Fifty years ago I picked up a copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens in a college bookstore. It was a paperback edition, and looking at the price, I can see why I might have selected it. The cover says $1.45 if you can believe that. Cheaper than a record album, and chock full of more strange words and mysterious lyrics than any batch of LPs that might sit in a dorm room in 1969.
I’d probably run into a few Stevens poems before then, but my actual teenaged poetry bookshelf had no other entire volumes from Stevens early 20th century Modernist cohort yet. After reading it, I immediately set out to write poems that looked and sounded like Stevens for the next few months.
That edition started off by reprinting Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium, from 1923. And now after a pause of decades, works from that year are now in the public domain and available for presentation.*
So now 2019 is here, and 1923 is freed for reuse. By sad coincidence, I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve. And so that evening I started reading Harmonium, until I finished it this morning, thinking of David Shove and his dry humored manner as he would introduce poet after poet to an audience, and how I’ll miss that. The obituary said that the monthly reading that would have happened tonight may still go on, but to my shame, I couldn’t face a crowd of people tonight.
I learned last night that David Shove who organized a long-running and well-loved monthly poetry reading series had died on New Years Eve.
Unlike crowds, with art you can allow your feelings to shake and settle into a form. It’s a smaller group, just yourself and sound. So I plugged in my Telecaster and started working on a droning riff to accompany the last poem in Stevens’ Harmonium, “To the Roaring Wind.” Supporting the guitar I played—well, why not—harmonium, double-tracked cleanly and through a fuzz-box. I then improvised the vocal tracks using Stevens’ words as best as my voice would allow today while thinking of David and those readings.
Wallace Stevens is the Lemony Snicket of Modernists, in love with unusual words, and in the 13 words of “The Roaring Wind” one is “Vocalissimus.” Heard in passing it may remind you of “vocalization,” but someone with an education in Latin has supplied a further, more exacting, explanation.
If souls hover around, David Shove and those that sound with him, this is for them. The rest of you with mice and screen-fingers can hear “The Roaring Wind” using the player below.
*A somewhat complicated story, but in the U.S. a law was enacted in 1998 that changed the term of copyright long after the works were created. For a few commercial properties this extended their revenue potential, but for a large portion of poetry and other non-commercial work it only helped make them largely unavailable for re-vitalization.