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.