Three Places In New England

You may have noticed fewer new pieces posted here over the past month. There are a variety of un-interesting reasons for that, but one cause is worth a post, even if it’s not representative of what you usually find here. Think of it as a “make up post” for the missing activity this July.

This month I traveled to Massachusetts with my family and some friends. My concerns with this project have lead me to cast some recent trips as literary pilgrimages. Since our expedition was a mixed-age group of five, that wasn’t all that we did of course, and many of my memories of this trip are more about fellowship with the rest of the travelers, and not just with the connections I sought with long-dead writers. But let me focus on the literary highlights of this trip today.

 

Boston/Cambridge

We stayed at the Parker House hotel, which was well situated and has a long history connected to the culture of the city. Operating since before the Civil War, it was the meeting site for the Saturday Club, where the region’s considerable 19th Century culture elite met. And for desert, the Boston Cream Pie was developed there too! The current hotel building doesn’t go back to those days, it dates to the 1920s, but since two of our party were 21st Century people, there was plenty of historic charm along with a good night’s sleep to be had there. Alas all that masonry or other infrastructure issues meant the WiFi service was at 1920s level too, so my blog activity was minimal during the trip.

My companion book for this trip was Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club.  I was delighted to find our hotel and the still-standing (though it’s a Chipotle now) Ticknor and Fields publisher and bookstore building just down the street were locations used in the book. The book is ostensibly a mystery novel, but what it actually does is attempt to recreate post-Civil War Boston and Cambridge as it would have been experienced by the prominent local poets of the time. Particularly in the opening chapters this requires the reader to struggle with their 21st Century sensibilities. Pearl uses excerpts from these authors’ books and letters repurposed as spoken dialog to convey that time’s sensibilities, and I found that slow going. Not only am I a 20th Century Modern in my own literary sensibilities, but I also believe that their ordinary conversational speech would not be the same as those fountain pen strokes. In the course of the book, Pearl violates every one of Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing—though they were only the rules that worked for Leonard, and even he admits exceptions. The plot too is somewhat creaky, though that’s a common fault for mysteries.

Am I not tempting you to read this book? On the contrary, I eventually found it captivating. As we moved about Boston and Cambridge, and as I read more of the authors it references, the level of historical research Pearl put into this became apparent. I now want to try his current book, a sequel, that is apparently set among the Pre-Raphaelites, to see if his magic works when you aren’t walking around in the characters’ footsteps.

Longfellows Desk

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oh so modern standing desk. The small statue on top? Goethe.

 

Pearl’s book is largely responsible for our visit to Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, and for me taking the time to check out Longfellow’s now unfashionable work. We walked through the room there where Longfellow’s beloved wife was sealing envelopes containing locks of their children’s hair with help from her daughters one summer’s day when the sealing wax melting candle caught her dress on fire. The room where Longfellow rushed in and tried to smother the fire engulfing his wife with a rug and his body. He suffered burns from that fire, painful and life-scaring (that bushy beard wasn’t just a fashionable affectation), but not fatal as were the ones that took his wife’s life by the next day. The room he rushed from? His writing room, with it’s nowadays in-fashion standing desk (a tactic he shared with Hemmingway), a room decorated with carved Goethe, Dante, and Shakespeare, all looking at him, asking him to “Let us, then, be up and doing.” I now read his work and think of what it does not say in what it does say.

 

Provincetown

When told we planned to go to Provincetown, someone asked my wife “You know how wild it is don’t you?” Well, yes, it’s extraordinarily crowded on a summer day with people from other New England places looking for a change of scene, and gayer than a Pride parade. The main street is full of establishments that cater to the not-quite-needs of no-purpose-but-the-change visitors, and the milling throngs are deep in thought of how good a time they are having verses their expectations.

We got off the ferry and had a tasty early lunch of hip-casual fusion food in a place with a patio covered in sand that had a view of the beach, and past that to the ocean that which can’t be bothered with time, which is always visiting, and therefore isn’t a visitor.

We then picked up rental bicycles, and after reminding one brave member of our expedition that riding a bicycle is, well, like riding a bicycle, we took off on a five-mile jaunt up to the highest point on this area of the cape. There’s a widow’s-walk porch atop the visitor’s center at this high point, full of fresh breezes and a view of that ocean again, beside which lie grassy sand dunes that meet that wind with ardent curvatures. I’ve read that the higher water levels and fiercer storms of our human-heated climate have damaged these features, but to us, visitors, it still read as wild and timeless.

After a good long meditation with wind and outlooks, I was reminded of my reason for going to Provincetown, and we set back on bicycles for the town again too look for the house once owned by Susan Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook. My paternal grandparents are from the same south-eastern Iowa location that Cook and Glaspell grew up in, and though as far as I know they had no direct participation in The Davenport Group, Glaspell was a cousin of my grandmother.

Back in 1915, Provincetown was what was called an artist’s colony. That term is now somewhat outdated I think, but the concept is timeless. Artists, writers, musicians, and the like look for somewhere unfashionable, perhaps a bit run-down, with cheap rents to reduce their overhead while they work on things that won’t bring in a steady cash-flow. These artists naturally knock into each other, igniting collaborations and idea sharing. Often those unfashionable areas gather value, and before you can invent the term gentrification, the upmarket consumers, who though they might bring disposable cash to spend on art, bid up the rents and crowd out all but the most financially successful creators of art.

But all that hadn’t happened yet. Cook and Glaspell settled in a house on the main street, the street we now find full of folks looking for a good day or weekend, walking and driving fender to footsteps so thickly that it was hard to even walk our bikes up to the address. Back in 1915 the couple had redecorated the house’s interior with bright colors and Charles Demuth had sculpted them a sundial for the yard held skyward by a nude statue of my cousin Susan.

Here’s where things get uniquely interesting back in 1915. What could this little group of artists do while waiting for the paint to dry, or while you waited to afford a replacement for the worn ribbon in your typewriter? They decided to put on plays. Whose plays? Well, they were writers, weren’t they? Let’s write them. A stage? Look, we have artists, they should at least be able to wrangle some lumber into a set. They were given the lower floor of a former fish house that was situated on the end of a dock out over the timeless ocean to use.

What did they know and didn’t know, and did that matter? Theater in the United States was a commercial enterprise, exclusively that. This was before broadcasting, and a huge enterprise existed, with theater chains from Broadway to the small cities across the country to supply those things that could make money by presenting live entertainment. In one way, theater was tremendously broad, but it was also predicated on presenting what was going to work for that big audience. In poetry, music, and art, the Modernists were experimenting, trying things that weren’t supposed to work to see if, in fact, they could. Driven by Cook and organized by Glaspell, this little cadre of artists began trying to do that with drama, but I doubt they had any idea of what would happen when they tried this, way out on the Cape, with at first only their friends in the audience.

A disheveled man who shared a rented room in the town, down on his heals and with an already well-established reputation for alcoholism claimed he had a bunch of plays in his trunk. “Trunk plays” is theatrical lingo for old work that might be revived if a need arises, but this was an actual sea trunk he was hauling around with him, stuffed with unproduced work. In an artists colony, many writers would claim they had good stuff already written, just waiting for the world to discover, but then as now, some of this would be an empty boast useful to get someone to pay for the next round.

It fell to Susan Glaspell to arrange an informal table reading of a play from that trunk. Worth a chance, since the new company was short of material and game for anything.

Remember it’s 1915. Europe had Ibsen and Strindberg, sure. The Abbey Theater in Dublin had started a few years before. Some around the table would be well-travelled and would even know their work. But this is America, and this was a hanger-on in a little beach town artists’ colony. The author with the trunk was too shy to read his own play, someone else was deputized, and the author sat in another room as the reading commenced. The guy’s name was Eugene O’Neill, and the play, Bound for Cardiff.

Glaspell wrote about this more than a decade later, but she recalls that right away they knew they had something. Bound for Cardiff,  a play set on a tramp steamer, was performed in their makeshift playhouse at the end of a pier that year. The sound of waves, wind and gulls, the murk of fog and evening chill did not have to be added with theatrical tricks. The smell of the sea wafted up through the cracks in the dock floorboards.

The Provincetown Playhouse had its first star playwright, and Modernist American drama had its starting point. And in Glaspell and Cook, they had the organizers who could keep the artistic cats herded and pick up new strays. Within a year Glaspell, who had co-written the first play the Playhouse had produced, wrote Trifles,  a seminal work of Feminist drama.

Provincetown Theater Sign

I believe this remaining sign is from a later theater, not the rustic fish-house. However when I was taking this picture a charming older lady walked up and asked if we knew what it meant, and was pleased and surprised that we knew about Susan Glaspell and the original Provincetown Playhouse.

 

That weathered makeshift theater building on the end of the dock could never have timelessness, though it apparently stood for some years after this. Cook and Glaspell took their organization to Greenwich Village and continued with seasons there as the Provincetown Playhouse for the next decade. There’s more to this story, but I bring the curtain down by noting that while scanning a book of plays the Provincetown Playhouse produced in the towns wonderful small library, I saw that two poets from this month, William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy, once performed on stage in a two character play there.

 

Amherst

This was my prime target for this trip, as the Parlando Project has lead me deeper into not understanding Emily Dickinson, which I’m still finding an interesting place to be. Emily Dickinson spent almost all of her life in Amherst, much of it living in her family’s house. Not being a Massachusetts native I had no idea where Amherst was, or any sense of what I’d find. My first surprise was how rural the region seems to be. We entered into the town on a winding two lane road that reminds me of those paved highways that followed what were once wagon rutted dirt roads and before that indigenous footprints.

Dickinson Homestead

The Dickinson Homestead. Emily’s front window is the one on top floor left.

 

The two neighboring houses that make up the Dickinson site are imposing as you pull up to them, reminding you of her family’s prominence in the town. Early on in our tour I learned that the present lot is actually smaller than the holdings in Emily’s time. Across the road running past the house’s front door and under the sight of Emily’s room’s window, the Dickinsons had a hayfield that they cultivated. And the garden that Emily tended, the accomplishment that she was most recognized for by her peers? It was much larger in size and scope than I had imagined, though only a conventional, more modern, grass lawn grows there now. There were flowers, though not in an organized English garden sense, but also a large vegetable garden used to feed the household and a remarkable orchard which the guide told us included fig trees—trees way outside the zone that should survive New England winters due to some ingenious horticultural tricks. Although they were Puritan stock who thought household servants would be a stain on a family’s industriousness, the Dickinsons did hire some garden and field help due to the size of the holdings. None-the-less it was the household’s women who managed the gardens, first Emily’s mother and then Emily herself.

Not only the grounds, but the house’s interior has been redone and revised since her lifetime, and our guide was scrupulous in describing what parts reflected the original arrangements. Emily’s bedroom, where she did much of her writing, and where she stored the hand-made booklets that became the prime source of her ground-breaking poetry, has been recreated in considerable detail however. It’s a bright room in the daytime, and the table by the window where she wrote and revised at night, has a whale-oil lamp that would have been a luxury in her time, but must have facilitated her incredible productivity during the 1860s.

The biggest surprise was the second house, built for Emily’s brother and his new wife next door at the behest of Dickinson’s father. That sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, should not be overlooked as a factor in Emily Dickinson’s genius. They had a close friendship from the time Emily’s brother started courting her, and like Emily, Susan was unusually well educated for a woman of her time and place. Besides emotional bonds deep enough to cause modern speculation about a sublimated or overt lesbian relationship, Emily seems to have used Susan as one of her trusted readers to give her feedback on her revolutionary poetry. For a woman so far out on her own avant garde as Emily Dickinson was in the middle of the 19th Century, Susan may have been indispensable.

This second house, “The Evergreens” remained more or less as it was in the late 19th century, and to a large part has not been restored. It’s spooky, you feel almost like you’ve broken into an abandoned house with wear and lack of maintenance left intact. That feeling is even stronger when the tour takes you to the floor where the bedroom of Gib, Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s youngest child was located. In 1883, at age 8, Gib died of typhoid. Afterward the room was locked and kept closed by his distraught mother. Decades later, when the house was finally turned over to the group that now conserves the site, the room still contained a small boy’s toys and his clothes still neatly tucked away in the dresser, some of which are now tenderly displayed as you walk past the door.

 

I could speak of more, but those were the literary high points of my trip. I hope to return with normal service in August, combining various kinds of original music with various words (mostly poetry). To tide you over here’s the most popular Emily Dickinson audio piece with listeners here so far, “We Become Accustomed to the Dark.”  Use the player gadget below to hear it.

 

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It Happened Here

Last post I spoke of Mina Loy and her pre-WWI adventure in Italy with the Futurists who would eventually become Italian Fascists. Loy utilized Modernist tactics in her own art and writing, but she was apparently wise enough to see the violence and totalitarianism in that Italian strain for what it was and extracted herself to less authoritarian circles. I’m unaware that Loy ever presented herself as a politically engaged artist, but the various Modernists she associated with after the end of her Italian adventure tended to the unaffiliated or left-wing side of Modernism.

Another woman, and American this time, had encounters with the early German Fascists in the era between the two World Wars. Her name was Dorothy Thompson. Thompson is another example of fleeting fame: she had a substantial mid-century multimedia presence through her books, journalism, and work in broadcasting. One of her roles was as a Foreign Correspondent, something of an antique designation now, but one that required that individual to live overseas and to report wisely what was happening in that country’s culture and politics. In Germany she was savvy enough to cover the rising profile of a fringe politician, Adolf Hitler. In 1931 she was able to wrangle an interview with him. This is some of what she wrote:

When I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany….In something like fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man.”

Thompson was nobody’s fool. She wasn’t alone in underestimating the possible impact of Hitler, this “little man,” based on his personality flaws. The canny observer in her was able to figure that he might be able to achieve titular leadership of the German government as part of a coalition with other minority parties, as Hitler indeed did little more than a year later. When asked what his program would be, Hitler was forthcoming: “I will found an authority-state, from the lowest cell to the highest instance; everywhere there will be responsibility and authority above, discipline and obedience below.” Hitler was generally not a secretive, conspiratorial revolutionary. This was his electoral platform. In evaluating that statement, Thompson compounded her error. Thompson concluded:

Imagine a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights?”

That wasn’t a prediction, that was a rhetorical question. She didn’t think it could happen.

She published her article that year, and many thought her view the informed opinion that it was. If TL;DNR existed in 1931 you would summarize: Hitler is a clown car short of a few clowns.

Thompson shortly realized she had been wrong. Less than three years after she had disparaged him in her widely read article, Hitler made Thompson the first foreign journalist formally expelled from his new Germany. Had she helped or hurt Hitler by underestimating him? It didn’t matter, she had belittled him. Soon enough the world would be at war due to this insubstantial and insignificant man, this laughingstock.

She had a dark-humored quip on the matter. “Some got sent to prison. I got sent to Paris.”

sinclair-lewis-dorothy-thompson

Sinclair Lewis goes for the Johnny Cash long black frock coat look
while Dorothy Thompson essays  Patti Smith’s “Horses” cover idea

 

Thompson was married to another writer who was extraordinarily famous between the wars, Sinclair Lewis. In America, another politician was drawing from some a mixture of scoffing scorn and fear as he moved to run for President in 1936, Huey Long. It’s thought that Lewis availed himself of Thompson’s experience, as he began to furiously write a novel about how an American Fascist in all but name could unexpectedly be elected President. For his novel’s title, Lewis created an unforgettable phrase: “It Can’t Happen Here.”

The novel’s main character is a journalist, one who clearly knows that the forces which rise throughout the novel are evil, while underestimating their danger; but like Thompson he is able to recognize his error and take action.

It Happened Here jacket

Listen to your first edition here. Slight wear on dust jacket.

 

We are now living in a time when that phrase that Lewis used for his title may seem more present than memorable. The alternative voice of this project, Dave Moore, has changed Lewis’ tense and described—what—that 1935 novel, or something else? You decide if he changed the story.

The LYL Band’s performance of “It Happened Here” plays with the gadget below.

 

Pig Cupid

Today we return to the early 20th Century Modernists with a piece using words by Mina Loy. Last post we had a poet taking a political stand: Longfellow aligning himself with the movement to abolish slavery. Decades later, the Modernists joined political movements too.

One might suppose that since Modernism sought to overthrow the old cultural order and revolutionize artistic expression that many Modernists would be attracted to political radicalism—and to a large degree that’s so.

You might also assume that these artistic radicals would be leftists, aligned with the growing Socialist movements in England and the United States, or attracted after 1917 to the as then untested promise of the new Communist government in Russia. Or perhaps they’d make common cause with anarchism. Or maybe they’d create their own playlist mixing all of the above.

And yes, you can find that. Carl Sandburg in the U. S. Midwest, most of the Surrealists, bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village, Herbert Read and some other British Modernists.

However, one can also find Modernists who aligned with the right wing in this era—and not only garden-variety Tories, or even those who allied themselves with the “respectable” racist strains of U. S. politics. Even in the years before WWI, the social theories that would coalesce into Fascism found adherents in the new literary avant garde. As to Americans, the most famous case is the indispensable Modernist poet, editor and promotor, Ezra Pound, eventually charged with treason at the end of WWII.

Modernists seemed something like stem cells as their artistic revolution kicked off—they could develop into followers of any kind of political radicalism. At a time when political engagement for artists was common, there must have been a feeling in the air that a side must be chosen if one was to be a thorough-going cultural Modernist.

So, much as the French Surrealists once sought to make Communism a dictate for membership in the Surrealist movement, the slightly earlier Italian Futurists eventually made Fascism a core value of their artistic circle.

mina-loy

I love my baby, cause she does good sculptures, yeah!” The young Mina Loy

 

It’s now we get to Mina Loy. No, not the delightful Hollywood actress—that’s Myrna Loy (Myrna Loy was the stage name for the woman born Myrna Williams, and it’s just possible that Loy could have been chosen to refer to Mina).

It’s 1905. Modernism is kicking off first in the visual art world, followed just behind by the poets. Loy, in her 20s, has already done the visual art thing in London and Paris, but her marriage is failing, and she’s just had an infant child die. To change her life, she moves to Italy. She befriends Futurist artist Carlo Carra, and if you follow along on your Futurist score-card she had love-affairs there with two principals of Italian Futurism: F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini.

Let’s re-set our scene. Here’s a young woman in a foreign country going through life stress events. The art-world is shifting under everyone’s feet. As a movement that will eventually fancy itself outright as the cultural well-spring of Italian Fascism, the circle she’s fallen in with isn’t just about making it new, it’s militaristic, paternalistic, nationalistic, and it worships violence. That isn’t what jealous opponents say about Futurism, it’s what its own manifestos brag about.

Tullio Crali - Bombardamento-aereo (1932)

Futurist war painting. Compare its outlook to Guernica or Flint’s poem “Zeppelins.
Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto declared “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene”

 

As preparing actors say, all that would be part of the work to figure out what Mina Loy is experiencing. Here’s another bit of business you might grab onto: young, ambitious, male artists. I doubt some not-uncommon tropes have changed in that field.

What happens?

Mina becomes a poet. A fierce poet. Artistically she uses some of the new ideas that the Futurists are thinking about. Her poetry moves between time and tenses, voices and outlooks, in machine gun bursts. Conventional expression and sentiment? Blow them up, run them over with a locomotive. Sixty years later Harlan Ellison would write “Love is just sex misspelled” and be thought provocative. Mina had already been there in the horse-and-buggy era. How can a woman keep her selfhood (or for that matter, how can any human being do so) in the minefield of desire and relationships? What is deep and inherent in motherhood that society will not express openly?

Though she used some of the artistic ideas of Futurism as effectively as any writer, Loy seemed to resist most of its political ideas and she satirized the pretentions of the “Flabergasts” while writing about her Italian time as being in the “Lion’s Jaws.”  Leaving Italy, she next moved to New York, where she joined the Greenwich Village circle.

Today’s piece uses selections I took from a 34-poem sequence called “Songs to Johannes,”  inspired by the relationship with Giovanni Papini (Johannes and Giovanni are variations of the same root name). Loy published these in 1914, near the end of her Italian time. Within the little-magazine world of Modernism she made an immediate impact. Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein said good things about her work. Legendary founder of Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe seems to have been scared by Loy’s frankness. Amy Lowell, poet and influential anthologist, was so put off she is supposed to have said that she would not publish in any magazine that printed Loy.

If the patriarchy may have lost the battle with Mina Loy, for a long time they seem to have won the peace. It was only in the last few years of the 20th Century that Loy’s poems of the first part of that century began to be looked at again. Now, Loy has become a key poetic Modernist for literary scholars tired of the usual sausage-fest, but that opens up the danger that work like “Songs to Johannes”  may be introduced, academically, like this: “Loy in effect diagnoses an end to love poetry in the light of historical circumstance, anticipating that poststructuralist line of inquiry which urges a rereading of ‘lyric’ as a culturally responsive construct. Instead, her poetry constitutes a critique of the very demand that lyric expression be viewed apart from the social world.”

There’s nothing wrong with that view, but I find Loy’s pre-WWI writing here a lot more immediate assuming one has some applicable life experience to bring to it. Her diction sometimes reminds me of Emily Dickinson, and like Dickinson figuring out what is ironic, and what is earnest, and what is both, can sometimes be a challenge. In performance, any of those three choices seem to work for most phrases here. The greatest error would be to make them all of the same tenor. Also, like Dickinson, Loy will move from speaking concise abstraction to vivid metaphor using very few words. Thus, the high minded and the sensual nitty-gritty are juxtaposed.

My appreciation for this sequence grew tremendously as I constructed this performance. There are strong images, richly ambiguous expressions, and yes, lines that one could deconstruct at thesis length. I didn’t even have room to include the phrase from “Songs to Johannes”  that I’ve chosen to title today’s selection, but I can never look at a plump rococo cherub again without recalling it. But the real gift I got, the unique gift of art, is that I could experience some of Loy’s moments in the hot-house nexus of Fascism and Modernism.  “Pig Cupid”  would probably be more authentic if this was performed in a woman’s voice, but alas my voice is what I have available today. To hear my performance, use the player below.

 

The Witnesses

A couple of posts ago as I presented a piece using words by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I mentioned that his prestige has fallen greatly.

How far? His Wikipedia article shares some snark:

Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career…nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”

“Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow.”

And Lewis Mumford sums up his significance with a dagger by declaring that Longfellow could be completely removed from the history of literature without much effect.

Furthermore, while there’s no modern bon mot to extract from the Wiki, Longfellow’s didacticism, a huge defect if detected in modern poets, is noted. Even during his lifetime, that rankled the Transcendentalists, always looking for the more inexplicable sublime.

Akin to one our Parlando Project principles, Longfellow took the idea of “other people’s stories” to what are now considered ridiculous lengths. Instead of writing of intense internal experiences as Emily Dickinson did, or expanding the fleshy personal into a democratic universal as Whitman did, Longfellow wrote about many cultures and translated poetry from many languages. The term “cultural appropriation” didn’t exist as such then, but Longfellow could easily be charged with it. His best-known epic poem, Hiawatha,  which has left its imprint all over my own region’s place names, is an earnest and non-hateful mishmash of the mid-19th century’s limited knowledge of indigenous Americans mixed with some contemporary to the time German romanticism. Longfellow would be a cultural criminal if he hadn’t already been reduced to a laughingstock.

OK, so what. All of these charges are true, but here’s what they leave out. To say Longfellow was “an American poet” is like saying Elvis Presley was a rock’n’roll singer. He proved that could be a thing, that an “American poet,” could connect successfully with a wide audience. He imitated Europeans and English romantics. Yes. Who the hell else was there to imitate? He wasn’t as original as Dickinson or Whitman. Yes, and neither is most any other poet you could name, now or then. And Mumford’s dagger? Alas, that can be said of most writers, because literature is a vast swarm of similar literary genetic ideas, but if there wasn’t a Longfellow, someone else would have to establish the idea of a popular American poet. That alternate-history someone else might have been good or bad, but it likely would have lead to some difference, even if the difference would be some other writer to rebel against.

I too wish Longfellow had tempered his didacticism, even if that is a large part of what made it possible for him to succeed. Most Victorian poets suffered from this as well, and it’s part of what the Modernists sought to break free from. To the degree that we are now Post-Modern, we can reassess this. Can poetry stand for something and still be art? If that is difficult to do, should it still be attempted?

Today’s piece is an example of Longfellow seeking to instruct, and the charge of cultural appropriation could be leveled at it too. In 1842, as opposition to slavery started to gather force in the United States, Longfellow wrote a short collection of poems on the “issue”—yes, human slavery, for and against, it was a debate. Longfellow explicitly released this collection for publication and distribution in support of the anti-slavery cause.

The Zong Atrocity

The obscenity of human jetsam. I learned about the Zong case only this year while traveling in Britain.

 

“The Witnesses”  is from that collection. In it I think Longfellow transcends propaganda for this noble cause and demonstrates his effectiveness as a poet. He audaciously takes the notorious Middle Passage of over-sea slave shipment as his subject here. Though those travails were not his personal experience, the obscene losses at sea in the shipment of chained-up human beings is portrayed. I chose to further highlight Longfellow’s concluding phrase to all this. “We are the witnesses!” he writes, as the still shackled skeletons speak in his poem—but of course, un-romantically, their remains cannot speak. The poet, the reader, the performer, the listener, are the real witnesses here.

A short note. Wouldn’t you know it, after spending a good part of this year exploring the early 20th Century Modernists, I now have been using 18th and 19th Century sources more this summer. One of my favorite blogs, My Year in 1918 recently noted how I was tackling those WWI-era writers with my musical pieces for her readers who might want to sample that.

Well, I’ll return to those literary Modernists soon. After all, a principle here is to try to mix things up, to not be predictable or to always rely on my established favorites. But even today, I think I’ve been tipping my hat to another key early 20th Century American Modernist. As I was writing and performing the music for “The Witnesses,”  with its variations on folk-style melodies that twisted between strains and finished with a louder cadence that didn’t resolve the multiplicity, I asked myself “Where’d that come from?” Early this morning it occurred to me: the composer Charles Ives, who was working at almost the same time as those literary figures. If he had access to an electric guitar he could have been Frank Zappa.

Once more I’ll break with my usual practice and apologize that I don’t feel I’ve fully realized this audio piece, mostly because it really should be performed with a number of featured voices and a chorus. While my computer and inexpensive collection of “virtual instruments” lets me reasonably realize a large number of instruments, it cannot represent vocal works very well. Go ahead and listen anyway, and if you can listen on speakers instead of earphones, crank the volume a bit.

 

Ample make this Bed

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 blog would have already generated posts 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 pieces 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.

Dickinson Bedroom 3

Ample? The specific standing for eternity. Emily Dickinson’s restored bedroom in Amherst

 

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 a straightaway lifetime. The Pillow, where the mind inside the braincase rests, may be round, a circular 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.

Musically, I performed this in waltz time and I repeated the first stanza to add some sense of the eternal.  You can hear the performance with the player gadget below.

 

Morituri Salutamus

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 for 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 grows 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 able 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 the earnestness and popularity crimes—though, as the old dis goes, for many years, Whitman couldn’t get arrested for it.

Whitman-Longfellow

The good gray poet Whitman, and his doppelganger the forgotten famous writer Longfellow.

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 and art 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. These Modernists believed this would be more effective, because they are signaling with this 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 transitions to a not over-worn thought. He prepares for the poem’s final stanza by cataloging some swan-songsters of literary history: Simonides, Chaucer, Sophocles. For compression, and for my preference for briefer work, this last stanza is what I used for today’s piece.

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?

To hear my performance of the conclusion to Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus,”  use the player below.

Beloved

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!

McFerrin and Ear Drum

Talking. Drum. Musician Bobby McFerrin and that tiny ear drum membrane that sound touches

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.

Posts may be somewhat farther apart this month, but I remind you that we have well over 200 audio pieces available in our archives over on the right, where they are waiting for further listening.