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.


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.

5 thoughts on “Blue Undershirts

  1. Hi. This is so wonderful, but I am biased. My name is Clint. I am Orrick Johns’s grandson. I had his autobio for most of my life and only read bits of it. Now, I am deep into it. It is a sad story in that he is so forgotten. If you want Hama’s paper, I bought it on pdf and can send it to you. I am writing a short book about him and myself. If you are interested I can answer any questions about him. (He was connected to TS Elliot via Ezra Pound, whom he exchanged letters with and visited in Italy. He did his European exile in Italy, not Paris.) Thank you for honoring my forgotten grandfather.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great task, working on keeping your grandfather’s life/work on the record! My own interest in early 20th century culture started in large part because I’m related to another figure from the NYC scene of that time, Susan Glaspell, but Glaspell already has other “keepers of the flame” for her legacy. One regret I have is that my grandmother and her sister likely knew Glaspell, however slightly, and I was too young and uninterested yet in my youth in that time to ask them about things.

      Interested in your book on Johns, and yes it might be good to revisit that essay that links “Blue Undershirts” with “The Red Wheelbarrow.” One surprising thing I learned as I started to read the work of the original early 20th century Modernists (many of them not remembered or anthologized beyond Pound and Williams) is how stripped-back their poetry was. I had a formal mid-century education and Modernism in poetry was T. S. Eliot and the increasingly academic poets that followed, and then in my later adulthood, poetry’s mainstream changed into essentially a branch of memoir. Both of those ways of writing poetry can work, and work well, but at their best the work of these pre-Waste Land pioneers still sounds fresh — because so little today is comfortable with their innovations


      1. Thanks for your reply. Orrick wrote a biography/autobiography, Time of Our Lives. In it, he pretty much knows everybody, including George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell and the origin of the Provincetown Players. Through researching this book I have found that just about everyone around him has a “keeper of the flame” but Orrick. I’m on my own. In Mark Hama’s paper is this: “Despite his contributions to turn-of-the 20th-century proletarian poetry and his close association with many of the major figures of American modernist poetry, Orrick Johns has been largely forgotten today. For example, an exhaustive search of the MLA bibliography shows not a single entry on him or his work.” That’s why I was very happy to see anyone remembered him. I am not in anyway educated in, or very familiar with poetry. From what I have learned from Orrick’s work, poetry was the most vital art of the early 20th Century. I think poetry was to the Lost Generation what rock was to Boomers. I could be wrong. I think poetry is now an academia thing. The movement toward stripped back, as you put it, is what makes Orrick’s poetry always a bit awkward. He admitted he felt ambivalent about being considered a poet at all. He was aware that there were some real masters around him and he may have been a bit too sentimental and not keen to let go of rhyme. I think Time of Our Lives is a nearly untapped reference, and I think Hama’s idea of using Blue Undershirts to compare to The Red Wheel Barrow is a strong idea. I’m assuming you can access my email. If you want the paper about Blue Under-Shirts On a Line, you can send an email. Your efforts are appreciated.


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