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:”
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.