Let’s begin our celebration of Halloween here at the Parlando Project with a setting of a short poem by Emily Bronte that starts “The night is darkening round me.” What a marvelous short poem it is too.
Halloween here in the northland of Minnesota is in some years an early winter holiday, and this late year’s late October seems one of those. I’ve awakened to temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit already this month, snow and ice are on the ground, and of course it’s already twilight at 6 pm. So, given that the speaker in Bronte’s poem is enchanted by a spell, it’s easy to see this from my landscape as a Halloween poem, but if you are farther south you can consider it a Winter Solstice one. And if you live in the tropics? Well, I do promise “Other People’s Stories” here.
My wife and I live by the Norwegian proverb about there being no bad weather, only bad clothes. Our love gifts tend not to be lingerie or sharp dress duds, but things like merino wool and handlebar pogies*. We each try to keep up outdoor activities in the winter, and as long as you are active, such clothing works well.
But Bronte opens up in a different situation. It’s night. It’s cold. It’s windy. And our poem’s speaker has been spellbound out in it. They can’t leave. The poem, short as it is, tolls a refrain over and over, the speaker “cannot go.”
I played this with the eerie, hook-like appendage guitarists call “a capo,” so it sounds in Bb in the recording.
And the second stanza says the weather is getting, what? Worse! There’s already heavy snow on the tree branches. Where is the speaker bound in this spell in the foreboding night with a further storm coming on?
Not even hunkered down in a sheltered area or behind a windbreak. They are frozen (not soon to be a metaphoric word!) somewhere between the sky’s clouds and the winter, snow-covered wastes below. When I read this poem, I pictured the spellbound speaker held supernaturally some distance in the air (makes it easier to view the snow-load on those tree branches), but if you are less fantastic you could view them on a ridge or hillside and able to view lowland areas below, but still more than minimally exposed to the weather. I’ve even read a reading where the writer thought that Bronte had placed the speaker in Purgatory, and the clouds are heaven and the lower wastes hell. Well, Emily Bronte was a PK** and all, so that’s not impossible, but I’ll still take the picture with what Bronte gives us, stark as it is—and in its moment, without any route to salvation.***
Other close readers note the subtle change in the last “cannot go” refrain. The speaker says “I will not…go” the last time, not “I cannot…go.” Do they want to be in this predicament? Is there a kinky love bond with the tyrant who has them trapped in the spell? Plausible reading. My sensibility hears this “will” as a final realization that there’s no way out from the spell, that the speaker is not just temporarily trapped and cannot go, but they will be so in any future they can see.
So, a Halloween-scary poem. Back in the “real world” that we hope is safe enough to tell each other scary stories, we can reflect how this trope of being in a situation of oncoming dread and not being able to move is a common bad dream. Or if you, or someone you know, suffers from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) you may find the winter darkness brings on a torpor that’s hard to break out of.
A simple setting for today’s piece: guitar, bass, and piano. The weather’s too cold and dark to drag an orchestra outside I guess. I plan to be back with more Halloween spells this week, time allowing, so check follow, or check back. The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound” also known as “The Night is Darkening Around Me” is below.
*Pogies are neoprene hoods that allow one to operate bicycle controls inside their wind and warm shelter while wearing only normal gloves rather than bulky insulated mittens. They are the only solution that really works for subzero F. cold on bikes.
**PK means “Preachers Kid.” A class that Parlando Project alternate voices Dave Moore and my wife share with me. One thing this experience usually leads to is a youthful exposure to a lot of sermons. “Heaven and Hell” may not just be someone’s favorite Black Sabbath LP—or it may be, but one has yet another context for that.
It occurs to me that since I’m an English speaker this project focuses on poetry in English, and though I’m an American, I do give a fair amount over to it to poetry from England itself. But that said, even when I’m not working on a translation* some of that English language poetry is written by writers for whom English is a colonial language.
Irish writers certainly lead that contingent here. If only for Mr. Yeats, this is unavoidable. English language South Asian writers have appeared here too, though South Asian musical influences on me contribute more often. Jamaican Claude McKay reminds me of the easy intersection of colonialism and racism. Afro-American writing in general, even for the native-born American, is often concerned with the issues of colonialism, since it’s more than a metaphor to say that Afro-American communities are treated as colonies in America. If I offend or irritate some white readers with that statement, let me offer this question as a small balm: to what degree does American literature and American poetry, taken as a whole, have aspects of dealing with colonialism?
Those bearded Smith Brothers of American poetic independence Longfellow and Whitman both had to plead that American subjects and American civic ideals were worthy along with their verse. Emily Dickinson didn’t seem to care that she didn’t write quite like her British influences, but to not care in one’s independence is an anti-colonialist stance inherently, isn’t it? Even into my century, Eliot and Pound got to have the immigrants’ revenge: to sit in Europe and reform poetry in English, while obscuring their Missouri and Wisconsin roots. The eventual 20th century American hegemony obscures this accomplishment, but I’ve got to hand it to those two cheeky fellows.
So, who’s left out in the former English colonies here? It seems odd that I haven’t found an in-the-public-domain Canadian to present, given that I live in Minnesota—or Baja Canada as it’s been called. A single Leonard Cohen parody doesn’t seem to be enough. Well how about Australia? Irish-New Zealander-Australian-American quadruple bank-shot Lola Ridge can’t cover all this by herself! Well, there is one other, one that I’ll present again today: Kenneth Slessor.
Does this look like a sensualist to you? Kenneth Slessor, shipboard “With my hands in my pockets and my coat collar high”
What would one have to overcome to be a Modernist Australian poet in the first half of the 20th century? As an American I can only guess. For starters, remoteness would be a significant issue. These days, when I post around midnight here in the American Midwest, folks read these posts in Australia right off in their afternoon before my North American neighbors have awakened. But 100 years ago? As an American I can suspect there was little interest in London literary circles in that time about what they might be missing in the antipodes. If the Irish, descendants of enslaved Africans and Bengalis had to worry about being seen as inferior human species, the descendants of European settlers in America and Australia had the lower but still significant prejudices that they were rubes from the sticks who didn’t know enough to do anything worthwhile.
I’m not going to say that Slessor is Yeats, Pound, or Eliot to the world, nor is he Tagore to his homeland. I said this month you might not have heard of Lola Ridge, but I’ll guess Slessor is even less well-known to world-wide English speakers. He doesn’t seem to have had a particularly interesting life. There aren’t juicy stories about who he rubbed elbows or other bodily parts with. His poetic output is modest: his career poetry collection published in Australia is 100 poems. As far as his typewriter’s mileage reports show, he was a working daily journalist for most of his life, though that includes a very important to his poetry stint as the official embedded Australian journalist to cover his country’s participation in WWII.**
I don’t know how many of his poems are as remarkable as “Sensuality.” As I’ve apologized this month, my scholarship, such as it is, includes a shocking lack of wide/deep reading. What little scholarship I’ve read on Slessor doesn’t even care much for this poem of his. I may have a bad or non-representative taste, but to me it’s a remarkable poem formally, emotionally intense, and for an apparently heterosexual middle-class male the just-as-it-says-on-the-tin sensuality of it (expressed within the Modernist manner of largely avoiding labeled emotion-words) still surprises. I suspect that’s part of the poem’s lack of esteem problem, for even if it’s entirely Modernist in it’s word-music; Imagism and the Modernism that followed most often reduces the senses to sight with a side-dish of sounds. Taste, smell, and touch are numbed. If one of the singular symptoms of Covid-19*** is that taste and smell go away, then poetry has been suffering from this for a long time. Sight seems high ruler of sense in much poetry, the intellectual sense allied with visual art, reading and higher learning. So, a poem without that seems to have failed in presenting compelling images. I joke here a lot about the patriarchal assumptions positing “lady brains” that are not up to vigorous art, and yet now I must suggest that the male sensorium of a lot of English-language poetry is lacking in being able to draw meaning in from most of the senses.
It’s been more than 10 years since I first encountered Slessor’s “Sensuality,” and the performance of it I present today is from shortly after I came upon it. Open yourself to feeling it as you read the text linked here, or listen to my performance of it with the player gadget below.
*As I am right now: one from German, one from French—as well as catching up on some overdue work with a small circle of poets who’ve read each others’ work for some decades now.
American poet Wallace Stevens constantly spoke in his poetry about the creation of art. This sort of “art looking at itself” move has a danger of being too self-referential and one might fear that it would sit with the reader as unresolved as being between two mirrors. I think today’s subtle poem works, despite those risks, and we’ll see if my performance of it brings out something that you may not have noticed in it.
Stevens, though wordier than Emily Dickinson*, often has his poetry seem like a riddle or puzzle, and though his poems have a surface beauty one can see right off, they also sometimes work like a lawyerly contract with the reader, full of obscure words and fine-print sub-clauses that you may not fully understand.
Let’s listen to Stevens read his poem himself.
One can hear background noises outside the room in this recording, so Stevens’ voice is heard here “Out of all the indifferences.”
He’s not a bad reader, he does an acceptable job of bringing out the structure and word-music of this poem—but it’s emotionally flat, a default setting for many poet-readers. I think the theory is: if his words are good, well selected and ordered they should be able to convey all. If I listen carefully, I hear just a tiny touch of ruefulness in his voice as his poem nears its end, but it’s just a touch.
There’s an overall image in this poem laid out in the somewhat fussy title: that thing that causes us to create art—in Stevens’ case, poetry—is like a paramour. That is, it’s like a desired lover (and “paramour,” that somewhat unusual word he chooses, has strong associations with an illicit or secret lover). But wait, it’s an “Interior Paramour.” It’s something within ourselves. That internal duality will be dealt with in his poem.
At times he seems confident in speaking of this cause to create art, but look closely at the shading, the little codicils in his statements. “For small reason” we think our imagination is good. We are “poor,” not particularly perceptive or wise, we only choose out of the richness of all things some single thing that we’ll prize over all those things we are indifferent to. We do this to impose or create this intimacy we feel with our art, this imagined, chosen, second self, this internal paramour his title speaks of.
But, but…“God and the imagination are one!” Surely, this is praise.
Look carefully, “We say,” Stevens says: it’s but our claim. A God in actuality is some higher candle. What we feel we have, in our separate imaginations selected into art, that art that may cohere out of shared human centrality—is a smaller, lower light, shedding on a smaller circle: us perhaps and our work in the moment of imagination choosing creation, or that resulting work and a reader or listener.
That’s the internal paramour, the shame-feared, secret love inside us when we create. It’s a small lit space we make in darkness, where occasional readers or listeners see something like what we saw. Being together with little creation is enough. Being together with some audience out of all the indifferences is enough.
Today’s music is based obliquely on the Velvet Underground, a pioneering indie rock group that explored areas that later groups also chose to explore. On one level they seemed to be like unto a rock band: two guitars, drums, and a further musician who might play keyboards, electric bass or bowed strings–but their genius was to put those things together differently, to use those voices in uncharacteristic ways. How will listeners react when you do that? Well, for a lot of them it will be to reject it as worthwhile music, though some may see a new possibility. Some art comforts. Some art unsettles. Being together with some audience out of all the indifferences is enough.
I should note that I was reminded of this poem when the Fourteen Lines blog included it last month. I immediately thought I’d like to perform it, but it sounded like it was later Wallace Stevens. I did a quick web search to see when it was first published and the return said in Harmonium, Stevens’ first book-length collection which is in the public domain. I let out a shout and began work on the composition and performance I present today. It was only this morning as I started writing this post that I found that it was, just as I suspected from the title, from late in Stevens’ career when he was as old as I am now, and is therefore likely to still be in copyright, even though Stevens himself has been dead for 65 years. I feel conflicted about going ahead and presenting what I worked on and came up with, but have decided to take this route: if whoever holds the rights to Stevens work objects to this non-commercial use, let me know, I’ll gladly remove it.
My performance of “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” seeks to be unsettling. The two guitars don’t work like rock band guitars are supposed to work. The drums and their beat are strange, not tying things down as the instrument’s rhythms slide instead of lock. The organ plays low, driving somewhere you can’t see. And I chant Stevens’ words as if I know where they’re going, and yet I can’t yet say where that is yet. That’s what I feel when I create music or poetry. The player to hear it is below. Like some early Velvet Underground tunes, it may sound better around the third time you listen to it. But if you don’t like it, remember I promise various words and various music here, there are other selections available in our archives.
Thanks for sharing this little light by reading or listening tonight.
*Stevens was an actual lawyer. Dickinson came from a family of lawyers and I suspect either absorbed this manner of written discourse or may have inherited it along with her mental firmware.
It was those other Twenties, the last ones before ours. Some people are in the streets, angry and sad in every mixture, protesting lives that will taken away by force of law. Authors Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay* are among them. Mounted police are before this ragged line of protestors who are sagging back from the horses of disaster.
Here’s Porter’s account** of a moment in that night, resurrected from her notes 50 years later for a magazine article:
One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge!’ and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment’s pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were half-conscious.”
That’s a remarkable story, one often recounted about Lola Ridge in our newer century, and it was my first introduction to the poet whose text I’ll present today. What might one think from this testimony about Lola Ridge? Brave, foolhardy, self-less, self-harming, committed, able to throw it all away?
Perhaps as an aesthetic choice, Ridge never smiled in her photos.
Best as I can tell, she was all these things and more. Before this event she had been born in Dublin Ireland and her family had emigrated to New Zealand while she was a child. Eventually finding herself as a young woman in a bad marriage there she fled to Australia, took up poetry and visual art, emigrated once again to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, but proceeding to New York City and the Modernist and Anarchist ferment there around the time of WWI.
She was published by and was associated with the leading Modernist publications of her time, and her poetry was firmly in the free-verse and Imagist style, but with a significant commitment to portraying poverty and urban grit . Even among her co-revolutionaries in politics and the arts she stood out then by her austere commitment to these then somewhat intermingled causes.
It’s a complicated story about why you may not have heard of Ridge, but today you’ll get to hear one of her poems performed. Titled “The Dream,” it’s easy to see it as an Imagist poem. Like so many of the Modernist movement poems it’s a charged, compressed moment told with images without a single overt statement of emotion. The uneven lines and unusual line breaks and the use of colors for adjectives are hallmarks of Imagism. The full text of “The Dream” is linked here if you’d like to read along.
“The Dream” was published in Ridge’s second book-length collection Sun Up in 1920, but I don’t know when it was written. It’s possible that it, or some version of it, might date back to her days in Australia, since Sydney harbor is mentioned. Following from its title, it can be taken as a somewhat apocalyptic or fantastic vision. Or you can take it as expression of a rough morning’s awaking. It’s also a word painting of an urban scene, and in that guise it seems to focus in on pollution. Indeed, part of it could pass for poetic reportage on the strange Australian and American skies this year after the massive forest fires.
“Air heavy…Vapor of opium…Sulphurous mist…Its sun the junk of red iron” skies after massive forest fires in the Western US and earlier this year in Australia.
I made do with a simple demo recording of the main vocal and acoustic guitar track for my presentation of “The Dream” so that I’d have time to complete the string quartet part of two violas, a violin, and a ukulele bass faking a pizzicato cello part. Real string composers and players will note how simple my parts are for the quartet. I sometimes think of my string writing as “punk-rock orchestral,” in that I hope simplicity in my technique and conception brings a certain focus on the unfussy parts of music that might still have an impact on the listener. The player gadget to hear it should be below (unless you read this on the WordPress reader for the iPhone or iPad, in which case you’ll need to switch to a browser to hear the music, or subscribe to the audio pieces via Apple Podcasts).
Let me write a post about something that I experienced recently, just like a real blog would do.
Early this month I attended a virtual symposium Sonnets from the American organized by Dora Malech and Laura T. Smith.* I’ve heard “Zoom Fatigue” is a thing now, but I found it energizing. I’m still integrating things from this experience, but here are a few preliminary things this three-day program brought forward.
There’s still a lot to be discovered out there for me. Even when I saw the listing of sessions, I came upon the subject of Fredrick Tuckerman’s poetry, a name that I’d never heard, and someone who was certainly not part of the American Lit canon in my mid-century day. I can see why he’s a fascinating subject, and the simplest thing I can say about his biography is one could quick-take him as “a male Emily Dickinson.” Similar locations, times, and period of social isolation. I’ve read a few of his sonnets, and so far they aren’t grabbing me, but then that may be me. I’ve been quite distracted as this difficult year has progressed.
Americans don’t mind messing with the sonnet form. I started writing sonnets around age 20 or so. It was the first poetry form I cottoned to, and the only one that I’ve ever practiced much. There’s something about the length of 14 lines, long enough for a contrasting pair of lyric statements, but not so long as to ask the reader to maintain the mind-meld intensity lyric poetry asks for past endurance. The venerated Petrarchan and English/Shakespearean forms have mechanisms that have been established to work, and I wrote close to the form to start. I recall writing a crown of English sonnets as a 20 year old in a barracks on a fair grounds, but mostly since then I’ve wanted to see how many variations I can create inside the 14 line form, while at the same time worrying that I was cheating by not being faithful enough to it.
In session after session I learned from scholars that Americans not only brought a different sensibility to the matter of their sonnets, but that they didn’t mind morphing the form too. And why not, after all the Elizabethans didn’t just clone the Italian form.
I’m pretty sure I’m not up to snuff as a scholar, but I like running into scholarship. Compared to any scholar (and many avid readers) I’m under-read. I’ve perhaps read more poetry than a few, but I’ve read many fewer novels than almost any serious literature person, and I’ve got lots of holes in contemporary poetry that this project doesn’t help me in remediating. And at my age, there’s also the “I read it fifty-years ago” factor. The younger scholars at the event had a reasonable retention of what they had read, perhaps more than I have read in my longer time. Is there a minimum amount of poetry one has to have read to have a significant interaction with it? I’m unsure. But what the scholars presenting at the event brought to this is new outlooks, new connections. In my modest, under-read way, this is what I try to do here.
To non-scholars who read this, if you think (perhaps put off by scholarly terminology or personal educational experiences) that scholars have dissected poetry only from corpses, the Sonnets from the American event let me see the real enthusiasms that are out there.
Just this month I’ve noticed that the Royal Holloway, University of London seems to have linked to some thing or things I’ve written here. The referrers link lets me know that folks are coming here via that institution, but the referring links are behind a staff/student login, so I don’t know what. I’m not sure if that’s a blessing. I might be embarrassed by what I wrote!
There are more light-skinned people writing about Afro-American poetry. I’m a hybrid music and poetry guy, this shouldn’t have surprised me. While this is a complex and delicate subject which cannot help but interact with wider social forces and existential injustices that this post cannot even begin to cover, in my 20th century Afro-Americans tended to write (where they had the opportunity) about current or recent generations of Afro-American music, and white writers, performers, and impresarios did a lot of the noticed work in reviving interest and applying attention to older Afro-American musical artists and forms. This is changing in the 21st century.**
Again, there can’t help but be an overlay of the American racial caste system here, but my observation, blinkered as it may be, is that this factor still exists in music scholarship and non-institutional enthusiasm.
I don’t want to give a misleading impression here. There were people of color presenting at this event and presenting important insights, but in the current isolation of my project I could think I was the only white guy whose interests in “Other Peoples Stories” included Black Americans as well as Elizabethans, Tang Dynasty Chinese, South Asians, various early Modernists, some French-speaking guys, and sundry 19th century library stack dwellers.
Since I’ve written this instead of working on new audio pieces, I’ll leave you with a piece I did last autumn, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “October.” Dunbar, the first successful Afro-American poet, emerging late in the 19th century, wrote in several styles: dialect poetry that I find hard to read and impossible to present, competent variations of late 19th century literary poetry and subjects, and a handful of poems speaking about the experience of an American Black man in an era when the promise of freedom was decaying steadily into a new era’s variation of denial of humanity. It’s those last poems, small as the number may be in his work, that he is most remembered for now. But what about this one? On the face of it, this is a harvest poem, a “happy autumn” number taking joy in the last bounty of fall.
It works entirely on that level. I’m not enough of a scholar to tell you if Dunbar ever expressed any other intent in writing it.
Now, listen to or read the poem again. Published in 1913, when large numbers of Afro-Americans were trapped in a feudal agricultural share-cropping system, where harvest’s bounty went to the white landowner and their family. I can’t unread the subtext here. My performance of Dunbar’s “October” can be heard with the player gadget you should find below.
*I found out about this symposium via writer/editor/professor Lesley Wheeler. A big thanks to her for that! Wheeler’s own presentation at the event was on sonnets with radically short lines, a variation that I hadn’t thought of or tried.
**And wait a few years, and any fresh Afro-American musical innovation will get adopted by white musicians. I’m an American musician—most of the notes are Black. This blog started out largely focusing on the early 20th century Modernist poetry revolution, part of a multi-art-form change. Fenton Johnson’s poetry and Toomer’s Cain are public domain examples of Afro-American Modernist poetic work from this era that I’ve run into so far, though maybe there are others yet for me to find. But, but, but, if one asks the question: “Where are the pre-1925 Afro-American Modernists?” all you have to do is look to poetry’s sister art music and the blind will see.
My wife remarked this morning that nature is often more beautiful than it needs to be—and if you need a testimonial to that, I present butterflies. What a marvelous structure their wings are, as if the most intricately colored flowers could fly. And fly they do—and unlike birds, they often seem to have no compunctions about flying near us oversized and under-winged creatures.
This is a prelude to today’s diversion from our usual practice here of using “Other People’s Stories,” other writer’s words, for these encounters and performances. Since I wrote the words this time, I’ll have less to say about what I’ve found out about the author and how I react to their experience. Not that creative writing doesn’t lead to that sort of thing—far from it—but in a way I’ve already chosen how to present those things inside the poem that is today’s text.
I will say this instead: the course of this project, though it takes energy that I might apply to my own writing, as helped my own poetry. As a chronic and justified self-doubter, finding the variety of strengths and weaknesses in a range of others’ work gives me hope in my own attempts—but more importantly, each time I figure out how to present and perform the variety of words (mostly poetry) for the Parlando Project, I must find what is worthwhile, what is valid, vivid, and engaging. It’s a commonplace that reading and studying poetry helps figure out how you may write it, but performing it helps you understand how to advocate for it, how to let its soul out.
In recent years I’ve increasingly watched other poets read their work. Regardless of the level of accomplishment I might recognize in their words, it’s not uncommon on all levels to hear them read it as if apologizing for the interruption, as if they themselves aren’t sure what to advocate for in what they wrote. Some do this because performance isn’t easy for many people (let me present another testimonial: my singing voice). I believe some do it because to fail with a level of over-florid reading, with too much Am-Dram-Ham, would be such an embarrassing failure. Even to purposefully aim for some anachronistic disinterested beatnik cool could be an unforgivable mistake.
Well that danger is there. I’ve heard poets read with an attitude that what they are reading is important that I don’t share.* That disconnect doesn’t make me like the poet or poetry in most cases either—but think of the automatic failure of not claiming the worthwhile nature of what we do. A danger of failure is not a license to aim for it. If performing your work as if it isn’t worthwhile is your defense, consider changing what you write so that you can more unabashedly attempt to claim an audience’s attention.
Yes, a great many poets (I’m one) are driven by doubts. Perhaps you are too. Poetry, like nature, like butterflies, is writing that is more beautiful than it needs to be. That beauty is there to illuminate those limits and doubts. Are they, limits and doubts, ugly? It depends, but illumination changes them.
Attentive readers might connect this breakfast scene with this summer’s earlier piece “Breakfast in a Pandemic.” Yes, same outdoor seating. City Lights Books is welcome to contact me for a potential chapbook “Breakfast Poems.” This month I think of the woman in that earlier poem who stoppeth one of three to ask “If you had to choose between Trump and Covid, which would you choose?” Now? We don’t have to choose!
There’s little room left to talk about my poem, but hopefully it speaks for itself. The poem expects the reader to know two pieces of information: the proverbial “Butterfly Effect” where small things like the flapping of an insect wing can change complex systems, and the metamorphical life stages of butterflies where the lithe butterfly begins life as a devouring worm-like caterpillar. The player gadget to hear my performance is below.
*My teenager, a Douglas Adams reader, has asked when I’ll feature Vogon poetry here, but then they think most of what I present here is close enough to Vogon poetry in effect. Poetry audiences, or those that fear being press-ganged into being part of a poetry audience, often recall Adams satire—but yes, many of us writers of poetry think of it too.
I don’t know if this is still so, but in my mid-20th century youth it wasn’t unusual for children to read some of the American 19th century worthies in ways not unlike the Young Adult books of today. So before I was old enough to take drivers ed, I’d read Tom Sawyer and a smattering of other Twain, some shorter Longfellow poems (the epics didn’t attract), and lots of Edgar Allan Poe. In a year or so I would start to read Keats and Blake and move on to literature as school assignments.
Other than availability, I’m not sure what drew me to the Poe. The gothic stuff may have attracted me for its examination of human oddness, and I recall the hyper-rational side of the detectives or adventure stories like “The Descent into the Maelstrom” pleased me. His poetry worked well enough, though I was not yet committed to poetry.
Did the antiqueness of the settings and language bother me? I don’t remember that being an issue. No, the world of Poe or Twain wasn’t the world of colorful tailfins and gray TV, but it seemed tolerably close to my own.
My Poe phase didn’t last long, and even finding out that some of the French poets who would intrigue me in my 20s had first or second-order influence from Poe didn’t make me want to re-read him. My casual judgement that I’d rather read something else has continued, and so today’s piece, “A Dream Within A Dream” is Poe’s first appearance in this project.
Mad, bad, and daguerreotype to know. Edgar Allan Poe.
“A Dream Within A Dream” is not overly florid nor is it chained to a too-simplistic, toe-tapping rhythm. Grains of sand and tormented seashores may be over-used tropes, but this poem doesn’t pass these off as priceless revelation, only handy counters to make the poems stark point: that since life is transitory itself, those things that one creates within it, however placed in the scale from practical to fanciful while alive, are in a final judgement as substantial as dreams. It’s implied that—like many a poet, writer, or artist—the poem’s speaker’s life work was judged while alive pretty close to the not-useful, fanciful side. The poem’s tone seems sad about that, but then it has that subtle valedictory dig: the same holds true for those who think they are doing more important things.
This poem was first published in the last year of Poe’s life, and as Poe struggled to earn enough as a professional writer, it’s ironic that the Wikipedia article on this poem says that the next month the owner of the publication ceased paying writers.
This Wednesday, October 7th is the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death under mysterious circumstances where he was found dazed and confused in Baltimore and died after a short hospitalization there. Oddly, I didn’t know that I would be writing this on the eve of that anniversary, so maybe some of Poe’s sand grains have washed up here?
Poe still attracts musical settings, so maybe it’s time for me to weigh in with my efforts. It’s been awhile since I ventured into the world of synth created sounds, which are the dream created inside the dream of music. So, today’s piece let me use some weirder analog synth sounds that make no claim to reality. Though the featured sounds today are entirely digital, created inside a modern computer, they are imitating analog synthesis waves with grains of ones and zeros, and I got to wiggle knobs to control parameters in real time just as the early analog synth players did.
Silicon music, like Poe’s grains of beach sand, the anonymous Internet sea will take almost as quickly as they are made. So before they slip away, you can use the player below to hear my performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within A Dream.”
My time and energy is short tonight, so this post will reflect that, but I wanted to present this supple poem by William Butler Yeats written near the end of the 19th century, but, I think, applicable in our American year 2020.
How many of us as couples, as friends, as families this year have felt the need to be support and comfort for them; or in return, needed that from others? A year of shocks, changes, challenges, revelations, of noise and force. Cold deaths, hot fires. This past Tuesday’s national image of that televised, trampled talking over, the faulty assay that volume and audacity can just as well substitute for truth. That absurd equation that one can talk the longest and take the least responsibility. Is that what words are for, is that all they are for?
Two images, one with physical mass, one auditory are weaved through this short poem. The massive one is the horse and in its plural sense, the Horses of Disaster. In Yeats’ 19th century the horse was still a large part of military force* and one of the largest animals that would be encountered daily in much of his British Isles. Our age may reduce that intimate knowledge. Someone like me, never part of the horsey set, who kept his small purse away from horse racing stakes, and rural in his youth in a tractor and truck sense, can only rely on fairs, events, and exhibitions to feel something of what Yeats’ horses meant to his contemporary reader. To stand, as I have, near a draft horse or to watch horses run at full gallop, and to imagine in my sparser memory that collection of momentum and force, is to feel something Yeats intended to convey.
But there may be accrued in the sparcer memory, that lack of daily familiarity something too. The horse, the Horses of Disaster, are more mysterious, more occult in daily fact than they may have seemed to a reader in 1896. One can often get out of the way of an actual run-away horse—our modern Horses of Disaster, not so much.
“Vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire” The picture is “Self Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse)” by Leona Carrington, a Surrealist who deserves to be better known.
The other image, the auditory or conceptual one the poem weaves, is tumult—uproar, confusion—by definition, unpredictable, illogical, chaotic, the body and hooves one cannot sidestep easily.
So, I read this poem as a spell—and Yeats artistry is striking regardless of the efficacy of magical beliefs or practices.** There is after all, the spell we cast with those we love and comfort. Come, the world will carelessly or concertedly hurt you, but I will not.
The player to hear my performance of Yeats’ “He Bids His Beloved Be At Rest” is below. Wishing you justice and mercy.
We’re going to travel some ground today, so hang on, it’s a longish post.
Today’s piece has an anonymous author. I’ll write a bit about what I can determine about it later on below, but a lot of the time when I write here of my encounter with the words I use as part of this project, I’ll write at least something about the author. Best as I can determine, I care some about who wrote the words.
I write myself, I know the particulars of my life, my outlook and working beliefs, my location in geography and society enter into what I create—but on the other hand, I don’t seem to care overly much about what these largely dead (and sometimes forgotten) writers believe. I’ve performed religious pieces infused with a variety of religious belief, and writings from Romantics, Stoic Classicists, and Modernists from a range of tribes. As I mentioned recently when I performed a piece unconcerned with matters of ethnicity by odd-ball all-purpose British racist Charles Kingsley: I seem open to occasionally read and perform work by writers whose political and social beliefs are for good reasons widely objectionable, and in that Kingsley post I brought up the foremost case in literary English-language Modernism: Ezra Pound, a man who became an overt fascist,* and who aided the other side in one of the most clearly-cut good guys vs. bad guys wars in history.
Would I choose differently if I was presenting work by living writers? Well, I have used words here by folks who are my contemporaries and whose personal lives include considerable faults and whose politics do not align with mine—evidence there again that I may not care enough to exclude the work that seems of interest and worth because of the author’s lack of personal rectitude. I certainly understand why someone would choose to boycott a living artist for unacceptable writings, beliefs, or actions. Once I accept that, it’s an easy extension to extend allowances for boycotters to advocate for others to do the same. Fair enough, even if the specter of blacklists and non-persons can be said to follow. I do worry that the slippery slope tends to flow more forcefully from the heights of power and can be lubricated with money or blood.
But mostly my choices here are selfish. If a work pleases or interests me, if it works for the purposes of this project, I’m likely to favor it regardless of its author. It’s unlikely that I could imagine a work that itself frankly advocates racism, homophobia, or sexism** as having any pleasure for me, while still I know the authors of the words I use are not unfree of those faults. And yes, I worry that some of the tracks of those faults carry into the work I use. Often when I write about those faults in my reactions to the pieces used here, I caution the reader, as I caution myself, that for what we see clearly as condemnable in dead writers, the future and others will potentially find justifiably equivalent wrongs and faults in us.
But then I also believe, roughly, in the progress of civilization. If we find it unlikely that any fault of our time could be equal to the evils of slavery, near chattel status for women, or human sacrifices for religious beliefs, I ask you only to note that intelligent people, capable of creating art that still pleases us, believed or tolerated such things, and we must consider this part of what humans are capable of—even us.
So, what about “Truth Never Dies?” Well, it doesn’t advocate for any particular thing. It does make a claim that activists or advocates who have lost a battle or a war might find comforting, and in its own non-specific way it’s similar to a contemporary motto suitable for coffee cup or t-shirt and attributed to Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it.” And so even for activists working in expectation or demand for immediate action, a Plan B of some future realization of the truth of their request is not unwholesome. No effective movement can exist that can only live and breathe in the environment of success or potential success at hand, it must endure and continue after defeats.
Kenne Turner’s blog will show you some fantastic color photography. The early 20th century Adventist publications which featured “Truth Never Dies” made do with monochrome.
As best as I can tell, this poem was likely written in the first decade of the 20th century. It seems strongly associated with American Protestant Christian circles at the time of its writing. The earliest appearances of “Truth Never Dies” I have found are in a 1909 copy of The Northern Union Reaper an Adventist quarterly from Minneapolis, a Seventh Day Adventist publication from Maryland, and several other Adventist publications from that year.*** I’ve also found it in the Adventist The Sabbath Recorder of 1915, a New Zealand based Adventist magazine of 1917, and another Adventist book of 1917 which associates the poem with the visions in the book of Daniel chapter 8.**** A Carolina Mountaineer newspaper from 1917 includes it, and it appears as a prominent embroidered forward to an 1914 issue of Sky-Land, a North Carolina magazine replete with Lost Cause Confederate reverence. The Scientific Temperance Journal quarterly printed it in Boston in 1918. The Bottle Maker, a 1921 trade union publication for yes, bottle makers, (motto: “Labor Will Not Be Outlawed or Enslaved”) features it. A 1922 issue of The Railway Expressman from Wisconsin, another union publication, does so too. A 1941 The Preacher’s Magazine from the Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City includes it. An Ohio-based United Brethren church bulletin of 1947 has it too, and attributes it to another, Methodist, publication.
The poem appears as from two to five stanzas in these publications, and sometimes it’s subscripted with a note “selected” that indicate that it may be a longer poem. I chose to perform just the first three stanzas, if for no other reason than length today.
From the earliest appearances, and some of the imagery of the poem, my guess is that the author was associated with the Adventists. The Venn diagram of Adventist practices and beliefs, temperance, early union movements, and the connections between Nazarene, United Brethren and Methodism fill in the edges.
The most surprising appearance of “Truth Never Dies?” Easily, the November 14, 1981 episode of Saturday Night Live. In a skit with Joe Piscopo and Mary Gross. Piscopo plays Nick the Knock, costumed as if a puppet, in a sort of a riff on the casual comic violence of the Punch and Judy sort of puppetry. After smashing a music record playing the skit’s opening music, he’s visited by a fairy played by the meek voiced Gross who tells him “I like to think I see beauty in you that others are too busy to notice. So I have brought you this: The gift of truth.” The fairy then speaks two entire stanzas of “Truth Never Dies.” The puppet Nick ends the skit by exclaiming to the poetry fairy “I know what I’m gonna do to you, you little thing! I’m gonna eat your spine!” Which he does as the fairy screams. Rather than Daniel 8 or temperance, I’m going to assume that cocaine had something to do with the inspiration of this skit.
In the end, because we don’t really know who wrote “Truth Never Dies” and because the author doesn’t feel that they need to outline the particulars of a Truth they feel will become self-evident, the poem remains a statement that can be applied quite broadly, and with an effectiveness that remains more than a hundred years after it was written. Readers will not know if they agree or disagree with that unknown author’s vision of Truth, which brings me to one of the things I think I’ve discovered about poetry during this project: that though ideas, including controversial ideas, may be presented in poetry, poetry is more about the experience of ideas than those ideas themselves. So this poem works, not because it’s a religious catechism, a political platform, or a sophisticated philosophical treatise, but because we can read or hear it and share with it’s unknown author the feeling of a truth that will prevail even if it seems underrepresented among the powerful in the world today, or if there are acceptable substitutes for truth that can be endlessly manufactured for short-term tactical benefit.
The player gadget to hear my performance of “Truth Never Dies” is below.
*Oh, there are mitigating factors if you had to defend Pound in some debate for points. It was the messier, less efficiently genocidal Italian brand of fascism he aided. It’s sometimes claimed it was all caused by a misunderstood dilettante’s interest in fringe economic theories. And there’s the “everybody was doing it” defense too: he’s not the only literary person of his time to have connections and sympathies to fascism. But let’s face it, if there’s a mid-20th century cancel culture, Pound would be someone we’d want to de-platform. Right now I happen to be reading his ABC of Reading, a book he wrote in the 1930s largely about poetry, coincidently the same time he was finding or writing about his fascist affinities. He has a number of insightful things to say about the art of poetry and the enjoyment of it in this book so far, and I’ve come upon more than one thing where what Pound writes is simply a clearer statement of things I’ve discovered in my own life and during this project about the art of poetry. But he’s also repeatedly making a point I disagree with: that it’s imperative to choose the good art from the bad, and he’s going to tell you how to tell. It’s easy to think that a stubborn insistence in a singular insight into things leads one to larger distrust of democracy along with the ability to hold contrary opinions based on a fixed hierarchy of value.
**Authoritarianism or calls to the purity of violence are heavy lifts for me too.
****Besides Biblical prophecy of the fall of nations, another reference I found to a similar rhetorical flourish was from a 1841 abolitionist speech by Thomas Paul in Boston where he, responding to the notion that abolition’s cause was dying out, said: “Dying away?….Truth never dies. Her course is always onward. Though obstacles may present themselves before her, she rides triumphantly over them….”
Forever and Crumbling. So if I disregard the outsized number of listens Hopkins’ poem got, this summer’s most liked and listened to was another Emily Dickinson-based piece where I joined two short and somewhat abstract Dickinson poems into what I thought was an interesting combination. I called my combination “Forever and Crumbling.”
“Forever” talks about the localized instant we all live in, that Dickinson lived in too. “Crumbling” talks about decay happening from a chain of those instants. In theory the two pieces, that Dickinson wrote separately, change/enlarge when related to each other. That and my musical performance of them is my contribution. Your likes and listens say that some of you found that worthwhile.
I’ve sat here most of the morning and now into the afternoon trying to write something useful in addition. If we are charged to “live in the moment,” 2020 makes that especially challenging. If we seek to halt and reverse the cobwebs and rust on our ideals and nation, like Dickinson’s “Crumbling” it will take more than an instant’s act. Nothing I wrote today brings what I can believe adds anything to our instant in time or repairs our current state of dilapidation. When I first posted this piece in the first week of June, I felt the same awkwardness. I have faith (or is it only habit?) that art and beauty have worth, but it takes a lot of faith some days.
Wishing all of us justice and mercy, and some wisdom to see a balance of those.