I’ve mentioned I’m reading a couple of memoirs that cover the early 20th Century Modernist era in America this month. At some point there may come a post here directly about them — which this isn’t — but in one of these memoirs, Troubadour, its author Alfred Kreymborg is discussing the launch of his crucial American Modernist poetry magazine Others.* He writes that his initial goal in starting Others was to publish Mina Loy** and William Carlos Williams, but as he and his main backer discuss their first issue, the initial work of selection is described as including Loy, but then another poet: Mary Carolyn Davies. Indeed, when the first issue of Others arrives in the summer of 1915, the first poet presented is Mary Carolyn Davies and a version of her collection of short pieces called “Songs of a Girl.”*** Davies work directly precedes in Others’ first number the debut of Mina Loy’s set of longer “Love Songs,” the series of caustic love poems which introduced Loy’s indelible image of “Pig Cupid.”
One of the few pictures of Davies
In memoirs when I come upon a writer I’ve never heard of, a “I should at least check briefly on who they were, what they did” research reflex is triggered in me. “What? Not even a Wikipedia stub entry!” was one return on that. Just how obscure is this author? I’d say we know more about Davies than we know about Sappho, and less than we know about any other author that was published in Others just a hundred years ago. Dates of her birth and death are not clearly known. The former somewhere in the 1880’s or early 1890s, and the later as wide as 1940 and 1974. She grew up in the American Northwest, and this short Oregon Historical Society entry has the longest biographic note I’ve found. Her work was presented not just in Others, but by the Provincetown Players too, giving some evidence that she was connected somehow with the bohemian New York City area avant guard in the early 20th century, but she’s also said to have published in a variety of mainstream publications, perhaps to keep the pot boiling.
This is Davies’ play which was performed with music by Kreymborg at the Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. Read this link for this intriguing description of it. Now, to give some contrasting sense of what her potboiler work may have entailed, this hit recording with a Parlando recitation may have been from a published poem of Davies. Per the Oregon Historical Society bio, about this time Davies would have been destitute in NYC when this 1942 record was on the hit parade. The bestial creature with the whip in Davies’ playbill? The character’s name is Life!
Some have compared Davies to Edna St. Vincent Millay, who of course is vastly better known. Encountered in a vacuum, Davies’ “Songs of a Girl II” could be taken for Millay, and particularly with today’s piece, as a more explosive take on Millay’s famous “First Fig” short poem published several years later.
In our time, I could casually compare “Songs of a Girl” to modern “Instagram Poets” what with “Songs of a Girl’s” short pieces and public intimacy.
Those who’ve read this blog over the years know I’m often fascinated by such mysteries, with those “Flowers [that] fail in wood — Or perish from the Hill” that Emily Dickinson wrote of. How widely or narrowly interesting is Davies’ work? I don’t know yet, but for about a minute and a half you can consider one tiny bit of it as I perform “Songs of a Girl II” using the player below. If you don’t see the player gadget, you can also use this highlighted hyperlink to hear the performance.
*Here’s the Wikipedia entry for Others. The contributors that wrote that want to make a strong case for the social and sexual radicalism of Others in 1915. I don’t know enough to say if they overstate that case, but with Kreymborg’s determination to publish American Modernist work he was pushing boundaries out every which way. Other important and sometimes longer-lived publications that included Modernists, like the Chicago based Poetry, mixed in more conventional verse, while Others stayed true to its credo: “The old expressions are with us always, and there are always others.”
**Mina Loy was once nearly as forgotten as Davies, but in this century her work has been re-examined and found by many who do that to be extraordinarily vital.
***I am unsure at this point what the entire contents of Davies’ “Songs of a Girl” was intended to contain. There appear to be at least three differing collections that can be found under this title and author — all of them sets of short pieces without individual titles, each set off by Roman numerals. In one, today’s piece is “II,” and in another it’s “III” in a series titled “Later Songs,” while in the 1915 publication in Others, today’s short bit doesn’t appear at all. The version I saw first and used when preparing my piece today was in the 1917 The New Poetry anthology edited by Harriet Monroe.
Perhaps Davies intended Songs of a Girl to be like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, an all-encompassing and evolving statement?