Let’s hope I don’t overextend my love for American poet Kenneth Patchen with yet another example of his work today, which happens to be the opening day for baseball in my city. Patchen wasn’t quite the modern day spoken word poet, but even 80 years ago he was writing in a form that works in that presentation — though more here in a mode where the listener is immediately attracted by references to our common life and speaking idiom, and then finds the poem going off somewhere else between its lines before it ends.
Many poets are indifferent readers of their own work, but Patchen is usually quite good. I actually muffed one line in his text today, but Patchen has modified several lines, either from the variations of performance, or in the case of the lips of the “girls of heaven” he seems to choose a gentler metaphor here.
Baseball used to brand itself as “America’s Pastime,” and this poem makes something of that with its intimations that like love’s fancy and poetry it fills time and makes a joke of watches and schedules. I note too, that Patchen, the pacifist whose world was at war when he wrote this, knows that concerted effort is not always noble, and that the blessing of wasted time is better than time wasting from want or wasting one’s fellow humans.
Oh yes, the prophets among us can see clearly that professional baseball is a business enterprise, full of the commercial slight-of-hand that parodies patriotism and oh-so-righteous conflict. I myself remarked last year as I was reading the newspaper, that I had finished the section dealing with the businessmen who wear uniforms and was now moving on to the — why-is-it-separate? — sports section. But then, oh prophets, who really can find any remedial pleasure in cheering on a grocery chain or brokerage firm?
As I write this, over at the baseball field the home team has just answered the visitors’ one run with four runs in the bottom of the 3rd and now a light rain says we stop and wait for rainbows — or if the game is called, it will all go away as if it had never happened. Time knows it’s real. Everything else is illusions.
The river of history runs only in one direction.* And so on our river journey, the Modernist poetic landmark “The Waste Land” will arrive, and stopping and resting on the landing there will mark us as well past the headwaters, and our memories will diminish of the headwaters, even if the very water that carries our boats flows from there. T. S. Eliot wrote many letters and critical essays, he must have written somewhere about his American poetic forbearers — but if so, the spotty scholar writing this is so far unaware of what he said.
If one searches on that subject, one will see many mentions of Eliot’s Modernism supplanting the American 19th century New England worthies headed up by one Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And then something else might turn up, like this deserves-to-be-better-known sonnet of Longfellow’s titled “Eliot’s Oak.”Here’s a link to the text if you’d like to follow along.
If we largely forget Longfellow these days, we tend to forget Longfellow the writer of short lyric poems to an even greater extent. If this sonnet had been attributed to Keats or Shelley, it would be no less antique in some of its usage, but I suspect it would be better remembered and rated for achievement. Besides the “speakest,” “days remote,” “eventide,” and “hath” language, its chief crust of old-fashionedness is its use of the pathetic fallacy, where a tree is addressed and converses in the poem. We’d forgive Keats and Shelly for this, where we likely won’t forgive Longfellow. If we allow that bald-faced metaphor to pass, we might notice that the imagery in the poem develops in an admirably subtle way. In the sound of the tree’s leaves the poem hears a variety of sounds whose meaning is just out of reach, and masterfully Longfellow transitions to say that different people will hear different nearly intelligible languages in this sound. Am I stretching this conceit’s move too much to say that this 1876 poem has just sought to impress upon us a key tenet of cultural Modernism?
As Longfellow’s sonnet reaches its turn for a final six lines, we are forced, as much as we might be in parts of “The Waste Land,” to seek out what is being referred to. With “The Waste Land,” it wouldn’t be extraordinary to believe that some of the readers of this blog would have some knowledge of Richard Wagner, Jacobean drama, Metaphysical poets, or Ovid; and it’s even more likely today that some here would have some understanding of Hindu religious thought and writings, which will get called out in the upcoming concluding sections. But, do any of you know of the “Apostle of the Indians, Eliot…” Longfellow speaks of, what this story means, and how dark it is? I didn’t.
The Eliot Oak still stood in Longfellow’s time, and long enough for a trolley line to run past it.
In the 17th century, the Puritans who founded the European colonization of Massachusetts included this stalwart preacher John Eliot who came to believe that he was called to preach to the indigenous Algonquin tribes there. The Puritans had a strong streak of religious zealotry, and given that and the commercial interests of colonization, many regarded the natives of their new colony has the devil’s savage minions. John Eliot believed them to be merely unconverted fellow humans.** As Longfellow’s poem indicates in his Biblical allusion in lines 10-11, Eliot views the indigenous as fellow members of the Abrahamic family, potential “people of the book.” At first, all this was only a philosophical/theological debate. Eliot was allowed to learn their language, preach Christianity to them, and form somewhat autonomous villages of “praying Indians.” In an act of superhuman intellectual and literary effort he managed to translate the entire Christian Bible into their native language. Just this massive translation alone would be remarkable, but these tribes had no written language, so he had to devise a way to use the western alphabet to depict it. Nor was it an easy job to then print the resulting Bible: the press had to be imported, and the work of setting the type and printing was not trivial either. Eliot headed this project, but it should also be noted that the first nations people who worked with him were indispensable.
The resulting book, in a first edition of 1000, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, wasn’t just the first time anyone had created a new written language to publish a Bible, it was the first Bible to be printed in what would later become the United States.
Now of course the whole issue of evangelical Christianity and native cultures is a complex subject. Even those of you who do not know John Eliot’s particular story will include some who know some of the harmful incidents in such matters. Yes, this story gets dark, but there’s also a strange redeeming element in the end too.
In 1675 some of the Algonquins began a three-year uprising against the colonialists, leading to what was called King Phillips’ War. It makes no difference that Eliot’s converts are co-religionists of the colonialists or if they have any allegiance to the rebels. The very fact that many of them are now fluent in the native languages and English makes any of them prime suspects as spies and informants by both sides. Some of Eliot’s converts are killed, and the rest are shipped off to a concentration camp where many starve, despite Eliot’s efforts. Oh, and most copies of the Eliot bible are deliberately destroyed. Those theological debates have become warfare.
I promised there would be a ray of light in this. I’m not sure this had happened yet when Longfellow wrote his poem — and if so, he prophecies it in the poem’s last line — but in the ensuing colonial disaster inflicted on the native peoples, their language was wiped out. People still existed who were descendants of this Algonquin tribe, but they could not speak it’s Wampanoag language. Surviving copies of Eliot’s Bible become the Rosetta Stone that allows the language to be revived.
The same year Longfellow wrote his poem a memorial on a spot where Eliot preached to the Algonquin was built. I wondered through Google Streetview to find it still stands, though it looks ignored.
In summary, as you listen to today’s audio piece, it may just seem like a facile little ditty about a talking tree and this, whatever Eliot,*** who isn’t even T. S. Eliot. Understand what its images and references point to, and it’s a memento of one of the least-known and most-impressive American literary achievements and a link to the complex tragedy of some who hoped to turn in some way from genocide. Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but consider some of the lost or just unheard stories of the land we live on during this #NationalPoetryMonth, the lips that spoke them, the hearts that heard them. The river of history may run in one direction — but go ahead, make a fool of yourself, and listen to the trees. Or listen first or second to my performance of Longfellow’s “Eliot’s Oak.” You can use the player gadget if you see it below, or this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab or window to play it too.
Let’s continue with my serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” moving onto the next portion of its concluding section “What the Thunder Said.”
The poem is called “The Waste Land,” but except for that title’s general metaphoric weight and a few passing foreshadowing lines, it’s only here, more than 300 lines into the poem, that we finally enter the landscape promised in the title. It some kind of rocky desert, almost Martian, and the poem’s speaker is also like unto an astral traveler descended from a spaceship onto it. Later in the section we learn that there is at least one other traveling with the speaker, but this is yet unrevealed, and even then, there is nothing definite about this traveling companion.
“Damn Martian cicada infestation, and this dry grass sure could use some rain.” Alt-timeline Eliot in another genre.
Who are the two people? No name is given to the speaker of this section, and it’s easy to think it’s the poet himself, though some have figured the speaker to be Tiresias, the male/female time-lost wanderer featured elsewhere in the poem — though if Tiresias is something of a Virgil in this Divine Comedy, perhaps they could just as well be the companion to the poet here. Another theory has the second to be either Jean Verdenal, the friend and putative lover of Eliot who had been killed at Gallipoli in WWI, or Eliot’s wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. It’s also possible to read the unnamed companion as us, the reader, accompanying the now unmasked Eliot to the poem’s conclusion.
These are all theories of scholars, whose greater knowledge and reading I respect. I personally have always read the “two” as the divided self, and I perform the poem from this understanding.
There are glimpses of others in this landscape, “red sullen faces sneer and snarl from doors of mudcracked houses” but are they visions, hallucinations, or inhuman if living? I read them as these — perhaps out of preference — as Eliot seems to have shared a substantial portion of the crude racial/ethnic stereotypes of his culture.
Today’s section was, at least at one time, Eliot’s personal favorite part of the poem. In 1923 he wrote to Ford Madox Ford saying there were “about thirty good lines in The Waste Land” and he wondered if Ford could decern them. Ford didn’t try, so Eliot revealed that he was talking about “The 29 lines of the water-dripping song in the last part.”
If I was put in FmF’s place, I wouldn’t have picked these lines out from the over 400 of the poem. There is a musical logic to this section — that’s there throughout much of “The Waste Land” — but here, instead of the vivid yet mysterious characters we have met in the run up to this section, we have — for a moment — what seems like a short interval of self-pity.
Today’s musical performance of this part of “The Waste Land” tries to track Eliot’s landscape and outlook. A player gadget will appear at the bottom of this post for many of you to play it, but if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will open a window or new tab to play it too.
What will we find as we press further into The Waste Land during the final installments of our serialized musical performance of the entirety of Eliot’s landmark poem for National Poetry Month? Check back here or follow the Parlando Project to find out.
It’s April, time to celebrate U. S. National Poetry Month! We’ve had a tradition here over the past five Aprils of performing “The Waste Land” in serial-installment fashion, and now this year we’ve come to the landmark Modernist poem’s final section: “What the Thunder Said.”
Since the Parlando Project officially launched in August 2016 it’s been a tremendous effort to lead this exploration of a variety of poetry and ways it can be performed with original music. Last year we crossed the 500th piece threshold — an incredible achievement in creative productivity that I’m often proud of. One could spend hours here just exploring the poets we’ve featured and the ways we’ve performed their work. Though I expect most listeners will enjoy only a portion of what the Parlando Project does, I’d say this month is a good opportunity to wander randomly through our archives or use the search function to see what we’ve explored.
Putting a little worn patina on The New, The Modern…
I am a little sad and a fair bit intimidated in reaching this section of “The Waste Land,” the ending. It has become harder for some uninteresting reasons to keep up this project’s pace, but as I come to this April, I know I’m going to miss my annual return to the sprawling collage that is Eliot’s great poem. Though I’m hugely grateful for the ability to come this far, sadness is all around me, friends and relatives in suffering situations that I’m unable to address or help, and a sad tribunal is taking place a few blocks from where I sit and write.
I’ve always found this section of the poem a confrontation with sadness, and as it largely removes the masks and personas that have peopled the rest of the poem, I think it’s the most difficult to perform, both for audience-effectiveness and because the performer should/must confront that element inside themselves.
I’ve always found this section of the poem a confrontation with sadness, and as it largely removes the masks and personas that have peopled the rest of the poem, I think it’s the most difficult to perform…
As dysfunctional and damaged as they may have been, today’s section of “The Waste Land” transitions us from the unreal city, its duplicitous characters, and the sweaty faces and the hubbub of “He do the police in different voices” sections, and begins to move us to the titular waste land that will be the stage on which that final confrontation with sadness will occur. Musically, I open this with an urgency as the battle is about to begin. And so, to hear my performance of the first part of “What the Thunder Said” from “The Waste Land” you may be able to use a player gadget below. If you don’t see the gadget, this highlighted hyperlink will alternatively play it.
Thank you for reading and listening. Over the rest of April, I plan on pressing on to the end of the poem, and to present as much other work here regarding the sister arts of poetry and music as I can. Click follow or come back, check out the other things here, and spread the word about this Project. Those of you who’ve done that are what keep this going.