Long Guns

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”  however, is more in Sandburg’s Walt Whitman mode, 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 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 a puzzling way to begin, and I have 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 was.

It’s likely you’ve never heard of him, but I think it’s 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. 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 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 that child, and we are creating the child in that story.

howlin-wolf

How would Howlin’ Wolf comment on this Carl Sandburg poem?

 

In performing and presenting “Long Guns”  I decided to throw a frame around it. A couple of posts 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, some Afro-Americans were “making it new” with a different lyric 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. The Blues’ 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 a frame for “Long Guns”  I used a blues line I know from the singing of Chester Burnett who performed as “Howlin’ 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 he must carry, like a heavy revolver, painfully, always. As it happened, I know this poetic line 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?

To hear the LYL Band perform Sandburg’s “Long Guns”   framed with music in the style of Howlin’ Wolf, use the player below.

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Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window

Have you ever noticed how little poetry deals with the world of everyday work, with the employments that occupy such a large portion of our lives? Some 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 that other 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 embarrassment, one of the reasons to treasure him in his years as a pioneering Modernist. Since he was 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.

hotel-by-a-railroad by Edward Hopper

He: You know my boss says I’m in line to be a supervisor if I just keep at it.
She: It says here “An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”

 

“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 understand even less. 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.

Still, 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.

To hear the LYL Band’s performance of Sandburg’s “Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window” use the player below.

 

Letters to Dead Imagists and A Pact

A few posts back 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 could Englishmen 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.

Young Sandburg and Pound

Young Modernists in suits: Carl Sandburg and Ezra Pound

 

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.

Chipewa Falls Water

Know your Modernist family trivia: Ezra Pound’s grandfather started this bottled water company

 

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.

 

The Black Riders XXXIX

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 then 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.

Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane:. He’d written Free Verse when Ezra Pound was still weighing in with sestinas

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.

Musically, today marks a return of new pieces recorded with the LYL Band and Dave Moore. The music I compose and play myself can be created over a varied length of time, and in whole or in part, reconsidered and redone. The LYL Band on the other hand, just goes.  When we did some recording this week, Dave told me he was waiting for another instance of us starting off something with no more than my announcing  “G Minor.” Today’s Crane piece “The Black Riders XXXIX”  is not particularly complex or unpredictable musically, but we needed to knock off the rust. To hear it, use the player below.

Union Square

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.

isabel-bishop-virgil-and-dante-in-union-square-1932

Looking for early 20th Century pictures of Union Square I discovered a remarkable painter Isabel Bishop

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. To hear my performance of Sara Teasdale’s “Union Square,”  use the player gadget below.

Anglers

Next weekend is the Minnesota sport fishing opener. Today’s piece, “Anglers”  is appropriate for that—but to that opener I’ll bring 8th Century Irish monks, a strange airship cosmology, a Nobel prize winner, and tenderly, a pair of brothers.

I wrote the words for “Anglers”  combining two things, one biographic and one literary, mixed with some phrases that occurred to me.

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 1930s Johnson Sea-Horse outboard their father had bought decades ago onto 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 before his death became too frail and sickened with senility to continue.

Johnson SeaHorse outboard motor

“Uncoiling the Sea-Horse.” My grandfather’s Johnson Sea-Horse outboard used by his sons

 

That’s the biographic. The phrases? I often write, at least in part, in my mind’s 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 a phrase which occurred to me, “lattices of fishes,” which I simply loved the sound of, but it 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 the 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 medieval Irish annals. The story was some monks at Clonmacnoise in 749 A. D. observed an airship snagged on the tower of their monastery and a crewman of that airship who climbed down from it to free his ship.

Clonmacnoise tower

Clonmacnoise tower. Don’t snag your anchor on the weeds or rocks.

 

In combining the two, I created a cosmology where the air breathing anglers on the surface of a lake are like angels, or the crewman of that medieval airship, to the barely comprehending fish who are brought across to the airy world. 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 more 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.

So, listen to “Anglers”  using the player below. And please, let others know what we’re doing here. I would so much appreciate that.

I Thought It Mattered

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.

The 2010 theme incorporated William Blake, and my soundtrack to this slideshow features Blake’s “The Tyger.”

 

Today’s audio piece, “I Thought It Mattered,”  has words and music by Dave Moore, and is sung by him along with our more spontaneous incarnation, the LYL Band. Dave’s song speaks of lifetimes, marchers and causes. I think it’s one of his best songs, so give it a listen using the player below.