sun to the earth, a distance of 95,000,000 miles.—Some idea may be gained of the immense distance of the fixed stars when it is computed that many years would elapse before light could reach this earth from the nearest of them; yet in one year light travels 5,422,400,000,000 miles, which is a distance 5,707,600 times greater than that of the sun from the earth.”
I was an English major, I had to look this up. Shelley, or early 19th century science, was off several billion miles on the length of a light-year and a couple of million miles off on earth-sun distance—hey, I knew that last measurement, though from an early-childhood advertising jingle. However, ask yourself, how likely would it be that the most facile poet in any first-year college writing class be conversant in those measurements, and how they are empirically proved?
So, thanks Stephen Hawking, Tim Peake, and whoever planned that part of the Westminster Abbey internment service. I now think of Percy Bysshe Shelly differently.
Today I step aside from our usual practice here, and present words I wrote. With opportunity, next week I should be able to return to “Other People’s Stories.”
“Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street” was written recently, and includes elements of observations I made during a bike ride to school with my son in early May. In the course of writing the poem and revising it, I modified the events of that day. This is not unusual. The events of one’s own life have a fractal branching of meaningfulness that frustrate encapsulation. It may be useful to use those endless edges as perforations to tear away from all things remembered the shape of a poem.
I tested the revision before this one with a group of poet friends, and alas, it didn’t seem to work well for them. They were slightly puzzled why the speaker in the poem didn’t ask the child to stop and smell the blossoms, but altogether bewildered by the question (or the way I presented it) when the speaker asks near the end of the poem about memory being able to remember the smell of something overlooked in one’s past. That was useful information. They also made a very specific suggestion. Originally the blossoms had been tree blossoms, and though they were extravagantly fragrant on the morning that inspired the poem, I did not know in fact what kind of tree was bearing them. No matter, they suggested, it works better if you make them a specific tree.
I read something once particularly wise regarding such honest critiques about one’s writing. It may have been from Kurt Vonnegut, or it may have been someone else, but the gist of it was that if good, honest, readers find a problem in a piece they are almost always right, even if they are often wrong about how to fix it. The suggestion to name the type of tree was simply right I thought, but how to deal with what they saw as the troublesome puzzle of memory?
What I was trying to suggest in my poem’s story was that we can indeed remember things retroactively. Things that were not noted at the time consciously, that were not filed out as if a contemporaneous diary as experienced, can still be recalled when we later find them important or precious. We do this partially from our subconscious, perhaps even from what the Transcendentalists would call the over-soul, but mostly this is augmented because our minds are great pattern makers, able to fill in gaps with all the other things we recall.
The readers who noted this as a problem were smart, perceptive people. They likely knew of this, but I still had perplexed them.
I could not remove this, for me it was the point of the poem. Sometimes, what folks most object to in a poem (or other art) is, paradoxically, why it needs to exist.
I made some slight changes in a couple of lines around that concluding question, hoping in this version to make this natural phenomenon of memory clearer, without hindering the “music of thought” as well as “music of words” that I think poetry should have. Maybe it works better now.
A couple of mornings ago, I awoke after a night’s sleep, and as I took my bicycle out to the alley to ride off for breakfast, I was surprised to see the road dusted in torn blossoms and several small tree branches cast about on the wet ground.
While I had been still and sleeping, a storm must have come up.
That contrast, the stillness and the broken change is at the heart of today’s poem by William Carlos Williams. Williams opens his poem with an allusive image. “In the flashes and black shadows of July.” Is this the lightning of a summer storm? I thought so at first. But it might be just what one sees lying on summer grass and looking up through the boughs of a tree. The whims of a breeze or the caprices of squirrels and birds on the thin branches will flutter the leaves’ fan of shade revealing the sun in a flash.
Yet, summer “seems still.” The animals of summer appear “at ease.” But what if there is danger in the world, as in the unmet character in the poem’s title, the hunter?
In Williams’ poem, the hunter does not appear, ready to shoot the game. The hunter is invisible, as the hunter is time, the hunter is change.
For today’s music I combined an orchestral ensemble and electric guitar with an appearance of a harpsichord.
The words here are quoted from an interview artist and performer Laurie Anderson gave a few years ago in which she talks about what she derived from looking at the expansive Midwestern sky of her youth.
It's been one of the most popular audio pieces for the Parlando Project over the past year, particularly for the listeners who access our combinations of various words and original music on Spotify's podcast section.
If you find this interesting, there are now well over 200 audio pieces exploring this sort of thing available on my blog at frankhudson.org
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold…” This, written by Byron, is one of the catchiest first lines in a 19th Century filled with catchy lines. It’s so good that I remember reading it in high school many, many years ago—and so good, that I recalled nearly nothing else of the poem, not even its title.
I, like many others since, have informally used that image of a mighty force, that wolfpack, totally overwhelming a weaker force, cast as a fold of sheep. So, even though I did not remember the poem, when I read it again this month I thought that was what the poem described. In that first re-reading I had trouble following the poems plot entirely, though the poem’s rhythm, rhyme scheme, and irresistible forward motion carried me through it with some appreciation. “OK, big bad Assyrians are going to sweep all before them, destroying everything in their path, including, I guess, that ‘Sennacherib’— must be the name of a city.” The poem’s flow moves relentlessly forward, like those Assyrian horse-drawn chariots I think; and there’s death and its all-quiet-afterward corpses—but no real battle, however one-sided, that the famous first line leads us to expect. Did Byron leave something out? And what’s exactly with that last stanza?
Turns out, I was misreading the poem. It’s also been a long time since I’ve read the Second book of Kings in the Bible, where Byron borrowed his story. Sennacherib isn’t a city, he’s the king of the Assyrians. In the Bible story, the Israelite king, about to be swept away like his kingdom by Sennacherib’s Assyrian army prays for God to intervene to save the kingdom, and God RSVPs with supernatural force, wiping out that supposedly unstoppable horde in the famous first line.
Once I realized that, I could properly appreciate Byron’s middle section, with it’s spooky Angel of Death sensuously breathing in the faces of the Assyrian army as it flies past, faster than any charioteer. And the gloriously grisly image of the dead warhorse whose spume from its last furious race to escape is still stretched between its stilled nostrils and the dirt it now lays in.
Yes, Byron races through this story because the mysterious “glance” of God defeating the Assyrian army might be diminished in a mortal’s attempt to describe it, and when Byron jumps to the aftermath, he keeps moving fast, but each detail he chooses to notice tells.
So, unexpectedly to me, this wasn’t a story about how the smart money bets, how the unstoppable force is, as we’d better well realize, unstoppable.
Besides my initial misunderstanding, I found the poem has another problem in modern performance. Its poetic meter is anapestic, two unaccented beats followed by the strong beat. This is a jaunty rhythm, which whether for natural reasons or from association, sounds to me either like “A Visit from St. Nicolas” or Dr. Seuss—and neither assists with the mood of this poem! So, I attempted to break up the metrical feet, and read “against” the meter a bit, while keeping the momentum going.
Today’s piece, like my recent setting of Margaret Widdemer’s “When I Was A Young Girl” reframes a folk song from the British Isles. Widdemer took a song traditionally about a life cut down by youthful excess and reformed it into a poem about finding love outside the realm of adventurous, romantic fantasy. However, today’s words are from Elinor Wylie, whose poetry retains its allegiance to romantic excess, even if it’s frank about the cost of that.
“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” takes its title from a transcription of an old English song, collected in the 17th Century, but likely much older: the “Lyke Wake Dirge.” The “Lyke Wake Dirge” is a striking song, even though its antique dialect is nearly as hard to understand today as “Summer Is Icumen In.” As this blog post recalls, you’d be hard pressed to make out the lyrics to Lyke Wake in present-day English from hearing it, but the simple yet stately melody grabs you anyway. That is an illustration of a Parlando Project idea: the presence of music allows one to defer decoding a text’s meaning, to appreciate something before you understand it. The line Wylie extracted for her title, in fact, is likely a common misunderstanding of the line in the old song. “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” makes an easily available winter image, and so that’s what some heard. Scholars are now of the opinion that the middle item is actually “fleet,” not sleet; fleet being an old word meaning floor, and by extension, standing for home. The line’s word-music is beautiful with either word in it, and Wylie was very good at word-music.
To summarize Lyke Wake, the old song, once you’ve died your soul will be tested on an arduous journey, which will be made easier if you’ve lived a life of charity. In the long-standing Christian debate between salvation from faith or works, Lyke Wake favors the works side. The soul’s journey may still be strange and testing, but charitable goodness in life is rewarded as a way through.
This is not the poem that Wylie writes however. There’s a soul on a journey in her poem, yes, but salvation is nowhere achieved or even promised. Lyke Wake is foreboding, but it may only recount two or three tests on the soul’s journey, and the refrain reminds us every verse the possibility that “Christe receive thy saule.” Christina Rossetti wrote a jauntier, more modern version of Lyke Wake with her “Up-Hill,” to give one example of how this could have been restated in modern English.
Wylie’s poem instead piles on the soul-struggles until you lose track of the number depicted. Nearly every pair of lines is a fresh torment or test, some of pain, some of discouragement.
Wylie’s images for the soul’s tests are in general straightforward, nothing too esoteric. The only one that caused me pause was “trysted swords.” Tryst derives from a Middle English word for agreed hunting place. Imagery-wise I was reminded of the Tarot deck’s three of swords. What would be hunted, and injured, would be one’s heart here, and trysted puns to twisted, as in the intertwined piercing blades of the three of swords.
So, Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,” presents a more arduous and unrewarded journey than even the spooky “Lyke Wake Dirge.” As a 20th Century poet steeped in the Romanticism of Shelley, Byron and Keats, Wylie would hold that suffering is not to be avoided if it’s a cost for a passionate rush toward truth and beauty. I said at the start, Wylie was honest about the cost of such a journey—and in words she is—but in putting it into such singing word-music she makes the sufferings easier to bear while her music undercuts the real pain and danger.
Here’s a story about a poem appropriate for this Memorial Day, though the story includes three Easter holidays.
First Easter: on Easter 1913 in March, a freelance writer, normally so pressed for a paycheck that he worked 15-hour days writing piece after piece, started off on a bike tour across Britain from his home near London to the south-western coast of England. Of course, there was a paycheck involved, a travel book was planned and resulted, which was called In Pursuit of Spring.
This trip started in overwork and near the ending of a glum winter, and finished in May with true spring; and this bicycle journey allowed the harried writer to expend a bit more focus on his writing this time. In the book, his trip ends in Somerset England, but a packet of photos he took during the trip indicates that he must have somehow crossed the Bristol Channel to Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. A tell-tale photo with his handwriting on the back was discovered recently, saying it was taken near Tinkiswood, the site of a Welsh Neolithic stone burial chamber. A year later the site was excavated, and 920 human bones were located. Welsh legend has it that staying the night in the chamber will cause any surviving visitor to go raving mad or become a poet. That wasn’t included in the book.
The overworked freelancer who took this journey was Edward Thomas. Shortly after the journey completed, he met a then little-known American poet who’s work Thomas had reviewed perceptively. The poet was Robert Frost. Frost read In Pursuit of Spring and suggested that Thomas should write poetry.
“How so?” asked Thomas.
Frost told him that Thomas had already shown close readings of the book of nature and the rhythm of verse in passages in In Pursuit of Spring.
So, at this time Thomas began writing poetry, extraordinary poetry that is little known in the United States, but which is much loved by poets and readers in the U.K. Some of it so concise and so infused with deep attention to the natural world’s calligraphy that it rivals classical Chinese and Japanese forms.
And World War I breaks out.
I’ve already written about Thomas’ dilemma in deciding if he should enlist in the war, and Frost’s part in Thomas’ ambivalence, so here I’ll just say that Thomas did enlist. The records say it was in a company called “The Artists’ Rifles.”
Can Americans of our time imagine such a military organization? Of course, artists of all kinds have served in America’s military services, but I can’t envision that sort of name being used here in place of something like “The Screaming Eagles.”
The second Easter: the somber name today’s poem was published under was not his. Thomas in his manuscript simply wrote down the Eastertide date in 1915 when he apparently wrote the first draft of it, two years after he’d started that trip that had indirectly formed him into a poet. That summer he was even stationed while on military training in one of the towns he’d passed through on the bicycle journey.
But never mind the name, what a poem. It’s four lines, a single quatrain. Decades later Pete Seeger wrote a song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” condensing an episode from a WWI novel expressing a similar idea. Seeger’s song is not long as songs go, but it’s a good length for a room to sing along to. Thomas’ poem has only started when it comes to its fourth line. The previous line breaks abruptly, enjambed, with “should” and its final line reveals itself as it unwinds in heartbreaking fashion.
And Thomas? A third Easter: another spring, 1917. His diary entry in France wonders if the enemy is unseen in the fields ahead of him, which he still must view with the precision of a nature poet. He pauses to light his pipe. A bullet pierces straight through his beating heart that will, do, never, again.
Our last poet, Margaret Widdemer seems to have done most of her adventuring in fantasy, but today’s poet, Elinor Wylie—well, she caused quite a scandal in the pre-WWI years. Widdemer may have dreamed of cavaliers and wearing leather in a traveling Romany wagon; but for Wylie, there’s biography! Elinor Wylie grew up in Washington D. C. the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s Solicitor General and infatuated with the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which, as we’ll see, could be a bit of a leading indicator. Elinor Wylie started right off by eloping with another would-be poet, Phillip Hichborn, shortly after high school. They had a child, but the match was not good, and the brief accounts I’ve read report the husband as “unstable” and “abusive.” Next, her story gets weirder. An older millionaire lawyer Horace Wylie, also married, began to, as Wikipedia put it, stalk her. Again, I lack details, but he apparently followed her about, taking care to show up often wherever she was. I’m not familiar with dating etiquette for married people in the pre-WWI era, but this sort of thing began to attract notice.
Bad marriage. Stalker. What to do, Elinor? She ditched her husband and fled to England with the stalker. Now we have full-fledged scandal. They hid out in jolly old for a while under assumed names. President Taft reportedly made efforts to bring her back. Eventually Horace Wiley got a divorce, Elinor’s first husband Phillip committed suicide, and WWI broke out in Europe. The run-away couple returned to the US, got married, and settled in New England where according to one biographer "Shopkeepers boycotted her, and she could buy no food. People began to turn away from her in the street. [The Wylies] were ignored in the worst way possible."
Back in the US, the marriage to Horace Wylie soured too. She was to have one more marriage, this time to Stephen Vincent Benet’s brother William Rose Benet. They eventually separated, but Benet continued to promote her literary efforts, until in 1928 at the age of 43 the writer, still writing under the name of Elinor Wylie, died instantly of a stroke at Benet’s home while looking over pre-publication galleys of her last poetry collection.
All that folly of love in one short life! Did she manage to produce any poetry worth noting? From a look at her first collection, written largely while she was still married to Horace, I found her poetry more immediately attractive when read in the present day than Widdemer’s work. It’s very concise, and often considerably musical. You can see the influence of Shelley in the intense feelings and in some of the elaborate word choices. During her lifetime, the musicality of her verse (like Teasdale, like Millay) was noticed and admired, but like all three of these skilled singers on the page, High Modernism eventually discounted that element of poetry and looked for grander, more elaborately worked-out themes. Strange how things work out.
Unlike Shelley, when time and death wore out the notoriety, the poet was more or less forgotten.
“Full Moon” shows Wylie’s concise intensity well, and it shows a flair for visceral imagery too. In search of music or from love of obscure words, Wylie crafts lines that sound great even if one must keep a dictionary window open to grasp their gist. Lines like “My bands of silk and miniver momentarily grew heavier” and “Harlequin in lozenges” start the first two stanzas. Miniver? I think only of a Greer Garson movie. It’s a fur coat lining. Harlequin, a stock pantomime clown/fool character sure, but what’s with the lozenges, is the harlequin mute because of a sore throat? Nope, lozenges also means diamond shaped, the traditional harlequin costume has a diamond pattern.
What’s it all mean? It’s not hard for me to see Wylie’s biography in this, the experience of being seen as the bad woman, shunned and condemned. I made a mistake in performing this, singing “carnal mask” instead of the more perfect rhyme Wylie wrote: “carnal mesh.” I noted it right off and tried to sing the verse again, correctly, but I ended up liking the mistake and left it in. Musically, I came up sounding a bit like a Nico solo record from the mid-20th Century for this, as I could hear Nico singing something like “harlequin in lozenges” and getting away with it a half-century after Wylie.
When I look at a more well-known poet or poem, I often find someone else less well-remembered connected with them. This sort of thing naturally intrigues me. Are we overlooking something of interest? Does this lesser-known person change our understanding of the more well-known poet?
I’ve noted earlier this month that Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1918 collection Cornhuskers—but that’s not the full story. For some reason, they decided to give out two awards for poetry that year, and another poet’s 1918 work was the co-recipient: Margaret Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise.
I don’t aim this project to literary scholars, who likely know more than I do about the poets whose words I use, but there are indications that Widdemer’s name would stump them too, even those whose field includes the Modernist era. From a look through Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise this can be partly ascribed to Widdemer not writing in the Modernist style that triumphed as the century continued. Furthermore, Widdemer’s outlook, though feminist, is middle-class and lacks the bohemian allure of Millay or even Sara Teasdale (the poetry winner the previous year). As time passes, rebels and poètes maudite often retain their outsider excitement while losing their air of present danger, and Widdemer offers none of that. And while I’m hesitant to judge from a skim through one book, a further issue is that she may not be very good.
Particularly for me, and for the Parlando Project, Millay and Teasdale’s words just want to sing off the page. Widdemer’s, though rhymed and following metrical schemes, generally don’t. There is a flatness to subject matter and a conventionality of imagery that fails to grab me as well. I would have loved to have picked up Old Road to Paradise and found something as interesting as Fenton Johnson, Edward Thomas, or Anne Spencer; but not this time.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Widdemer seems a level-headed person, and she is writing from a woman’s point of view that has fewer representations in the literary cannon of her era. What little I know of her biography says she worked to advance poetry and literary efforts. Could I find something to use? As I paged through Old Road to Paradise I marked “When I Was a Young Girl” as a possibility.
Why did this one stand out? It seems based on a folk song, but while it takes lines and tropes from folk songs, it presents an alternative viewpoint to the songs it borrows from. Since the post-WWII folk song revival, folk song has been even further associated with bohemianism and adventuresome living, even though the traditional texts used most often tell of sad ends.
From its title and often refrained first line, the folk song we can most easily connect with Widdemer’s poem is the female version of “The Unfortunate Rake” a 17th Century song with dozens of popular folk song variations, including the American cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo.” With the “When I Was a Young Girl” title it’s been sung by Feist and Marlon Williams, and back in the 20th Century by Julie Driscoll and Nina Simone. The general plot of these variations is that a young person is dying after a short, intense life of drink and venereal disease. The too short life of pleasure is valorized even if the song’s singer often remarks that they know they are doomed to hell. No wonder this song has remained popular—both sinners and saints, and listeners on a journey from either pole to the other, can find something in the tale!
Widdemer starts as some of these folk songs do, by telling of the excitement of their youth before the song’s present moment, though in her more circumspect telling, the young girl’s adventures are in daydreams and fantasies, including (in another folk song reference), a longing to run off with the “raggle-taggle gypsies.”
I used a minor key melody for this, not unlike that used in the folk song. I won’t spoil the ending Widdemer puts on her version of this story by foretelling it here, but it’s not where that folk song and its variations take you.
Here’s Carl Sandburg again, this time from his 1920 collection “Smoke and Steel.” Today’s piece “Long Guns” is a protest poem of a kind. A few decades later, around midcentury, the folk-song revival in America (which Sandburg had helped to kick-off with his pioneering American Songbag collection of folk songs) grew a wing that wrote protest songs. Bob Dylan, a man who thought enough of Carl Sandburg to want to visit him as he was revolutionizing songwriting, wrote a few of them himself, even though Dylan once categorized the usual efforts of the protest song genre as “finger-pointing songs.”
So how does one go about writing a protest song or poem? There are probably lots of ways, and some work more often than others. Sandburg, the early Modernist, would sometimes write Imagist protest poems, which is quite a trick to pull off, though the classical Chinese poets that influenced Imagism had figured out how to do this centuries before. “Long Guns” is more in Sandburg’s Walt Whitman mode though, what with its parallelism and lists.
Sandburg wants to call attention to the disorder of order established by armaments and guns, but rather than doing this in the order of argument as an essay would, or by leading off with some singular event that will arrest our attention, he starts by addressing an otherwise unidentified someone named “Oscar.”
This is puzzling way to start, and I had no idea why Sandburg did this. My guess is that most current readers will just figure Oscar is some random name, and stumble past this, but since I hate to leave specific things unexamined, I eventually had to try to figure out who Oscar is. And I think I’ve figured that out.
I’ll wager you haven’t heard of him, but it’s likely Oscar Ameringer, a radical humorist who was styled “The Mark Twain of Socialism.” Ameringer was Sandburg’s contemporary, and both spent time working for Socialist candidates in Wisconsin, though their time in Milwaukee missed overlapping by only about a year in the years before WWI. At least to fellow Midwestern Socialists, this call out to Oscar may well have been recognized when “Long Guns” was written.
After this mysterious opening, Sandburg lays out a condensed history of the world, a Genesis story of armed nationhood, a litany of the primacy of guns, speaking too of the long range artillery that had been part of the new warfare of the recently ended WWI.
And then, just past midway, Sandburg jumps somewhere else entirely—which is the freedom we allow poetry (as we allow it in music)—to a twisted fairy tale, the payoff. In the end, this is how Sandburg makes his protest point. We are like the child, and/or we are creating the child in that story.
In performing and presenting “Long Guns” I decided to throw a frame around it. A couple of episodes back I mentioned some other Modernists, largely, but not entirely, separate from the recognized literary Modernists. In the same early decades of the 20th Century, Afro-Americans were “making it new” with a different language and music, which was labeled “The Blues,” and from which Jazz and Rock’n’Roll and modern popular music draw even to this day. There’s no Ezra Pound or T. E. Hulme to point to here, a name that we can say sparked things off. Their 19th Century Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman-like predecessors are barely known as names. I still want to say more on this later, but as frame for “Long Guns” I used a blues line I know from the singing of Chester Burnett who performed as “Howling Wolf:”
“I wore my 44 for so long, it made my shoulder sore.”
What a striking and original line! If Li Po or Pound had written it, we might read it in a literary anthology. A man whose fear or anger must carry it like a heavy revolver, painfully, always. As it happened, I know it from Burnett singing it, as the Wolf; where as part of his performance style, his voice is unnaturally raspy, his delivery as if spoken by a spirit, perhaps not a normal man. A man who lives where the running of the world was all in guns. Is that a normal man?
Have you ever noticed how little poetry deals with the world of everyday work, with the employments that occupy such a huge part of our lives? Part of this is due to the positioning of art as an escape from all that humdrum and haplessness. We go to poetry, or to music, partly to divert ourselves from it. It promises us the respite of beauty, or at the least a music to shake ourselves down from the defeats and stress of it.
On the poets’ part, some of that may be because poetry is almost never their “day gig”—and the regular bills-paying job is, at some level, an embarrassment. After all, Lord Byron didn’t have that waitress job, Edna St. Vincent Millay didn’t have to sweat getting the reports done by EOD, and Homer didn’t have to stay awake wondering if he should raise a stink about how his co-workers are dumping too much of their work-load on him. Poets, if they are to make it to the level possible in our modern culture, can at best aspire to the level of college teaching with sabbaticals and a modicum of grants. That necessary rent-paying day gig is an admission that they are marginalized as artists.
Carl Sandburg seems unaffected by that problem, one of the reasons to treasure him in his years as a pioneering Modernist. Politically aligned as a socialist, some kind of workers-solidarity stance might be obligatory. Luckily, the early-20th Century Sandburg rarely reads that way, and his life demonstrates reasons why this is so. He was born of working-class immigrants, and all through his Imagist years, while he was focused on becoming a poet, he remained working class through and through.
You may not share Sandburg’s politics (any more than I share Ezra Pound’s), but even through the superficial changes in the decades since he wrote them, you can find in Sandburg poems a real, felt, understanding of day to day work for pay. His first three poetry volumes are filled with this understanding. Today’s piece, “Sunset From Omaha Hotel Window,” from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection “Cornhuskers” is suffused with this.
Much of Sandburg’s 1918 “Cornhuskers” seems to be reflections published some 20 years later of his experiences while still a teenager in the 1890s when he hoboed out west from his native Illinois, working day labor and various farm jobs. Some of its idiom is unclear to me. I am not sure what is simply obsolete vernacular and what is figurative language invented by the poet.
“Sunset From Omaha Hotel Window” tells you right off it’s allegiance to Imagism. It’s titled like a painting or an art photograph, and while Imagism wasn’t dogmatic about visual images, the visual arts were undergoing their own revolution influencing Modernist poetry; and as a practical matter, visual images have a directness that lend themselves to Imagism’s rejection of abstract and tired poetic tropes. And the poem’s first lines start, like many an Imagist poem, with colors and objects: a sunset over the Missouri river valley separating Omaha from Iowa. But then a line that’s a bit allusive: “The long sand changes.” My first thought was “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” That maybe what Sandburg was intending, but I don’t know if it’s some obsolete saying or something Sandburg invented. Sandbanks formed on a river channel are sometimes given this name, and that may be part of the meaning, and the wandering Missouri river has formed and erased many of them.
Later we meet up with two more lines like that: “Time knocks in another brass nail. Another yellow plunger shoots in the dark.” The first is partially clear, as the driving of a nail is a job of work with a sharply defined end. But why brass? It’s something akin to the still extant idiom “getting down to brass tacks” which is clearly understood to mean “getting down to the real, basic, concrete issues,” but the brass-tacks image that idiom presents, and its origin, is a mystery. The second part, the yellow plunger, I can’t quite say. I thought: meteor? Some meteors have discernable colors. The sun? He says in the dark, and his sunset is red from the first lines. As I sang it I just thought, shooting star, but I would welcome any ideas.
But the meaning of the poem is not hard to discern for any working person. As an Imagist, Sandburg doesn’t have to say what he’s feeling—weary, sad, cheated, worried, broke, lonely, unappreciated, angry—he just presents the scene. In my arrangement of this piece, I added repeats of Sandburg’s refrain “Today is a goner and today is not worth haggling over.” Time passes, work is done, and the issues of work, however numerous, enduring, undimmed, and uncontrolled by us are as stars—they are distant and present for a moment in Sandburg’s poem.
A few episodes ago I dropped a performance of Walt Whitman’s “Poets to Come,” a piece where Whitman precisely states his understanding that he’s shown a new mode for poetry and allied arts, but that this new mode of expression will only be fully exploited and explored by artists in the future.
And of course, as Americans we’re still living in his future. And Emily Dickinson’s future. And Ezra Pound’s future. And to a degree we have yet to acknowledge, we’re living in Charley Patton’s future as well (more on that last one later).
So, in “Poets to Come” Whitman foretold his legacy, but did Pound and the other founders of modern poetry in English fully acknowledge their American predecessors? I’m not sure, this is an area I haven’t studied yet. I’ve already mentioned in earlier episodes that Pound and his British allies seemed eager to point to modern French as well as ancient Greek, Chinese and Japanese influences in their Modernist verse.
Could Pound have been embarrassed by his American origins? Could T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint have sought to emphasize the continental sources of their new aesthetic to compensate for their decidedly non-posh class status? That would be rash for me, who is not a scholar in this field, to claim on speculation. The strongest evidence in Pound’s case would be that as a man living outside the U. S., his cosmopolitan outlook was well-earned by his travels. Being drawn to the work of LI Bai or Sappho, or the French Symbolists requires no apologies.
Modernists who remained in America may have voted with their (metrical?) feet to more frankly explore the 19th Century American roots of modern poetry. A personal favorite of mine, Carl Sandburg certainly did this. That some of Sandburg’s longer poems sound too much like Whitman’s word-music has, I believe, disguised the degree that Sandburg was a committed Imagist, capable of writing spare, no-wasted word examinations of present objects in the Imagist manner. In his no-less than duality, Sandburg was the first successful poet to combine the innovations of Dickinson and Whitman.
Today’s piece combines two short poems, the first by Carl Sandburg and the second by the indispensable Modernist promoter Ezra Pound. Sandburg’s part “Letters to Dead Imagists” speaks fondly and perceptively about Dickinson and then moves on to tenderly remember Stephen Crane as a poet, who, like Sandburg, tried to combine Whitman with Dickinson. By calling them Imagists, the term Pound used to promote his “make it new” style of poetry, Sandburg is directly endorsing their claim to being pioneering Modernists.
In the second part “A Pact” we move on to Ezra Pound’s altogether more cranky voice, where he allows that Walt Whitman had broken “the new wood”, as if Whitman was some sawmill man who had roughly hewn some timber, which he contrasts to his, Pound’s, task and skill, which is to carve it artistically.
I’m unsure how much Pound knew about Whitman’s background, so when Pound talks about the “pig-headed father” I at first assumed that famously stubborn Pound was only projecting his own considerable intransigence onto Whitman. But the poem’s closing image, an extended riff on wood and timber, indicates that he may have known of Whitman’s father’s trade as a carpenter. Pound’s own family had connections with the lumbering industry. So in the end, when Pound proclaims that he and Whitman share “one sap and one root” he’s allowing they share the American grain.
In my episodic way here, I’ve touched on the rise of Free Verse in Modernist poetry. Free Verse poetry may still be rhythmic and musical, but it follows no strict meter, nor does it use any rhyme scheme. Now an established tradition, it came to poetry written in English in a non-straightforward way.
I think we can largely assign this happening to Walt Whitman, the American who was writing verse with eccentric line lengths and no rhymes by the middle of the 19th Century. Whitman did not immediately gain imitators in English, but French poets like Jules Laforgue took up the cause of Vers Libre later in the century. In Laforgue we can see a direct link from Whitman through his pioneering French translations of the American’s work.
The main thread of the Free Verse revolution for poetry in English then jumps to England, where before WWI Britons F. S. Flint and T. E. Hulme made common cause with American ex-patriot Ezra Pound. Pound must have certainly been aware of Whitman (more on this later) and though I’m unsure if Flint or Hulme knew of the American poet, all three shared an interest in Modernist French poetry.
I can only surmise, but in starting their Free Verse revolution, it may have been advantageous for this small group to present this as a French idea rather than as an American one. At the beginning of the 20th Century, France was an established cultural force, a place from where new intellectual and artistic ideas were expected to emerge—and in painting and music Frenchmen were the leading edge of artistic Modernism in a way that Americans were not yet.
This strange path, from America to Paris to London misses one poet, a too often forgotten writer of Free Verse before the 20th Century, Stephen Crane. As a young man in his early 20s he was introduced to the just-published first collection of Emily Dickinson (1890), and mixing his take on Dickinson’s compressed musings on the infinite with the just-died Whitman’s Biblical cadences and love of parallelism, Crane in 1895 published a collection of short Free Verse poetry “The Black Riders.” Today’s piece uses the words of one of those short, untitled poems from Crane’s book.
If, a couple decades later, one of the short poems in “The Black Riders” was to appear in an Imagist anthology, on a quick glance or reading it wouldn’t look or sound out of place, but the pieces in Crane’s collection are not really Imagist poems, not even in the same way that sections of Whitman or Dickinson are. Crane’s “Black Riders” pieces are too full of abstract concepts and romantic notions—and even though Crane is questioning or mocking these concepts, he’s not presenting the issues through concrete new images as the Imagists would.
It’s interesting to wonder how Crane might have developed if he’d lived a full life, rather than dying at age 28 at the end of the 19th Century. Still and all, here was an American, in America, writing Modernist verse with Modernist attitudes while still a young man and with the 20th Century still on the horizon.
Last month when I dropped Sara Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care” hurriedly, I promised I’d return to Teasdale and say a bit more about her.
I’m not sure where Teasdale is in “The Canon” of modern verse now, but back when I was in college, she was even more left-out than Edna St. Vincent Millay, and for similar reasons. Teasdale and Millay were both contemporaries of the pioneering early 20th Century Modernists, both were published in their little magazines, received prestigious literary awards, and achieved a considerable readership in an era when page poetry had a more general readership.
But such status didn’t hold. As the 20th Century wore on, and High Modernism and academic-informed writing became the predominant style, Teasdale, like Millay didn’t seem to have the gravitas High Modernism required—after all, both wrote often about love and desire, a subject that if treated directly wasn’t thought serious enough. You know, “women’s stuff.”
If you’re getting the idea that by mid-century, Modernism was a bit of a boy’s club—well, yes, it was.
Teasdale had all of Millay’s problems with the curators of Modernism, and then some. Millay could write in the more modern style as well as engaging in somewhat old-fashioned-sounding sonnets. Teasdale was more adamantly a writer of metrical, rhymed lyrics that increasingly didn’t sound modern enough. Millay herself was a fiercely modern woman whose persona contrasted against any Victorian trappings in her poetic music, while Teasdale seemed less sure of herself. A typical no-win-situation for female poets by mid-century: assertiveness or originality couldn’t overcome the patriarchal attitudes—while submissiveness and reticence guaranteed its victory.
We’re decades past all that now, and we have a new century well underway. Today, it may seem like less of a crime for Teasdale to use the poetic music of 1875 instead of 1925 in this poem written around 1911. Publishing a poem like “Union Square” would have not caused Millay any second thoughts, but Teasdale went back and forth on that. In a fascinating run-down of Teasdale’s own doubts about the poem, Melissa Girard recounts early readers giving feedback like “Perhaps it is better, after all, to pursue the lovelier side of existence, and only give expression to what is unmarred in the realm of beauty.” And bizarrely, even after publishing it, Teasdale suggested “If the idea at the end of ‘Union Square’ had not been an accident suggested by rhyme, I should never have said what I said.” Say what? One of the beneficial side-effects of rhyme is that the search for it can work like Surrealist and automatic-writing techniques to jolt the mind’s search for language in directions it might not otherwise go—but none of the lines in “Union Square” where the poem’s speaker compares herself to the streetwalking prostitutes are rhyming lines.
I found it impossible not to sing this poem when presenting it, the poetry just demands it, even if the poem’s persona is expressing constraint. I think that contrast is what makes this poem, and Teasdale, worth considering.
Next weekend is the Minnesota sport fishing opener, and despite the late spring, the ice will be out on most of our state’s 10,000 lakes. Today’s piece, “Anglers” is appropriate for that.
I wrote the words for “Anglers” combining two things, one biographic and one literary, mixed with some phrases that occurred in my head.
The biographic? My grandfather died when my father was a young man, shortly after I was born. My father had four brothers and a sister, and the youngest of his brothers was only a few years older than I was. My grandfather never lived long enough to teach him much, and so my father helped teach his youngest brother some things their father did not live long enough to do. One of those things was sport fishing. As my young uncle grew up, he and my dad became fishermen of the most avid kind.
Over the next fifty years, the two men fished many places in Minnesota, but most memorably for me, in Canada. Not just on the border lakes like Lake of the Woods, but halfway up Ontario to lakes above the little town of Redditt. Their base there was a rustic fishing lodge: log cabins, outhouses, small aluminum rental rowboats to which they’d attach a c. 1930 Johnson Sea Horse outboard their father had long ago bought to their flat stern. Their routine, out with the dawn, fish until noon, pull in some inlet, fry up some fish for shore lunch, then fish again until late solstice dark. The poem I wrote doesn’t mention it but I was with them as a child on some of these trips, though fishing was not something I kept up with as I grew up and went East. The two brothers though continued their angling until my father finally became to frail and sickened with dementia to continue.
That’s the biographic. The phrases? I often write, at least in part, in my minds ear. Sometimes it’s entire first drafts of shorter poems that are composed there, other times it’s only beginnings or endings, or even phrases that somehow seem to mean to be in a poem. I’ve told myself an advantage of writing this way is that poetry often works best if it’s memorable speech, so composing this way pre-tests things by holding them in memory and seeing if they adhere.
As I get older it’s harder for me to memorize works in process, and this piece had only phrases and parts of the beginning and end stanzas in my head before I started my first paper draft. One of the phrases was the idea of the sport fisherman, the angler, being at right angles to the surface of a lake. Another was the phrase which occurred to me, “lattices of fishes,” which I simply loved the sound of, but also seemed like unto the vertical angle from the surface of the anglers in their boat.
It was that angle word-play that brought in the literary. The anglers point up and down in their angle from a surface. What do they point to? And lattices, obviously there’s another level under the water surface plane.
The literary? Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, wrote a poem I much admired about a story from the old medieval Irish annals. The story was some monks at Clonmacnoise in 749 A. D. who observed both an airship snagged on the tower of their monastery and a crewman of that airship who climbed down from it to free his ship.
In combining the two, I created the cosmology where the air breathing anglers on the surface of a lake are like unto angels, or the crewman of that medieval airship, to the barely comprehending fish who are brought across the airy plane. And that echoed the idea I had developed in my head from the anglers pointing up 90 degrees from the surface of the lake in their boat. They are pointing to the heavens, a place we can no better understand than the fish can know about the world of our air-breathing.
And there you are, that’s the entire poem’s metaphoric magic trick revealed. Yet that isn’t the poem, much less this audio piece that presents it. I still had to work on the language through several drafts, and I may work on it yet even after this presentation—but the poem and the audio piece is more than its images or its ideas, because a poem and a musical composition are both machines that think with sound.
Today is May Day, a day that combines many things. Neo-Pagans can point to it as Beltane or the morning that follows Walpurgis Night. Since the late 19th Century it’s been “International Worker Day” associated with labor and Socialist movements. It’s about midway between Spring Solstice and Summer Equinox.
It was also once a more or less secular holiday celebrated because by now it’s likely Spring in essence, not just Spring in some calendar’s notion in northern climes. A long time ago, in my childhood, in my little Iowa town settled by Swedes, May baskets were still exchanged—this before Easter had become one of the commercial candy holidays paired with Halloween. In Britain May Day still a bank holiday, celebrated next Monday with sundry celebrations.
In Minneapolis, this Sunday is the date of an annual parade organized by a local urban puppet theater. We will sit on the curbsides as Indigenous dance crews, drum bands, anarchists, political candidates, stilt dancers, decorated bicycles, giant papier-mache puppets, and various cause marchers pass by to music by flat-bed truck rockers and strolling brass bands. The Minneapolis May Day parade combines all those May Days into one thing, a Whitmanesque democratic cultural event, a container of multitudes spilled open on a city street.
I used to take pictures and film it, but now I just go and watch it. It may be just me, but in the past couple of years the level of invention in the costumes/puppets seems to have fallen off, but that may just be me and nostalgia filters. Ah, for the good old days of 2010! I’m holding that this is just random variation—but in the end it’s the gathering of South Minneapolis people, parading and watching who make me most appreciate it.
Today’s audio piece, "I Thought It Mattered," has words and music by Dave Moore, and it speaks of lifetimes, marchers and causes. I think it’s one of his best songs.
A month ago I began our celebration of the U. S. National Poetry Month with an audio piece using the words of Walt Whitman. Today I bring our month of music meeting poetry to a close with another piece by Whitman: "Poets to Come."
Which is appropriate, as modern American poetry begins with Whitman.
From time to time in his work, Whitman reminds us that he knows he hasn’t fully realized his poetic project. This isn’t just false modesty. He revised and added to “Leaves of Grass” throughout his lifetime, but it wasn’t because he thought perfection was one more edit away. Whitman seems to accept that it’s better to try to do what his ideals say to aim for, to make the effort to become the artist his art asks to exist. It’s better to be 80%, or even half or less, of that ideal Whitman he writes of, sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, that for no Whitman to dare exist.
Note though that Whitman isn’t asking himself to do this for self-expression. His expression, even with the particularities of his own person being unavoidable, is cultural expression. He’s sought to sing into existence the culture he wanted America and the world to have.
Which is what makes this poem a great basis for the last post of this Poetry Month. He had faith for the poets who would follow his innovations and audacity. Many did come forth after him, many of which we’ve presented here. Whitman had, I might suppose, faith in the intentions of the Parlando Project—and I, if I pay attention to the spirit he wrote of, I should have faith too.
During April I’ve created and presented 16 combinations of various words with my music, more than any other month in the year and half of this project. I took a crack at preforming all of that “April is the cruelest month” modernist epic of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”—and only got near half-way done. I worked on the finding and understanding the words I’ve used or composing, playing, and recording music for several hours every day this month.
And you’ve listened to these pieces, and if you’re here, you’ve even read my words about the process, for which I’m grateful. I’ll be back tomorrow with a piece by Dave Moore and the LYL Band for May Day and there may yet be more LYL Band recording before this Spring is over. I do expect to take a bit of a rest after the efforts of this April however. I have a pile of books I want and need to read, a whole lot of interesting blogs I’ve gotten behind looking at too, and I’m looking forward to listening to music I didn’t have to think up first.