Americans know little of English poet Charlotte Mew, who wrote today’s poem during “the last Twenties,” but her poetry shows some unusual qualities, particularly for her time.* For example, this poem starts off off-hand and rises at its end to hearing an angel — so beginning like a reserved Frank O’Hara and ending as if she were Rilke.
Oh, and in the middle of the poem, there’s a short meditation over the corpse of a dead rat.** Joyce Kilmer must have forgot to add that kind of touch in his better-known Arbor Day connected poem!
Accounts from those who were acquainted with Mew often commented on her eccentricities, and even though Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy thought highly of her writing, Mew’s writing career never really gained traction. Over the decades since there’s been some increase in interest in Mew, especially in England. I’d suppose that the eccentricities and tragic arc of her biography help some with interest, but in the immediacy of Parlando’s performances we’re left with just the text of a poem like this. This performance is a live LYL Band take, and like much O’Hara, I found the conversational style makes the text easy to perform.
As with Frank O’Hara, or Emily Dickinson for that matter, just what Mew is getting on about in her poem may not be grasped on one listen or read-through. Yes, the poem’s audacious empathy for the trees comes through easily, but what’s the purpose of that rat? I think Mew is explaining that it’s the absences, the deaths, that more fully convince life into our memory, and that this is so for the “god-forsaken” rat and the angel-blessed trees.
The poem’s Plane tree is a species well suited to urban spaces, able to survive the Victorian pollution of London that Mew was born into.
One last day to go in our celebration here of National Poetry Month, but I’ve got some plans for a big send-off day tomorrow if time and life allows. As with most of the 30 performances of a variety of poems that we’ve re-released this April, there are three ways to hear Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down.” You can use a player gadget below, this highlighted hyperlink (supplied for those who won’t see the player), and via a lyric video above.
Thanks again for reading and clicking play. It should be obvious if you read or listen to the things here, that there’s a reason I’m attracted to the unusual. You must be too. I’m grateful for that.
*That relaxed beginning, interrupted by the interjections of the workmen’s voices all related in long prosy lines is still an unusual effect today. Maybe the beginning has some Whitman in there too?
**Without plan, 3 poems in the 30 have had rats in them. T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” river rat in “The River Sweats,” Du Fu’s scurrying rat in the ruins from “Jade Flower Palace,” and now Mew’s spring corpse rat.