It should have been just a throw-away line in Modernist novelist Ernest Hemingway’s first novel. A character describes how he went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”
That line, or the concept of it: gradually, then all at once, has persisted because it encapsulates something that occurs more broadly than the accumulation of debt obligations. Economics, politics, artistic movements all work socially in ways that may be tied to some very deep concepts, deeper than mere humanity.
Earlier this winter I presented William Butler Yeats “The Stare’s Nest at my Window.” It’s Yeats musing on his country, which had so recently achieved colonial independence and yet had then fallen so soon into sectarian civil war. The “stare” is an archaic word for the common starling, and despite its presence in the title, this bird doesn’t really appear in the poem. Instead, Yeats’ poem is asking for honeybees, rather than starlings, to build in the nesting cracks in the deteriorating masonry of his home.
In talking about how I experienced the poem, I felt that Yeats may have been speaking to an understanding of starlings as a harmful, invasive species. European starlings are obnoxious, capable of displacing other birds, and they are artless, bereft of any sort of lovely birdsong or plumage. Their large flocks can damage crops, eating grain, fruit, young plants, and even the very seeds before the crops have become anything. Honeybees, as I read Yeats’ wish, are some better, more directly constructive creatures.
When a country is in turmoil, acting against its own as well as humanity’s best interests, doesn’t it seem as if such is evidence of base and selfish forces that are natural and therefore incapable of change? Evil, greed, and self-dealing seem ingrained, the result of some gradual deteriorating evolution toward greater and greater failures of heart and mind.
As it turns out, starlings, those deplorable birds, do have something marvelous that they can do. In flight, flying near to each other so as to seem to be grains in a sand painting or facets in a mosaic, by the hundreds and by the thousands, they can shift and change direction in such an amazing way—gradually, then suddenly.
Though this video has some cutesy elements, it’s one I could find that both shows the murmuration behavior and a theory of its mechanism.
These birds, certainly those individual birds in the flock, cannot know that this is beautiful, yet they do it anyway. Human observers may think they have seen a miracle, a sign of the divine, or at least some unprecedented event—but what they have really seen is just as ingrained in nature: a physics of change and of glorious new shapes.
In a comment on “The Stare’s Nest at My Window,” alternative voice here at the Parlando Project Dave Moore remembered that he too had done a starling piece, so we’re overdue to present it to you today. His song is called “Murmuration,” and it’s about this startling flight behavior of starlings. You can hear it performed by the LYL Band with the player below.
Continuing on with lyric poetry, that short form of compressed immediacy, here’s a poem that seems to be better known in Britain that it is here: Frances Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train” first published in 1910.
I think it illustrates one of the things about good lyric poetry of the Imagist* type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true. Almost immediately this poem was recognized as “wrong” by many (most?) readers. It could, and was, easily seen as unfeeling, or an expression of cruelty to the extent it has implied feeling. How the hell does the poet on the train know anything about that fat white lady in gloves? Early responses seemed to dislike the compression they read as glibness; more current readers see haughty fat-shaming.
Good lyric poetry of the Imagist type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true.
I haven’t found anywhere where Cornford wrote about her intent with this poem. Given that she lived a long life and this poem became her best-known one, she must have said or written something, but lacking that I’m left to react to the text itself.
The objectionable is the poem’s third line. If the poem did not include it, I doubt any significant number of readers would dislike the poem. Let’s look again at that line: “O fat white woman whom nobody loves.”
If that was a social media post today, one can see the storm breaking rapidly. It sounds like it’s “kicking down” doesn’t it? Our graceless current President could easily tweet this line at someone who disapproved or challenged him, and regardless of one’s political stance, his demeaning meaning would be clear. But even in this short poem that stands alone with no testimony from its author, context may change how we read it.
What’s changed since 1910? “Fat” stands in a strange place in our culture currently. There are elements that regard it as somewhere between a sinful sign and a regrettable disease, but also strong elements that wish to make fat-shaming disreputable. Our general agreement, best as I can read it, is to allow “fat,” like curse words, as something we allow or forgive when we feel the subject it’s applied to has wronged us sufficiently, but not something we should throw around willy-nilly, particularly at strangers. But how damning and diminishing was “fat” in 1910?
Much less I think. First off, let’s look at the U.S. President in that year. A crude reading of the culture for sure, but William Howard Taft was, well, fat, and yet today few politicians are.** Female beauty standards too were curvier (though this was soon to change). Fat was, to the level of unexceptional cliché, associated then with wealth, and therefore wealth’s courtier, power. This once unquestioned association with wealth and power is partly responsible for how the fat person was treated comically, even later in the century. The lean, skinny person was the scrappy underdog, the fat person the one who ran things. Stan Laurel was put upon by the more officious Hardy. The Marxist critique of Margaret Dumont was to tear down the well-fed power structure of white women in gloves.
Moving on in Cornford’s problematic line: “white” is if anything more striking in its frank appearance in this short poem. Here I’m even more unsure of Cornford’s context and intent. “White” as a term for those not considered a person of color existed in 1910 certainly, and that’s how most of us will read Cornford’s line today. But a consciousness, without the context of other non-white people in the frame, of a white person calling out someone as “white” strikes me as so unusual in 1910*** that I wonder if we’re misreading her intent. Does she mean that she’s dressed in white? If she means, to us as we may experience the poem now, “a member of the favored and privileged racial caste,” we should take that into consideration regarding the effect of the poem more than most readers seem to. If she means “dressed in white,” which I think is more likely in the poem’s context, then she’s extending the “gloves” image as observing someone she imagines is not in touch with the earth. It’s probably taking too large a deterministic leap to think that she’s meaning to reference suffragettes with a singular woman in white. It’s a slightly lesser leap to consider dressed in white as a wedding gown undertone.****
And yes, let’s not miss the third word in this compound epithet: “woman.” Given that the author is a woman, and we presume the train-riding speaker of the poem looking out the window is a woman, we may have something like a peer to peer relationship between the observed subject and the observer.
In the few Frances Cornford poems I’ve read so far, there’s considerable female empathy exhibited. Why are we sure that the woman in the train is disgusted with or condemning the other woman? Does she feel superior or knowing in some way in the lyric moment (regardless if she’s right or wrong) that the white woman is missing something (love, an experience of nature)? Yes, I can see that. Is it a haughty superiority? I think that leans too much on the dismissive way we read “fat” and even “white.” As I read this poem over, I visualize looking out a train window, and the sense that comes to me is that one sees the woman outside through one’s own reflection in the glass we are looking through. I think, in the lyric moment, Cornford is imagining (and letting us know that it’s only that, imagining) a difference and a risk for herself, and for that other woman.
Dialectic: Frances Cornford at work. Frances Cornford without gloves.
There’s another mystery in the poem that I can’t decode completely: the gloves that refrain along with the absent loves. One reader jocularly suggested that the woman is hurrying on her way to a cricket match, and she’s wearing gloves because she’s a wicket keeper. Some, I think seriously, see gardening gloves. Others, formal-wear gloves. This is part of what I like about this poem: it’s plain-spoken, allusive, and elusive. That’s a hard combination to pull off. Along with its excellent musicality, that may be why it’s so well remembered in Britain—even by folks who are sure they dislike it.
Like Marlowe’s shepherd, this is a poem that calls out for an “answer record,” and humorist G. K. Chesterton’s retort “The Fat Lady Answers” is the most famous of several. I stand more with Cornford’s lyric than Chesterton’s busted triolet, but his point is worth remembering as we consider “other people’s stories.” And so I performed the two together today. At the time I recorded this performance I decided to read the female poet’s poem in a male voice and suggest a woman’s voice in the male Chesterton’s response. I was still buying into Chesterton’s objection more than I am now after living with the poem a bit longer.
Anyway, Cornford’s triolet is so damn catchy that I wanted to keep it to the hook today—mostly drums and bass for the music—but I added a little of my naïve electric piano working off an odd inverted-voicing CMaj13 chord. One of my shortest audio pieces gets this long post. Go figure.
*AFAIK, no one considers Cornford an Imagist, and this poem was written and published before other pioneering Imagist train poems like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” or Sandburg’s “Limited.” But in its straightforward immediate language, specific color imagery, compression, and avoidance of sentimental emotional language, it follows the intent of those later free-verse Imagist poems.
**King Edward the VII doesn’t look svelte either, nor Queen Victoria in her later years. Of course, “Who made you king of the Britons?” and all that, but this still speaks to how excess weight was viewed in 1910 as representative of wealth and power.
***I don’t know much about Cornford’s political and social beliefs. She had one son who was a dedicated Marxist of the Karl branch, but what she thought herself about racial questions, I don’t know.
****If it was explicitly a wedding gown, it’d be a different poem, but you can re-read or relisten to the poem and imagine that at your own option. Another possibility would be that the woman is white because she’s a ghost. Again, overdetermining the poem. I’d still like to know what Cornford’s intent was, but even if it was a bit of light verse that got away from her, one of the joys of lyric poetry is that undercurrents can be waiting for the next time you read, hear, speak, or perform it.
Here’s a follow-up note on another alternative reading of this poem. In the time since I wrote this post I sometimes wonder if the woman in white we ostensibly see through the train window is actually the poet, Cornford, looking at her own reflection in the glass which would then seem to be sweeping through the countryside. In photos I’ve seen, Cornford appears quite thin, and even given cultural differences in body image that I talk about above, I wonder (with no evidence) if Cornford may have suffered from anorexia.