There used to be a thing, back in the Seventies when “The Sixties” were being established as a retrospective era: “The Beatles or The Stones?” The idea was that this choice, which was supposed to be somehow exclusive, was an “opener,” a what’s your (astrological) sign query that would tell the questioner who you were—or at the least start a conversation.*
Among the smallish subset of 20th century young people who liked poetry in English and were inclined to the Romantic revolution launched by Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of the 19th century, one could play a similar game: “Byron, Keats, or Shelley?”
Sarcastic Byron “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was the bad boy. Shelley was the beautiful intellectual, the man whose genetic material you wanted to incorporate. And Keats was the misunderstood outsider, the garageman’s son who presumed words alone could elevate him.
English Romantic poetry’s boy band—choose your poster.
I was easily a Keats man in this forced choice. I’m not sure, but I think Parlando alternate voice and keyboardist Dave Moore was a Byron guy back then. Early supporter of this blog, Daze and Weekes, Shelley. There are no wrong choices there, and when it comes down to it, no necessarily exclusive choices there either.
Keats hasn’t played a lot here in the Parlando Project. I’ve expanded my interests much since my teenaged years, and I guess the English Romantics have fallen back into the pack of poetic schools as I moved on to other things. Coincidence can bring Keats back though.
Unheard music will Not Fade Away! John Keats and his “Chirping” Crickets.
Last weekend I hesitantly went to the newly reopened Minneapolis Institute of the Arts with my family. It was my wife’s idea, a way she hoped would be fairly safe in these Covid-19 times and still get us out of the house. She wanted to see a special exhibit on the immigrant experience. I thought I’d like to review their Chinese section.**
I may well write about the immigrant exhibit later, but the reason I wanted to do a bit of a wander in the Chinese wing was from my recent presentations of 8th century Tang dynasty poets here: Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Bai. As it turns out the holdings are a bit lacking in artifacts from that time. While this was a golden age for classical Chinese culture, that might not have carried over to the tastes or availabilities of objects to Western collectors.
But as I wandered the hall, I noticed something that had persisted in Chinese culture for centuries that I hadn’t encountered before. Beside a large, lacquered Chinese string instrument (the size of a pedal-steel guitar), there was a note that Chinese interest in music extended to modifying pet crickets vibrating wing edges with metallic powders and resins to increase the qualities of the cricket’s song. That grabbed this music-nerd’s interest! I started to examine other displays: there were cages and holders for pet crickets, tiny dishes in cricket-scale to feed them, and in one, two tiny wands, like fine detail paint brushes, only finer, the brush a single small hair. These, the note told us, were cricket ticklers designed to encourage the insects to start their music.***
Beatles or Stones? Qin, songbirds, or crickets? The sort of things that a Chinese scholar might have in China during the time of Keats.
I’d already been looking at Emma Lazarus’ summer sounds poem before this trip, with its pairing of cricket-chirp with far-off children’s laughter. And then I found this slight little sonnet by John Keats, another one with crickets. My favorite short Keats poem, “In the Drear-Nighted December” is a fine quasi-Buddhist meditation on suffering depicted as an appreciation of a frozen winter water-run. This one, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” doesn’t strike my heart as strongly, but it’s still charming in comparing warm days and winter. This one has almost a Midwestern tang to it. I could see James Whitcomb Riley or Paul Laurence Dunbar writing it. The humble man in nature noting the grasshopper’s**** song even in the hottest summer days, and the comparison of the like sound of a housebound cricket chirping behind a wood stove in darkest winter.
The player gadget to hear my performance of John Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” is below.
*Don’t ask a music-nerd like me this question. Yes, I understand the points it’s attempting to weigh, but I won’t be able to resist spilling out mini-improvised essays on The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, The Kinks and so on, and then I’ll interrogate the now exhausted and bored questioner about how these exotic British acts are viewed as “saving” us from Bobby Rydell et al, when Afro-American jazz and R&B artists—right on the other side of town in a lot of cases here in the U.S. —were doing vital work then that inspired these Brits. You can see I’m no fun at parties now, can’t you.
**Like some American museums that date from the late 19th century, Asian art was a significant part of the MiA collection. A significant number of wealthy collectors then were interested in the “exotic east.”
***There’s more I learned. Besides keeping them as pets and enjoying their music, cricket fights were a broad Chinese cultural thing as well, and because a full-formed cricket’s life span is but a few months even without visits to the Disabled List, an entire industry rose up in the capture of crickets for song and sport, with a hunting season in August and September gathering the most from the wild.
****Despite their somewhat similar appearance and sounds, the cricket makes its spiccato with its wing-edges, the grasshopper with its legs. I plucked a 12-string guitar and had double-basses provide some heavy late-summer air for this piece, but probably the most cricket-like sounds in the recording are from a marimba. The old saw says that if you take the number of cricket chirps in a quarter-hour and add 40 to it you’ll get the temperature in Fahrenheit. If so, this is a fairly cool bpm cricket.
Some poets, like some musicians, suffer from the “one hit wonder” syndrome, and Emma Lazarus is surely one of them. Lazarus is forever tied to a sonnet “The New Colossus,” the one that includes the line “Give me your tired, your poor…” which has not only been made part of The Statue of Liberty, but has become an unofficial idealized civic document of America’s relationship to immigrants and refugees.
Which might make you think that Lazarus’ family was part of that great American immigration wave of the 19th and early 20th century. Not so. Her family were 17th century immigrants to New York State, via a bank shot from Portugal to Brazil, as Jewish heritage peoples fleeing the aftermath of the Inquisition.
That someone had to have written this well-known poem is self-evident, but it hasn’t really made Lazarus’s work beyond “The New Colossus” subject to much study or readership.* Today’s piece “Long Island Sound,” another sonnet by Lazarus, has been passed around on blogs and poetry sites a bit though, so let’s see what we have. Here’s a link to the full text of “Long Island Sound” if you’d like to read along.
It’s a nature poem, a somewhat ecstatic one without resort to explicit words labeling emotion. I note one or two darker notes in the catalog of images of an August day that add shade to this summer ease: a “grave sky” appears here, and unless that’s a foreshortened “engraved” for meter’s sake, a summer storm may be forthcoming. The imagery raises to a superior level at times for me. The far-off sail “white as a crescent moon” is good, the tide’s sound on sand rendered as a “lisp” and the children linked with crickets is even better, and the “clouds fantastical as sleep” sticks with me even after several readings. Did Lazarus intend the pun on the word “sound?” I hope so.
I also like the ending. As I’ve learned, Lazarus’ family was well-off, but the persona in the poem is not specifically of any class or wealth. I can recall a summer working at a small factory in Mamaroneck, and a weekend afternoon watching a friend of a friend’s father sail his one-man boat out in the lower part of the Long Island Sound while we on the shore had the free talk and association of those without money for much of anything else. This poem’s Winslow Homer-ish landscape requires only the poet’s ownership of attention to claim it.
Since this is a painting by Winslow Homer, you won’t be able to hear the water lisping on the sand or crickets chirping amid the sound of distant children.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Emma Lazarus’ “Long Island Sound” is below. A short and jaunty one today.
*No worse than any other 19th century American woman poet who isn’t Emily Dickinson I guess. Lazarus is not the poetic innovator that Dickinson was, but she shares a few traits with Dickinson: her family was well-off, allowing her some privileged resources, she never married, she was something of a follower and admirer of Emerson (for at least awhile), and like Dickinson she knew Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
What if you were to find out that a famous, much-loved poem was not a singleton, but that it was instead part of a pair?
“The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter” is perhaps the most famous Chinese poem in English, and it’s been widely anthologized since Ezra Pound published it in his 1915 collection of translations Cathay. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a lovely piece of free verse, and though it holds to the Modernist style of showing not telling its sentiments, most readers can easily divine the emotions of the young wife displayed in the poem, separated and longing for her partner.
Be patient with me, reader. I feel I must deal with a few peripheral issues with this poem, which I too admire, for as close as it is to many of its readers’ hearts, there are a few issues. While it’s reasonably frank in its Imagist way about a woman’s desire, one could look at it as an endorsement of patriarchal marriage, rather than a portrayal of two people at a particular moment of time.* One could conclude that the woman’s agency in the poem is limited to the feelings her tale evokes in us.
If you, like I’m sure some readers here and elsewhere are, seeking art as a break from social issues, there is also a literary issue, one of the nature of translation. I would discuss even more things I happen to think about when I consider this famous poem, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just speak to the translation controversy.
Pound wasn’t a Chinese scholar, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have any knowledge in depth about the history or culture of that vast country. What he was instead was a poet who had what musicians call, and I’ll repeat with punning intent, “great chops.” Particularly at the time literary Modernism was getting underway in the early 20th century, he had a sense of how to pare things back, to express something vital minus a lot of useless extra baggage. Pound likely recognized a kindred spirit in Li Bai,** the 8th century Chinese poet, and so thought it all right to speak for him in English.*** The poem he produced from Li Bai’s work is a loose translation, missing nuance that more informed scholars find in the original. There have been other attempts at better, or at least more accurate translations. None have produced as widely an effective poem.
But it was in looking at that this past week, while trying to better understand Li Bai’s work and intents, that I had a remarkable discovery. It was probably around midnight, when I should have been sleeping, reading a .PDF scan of a 1922 book of Li Bai translations by Shigeyoshi Obata.**** His translation of the poem Pound made famous is rendered as “Two Letters from Chang-Kan,” the first of which is Obata’s rendering of “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter.” But, But But—what! There’s another letter! Did Li Bai intend this to be from another persona, another river merchant’s wife, or is it a second letter written by the same character? Either could make sense. The situation is the same, absent traveling merchant partner, young wife left at home. The speaker’s mood has similarities to the well-known poem too, but there are differences. In my reading of more Li Bai poetry this month I’ve come to believe that he works in subtle associations, subtle parallels, implied metaphors not necessarily made into explicit similes.
Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Li Bai considers the abyss, Ezra Pound looking like he’s ready to write yet another crank letter to the editor
In this poem, the speaker is a bit more angry with the situation and more wary. She’s not fallen out of love, no, but her expressions seem to mix frank longing for her missing partner, with suspicion that it might not be mutual. Was Li Bai contrasting two women, or expressing that the human heart can hold all those emotions at once?
I’m indebted to Obata for making this Li Bai poem known, and since I know of no other translations, I based my version I use today on his English language one—though I, like Pound but having only my own talents—took liberties. I wanted to tell a story that worked as a song, one that would pull the listener in and bring forward in both the text and performance the wider meaning of what is said by the river merchant’s wife in this purported letter. So, my version has a stronger if not strict meter, occasional rhymes, and I try to emphasize those parallels that serve as images that I think are part of Li Bai’s poetic sense-making. Parallelism, refrains, rhymes—these are all musical tactics that can work to bring some things to the foreground that were undercurrents in Obata’s version of Li Bai.
My performance of what I call “The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter” is available with the player gadget below. As this is already a long and much-delayed post, I’m not including texts yet for this, but I hope the performance will work in its way.
*I’m sure some have written critiques on this basis, because there is matter there for this, including that the wife is a teenager (though the poem indicates the husband is roughly the same age.) I wonder if anyone has written that the husband’s absence is based on the needs of commerce, asking if this is a veiled attack on capitalism or a cultured acceptance of it?
**Li Bai is the now preferred way to write the poet’s name in western characters. Many works of Pound’s time use a different scheme to render the same poet’s name as Li Po. There are more variations too. Same guy. Confusing.
***Yes, one of the things I could talk about, instead of getting on to the pleasure of the resulting poetry, would be the cultural appropriation in that assumption. Big subject, worthy of a longer treatment.
****The Works of Li Po the Chinese poet done into English verse. Obata was of Japanese heritage, but writes he had access to Chinese-speaking friends and other resources while studying at the University of Wisconsin. When he encounters Cathay he realized Pound’s artistry, but also knew how loose Pound’s translations were, and how they missed certain cultural nuances. “I confess that it was Mr. Pound’s little book that exasperated me and at the same time awakened me to the realization of new possibilities so that I began seriously to do translations myself.” Despite reading both Arthur Waley and Pound’s Chinese translations as a young man, I had never heard of Obata, and there is little available in Internet searches to indicate he made any lasting impact—save for one thing: his translations have been used for settings of Li Bai poems by Constant Lambert and Harry Partch, which seems like remarkably rich company to the likes of me.
Before I present today’s audio piece, once more a story, one that has kept me up reading and thinking about it for the past week. Like many of the stories I’ll tell here, the events may seem at first to be far off and unrelated to you, as much a “who cares” as poetry is to many people. But the story behind the poem affected me, now, in our current age, just as poetry written long before I was born might.
In 1878, a man was born in Germany named Erich Mühsam. When he reached the proper age he was sent off to a fine boarding school where young Mühsam recognized two things: he didn’t much care for the school’s rigorous discipline (“corporal punishment,” the polite word for instructional beatings, was the order of the day) and that he wanted to become a writer, a poet. So, the teenaged Erich wrote an article for the local Socialist newspaper about the school’s abuses. For good or bad, that was his ticket out of there. He was expelled.
As the new 20th century began he returned to his home city of Berlin and fell in with some young folks who were running what in my day would have been called a commune: “Neue Gemeinschaft” (New Society). It’s there that Mühsam met Gustav Landauer, who though only eight years older, became a sort of guru to the young Mühsam. Landauer was a theorist, a charismatic one at that, for a type of Anarchism that believed that the most effective direct action was to begin living the theory rather than seeking (and likely waiting) for some revolution to give Anarchists that opportunity. He encouraged Mühsam to develop as a poet, and poetry was part of Landauer’s world-view. Landauer’s wife was also a poet and a German translator of works of Wilde, Poe, Rabindranath Tagore, and Walt Whitman.
Mühsam absorbed much from Landauer, and you can see that in the text for today’s piece, a poem Mühsam wrote in 1909—but Mühsam was a more active revolutionary, though much of it was through literary efforts: poetry, plays, cabaret works, essays, and editorship of his own anarcho-communist journal Kain. The Left in this period was (as it often is) splintered—sometimes most sure that those with beliefs most adjacent to a segment’s own were as dangerous to the cause as overt opponents. Mühsam was non-violent but open to alliances with those that weren’t. Landauer and Mühsam sometimes found themselves on opposing sides, but their relationship was never severed. Landauer was accused of being to professorial and uninvolved in active struggle. Mühsam was thought by some as too provocative. *
Mühsam, Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber. How does that last guy fit in? Read on. Is it just me or does Mühsam have a little Marc Maron thing going on?
How many of you find this Anarchist theology boring? Well, here comes WWI. Boring also to some, but also deadly and existential.
The war stifled critics of the Imperial German government, at least at first. Even the activist Mühsam had a hot take where defending his country and citizens seemed an imperative.** Write anything critical of the government and you might be arrested and jailed. Support strikes by war-workers? Go directly to jail. So, eventually Mühsam was jailed.
By late 1918 the dam broke. Beside the mountains of deaths on all sides, unimaginable before this first full-scale mass-production European war, Germany was losing, and no amount of government propaganda could convince many that this was not so. Sacrifice for winning can be cast as heroic. Sacrifice for losing is a harder sell.
And if you were waiting for it, here it comes: revolution!
In November 1918 the Kaiser abdicates as WWI ends. In the Bavarian regional capitol, Munich, the Independent Socialist Party declared the “People’s State of Bavaria.” A guy named Kurt Eisner was named its President. Seeking alliances with others on the left, Mühsam and Landauer are offered positions in the new government. They don’t take them up on this, but during this time the two old friends are now in Munich.
Eisner’s Socialists were democratic, republican (small case, they believed in elections). In the midst of this chaos, with even basic social functions in turmoil and the new Socialist alliance unable to prove any of its theories, they held elections in January 1919. They lost. Eisner went to parliament to present his resignation, true to his beliefs. An assassin shot and killed him on the street before he arrived. Now a new government is proclaimed “The Bavarian Soviet Republic.”*** And now Mühsam and Landauer join up.
Ah, so now the story of sleek agitators and thoroughbred theorists pressed into harness as government draft-horse functionaries? If only my story could stay so boring. This government lasted six days. I’ve had left-over pizza that lasted longer than that! And Wikipedia says that during this less than a week time a “mentally ill Foreign Affairs deputy” declared war on Switzerland. How could they go up against all those multifunction knives and prevail? Oh! Such comedy, dark as it is!
Trust that dark. That’s where we’re going.
Now yet another government is declared in Munich, this time led by Communists and a guy that his contemporaries said “Wanted to be Lenin. He thought he was Lenin!” Mühsam is arrested by this new government and thrown back in jail. Given that he was so provocative, one doesn’t have to imagine him stretching his talents far to piss them off. Lucky him. The more mild-mannered Landauer has suffered in this winter the death of his talented literary wife (a victim of the 1918-19 flu pandemic) and the dashing of his hopes for wider realization of his theories. He sticks around, out of power. Is he frozen by grief that winter? Spring comes. There’s a revolution one can count on…
…but not just flowers are coming. The Freikorps, a right-wing militia, goes into Munich to put down the revolution. This they do, hundreds die. Who can tell Landauer’s mind, but Landauer had refused advice to leave in that spring. He’s rounded up, imprisoned. The day after May Day, the guards take him to a room. They beat and abuse him. They shoot him. They beat him some more. They shoot him again, finally killing him, and toss him into a common grave.
Mühsam escaped this because he had been imprisoned by the last revolutionary government. But in the aftermath, he’s still a notorious revolutionary, so he’s put in a new prison as an enemy of the new central German Republic government.
While he’s imprisoned, in 1920, a collection of his poems titled Brennende Erde(Burning Earth) is published, and this month I got a pdf scan copy and did a rough machine translation in order to peruse it. Why did I go looking for this obscure collection? I’d read a passing reference to him as a poet and activist, and something drew me to look, in this time when I’m questioning the arts and poetry and the seeming necessity of activism that I feel unequipped to take on.
I did a more careful, human, translation of the first poem in that collection, “Zum Beginn “ (“At the Beginning.”) It carries a subheading there telling that “At the Beginning” was first published in Gustav Landauer’s magazine, and given the importance of Landauer to Mühsam and the short interval between the publication date for the collection and Landauer’s death, it’s easy to read it as a comment on what Mühsam learned from his teacher. Here’s my English translation, the one I perform today:
Can one read things in it that seem to speak to today? I believe one can. I wonder if whoever was putting together the collection before publication thought it spoke to 1919 too. That line written in 1909: “Plague air hangs over the world” could be read in 1919 as a comment on the great influenza pandemic, not as a mere metaphor, just as you might read it now in Covid-19 times. The closing litany of people awakening to the power of realization, that too could be more than a dusty relic as folks marched this summer under a growing common understanding of oppression and “nets tightly wrapped around the forehead…until it can’t breathe.”
So, what happened to this young poet who turned activist/poet? In 1924 there was an amnesty declared for political prisoners and he was released. Lucky him! Another lucky man released by that amnesty had tried to declare a new government from Munich too, this time in 1923: a painter turned activist named Adolph Hitler. You probably haven’t heard much of his paintings.
Just as his 1909 poem foretold, Mühsam arrived by train in Berlin after release from prison and was met by a crowd of admirers, cheering and lifting him onto their shoulders. Someone thought things got out of hand, and soon the edges of the crowd were being attacked and beaten, though Mühsam was carried to safety that day. More than a decade after he wrote his poem, those with the fists still had the power—or some of it.
Mühsam took part in the artistic and political ferment in Berlin for almost ten years. Shortly after that pardoned painter/activist succeeded in getting power in Germany, someone burnt down the Reichstag, and it was time to round up those that had ticked off Hitler and his supporters. Mühsam was one of the first taken in. You know the quote attributed to the conservative German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller? The one that starts “First they came for…?” Jews, Gays, Leftists, avant garde artists? Was there any group Mühsam didn’t qualify for? Lucky man, head of the line.
He was sent to a concentration camp. There he was beaten and abused. In short order he was taken into a room and abused and beaten until he was dead. The guards hung his body and said he committed suicide.
There are martyrs we remember and martyrs we forget. Phil Ochs wrote a song “Too Many Martyrs” and we might slag him off for stating the obvious rather than the artful—but the obvious is likely the truth here. At least in the United States we have next to no remembrance of Mühsam or Landauer. As far as I can tell from a brief search, Mühsam’s poetry has not attracted interest from English translators, with one site that did feature some English translations (and tantalizingly, some set to music) now defunct—and the domain name takes you to a place with bogus antivirus pop-ups flashing all over your screen. Both do have some interest to Anarchists as political figures. That’s a bit odd. Isn’t one of the romantic knocks against artists turning activists: ars longa, (and their political concerns), vita brevis? Countering that is what I call Donald Hall’s Law: that poet’s statement that almost all poets, even prize-winning poets, are largely unread 20 years after their death. I fight that here, but Hall may be right.
History had a few more things to offer me as I read this sad and affecting tale of these two men.
Mühsam wasn’t the only one who had their life impacted by Landauer and his idea of practicing egalitarian Anarchism right now in a communal and immediate relationship. His most famous pupil was probably Martin Buber, whose influence on humanism in the mid-20th century was considerable.
Remember Landauer and his wife, and his belief in the monad of domestic life as a model for change? Well that talented writer and translator and that theorist of humanist Anarchism had a child. And that child, Brigitte, survived her parents and married a doctor in Berlin. In 1931 they had a child, Mikhail—and later that decade they got out of Dodge before the painter/activist/ Führer got around to those not first on every part of his list.
They settled in America and adopted an easier to spell-and-say name, so their grade-school-aged son Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky became Mike Nichols. He became a radio folk-music DJ, an influential pioneer in popularizing improv comedy with Elaine May, and then on to a significant career as a stage and movie director.
Strange, the undernotes of history. I’ll likely never listen to a Nichols and May routine or watch a Nichols-directed movie like The Graduate again without thinking of that grandfather, that heartbroken, widowed man being abused to death after watching the revolution, one he didn’t want to wait for, fail. I’ll still laugh. The laughs are just darker.
Today’s music is more in the “bash it out fast” manner, no pretty string quartets, no subtle sound design, just two electric guitars, bass, drums and my effort to speak the words. The player gadget is below if you read this in a browser. Apple WordPress Reader users, use the Reader’s gadget to open this in Safari to see the player.
*Among Mühsam’s early 20th century beliefs were “free love” and gay rights/acceptance. The communard Landauer believed that a loving and equalitarian family unit was a small-scale model for society.
**He took that back, and wrote anti-violence and war poetry during the war. Can one imagine Twitter in 1914? The telegraph lines would have melted.
***OK, if you stayed with me so far, with “Socialist” and “Communist” being thrown around in addition to the “aren’t they the guys who throw little black round bombs” “Anarchists,” “Soviet” might be the final straw that chokes your metaphoric dolphin or turtle or other benevolent creature. “Soviet” means in this context, a worker’s council as a source of authority. As far as Anarchists were concerned, that’s a good thing. Anarchists are often against violence, and particularly state violence, torture, and oppression—but they are very much for long boring meetings, which have a special dispensation from being defined as torture or oppression.
Stick with me here valued audience. I know awards speeches are not a popular genre. First off, everyone watching has just lost except for the speaker—not just the tuxedos in the hall, but anyone watching at home who aren’t important enough to be invited to the event. So maybe it’s safest to thank others effusively until your time is up and the music plays you off. A choice to make other points can be ineffective.
The Nobel Prize award requests an acceptance “lecture,” which sounds more high-falutin and boring than an acceptance speech. The literature winners often take the bait and tell us something about the value of their art—but it just so happens that I’m listening for that right now, because I’m not sure about the value of the arts of poetry or music, the things this project is made of, in the midst of this year’s multiple crises: a pandemic, an economic downturn that I fear we haven’t sounded the bottom of, a king of misrule, and a tragic occasion to consider remedies to racial oppression. When I talked about these things this week with friends, they reminded me, “And we haven’t even talked about global warming lately.”
The first section of today’s piece is taken from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Even a couple of decades later his statement was much loved in liberal arts departments as I was getting in touch with them in “The Sixties,” because we still hadn’t gotten over the fear we talk even less about: global atomic warfare destruction. Faulkner was a wordsmith to reckon with, even if he couldn’t figure out the plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.* When I looked back at his speech this month, the line I open up with today grabbed me in 2020 as much or more than it would have back in the mid-20th century:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”
Don’t misread the end of that sentence. He is saying we can bear that fear (his contemporary fears, and ours) and go on writing. One may raise their hand before the Nobel-Dynamite-Prize winner Faulkner and ask: “Well, yes I suppose we could. But shouldn’t we be doing something else instead? A lot of people’s survival is at stake.”
The next section I quote from Faulkner’s speech tries to answer that. It’s a fine piece of writing too. If one abstracts the thought from the rhetoric, he’s saying that we have jobs in relationship to those that will be doing something else instead. This is akin to Viola Davis’ argument about art: no position paper, resolution, or negotiating point can fully connect one heart with another, and no struggle can see its way without full illumination of the human experience.
Is Faulkner right about that? I don’t know. It may not be right for you, but it’s a plausible idea for an old man like myself, one who lacks the social cohesion to build a barricade and the bravery to mount and advance over it.
An example of writers not being much good at other jobs, Faulkner was bad when given a job as a postmaster. His resignation letter read: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The Postal Service had its revenge in 1987. Faulkner’s price had risen by 20 cents.
The concluding statement in today’s piece is from another American Nobel Literature prize winner’s “lecture,” Bob Dylan’s. The inspiration for this came from a gift Dave Moore gave me this month, a small, handsome book containing Dylan’s lecture. When Dylan won the Literature prize there was a great deal of consternation that what he did wasn’t literature, possibly also not very good, but for sure not literature. Some commentators seemed to feel that poetry might not even qualify, wondering what novels he had written.** But never mind, song lyrics can’t be poetry can they?
In the concluding part of his speech Dylan cleverly concedes that point, and then collapses his wings around those objecting that performed oral poetry is not literature. That’s books, stuff written and read on paper. Suddenly they are surrounded with no retreat. Shakespeare*** wrote for voices and audiences in common. We only know his plays in page form from bootleg tapers. Songs, music, are like that too. They are alive, they live on the currents of breath. Literature is an artifact—a voice is the art, a song is the immediate fact of an experience. I, you, anyone, can doubt art in its absence, in silence—while fear likes that space just fine. But while a song is sounding in your breath and ear, doubt is beside the point. “Songs are alive in the land of the living” Dylan proclaims.
*A Hollywood anecdote had Faulkner, who was working as screenwriter for hire in the 1940s, getting stumped about the famously convoluted plot of Chandler’s detective novel he was adapting for a classic 1946 movie. A point about an early murder that deepens the plot was unclear. “Yes, but who killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur?” he queried. Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know either.”
**I found it interesting that novelist Faulkner more than once refers to poets as he speaks about the writer’s task in his speech.
***And Dylan closes with Homer, the blind one in the silence of sight, who didn’t ask the muses for paper but the music to tell the story.
Before we get to this gorgeous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, let me talk a bit about what I believe regarding our experience of poetry. One of the reasons this project presents the (mostly) poems it uses as audio pieces is that I have a conviction that poetry has a word-music, a sound that is inherent and relevant to the form.
That doesn’t mean that poetry has to sound pretty in some immediate way, have regular meters, rhyme up, or even have some sense of “singing” imbedded in the authors intent. None of those things harm poetry in and of themselves, but all of them are just techniques of word-music, in the same way that the “rules” of music are discovered on a form that expresses itself in a variety of ways which may be successful with varied audiences.
Nor does it mean that poetry on the page isn’t a useful alternative way to experience poetry. Particularly complex poems, with subtle relationships, may more easily impress themselves when they can be comprehended in a non-linear way on the page where one may look up and down the stanzas and see relationships or indications of linkage. On the other hand, some complex and hermetic poems, or poems that use language in ways that are not in the form of ordinary literature, may be best experienced as we often experience songs or memorized verse (like nursery rhymes, folk sayings, or mnemonics) in a way where we encounter them more than once, in a portable form that we can hear in the background of other events and situations. Our memories as a playlist.
And now we return to Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem “Inversnaid” after that preface. Is there subtle thought in it? Yes, there may be. One could write an essay on deep ecology based on it. I suppose it could be a metaphor for Hopkins theology and philosophy, of which I know enough only to say that he was self-aware and concerned in those areas. Essays could be written, perhaps whole books inspired, though because it’s a short poem, it’s possible that one can carry “Inversnaid” in a way that neither and essay or book can be.
But I’m not there yet with “Inversnaid,” and I’m only the near-partway into my journey with Hopkins. No, what this poem is for me yet is: beautiful, sonorous, passionate, intense—it affects me. Frankly, I see only a bit of its matter, a little more each time. It shows the way that poetry, while it can contain ideas certainly, isn’t about ideas so much as it’s about the experience of ideas.
Another remarkable thing about Hopkins: like his near contemporary Emily Dickinson, he wrote his poems largely without thought of publication, and the extent of his work was unknown until a 1918 collection was published after his death.
Though Hopkins was a 19th century poet, a Victorian by calendar, and “Inversnaid” is end-rhymed and follows Hopkins own appreciation for how English poetic metrics can work (ideas inspired from older Anglo-Saxon poetry) this is in some ways another Imagist poem before it’s time. There’s almost not a single emotional word in the entire poem. “Despair” and “bereft” do occur, but this poem doesn’t seem to be about either of those emotions except in contrast to them. Instead, like a good Imagist poem it’s about the immediate experience of a moment before those emotional words have appeared to frame or fence the experience in.
That Imagist effect is somewhat masked by Hopkins’ obscure language. This is a 12-line poem, not even sonnet length, written by a man whose shortened lifetime overlapped human beings whose lifetimes overlapped mine—yet there are more words than I, something of a language maven, didn’t know than one might find in an 16th century poem or the deepest subculture patois of a rap performance. Only the last quatrain stanza is in what one would call standard contemporary English.
One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. “OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”* I’d be surprised if many American English speakers could define a third of these. Residents of the British Isles might do better, but would they get over half?
We’re in near “Jabberwocky” land here as readers. But we’re not quite as lost as listeners, because like Carroll’s nonsense poem, the sound makes us sense something of the intended meaning without dictionary. And the sound!
One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. ‘OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”
This is really a proof-of-concept example of Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” where unequal metrical feet are subsumed to attention to the set number of stressed syllables or words. And every one of those obscure words add to the sound so strongly as to be forgiven.
My performance of “Inversnaid” should be available with a player gadget below. Full text of the poem if you like to read along is here. Thanks for reading and listening!
*I say this because I think I’d have gotten four as an American English speaker, and only that many with help from my love for old English-Scottish border ballads. Perhaps I should be docked a point though, for in my performance I misread “degged” instead as “dregged,” a word which sort of made sense to me. Some have attempted a glossary for this poem, here’s the best one I’ve found in a quick search.
Here’s a mysterious poem by Carl Sandburg that makes its mystery in an unusual way. I think it may have been written for a child or for children, but by accident or design the matter of the poem makes a different sense as I read it now.
What makes me think it was written with children in mind? There’s the repetition of the idea of spelling these two short, common words in the title, neither of which are “spelling demons” that are difficult for adults to spell. And then further repetition in saying the two words “Good Night.” It seems something between a lullaby or a book like Goodnight Moon, beloved of parents seeking to ease their child to sleep. The middle of the poem has three episodes of things gloriously becoming gone and away, as if being left for sleep and dreams.
This is where the poem now seems to take on a layer that I’m unsure was part of Sandburg’s intent in 1920 as I read it in 2020. He starts with fireworks—which are firing all about me on this Independence Day night as I write this post. Besides the noise—and noise normally has a note-length and measure—a visual aspect which a fireworks display is notable for is its short duration. Those colors and light against a night sky may be stunning, but they are short. They are memories almost from the moment they burst.
And then comes two other short episodes: a steam train and a steam boat. The steam train on a moonlit night is moving of course, but its spume of exhaust is also leaving skyward. Likewise, the river steamboat is moving past a geography leaving the sound of their steam powered horns carrying across the fields they are not as stationary as.
Carl Sandburg. From the size of it, that microphone looks like it could be steam-powered too.
Sandburg the boy would have known those two steam-powered things. A child in 1920 could know them too. They were the ordinary things of freight and travel. In a few decades these steamers would be obsolete and all but extinct. 1920 is a little too early for Sandburg to know that. When he wrote his poem they were moving and gone. Now they are gone and gone. Carl Sandburg is gone too of course. And if he told this poem to his children? They grew up, aged, and are gone too. Many ways to say good night. Many ways to spell good night. Many ways, all leaving. Oh! the boom! The red and yellow, the blue and gold spreading and tailing! Ah! Many ways, all leaving.
*Unless you’re reading this on the WordPress Reader app on an Apple phone or tablet, which for some reason can’t show the player.In those cases, this highlighted hyperlink will play it.Alternatively, the Parlando Project audio pieces are available as a podcast in Apple podcasts. Thanks for reading and listening!
Claude McKay led an outsiders’ life, Allen Ginsberg became a near celebrity bohemian whose outsider status changed over his life. The author of today’s poem in our Independence Day series was more well-known than Ginsberg in his day, and he was as far from being an outsider as any American poet could be. At one time, as many knew and read his poems as Edgar Guest’s, and he was a much better versifier.
So, do you know today’s poem from the above title, or from the name of the longer work from which it’s excerpted, “The Building of the Ship?” It’s highly unlikely that you would. The American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went from being the stuffy square’s square, the kind of writer that Modernists didn’t want to be, to a forgotten man, the writer that no one remembers even to reject. He was a civic poet, a poet’s role that no longer exists in white America. Along with a handful of other men, most of whom he knew, he sought to create an American poetry in the first half of the 19th century when the American experiment was still new. After all, when he was born in 1817, many who celebrated July 4th were around for the July 4th! And for much of his life Longfellow lived in a house that George Washington had lived in while commanding the American Revolutionary War troops.
George Washington lived here, and later so did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And a child named Darby Vassall. Haven’t heard of that last one? Read on.
In 1855, an elderly man visited that house where he had been born in 1769, meeting with Longfellow there. The man’s name was Darby Vassall, and this was the nature of his birth: he was born to enslaved Afro-Americans owned by the owners of that big house, which made him a slave by law from birth. When the Revolution came, his masters sided with the British, and so after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the owners skedaddled off to safer British-controlled territory. This left the house available for the new Revolutionary Army’s commander, General Washington, as spoils of war. Washington left his short-term smaller quarters and went to the big house to move in.
And here’s the story Darby Vassall liked to tell about meeting The Father of Our Country. There he was, six years old, and the revolution had by accident empirically freed him. He was swinging on the gate of the very house Longfellow now lived in, a time-honored childhood pastime then and now (see also sutures and Colles’ fracture.) General Washington, impressively tall for his time, and like the house’s absent owners, a rich slaveholder who traveled with an enslaved manservant, asked the boy if he would like to work for the new occupant, this man who’d become so honored and famous that people even now buy his portrait for something between 25 cents and a dollar.
Darby kept swinging, sizing up the tall white man, and then asked “How much are you paying?” Darby says Washington kind of lost interest in the conversation at that point—because, you know, slavery. He looked like a gentleman Darby later recounted, but “He was no gentleman.” Now that’s an Independence Day story!
We don’t know all Vassall told Longfellow about the house Longfellow now lived in, but the stories must have been interesting. The best-selling author blew off a meeting with his publisher to hear them all.
Have I forgotten to talk about Longfellow’s poem? No, this is another poem for our July 4th series. It comes at the end of a much longer poem Longfellow published in 1850, one that less than nobody reads today. The entire “The Building of the Ship” is an allegorical story of a venerable ship builder* who with the help of a crew including a younger apprentice builds a ship for a merchant, more magnificent than any the builder has ever built. While building the ship, the apprentice and the master ship builder’s daughter fall in love, and the old master promises that on the day the ship launches his daughter and the apprentice will be wed. After many supple verse lines detailing the construction of this ship,** it’s complete and it launches with a epithalamium in which the new and lovely ship is embraced as a bride by the timeless, older, gray sea.
If the poem ended there it’d remain a curio of interest to scholars today, a romance in a European style adapted with distinctive American details and accomplished in English verse with a difficult rhyming scheme that never grates or seems fake, the sort of thing that is easier to do in French or Italian.*** But Longfellow had an envoi of sorts. The ship, as all man-made things do, would eventually wear out and come to a wrecked end. A downbeat, look-at-oneself-through-the-grave warning that would also not be out of place in romanticism.
This whole poem, along with that ending was sent to the publishers.
Then Longfellow called it back. He had a revision, with an entirely new ending. You can read the old ending and the story of the last-minute revision here. Not only is the new ending upbeat, it seemed to retroactively change the poem that proceeded it. That boat-like-a-bride thing was still there, but the ship was named “The Union,” and in those manifests of the things that made the ship, the entire young country seems to be the source. The Union becomes not just a marital union, it becomes the United States.
Here’s where that civic poet role comes into play. In the dozen years leading up to the Civil War, the delicate balance of slavery’s evil in a democratic country was becoming harder and harder to keep from spilling, the compromises seeking to keep the country in existence more and more difficult to negotiate. Longfellow’s new envoi, the one that I perform today, may seem anodyne if considered as an abstract statement of patriotism, but in 1850 it was a considered second-draft meant to say that ideals of the American experiment should continue, needed to continue, because those ideals, those plans, however imperfectly applied are contagious (in a good non-Covid-19 way). Enough for a small 6-year-old to stand up to Washington for example.
Now if we are to consider inspirational Afro-American patriotism, the best story that is likely not true is that Winston Churchill once quoted in a public speech Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,”a Black man’s valiant ode to self-defense written after the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919, but then applied during the darkest days of Great Britain standing against Nazi-occupied Europe. No one has such a transcript or recording. But there is a recording of Churchill reading a section of the abolitionist**** Longfellow’s envoi during that time in a speech of endurance in 1940.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State” is below. I’ll note that my performance has some flaws that I’m accepting for now in order to get this out in a timely manner, but the spirit is there. Happy 4th of July though it be just one date. May freedom and independence come to all of us. The revolution is plural.
*Though Longfellow lived and wrote much of his work in Cambridge Massachusetts, he was born and educated in Maine, and even at this late hour he probably vies with Stephen King and Edna St. Vincent Millay for the title of most well-known writer from Maine. Maine was a shipbuilding center in the 19th century and so the poems extended allegory of shipmaking was local color to Longfellow.
**I’m no expert here, but those who know about early 19th century American shipbuilding seem to feel that Longfellow got the details of ship design choices and construction right.
***Many prosody theorists think that rhyming English poetry is a mistake, as we have many fewer rhyming word-endings than other European languages. Longfellow’s poetry may not be to modern tastes, but one thing he did have was a non-forced and impressive “flow” in the hip-hop/rap sense.
****Among the favorable reviews from abolitionists: Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of “The Building of the Ship” “The most complete and artistic which he ever wrote.” Lincoln was said to have quoted the envoi lines in private to his secretary as the Civil War broke out—and broke down in tears before he could finish them.
It’s always the late empire period for old folks. When 1920 Claude McKay prophesied last time of granite wonders sinking in the sand at the end of his America poem, he was a self-proclaimed vital young man. He’s likely visualizing some hazy prophetic event with a undefined date as recorded by an even more distant future, and not the current toppling of certain bronze statues.*
McKay was 29.
To some old folks such as myself, fallen empires and overturned practices are not prophecy, we’ve seen them fall over as presently as gravity after their props and pedestals disappear, and so for the thoughtful among us, the conceivability that we might be living at the end of an American empire is not so strange, and even for the less-considered among us, we know our personal remaining time has shorter numbers.
This summer I showed a 15-year-old a YouTube recording of a live reading by Allen Ginsberg of his poem also called “America.” They’d showed me YouTube videos of earnest anarchists explaining the essential evils of money controlling government, after which they ask me if I’ve read Kropotkin. They live in a world were schoolyard bullying is considered actionable, not character building, and where the ideograms of gender-queer nearly exceed the Phoenician alphabet. Marijuana is about as novel and exotic as some parent’s veneer liquor cabinet.
They also live in a world where the man with a gun is found in the right if he’s afraid, doubly so if he’s a government agent. Economically we have endured a second Gilded Age where we have the Internet instead of railroads. For this generation, their first memory of a President was a competent and graceful Black man. Their second memory of a president, is not.
I haven’t mentioned environmental danger, Covid-19, or spoken of that tiger’s tooth that sank into the throat of George Floyd in our shared city. My catalog will be too long or too incomplete. There’s no other choice.
Here, I said, “This is anarchism!” and I launched the video. A static picture of a 1960’s Ginsberg stayed stationary on the screen and the soundtrack played. Ginsberg wrote this when he too was 29, just as McKay had been, though decades later in the American experiment. There was another red scare going on. Likely it was not much safer to be Black (or Jewish), Left, poor, or Gay and expect legal respect between 1920 and the January 1956 Ginsberg aurally date stamps his poem with.
Ginsberg reading the entirety of his “America.” Warning to tender ears: his performance, like mine below, includes one F-bomb.
In maybe a minute, 2020 made their judgement: “This is bad. It’s terribly recorded.”
I think its faults to this young audience were more at this was old, and this is not new. They had not lived in 1956, the supposed happy, carefree “The Fifties” of which “The Sixties” were in betrayal of. More than merely novel then for Ginsberg to stand up in public and say the unholy word about the holy bomb; for him to speak frankly about not being neurotypical, gender conforming, and accepting of the post WWII social order; to not only oppose, but to make fun of racism and red-baiting, and to say all of this as if it could and should be said in poetry. This was no longer revolutionary to this teenage 2020 set of experience. There’s now a mix tape every day saying the same.
Revolutionary? I’m presenting this series for American Independence Day. “America” is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence. Like the later parochial details in the July 4th document that no one now remembers, parts may have dated. And it’s no longer novel to say all men are created equal either. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“America” is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence.
So, I’m grateful for Ginsberg. I listened to that recording of his “America” several times in the tumult of this year. Some things he speaks about are not, alas, mooted points. My young viewer may at times overestimate our current state of accomplishment, just as I’m intimately aware of how far we’ve come from then.
I saw Ginsberg read a couple of times, but never this poem. However, I have an aged memory of it being read, not by him but by an Iowa rock band called the Emergency Broadcasting System in the late Sixties. They would open up their first set with the lead singer speaking sections of this poem while the band riffed behind him. I liked the combining of rock band energy with this then only teenaged poem, and maybe that’s part of why this project exists.
I’ll note that the sections I quote from “America” in today’s piece may be long enough that I could be breaching copyright on Ginsberg’s work here. Rights holders, if that’s the case, I won’t debate your point.
The player gadget for my performance of sections from Allen Ginsberg’s “America” is below. Is there more to say and perform as I look to poetry’s statements on July 4th? I plan at least one more as we approach Independence Day—one from yet another American time, and with another outlook different from McKay and Ginsberg.
*It’s only in this century that I became aware that a large percentage of the Confederate Civil War statues date from the early 20th century period, not to the years right after the war. There were no monuments being erected then to the enslaved people whose bondage was material to making that genteel and romanticized world of noble warriors however. Must have been an oversight.
McKay did have one example of revolutionary change in his experience-bank: the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like many of his era’s leftists he was hopeful, even inspired, by it for some time. Yes, he reevaluated that eventually. Revolutionary ideals do not equal the regimes that follow.
As we enter into the weekend celebrating American Independence Day on July 4th, I thought I’d put together some poetry about the American experiment. While not unprecedented, this is a complex time to be doing that. We are clearly in troubled times, and while I myself am as troubled as the times, I can still try to grasp what some others in their troubles and troubled times have chosen to say about America.
Let me start off with what a particular immigrant had to say almost exactly 100 years ago. The immigrant was Claude McKay, a Black man who came from Jamaica in 1912. Now of course, the presence in the then English colony of Jamaica of a man of African descent can be traced to the violent and involuntary diaspora of the slave trade before McKay’s time, but in his own lifetime, as an immigrant, McKay chose to come to America.
By the time he wrote this poem, first published in 1920, a number of then current events would have been impressed upon his thoughts. He first landed at the Tuskegee Institute in the de jure segregated American south, as close to the time of American slavery and the Civil War as we are to Martin Luther King and Woodstock today. He eventually traveled to the onset of the Harlem Renaissance in New York as well has visiting London and Russia. The life of a Black man was complicated by racism in all these places. Furthermore, if we are to apply the 21st century term “intersectionality,” McKay was working class, gay, and a committed Leftist.
And, as we now all know, 1918-1919 was also the time of the last great worldwide epidemic.
Given this background, as you listen to or read McKay’s sonnet “America” you may be surprised that this cri de cœur is as nuanced as it is. In the three quatrains before the closing couplet McKay is essentially making the case that he’s energized by being at a time and place when these evils are present and unmasked to confront. I’ll personally extend his statement: The American Experiment is this. It’s not the absence of evil, our country was never an Eden. That we are still fighting for our ideals of openness, opportunity, and equality under the law is evidence of our frailty—and our stubbornness.
Tragic persistence of metaphor: in 1920 McKay would paraphrase “I can’t breathe.”
Now what to make of McKay’s closing couplet, the turn the poem takes there as many a sonnet does? My first reading was that this is just the judgment of history: Babylon will always fall. Ozymandias leaves so fast he forgot to pack his trunk. That’s the clear reading of the 13th line.
A final line follows though. I think McKay the prophet here might have meant this too in his warning: we must change to extend our republic’s life, that all is at risk—even if every human, and every civilization, like every artist, will fail. Did we change from his time to extend our experiment? I believe we did. Are we called, are we in need of, more, further, change today? Well, what I think is less important that what you think, particularly if you are younger.
The player to hear my performance of McKay’s sonnet as a song with acoustic guitar is below. Is this the only statement for the 4th of July? No, I’ll be back soon with a reading from another American prophet.
*I was a history and civics nerd as a young person. I can tell you there was next to nothing to read about the racially charged riots of the WWI period until this century unless one knew to dig into primary sources from that time. The more distributed evil of lynching was acknowledged to some degree, but even when urban unrest returned less than 50 years later in the United States during The Sixties, I can’t recall a single pundit or think piece that referenced these events of the post WWI era.