I think I’ve established that I like examining lesser-known Modernists, or even writers who weren’t always considered part of the Modernist movement. Now today I may cause a few literarily knowledgeable readers to throw up their hands and do a spit take. Why? Yes, today’s piece is a sonnet, but we should note that not all Modernists rejected rhyme, and after all this is also a piece of down-beat gritty urban experience. Just look at the opening two lines:
Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men
Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves…
A litany that wouldn’t be out of place in the Unreal City a few years later. It could sound like the opening of a piece by Whitman or even Lou Reed as it starts out. As it continues, it doesn’t stint on the darkness literal and figurative. Those subway riders are riders, without agency. With fixed tracks underground they go their “sunless way” with “reluctant feet” as our Modernist Dante tells us. When I first read this* having seen the author’s name before reading, my thought was “Could the writer of this piece be misattributed?”
Go ahead, go to the bottom of the post and listen to the performance I put together using this early 20th century New York City poem about ordinary and agentless people lost in underground darkness. It’s less than 3 minutes long. Hear it first without knowing who wrote it.
Is this something of a belated Memorial Day post? Today’s author would die serving overseas in the U.S. Army during WWI. But stop reading and skip down to the bold-faced section at the end for a chance to hear the audio piece first.
OK, now let’s take off the Masked Singer costume: the author of the sonnet that I used as the text for today’s audio piece is Joyce Kilmer. I expect two responses to that information: “Huh?” and“What!” The former “Huh?” might be from my younger readers, as this is less likely a poet they’ve run into in our present century. That was not always so. Those my age or older will likely associate Kilmer with a single poem which was once so well-known and liked that it became a point of contention with many educated folks. That poem was “Trees,” the one that begins “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree.” My first High School English teacher Terry Brennan explained that he had had a High School teacher who had recited it while bodily enacting the “lifts her leafy arms to pray” part of Kilmer’s “Trees” poem. I believe he told us this to establish that he was not going to inflict a similar pedology on us (thanks Terry for that, and much more!) A columnist I liked to read in the Des Moines Register as a teenager, Donald Kaul, loved to pillory Kilmer’s “Trees” as a crime against better culture.** They had a point. “Trees” was ripe enough with pleasant sentiments that it likely did its part to help kill off the pathetic fallacy in modern poetry, but let’s start with its first publication: in Poetry magazine in 1913, in an issue of that important publication for new verse that also included certified Modernists Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and Skipwith Cannell, the later a favorite of the Others circle.
And speaking of Others magazine, Kilmer was in New York as a young poet in the years before WWI, rubbing elbows with those who would be associated with that city’s fearless avant-garde. Orrick Johns mentions him as someone he knew in those days. When Poetry’s editor Harriet Monroe published her anthology The New Poetry in 1917, Kilmer and his poem “Trees” is included alphabetically between poems by Orrick Johns and Others’ founder/editor Alfred Kreymborg. Kreymborg in his interesting memoir Troubadour recounts that Kilmer was one of the few “actual writers” he was acquainted with in his earliest days as a poet. Kilmer read some of Kreymborg’s short free-verse poems and suggested “You ought to divide those lines and make them rhyme—there’s poetry in them” which Kreymborg considered encouragement. Kilmer was working then for Funk and Wagnall’s, the dictionary people, and even gave Kreymborg some assignments for the dictionary which paid the young man $10, his first check for writing anything.
But all that is circumstantial Modernism. Besides “Trees” the Kilmer verse I’ve found online is almost entirely religious in nature, and it doesn’t come close to threatening Gerard Manley Hopkins’ gravity and vitality in that regard. If there are other poems that Kilmer wrote that are like “The Subway” I haven’t seen them.
Why did that “Trees” poem stick? Trees may not be the Internet Cat Pictures of nature poetry, but readers do seem attracted to those stately greenhouse-gas-absorbing plants. And there’s more: unlike Great Britain, Kilmer was just about the only U. S. poet killed in WWI.*** In England a young poet like Rupert Brooke could gain public attention that persisted after the war even if he was only one poet-casualty out of several of his countrymen. In America, the “Trees” man received the whole pension, and a large East Coast military base was named Camp Kilmer and served as the place where many of the Greatest Generation embarked and returned to America for WWII.
Did you jump down to here in order to listen to the song I made out of this early 20th century American poem about the New York City subway? If so, there’s a player gadget for some of you, and for the rest, this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab/window to play the piece. After you listen to the song you can return to the rest of the post to find out what “Modernist” wrote the lyrics.
*I first read this poem over at the Fourteen Lines blog, which, as you might guess, likes to present shorter poems in the sonnet range. This link is their post about this poem, and it also includes the much more widely-known “Trees.”
**Even later in his career, satirist Kaul couldn’t help but get one more lick in against Kilmer and his poem “Trees.” Kaul also didn’t like girl’s basketball, which I and Iowa were in agreement was a mistake on Kaul’s part.
***The other name that comes to mind was Alan Seeger, the “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” poet who died ahead of the U.S. participation in the war fighting with French forces. His nephew was Pete Seeger, as Pete liked to point out at times.