The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson by Genevieve Taggard

I’ve mentioned in passing that I was reading Genevieve Taggard’s 1930 The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  this spring. The busy schedule of this project, and life in general, slowed my reading-rate, but I thought I’d share a few brief thoughts about it after I finished it.

Once I read about this book, I immediately wanted to read it. First, because I was so struck by Taggard’s poem “Everyday Alchemy”  I presented here, and because as one of the first (if not the first*) full-length biographies of Dickinson, Taggard had access to people who had first and second-hand experience of Dickinson while Dickinson was still alive. I’m not sure if journalistic style interviews were considered appropriate for literary biographies written in the 1920s, but despite Taggard’s limited use of some personal testimony in the book, I can’t help but mourn what could have been documented by a talented journalistic writer early in the 20th century investigating Dickinson and her milieu. Taggard as a feminist and as a person working in Amherst for awhile as a professor, writes in her book about the society of 19th Century Amherst, but she does not write this in a first person “walk with the reporter” kind of way were you could directly share how she evaluates and comes upon her information.

Such an imagined book would have been much longer, and Taggard’s shorter work was not a best-seller in 1930 either, but now that Dickinson’s stature as an American literary icon is established, such a longer form examination of her times from an intelligent reporter would be so illuminating.

Taggard-Dickinson Title Page

One of the lovely things about holding this copy were the “Minneapolis Athenaeum” stamps reflecting the history of this public library

 

If The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  was launched today the big PR hook would be that, from local testimony, Taggard believed she had identified the main male love** of Emily Dickinson’s life as George Gould, and that they were engaged, but Dickinson’s father forbid their marriage. Taggard’s detail on Gould’s life and its possible illumination of Dickinson’s interests via letters—an important way that Dickinson expanded her world and emotional circle—was fascinating to me, even when it was speculative.

Taggard seems to be using a Freudian outlook at times in her analysis of Dickinson’s life, and the other main relationship that she develops throughout her book is that between Emily and her father Edward, an attorney and major figure in the town of Amherst who served in both the national and state legislature. One doesn’t have to have the 1920’s intellectuals’ belief in Freud to agree that this is likely a key relationship, particularly considering that Emily speaks of her mother as being less significant to her (and there’s likely a story there too). I’m sometimes struck by how much some of Emily Dickinson’s poetic expression has an exact but slant-wise way about it that reminds me of some legal writing, such as in contract law. I see the same thing at times in Wallace Stevens (a lawyer/poet).***

In her concluding chapters, Taggard makes the case of Dickinson’s literary greatness, which the ensuing decades have continued to expand and endorse.

It’s a shame, but Taggard’s book is not easily available. It’s not been kept in print, and as far as I know, it’s still in copyright. At least when I looked, used copies are not inexpensively and plentifully available. I was able to read an original edition of The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  from my public library—a little bit worn, brittle and brown. I looked at the ink stamps on the checkout slip from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and wondered a bit about those readers and what they thought of it, but this reader found it well worth reading.

Taggard Check Out

Some of the readers added light pencil marks throughout the book too. I couldn’t help but ask each time I saw one what led to that mark, slowing my reading of Taggard’s book even more.

 

No new audio piece today, but maybe you haven’t listened to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “This World is Not Conclusion”  yet. It’s another of Dickinson’s skeptical hymns, this time full of abstractions and twists of that active mind that she charms us to follow anyway. Here’s the player gadget to hear it.

 

 

 

 

*Susan Dickinson’s daughter, Martha Bianchi published  The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson  in 1924, and I haven’t read it. I’m unsure how much of it is biography and how much is a letters collection, but Taggard politely notes in an appendix that Bianchi got a number of dates wrong.

**There’s a lot of modern interest in Dickinson’s sexuality, with attention being paid to the idea that she was lesbian or bi. Given the lack of the kind of deep contemporaneous social investigation of 19th century Massachusetts society, this may be impossible to determine to the modern gossip level of who engaged in what sex acts with whom. Even at the non-Dickinson-scholar level where I live, it’s apparent to me that Dickinson had a very active mind and was highly attracted to other minds that were similarly energized regardless of if the minds were in male or female noggins.

***I’m not sure how large that group, lawyer/poet, is. The only other one that comes to mind is Tom Rapp, the less-known-than-he-should-be songwriter of “The Sixties.”

Much more dour than Stevens and Dickinson, but I could even see a bit of that “Tell me what it is by telling me what it isn’t” expressive mode in Robert Mueller’s little farewell speech yesterday—but has anyone tried singing that to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas?”  I’ll bet Nancy Pelosi and William Barr could both read Dickinson’s “The World Is Not Conclusion”  and differ on what it says!

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I Saw a Peacock

There’s not much to say about the author of today’s words, as they are anonymous and somewhat older than I am—“I Saw a Peacock”  dates to sometime before 1655. Somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s “May-Flower”  poem, this poem is on the face of it a chronicle of wonders and mystery, but it can also be read as a puzzle. Here’s the text of it:

I Saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail,
I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail,
I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round,
I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground,
I saw a Pismire, swallow up a Whale,
I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale,
I saw a Venice Glass, Sixteen foot deep,
I saw a well, full of mens’ tears that weep,
I saw their eyes, all in a flame of fire,
I saw a House, as big as the Moon and higher,
I saw the Sun, even in the midst of night,
I saw the man, that saw this wondrous sight.

 

The key to the puzzle is to read the lines starting at the middle and continuing to the middle of the next line. Read this way the things connected seem more commonplace and less mysterious. Given it’s age, there not a lot of out-dated words in it. A “pismire” is an ant.

Coppa_decorata_con_scene_di_carnevale

A Venice glass, not actual size.

 

This is a fairly sophisticated play with the powers of enjambment in a line of poetry, where the stop of the line makes one pause and consider (if only for a moment) the thought contained within the line, even if the thought is not actually completed yet. But I’ve chosen (as I did with Dickinson’s “May-Flower”)  to not perform it as just a riddle or exercise. Emily Dickinson’s poetry for her flower riddle was too mysterious and sensuous for me not to play to the mystery. Similarly, “I Saw a Peacock’s”  surface of surreal combinations of the like/unlike is too strong to not go with that side of the Mobius strip.

Although I just ran into “I Saw a Peacock”  this month, the poem has collected its fans over the centuries. I saw it at the Interesting Literature blog (which is, by the way). Writer Margaret Atwood once wrote that it was “The first poem I can remember that opened up the possibility of poetry for me.”

There is at least one other setting of this poem to music, a choral setting where the composer, Caroline Mallonee, uses a double choir to present both ways of reading the lines. That’s another artistic solution, different from my decision to present it “unsolved.”

My musical setting uses double instrumentation too. There’s a standard rock trio, albeit playing quietly (drum-set, electric bass, and electric guitar) and a quintet of double-bass, two cellos, violin and tuba.

You may have noticed I’ve been away from this blog for an interval of a few days as I work on another project this spring. I’ve noticed that folks are looking at the nearly 350 audio pieces we have here in our archives more and more, which is a great way to get your fix of music and words combining. To hear today’s piece, “I Saw a Peacock,”  use the player gadget below.

 

Beach Burial

In the United States this is a long holiday weekend, ending with Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who died in wars. Other countries have similar days, but in the US it has largely become the embarkation point for the joys of summer. Yes, oh yes,  there are those who have specific and somber memories in Memorial Day, but despite our generally observed notion of honoring all who fought in our wars on our side, whatever the war, for whatever the reasons, this day, set aside for those who gave their lives, may include only brief offerings to them.

Intentional death, for whatever reason, is a complex subject. Perhaps it’s best if we don’t think about this unless we’re really ready to think about it. There are so many questions, some of which I have no answers for even after a long life, and even if I did have answers, what matters more (if you are younger than me) is your  answers—and what you do while waiting for answers.

Is it always “Sweet and proper to die for one’s country?” Note, we know that phrase from Latin, written as it was by Ovid. It’s used in several English-language poems, often still in Latin, as it is engraved over an entrance to the U. S. Arlington National Cemetery: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”  So, it’s not an American phrase,* not even written knowing what America was!

Oddly Memorial Day comes out of Decoration Day when the graves of the dead from both sides of the American Civil War were visited and decorated by those who lived through that war, honoring those who, as in all civil wars, were seeking to kill their own countrymen.** That’s a complicated act, is it not?

So, it’s perhaps understandable that for many of us our outdoor grilling, our sports and play of summertime, our readying for graduations and vacations are not deeply troubled by the Memorial in Memorial Day, as huge and final as those sacrifices are, for those sacrifices are both simply total—and complicated.

Today’s piece doesn’t use words by an American either, it’s by Australian Modernist poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor, and it comes from observations he made while serving as a war correspondent accompanying Australian ground troops during the battle of El Alamein during WWII.***  I believe it to be a masterful poem by a writer too-little known outside of Australia.

Kenneth Slessor war corespondent

Kenneth Slessor as the official Australian WWII war correspondent

 

I could go into it line by line and point out what Slessor does that makes this poem work, but I also believe “Beach Burial”  needs only your attention to make itself felt.

I’ll add only one thing, though I’ve long lost the notes to where I found it. Some other explications of “Beach Burial”  are puzzled or make out the nakedness of the bodies as only metaphorical. The account that I read said that the sea-torn bodies from the burned and sunk ships that were washing up were indeed naked or nearly so, and that this was part of the effect Slessor chose to make with his poem and account, that the men doing the hasty burials in the midst of battle could not tell friend from foe from non-combatant.

Still they probably understood, as Slessor did, that some of those they were burying were their mortal enemies. It they, or you, were to think about the moment in Slessor’s poem, it’s complicated. This is an example of the sort of act I speak of above, things you might do while you are waiting for answers.

As it happens, today’s audio piece is an older live LYL Band performance recording from before the Parlando Project got underway. I hear some imperfections in it that are different than the imperfections I still hear in more recent pieces, but perhaps a different sort of imperfection will seem fresh to you. The player gadget to hear the LYL Band performance of Kenneth Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  is below. The text of the poem, for those that want to read along is here.

 

 

 

*One American phrase, made famous in the movie Patton  as spoken by the titular general is “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

**I’m sorry, but I must add that one side was fighting of course for the chattel slavery of other of their countrymen. This doesn’t make the acts of these early Decoration Days less complicated, only more so.

***And I point out, one side in this battle was aligned with the cause of an odious tyranny that sought to extract via meticulous death and slave labor the lives of many, due to some crackpot racist nationalism. That doesn’t make this poem less effective, it makes it more so.

It Is Not Always May

I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?

Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?

Choice Thoughts from Longfellow

Imagine a current poet whose rep could generate a board game where one wins quotes from their poems (image from Maine Historical Society collection)

 

If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?

So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May”  today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.

The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.

Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.

And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.

Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).

Do we need a new Longfellow today? I’m not sure. I would be pleased if more people appreciated poetry more widely, and as I’ve argued elsewhere here, that “not great poetry” does no harm, and might even do some good for more unusual or challenging poetry. I think I forgot to say clearly enough in my recent series on “Are Song Lyrics Poetry” that to a large degree we’ve asked song-lyrics to fill this role of poetry in my lifetime. But I do believe we needed a Longfellow at least once to establish the ground on which our foundational modern poets erected their structures.

So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May”  sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.

 

Ollendorf’s Wife ‘Bout Changes and Things

Despite Orrick Johns’ lack of poetic fame, our curious audience seems to be responding to “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  Are you forgiving my unilateral revision of Johns’ 1917 words?

OK, here’s another rule breaker. The same day that I recorded the acoustic version of“Ollendorf’s Wife”  I also recorded this folk-rock performance with bass, drums, organ, and electric guitars. Is it better or worse than the acoustic version? I can’t say.

By subtitling this post/version “’Bout Changes & Things” I’m making an obscure reference to a quixotic mid-60s LP by Eric Anderson. Anderson was one of a handful of Greenwich Village folkies well positioned in the ‘60s to step into the new post-Bob Dylan breakthrough were the singers were expected to write their own songs with poetic sounding lyrics. ’Bout Changes & Things  had some of Anderson’s best early songs, songs that were already getting covered by some of the same acts that might also use a Dylan song.

However, about the time it came out another sea-change was occurring. Everyone’s folksinger records were starting to use electric instruments and drum-sets. Earnest acoustic guitar LPs with maybe Spike Lee’s dad on standup bass or Bruce Langhorne on “second guitar” were no longer what was expected. Dylan goes electric! The Byrds were having hits with folk songs and glorious electric 12-string guitars, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky had formed the Lovin’ Spoonful.

The trend was so strong that the production equivalent of revisionist history was resorted to. Tom Wilson overdubbed some session men on top of an already released but unnoticed Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sounds of Silence.”*  Alan Douglas took old tapes of Richie Havens and added new instruments to make “Electric Havens.”**  The former created a hit record and launched a career. The later couldn’t stop the undeniable soul force that was Havens.

Producers and Piano Players

Producers and piano players: Alan Douglass with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus
Tom Wilson producing “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan

 

Eric Anderson just went back into the studio and re-recorded his whole album with a band, and it was released as ’Bout Changes ‘n’ Things Take 2.  It did nothing for his career, and maybe even hurt it. It probably seemed not authentic, scene chasing, or some other sin.

Bout Changes and Things x2

Revisions: One set of songs, two albums.

 

So, there you go, one guy in Greenwich Village years ago who seemed at one point the equal of a lot of other up-and-comers but turned out to be a damp squib that didn’t ignite. And another guy. Same story.

To hear my folk-rock performance of “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Tom Wilson is another one of those “Why don’t more people know about him” characters. Besides midwifing Simon and Garfunkel’s first hit, even a brief look at who he worked with listed in his Wikipedia article should amaze anyone with any interest in mid-century American music. This labor of love web site can tell you more.

**Alan Douglas has an impressively varied producer’s resume similar to Wilson’s, but his ghost could probably stand to be less well-known. His overdubs of Havens work are largely forgotten, but he spent a couple of decades redoing tracks in the Jimi Hendrix archives (including replacing parts on the tapes with newly recorded session men) in an effort that was increasingly seen as fraudulent and cheesy. It’s not that I can’t see their critics’ point regarding Douglas’ Hendrix releases, and the resulting recordings are a mixed bag, but I indulge in the same sins of reusing and re-doing other artists work.

Ollendorf’s Wife

I’m going to do something this time that I’ve done before but is rarely done.

I’m going to revise someone else’s poem without their permission—which I would feel bound to obtain, but the author Orrick Johns is long dead. The last time I did this, it was Rupert Brooke’s work I used, and my excuse was that his fragment that I presented here as On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli”  was likely an early draft left unpolished due to Brooke’s death.

Orrick Johns published “Ollendorf’s Wife”  in his first book-length 1917 collection Asphalt and Other Poems.  There’s little online to help me make sense of Johns’ life, but it’s probable that Asphalt and Other Poems  collected early work Johns had written in his twenties. While most of the poems are short lyrics, Johns works there in several styles. The poems are rhymed, not the free verse of “Blue Undershirts”  that made such an impression on William Carlos Williams. The opening section, “Asphalt” is an odd set of doggerel poems in dialect. I have trouble reading dialect poems, and from my vantage point as a mid-20th century man I can’t make out what ethnicity Johns is representing in these poems. There’s a lot of dropped consonants and dere’s, dem’s and de’s. I assume these poems are intended to be proletarian poetry and demonstrate John’s solidarity.

Another section “The City”  has other poems dealing with social issues of the day, but without the distraction of dialect. It includes one of the book’s longer poems, “Second Avenue,”  infamous in its moment of possible fame for being the poem that beat out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence”  in The Lyric Year’s  poetry contest.

Almost nothing in Asphalt and Other Poems  grabbed me. Nothing passed the Emily Dickinson test, there was no spectral cold and the top of my head remained attached throughout. While it was trying to depict its modern world, the music was awkward for me, with some forced poetic diction and conventional sentiments that made it more similar to Margaret Widdemer than Millay or Sara Teasdale, contemporaries that were writing prize-winning short rhymed lyrics at the same time as Johns. Like Widdemer, and unlike Millay or Teasdale, the poetry in this book of Orrick John’s is understandably forgotten.

There was one poem in a section titled “Country Rhymes”  that did seem to have a germ of something though.

Ollendorfs Wife 1 Page final

Johns’ poem as it appeared in “Asphalt and Other Poems”

 

Like T. S. Eliot, Johns grew up in St. Louis, but unlike Eliot he stayed in the Midwest for college. The “Country Rhymes”  section reflects that longer experience, and nowhere better than in “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  First off, the poem is generally free verse, with uneven line lengths and sparse rhymes. And it has some vivid images. Ollendorf’s wife significantly has no name of her own in the poem. She works her farm plot assiduously, with no love showing in her face, but also as if it’s her last child. How many children, like her name, go significantly unmentioned? The fields she works, and the farm wife are “drawn together” by a “knowledge…greater” than “each other’s best.”

At its core, this poem works by the things it leaves out, fulfilling Hemmingway’s Modernist theory that you can remove the most important things in a story correctly, and by doing so depict them all the more intensely.

So out of care for “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  I revised it, intensifying that paring away of the unneeded, leaving only the cutout cameo around the farm-wife’s charged day in a life. I added nothing really, but took away words that restated something otherwise established, and rewrote lines aiming to make connections stronger. I made one additional repeat of the “day after day” phrase, because there the repetition is  the image. Though I intended to perform my revision, I generally wasn’t thinking of making the poem more “sing-able” as I changed things, but I suspect that factor worked its way in as well.

Ollendorfs Wife revised

Here’s my revised version of Orrick John’s poem

 

As I said at the beginning, this is not something that is commonly done. There are poems that use the subscript of “after a poem by…” but those poems that are revised and re-voiced are usually much older or in a different language than the new version. Obviously, such an act could fail as well as succeed. You are the judge in this case. The gadget to hear my performance of my revised version of Orrick John’s “Ollendorf’s Wife” is below.

 

Blue Undershirts

Long time readers/listeners here know I like to look for the Modernist outliers and less-remembered poets, and today we have one of those: Orrick Johns. But as a bonus, today’s piece by Johns likely influenced one of the most famous American short modernist poems. So, we’re only one remove from “poetry’s greatest hits” with “Blue Undershirts.”

Orrick Johns has a Wikipedia page, but the project classifies it as “stub class,” and the article’s lead sentence claiming that Johns was part of “the literary group that included T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway*” seems misleading to me from what little I know so far. If what the author of that meant was that Johns is a Modernist of the first generation, that would be correct, though he was not a novelist of note, nor a Lost Generation exile in Europe or (as far as I know) a close friend and artistic confidant of that trio.

Orrick_Johns

The only picture I can find of Orrick Jones

 

Like Eliot, Johns was born in St. Louis, but I haven’t found any direct connection between them in my brief research. He did know St. Louis’ other most noteworthy poet of Eliot’s generation, Sara Teasdale though. If for no other reason that he was present in Greenwich Village in New York City during the early part of the 20th Century, he does turn and touch many other American Modernists. He eventually became a member of the American Communist Party later in the century, which no doubt connected him with others of that time who thought that a remedy for the crisis of capitalism, fascism and racism.

But for today, let’s look at how he and his little-known poem connects with William Carlos Williams. In 1915 Williams and Alfred Kreymborg were involved with Others: A Magazine of the New Verse,  a New Jersey headquartered, NYC-area journal that published many of the East Coast modernists. In its first year one of those published was Orrick Johns and a series of short poems in the then Modernist/Imagist style he called “Olives.”  Imagists were somewhat fond of small, mundane one-word objects as labels for poem series. Kreymborg called his own 1916 collection “Mushrooms,”  and so we know what the two of them would have ordered if they stopped off for pizza.**

There’s an element of provocation in “Olives,”  and though I don’t know John’s writing and outlook well, I can’t help but read a sense of humor in them. Some read as if they could be parodies of Imagist poems, even though Others,  being thoroughly Modernist, was in favor of Imagism.

Here’s the third poem in the “Olives”  sequence:

Oh, beautiful mind,

I lost it

In a lot of frying pans

And calendars and carpets

And beer bottles…

Oh, my beautiful mind!

That could be as serious as a modern Instagram poem, or it could be Don Marquis’ laughingstock fictional free-verse poet Fothergil Finch or Ficke, Seiffert and Bynner’s invented Spectrist characters’ work from 1916-17. Was there a meta/double-ness intended? In 1917 Others  published a “special issue” devoted to Ficke, Seiffert and Bynner’s Spectrist hoax “new poetic movement” poems. When the hoax was revealed, many Modernists like the Others group took the stance that these old-school poets had freed their minds when they wrote as invented authors with intent to mock the new styles.

Despite the caricatures of Modernist detractors, many early Modernists liked to make fun of themselves and recognized the outrageousness of what they were experimenting with. Was “Olives”  a Dada statement: “Look, this ephemera is as worthwhile as some long-winded, pro-forma imitation of Keats or Tennyson. At least it’s clearly of today, and doesn’t ask you to pretend to be some knight or medieval Latin scholar?” Or was Johns writing as best he could in the Imagist style, which valued stripping away fripperies and outdated metaphors, and presenting objects in a charged moment of time?

My best guess is both. And I could be wrong, even wrong twice.***

Here’s the piece I used today from “Olives,”  titled there “Blue Undershirts:”

Blue undershirts,

Upon a line,

It is not necessary to say to you

Anything about it—

What they do,

What they might do…blue undershirts

Does this sound like a famous William Carlos Williams poem?**** Did Amazon mess up your order for t-shirts, color: blue, sending you a red wheelbarrow instead—and what—there are white chickens in the box? I guess that’s what the air holes were for, even if they let some rain in when it was sitting on your doorstep.

Williams and Johns were both part of the Others circle, and there is the mysterious appearance of the first four lines of “Blue Undershirts”  quoted in Williams’ 1920 prologue to Kora in Hell  in the context of Williams claiming that Others  founder Alfred Kreymborg is superior to T. S. Eliot, because Williams observes that Eliot is too much recapitulating the past where Kreymborg and Williams believe:

“Nothing is good save the new. If a thing have novelty it stands intrinsically beside every other work of artistic excellence. If it have not that, no loveliness or heroic proportion or grand manner will save it. It will not be saved above all by an attenuated intellectuality.”

While writing this prologue, did Williams think that “Blue Undershirts”  was a Kreymborg poem? I can’t say, but that he prefers those lines of Johns to “Prufrock”  and Eliot says something by way of example.

So, in 1923 did William Carlos Williams have “Blue Undershirts”  in mind as he wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow?”  Again, I can’t say. Williams was already well versed in compressed Imagist writing and speaking in a plain American idiom, and the Others  circle was close enough that I’m sure all kinds of informal interchange occurred. From an abstract of his paper, it appears that Mark Hanna sees “Red Wheelbarrow”  as consciously seeking to be a version 2.0 improvement on Johns’ less graceful and vivid poem. That sounds plausible to me and detracts not at all from Williams’ achievement. Art isn’t a contest, and no amount of “Top 10 lists,” prizes, or “greatest” evaluations can make it so, but “The Red Wheelbarrow”  does give me subjectively more rewards than “Blue Undershirts.” Still, that doesn’t reduce the audacity of Orrick Johns doing “Blue Undershirts”  first.

When I performed “The Red Wheelbarrow”  I composed music using a 12-tone row based on one Modernist musical structure. In my performance of Orrick Johns’ “Blue Undershirts” I worked superficially with George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Please know that you should stress the “superficially” in that sentence. Russell’s theory is substantial, and while I once had dreams of trying to study it, at my age I know What it does/What it might do…is, well, blue undershirts. The player is below.

 

 

 

*And I’m part of the musical cluster that included Prince, Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor, Husker Du, Sharon Isbin and the Replacements. Technically true, but misleading as a claim of significance on my part.

**Ezra Pound published Canzoni  in 1911. He was paying tribute to medieval songs back then, but a careless listener could mistake that for Ezra’s own order at the pizza joint.

***Johns remained fond of the “Olives”  series, republishing a selection from the 1915 “Olives”  as “Tunings”  in his 1920 book Black Branches.

****The connection between the two poems was first pointed out by Mark Hanna in a scholarly paper in 2010. Alas, that paper doesn’t seem to be accessible to me, but Hanna has this poetry explorer’s admiration for making this connection. I can imagine him doing a Cortez in Darien leap when he found it.