Where’s the gore? Where’s the grisly fright? My Halloween series has been featuring atmospheric fantasy poems so far, a mode I personally like, but I suspect there are some in my audience that want things more corpse than incorporeal ghosts.
Well, I’ve been saving this one up for you, wanting to work out a full folk-rock arrangement. Given that I play all the parts, it’s taken awhile to complete, but the stars aligned and it’s ready for you to hear. Who’s the poet and word-supplier this time? Robert E. Howard.
“That Robert E. Howard?” a few of you may be asking. Yup. Conan etc. No, not the red-haired antic Harvard-educated TV comic. The other one. The character who helped put the sword to sword and sorcery. And today’s poem didn’t appear in The Dial, Poetry, Others, The Criterion, or other early 20th century magazine of emergent literary art. “Dead Man’s Hate” first saw print in the pulp Weird Tales.
No, not the charmingly mysterious Bob Dylan short musical film, this is Howard’s own 1929 sword and sorcery story as illustrated in Weird Tales. Besides the putative Dylan connection, note that freshly severed head. Our hero’s kingdom is beset by many evil things that aren’t what they seem, including the now familiar shape-shifting snake-headed lizard people trope.
To the small degree I know Howard’s work, it is through a late friend of mine who appreciated the literature of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle which included Howard. That friend was always careful to frame Lovecraft, Howard, et al by noting their racist and racialist elements. He could have gone on to note that they weren’t consistent literary craftsmen either. Given their needs to sell by the word to late-paying pulps, they perhaps couldn’t afford literary polish — but that their stories can still have power for some readers, despite all that, says something too. Howard’s “Dead Man’s Hate” has no problematic racialist elements* and I think it has the on-rushing narrative power of a Child or broadside ballad in telling its gruesome story of a hanging.
As I said in opening, the music took a bit of work, and perhaps in coincidental honor to Howard’s pre-WWII Texas upbringing, I used twin violins as the lead instruments — but this unconventional folk-rock style song isn’t really Texas Swing. Besides a twanging Telecaster, electric bass, and drums, there’s a pump organ and some vox-humana-like notes in there too. You can hear my performance of “Dead Man’s Hate” with the player gadget below. No player visible? This highlighted link is an alternative way to open an audio player to hear it. Looking for those less gritty Halloween pieces? Check out our last six Parlando Project posts for a range of other ghosts and gothics.
*Well, there is this: the man being hanged has a distinguishable Irish surname, and the one celebrating this event has the WASPey name of Adam Brand. Hangings in American westerns often read to me as conscious or unconscious wrangling with the history of American lynchings of Afro-Americans and other outsider groups. As to racism in Howard’s pre-WWII Texas, my father spent part of his childhood there, and it was pretty much baked-in according to his recollections. Poor Howard, dead and gone, left me here to sing his song — and Howard might not have lived long enough to see what he was indurated with. I’ve come to believe the Muses, a useful name for the unlimited forces that inspire art, are capable of bringing in viewpoints and power that their human receivers would have difficulty expressing.
Is it even possible to mention Stonehenge without risking the unbidden memories of the feet-to-inches comic debacle from Spinal Tap? Well, that’s one reason I’m a little hesitant to introduce today’s piece in our Halloween Series this year.
But still, I’ve been talking and singing about ghosts, ancestors, spirits, and their home fires a good deal, and I remembered this performance by the LYL Band of this song I wrote after visiting an altogether homier set of Neolithic English standing stones at Avebury several years back. I understand Stonehenge is fenced off, and that enforced distance probably does little to staunch the tales of quasi-Medieval druids with magical rites floating stones in the air. Avebury’s large henge basically had a country hamlet grow up inside it, there’s even a pub in the midst of the circle. You can walk right up to the stones, feel these cool earth-aerials, measure them against one’s own height and age. A walk around the Avebury henge is a good walk, and one may also look over the equally amazing earthen ditch-works that are part of the site. As you stroll a flock of official government sheep wander the grassy meadow keeping overgrowth at bay without internal combustion clatter. So at Avebury, as I was walking around all this, I did not think of druids. I thought of men and women who dug and moved that earth, dug and moved those stones, erected them watching over each other.
There are several rings in the henge at Avebury, and the stones are individual in shape and size, furthering the thoughts I had while visiting the site.
Did they have some chieftain or matriarch who planned and ordered its construction? Perhaps. What belief was being expressed in large rocks? Some likely, at least to the level that metaphor asks of us. But as I said, I thought of who did the work — the sweaty, hard-breathing, hand-callousing work. They worked stones with stones, dug with pickaxes made of antlers. At night in what huts did they sleep, on dried grass beds perhaps? And in that night they no doubt slept hard after their day of work, dreamt dreams harder than those of old poets who need only to move words around. If the energy of the earth and sky was transmitted up and down those big stone antennas, so too must the energy of their dreams be drawn in there. And I was there where they must have slept, dreaming under night breaths, their aches soothed by the rest. Dreaming of what? Children, parents, lovers, siblings, colleagues, whole days of rest, the mighty thing they would construct, a story, a prayer, a melody, the little joys of a meal or exactly good weather?
Not druid magic in my thoughts at Avebury, but I felt those dreams might be — no must be — harder than the dulling mutes of time. They sparked around in their heads, and when their heads became skulls and then dust, where is that spark, and can we read it still, tune it in? A belief, at least to the level of metaphor, felt we could. That’s the song.
Here’s the songsheet. If you ask for scenery to back your performance of this, get the measurements right.
The player many will see below will play “Avebury Song #2,” and if you don’t see it, you can use this alternative highlighted link. I hope to complete at least one more new Halloween piece to present here yet this month, though the moving pieces of my life doesn’t make that sure.
English poet Walter de la Mare does a very particular kind of fantasy or horror poem. If one is looking for body horror or jump-scare monsters, de la Mare is not your guy. His spooks and slitherers are usually off-camera — instead, he describes discretely the atmosphere and effect of a haunting, visitation, or some binding spell. As our Halloween series continues, I have a performance today of a de la Mare poem called “Song of Shadows.” It starts out commanding a musician, so it’s a natural for the Parlando Project, but besides the ghost story, I think it invokes something else I considered this week.
Here’s a link to the poem as de la Mare wrote it. I made a slight change to the concluding line of each stanza as I like how that change works in performance.
“Song of Shadows” is not definitely set, though some elements of the scene indicate it might be somewhere antique. Fires and tapered candles wouldn’t be totally obsolete to a 19th century-born man like de la Mare, but the opening command to a musician sounds like a court or titled lord of the manor kind of thing to me. And the poems report of an extant — not necessarily metaphorical — hourglass with sinking sands really sets this outside of the early 20th century when it was written.
One could stretch and draw a class-conscious reading between the commander of the poem, the musician, and the eventual appearance of some ghosts or spirits. Who are the ghosts to the commander? To the musician? De la Mare leaves that open, but the different roles of those three characters offer an opportunity for speculation. To the commander: old friends, old enemies, subjects, servants, or serfs rebellious? And within the range of feelings the spirits may carry, we may note the poem’s commander asks to risk summoning them.
But I mentioned the poem set off another line of thought beyond its subtle fantasy intent. The poem concludes the shadows have been summoned by the musician’s song, “Dreaming, home once more.” So rather than thinking of the commander or the ghosts, I thought of the musician. While I operate musical instruments to realize the Parlando compositions, I’m likely more competent as a poet than as a musician, but singer is often an honorary title for any poet. For those who read this who are poets: is this not a part of our job?
The thought intensified when I read a string of Twitter posts by Lao poet Brian Thao Worra this week. Thao Worra was taking stock of his career in that post, and throughout it he seemed charged with a mission toward the Laotian diaspora as a Laotian-born poet and artist living in America. I’m no expert on Laos (nor anything else really, but less so on Laos), but it struck me that so many poets I read and resonate with are part of, and speak of, large diasporas: Irish poets, Afro-American poets, Jewish poets. Even the echt classical Chinese poets Du Fu and Li Bai were banished to far provinces of China. Why do I resonate to these poetries? It then occurred to me: many, perhaps most, poets are in some kind of diaspora, be it geographic or otherwise. We have emigrated from the country of Poetry, or we have been exiled or taken away from there. And there we are, like the musician who sweeps faint strings in de la Mare’s poem — singing, waiting for countrymen* to hear our song. Will they hear, and if so, will it be in the plane of dreaming, in the plane of ghosts and spirits — and so then will it be that we are all, home, once more?
I didn’t sweep the strings of an old, cheap 12-string guitar very faintly for this performance of Walter de la Mare’s “Song of Shadows.” And I kind of hollered the vocals. Ghosts, make of that what you want. You can hear it with an audio player gadget below, but if you don’t see that player, this highlighted link is an alternative that will open a player gadget.
*I can’t think of a gender-neutral word that has the same flavor and power to me as that word “countrymen.” Why that is must be complex, or just some failure on my part, but I just wanted to say I used it because I couldn’t do better.
Our Halloween series continues with the voice, music, and words of Dave Moore today as I present his piece “Sam and the Ghosts.” And as bonus autumn content, this one takes place in a garden just past harvest time.
I haven’t kept a garden in decades, but Dave and long-time friend of this blog Paul Deaton do. They remind me that at about this latitude north, October is the time to have removed the final products and to prepare the bed for the interval until spring planting time returns.
I may not have done this for decades, but this process goes back — way back. Folks were planting crops in the Midwest long before colonization. The mound builders here, like the earthworks and standing-stone raisers in the British Isles, fed themselves on the invention of agriculture. So in that way, every garden — that small geographical gesture — is a memorial. William Blake said the rebellious angels of art must need to drive their plows over the bones of the dead. I don’t think he was speaking of colonization or commerce when making that point, but his maxim is true reportage anyway. Whether we are speaking of poetry or music or tomatoes, were we plant has likely been tilled before by dead people. Isn’t it proper then that we should honor them before we make our gestures in the soil?
The song sheet Dave handed me the day we recorded this song a few years back.
In Dave’s poem which he made song, Sam* has forgotten this. Some ghosts remind him. In his poem they are ghosts of settlers. Outside of the poem, they are people created by Bob Dylan.** Those definite levels in history are not the beginning, not the end. Who knows who ran the land from where the settlers’ family left to come to America? Then we do know who lived the land, and were so harshly displaced before the settlers’ opportunity. Who knows, maybe Hollis Brown’s farm is no longer farmland now after some other money has changed hands. How many songwriters are tilling Bob Dylan’s land?
Every seed you plant came from somewhere before you plant it. Every land has ancestors. Every garden is, or should be, a memorial. Winter will bury our gardens, turn our blank pages to blank pages again, and we wait and expect for spring.
The ancestors expect for spring too. We are that spring. The gaps of expecting are where the ghosts live.
Today’s words are from a poet who’s been forgotten, but this one poem seems to have outlived all her other work largely because it’s a fine short ghost poem with a definite shiver from an ambiguous ending. The poem was called “All Souls’ Night, 1917,” and it was first published in 1920 in the author Hortense Flexner’s first collection Clouds and Cobblestones. That book’s acknowledgements indicate “All Souls’ Night” was never accepted by any of the many publications Flexner had published in toward the beginning of her career, and a selected poems published shortly after Flexner’s death in 1972 does not include it. So it was never her most famous or noteworthy poem while she lived.
Why did I hear of it, why is it out there on the Internet in 2022 to be read? Because of its eerie qualities “All Souls’ Night” has made a number of contemporary lists of Halloween poems.* To read or hear it once is likely to impress you of its value as such, and you can read it here with this link, or listen to my brief musical performance below. Our discussion has spoilers, so read or listen first. My performance is only 2 minutes.
I’ve looked at clouds and cobblestones from both sides now, and still somehow…
Now that you’ve experienced “All Souls’ Night,” let’s suppose you’re interested in at least a few questions that the poem might bring to mind after you read its 12-lines with their unambiguous chill. Yes, there’s a window here — just as there was in Sara Teasdale’s nursery last time — but either side of this window’s glass has questions.
Outside the window, there’s a date 1917 ending the original title. The poem internally mentions nothing about World War I which was ongoing that year and would still be a universal memory when the poem was published. Several other poems Flexner wrote and published around this time deal with the war, and one short play of hers, Voices, that was produced on Broadway in 1916, is about the despairs of war.**
Given that WWI is no longer in most any living soul’s memory, I’ve chosen to drop the 1917 in today’s title, as have some of the re-publishers of fantasy or Halloween poems that are featuring it. Outside this poem’s window we only know there are “hosts of lovers, young in death.” Maybe it’s me, but when I first read the poem, I thought the many lovers would be pairs, many of the lovers throughout time who are now dead and stayed in their passionate youth, and the poem does not directly disabuse that notion. But in the 1917 WWI context, one presumes the dead were soldiers, freshly dead. Whatever Flexner’s intent, I think the former has, potentially, greater impact today, even with our current European war. Can we simultaneously allow how Flexner might have intended her ending to be read, and allow how you or I as a modern audience can see the two groups or characters in this poem?
In the poem’s ending, the poem’s speaker, in a warm room next to a fireplace on the other side of the window asks that their warming fire should be allowed to die down, to eliminate the warmth and light on their side of the glass. It’s implied the poem’s speaker is there with others, a party perhaps, as the fire has been set for cheer in the poem’s opening line. With the onrushing crowd of ghosts outside, the insiders are now told at the end: hush, dim the light, turn the room cold so that the ghosts are unaware of them. This is an ambiguous statement if you think about it.
It can be read three ways I think. One, this is simply self-preservation, the ghosts might be vengeful toward the living. In the WWI context the dead might blame them for starting or not stopping the war. Or the folks inside may be smug, and the ghost lovers are their opposite. The insiders may be saying those outside lovers are the not-the-elect living, and that they would steal the warmth, which the insider speaker concludes they will not be able to use, being they are creatures who didn’t stay living and warm. Or lastly the poem’s statement may be one of pity: we shouldn’t be happy, we shouldn’t flaunt our warmth and light to those dead who now can have none of those things.
If, in the WWI context, Flexner has the ghost lovers to be likely the partners of the not dead inside, then the last reading is the most likely. But the reality of any of those readings is that the cheer, the warmth, and the joy inside the glass must cease. At least for the night, the light and temperature must equalize to death-like on either side of the window. That is the poems genius: it’s chilling on both sides.
At the time of the performance, I went more with the middle reading in my internal approach. I was tempted by that contrast, even if my reading isn’t correct, perhaps because I see so much in our current culture where the other is cast as undeserving. Their desires are a distorted, improper grabbing for joys, things they haven’t earned as members of “the elect.”
This touches on religious beliefs, so one more factor: the poem references All Souls’ Day, a Christian religious holiday. I’m not sure if Flexner wishes to put a religious overlay on her poem, other than an occasion for ghosts. The Flexner family were 19th century German Jewish immigrants to America, and beside Hortense, there are several notable members. The foremost Flexner was her uncle, Abraham Flexner who I see credited with (among other things) the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the eventual American home of Albert Einstein. Abraham was raised Orthodox, but became an agnostic. I have no info on what religious customs Hortense Flexner may have been knowledgeable about.*** All Souls Day as a traditional Roman Catholic holiday was devoted to praying for those dead not in heaven, in purgatory, and was separate from All Saints Day, which was reserved for the saints who got right into heaven. Protestant Christianity dispensed with those twin holiday distinctions and more or less considered it one holiday.
OK, here’s the part about my short musical performance of “All Souls’ Night.” I got out the virtual orchestral instruments again and started writing orchestral string parts to go with acoustic guitar. To help with the ghostly air there are two non-acoustic instrument tracks that are mixed at an almost subliminal level: a somewhat overdriven electric piano and a suitably unreal synth patch. You can hear it with the graphic player were it’s seen, or with this backup highlighted link. I still have other pieces planned for our Halloween series this year, so check back or click Follow to experience them.
*Poets.org, a long-time online poetry repository, has “All Soul’s Night, 1917” as it’s only Hortense Flexner poem, and references it under themes where a search might find it, but I may never know what the Ur-source is for this poem’s revival.
**Don’t think big time. There were more theaters then, and the Broadway theater where it was produced was The Princess, which sat only 299, and we don’t know how long the run was. I have watched a low budget amateur performance of Voices. It’s an earnest to a fault two-hander with a young French WWI-experiencing girl and another mysterious character who turns out to be Jeanne D’Arc.
***I went down a happy rabbit hole reading about the Flexners. Hortense was a feminist and a suffrage activist, college educated and eventually a literature professor at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s Ivy League schools. She’s also some kind of relative to Kenneth Flexner Fearing, a lefty poet who became a pulp-noir novelist around mid-century.
I risked taking the charm and playfulness out of Emily Dickinson’s ghost poem last time by trying to puzzle out exactly what she saw. I won’t risk that today. This next poem in our Halloween series was written by a poet, Sara Teasdale, who wrote some complex adult love poems — but with this one she portrayed a child’s wonder. Well, a child with a little taste for tea parties with witches, but still.
Sara Teasdale. Want to come to my tea party?
Teasdale was roughly a contemporary in her childhood in St. Louis with T. S. Eliot, but Eliot decamped for Harvard and then Europe — so as far as I’ve been able to find out, the two poets never met. I think Teasdale’s poem requires no further explanation, so I’ll just urge you to listen to it below. And here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to read that.
Another simple musical accompaniment here, this time just some acoustic guitar. You can hear Sara Teasdale’s “Dusk in Autumn” with a graphic audio player that many will see below. However, there are ways to read this blog that won’t show the player, and I also provide this highlighted link to click, which will allow those who don’t see the player to access the musical performance.
Here, as promised, is the start of a series of Halloween-themed posts. Today’s audio piece uses words from 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, and as usual for her it’s titled using the poem’s first line: “The only Ghost I ever saw.” Dickinson is no stranger to the gothic, but she often approaches it playfully — and that seems to be the case here. Here’s the full text of the poem along with chord-sheet notations for the 12-string guitar part I accompany it with today.
Sing along with Emily and the tree ghosts
The surface “plot” of this poem is straightforward, if detail sometimes puzzles. The poem’s speaker (presumably Dickinson) has seen a ghost once. She describes the encounter using some expected and unexpected description, and then closes with a puzzling final line. Since the description of the ghost is most of the poem let’s examine that closely. We first learn the ghost is dressed in “mechlin.” What’s that? A type of Flemish lace. The ghost has “no sandal on his foot.” The ghost moves soundlessly but with some speed, bird or dear-like. The ghost’s “fashions” are “quaint.” It might wear mistletoe. The ghost makes no footfall noises, but is not noiseless either. It’s said to laugh “like the breeze.”
This sort of mystery with detail is a format which suggests a riddle to me, and Dickinson did write riddle poems. So, is the ghost a metaphor for something else she’s observing? One could hazard a guess it’s snow, which might sweep in on winds like this with frosty lace, but the ghost is said to step “like flakes of snow.” It could be wind —and cold currents are often felt as “ghostly” — except again, Dickinson spends at least three lines in her short poem describing its actions as like a breeze. Snow like snow or breeze like breeze would be tautologies.
If it is a riddle, my best solution is that she’s viewing a tree in a grove of trees. Bark or moss, or even more likely the light filtering through small branches is the lace mosaic. It has no sandal to walk on the ground, its foot is in the ground — and note that Dickinson says no sandal on his foot (singular), not feet as in a human ghost. It steps in the wind in its swaying, but the noise in that movement isn’t from the foot of the tree, which stays stationary. And the branches dart back and forth like a deer leaping or a bird hopping. The prime clue is that mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasite plant, it only grows by embedding its roots in trees. The branches make noise, the laughter, and in the path of the breeze the laughter would spread to other formerly still and pensive* trees around. Dickinson knows botany, I understand she and her family cultivated trees, and she has written other riddle poems with plants as answers.**
So my reading in summary: Dickinson is viewing a tree, perhaps one of the trees that surrounded the Dickinson homestead in autumn, and those flakes of snow its branches are stepping “like” are also appearing snowflakes in an approaching cold-front. The “interview” is cut short as the day is appalling — growing pale.
Is that an all-too-much a Scooby-Doo “There’s no such thing as ghosts” ending? I’m not certain of it, and the poem charms without the above, letting it stay in mystery. If that’s your worry, who’s to say — particularly at Halloween — that the trees aren’t sentient spirits?
You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The only Ghost I ever saw” with my own musical setting using a player below if you see it. Is that player an invisible ghost for you? Well, summon it then with this highlighted link that will open a player.
*In the handwritten manuscript, Dickinson shows that she considered “smiling” instead of “pensive” in the poem.
I’ve seen some takes celebrating the centenary of the publication of Eliot’s Modernist landmark poem “The Waste Land” this month. To the smallish degree that Twitter recognizes poetry, there have been several threads there — and general arts and literature sections of publications and websites have taken notice as well. I think this notice is greater in the UK,* since the poem has more purchase in Eliot’s adopted homeland than in the US, but long-time readers here know that I spent five years serially performing the whole thing as part of my annual National Poetry Month observance.
Some of the notices disappoint me a little. Maybe I think of it too much as a poem I “own” in the same way you may feel about another poem you’ve kept in your consciousness over time. I was going to write, and may still write, a personal memoir piece on how the poem entered and mixed with me over the years — but those same long-time readers will know that isn’t my most common mode. Instead, I think it’s more important that you take some art, poetry and/or music, inside yourself. I’m here by my intent and your accident to raise the shades or turn on a light.
More than the centenary pieces themselves, what most causes me to rise to write this month is a response that commonly follows where comments or replies are allowed. Let me create a composite example of that: “The Waste Land’ is an over-intellectualized bunch of incomprehensible nonsense that requires footnotes to understand.**”
This may be how the poem first struck you, or the way school caused you to see and discard it. Let me open some shutters and offer five ways of looking at “The Waste Land” that may allow you to see it with fresh eyes.
1. It was written after a great war in which nearly everyone in England knew casualties—and after a great deadly flu pandemic. English culture had trouble confronting this, and the man who wrote “The Waste Land” was in depressive crisis usually without the emotional capacity to confront these events, personal and national. Miraculously, the poem’s art is none-the-less that confrontation.
2. The poem doesn’t require you to understand some secret encoded message, it isn’t constructed to ask you to do that, at least immediately. Instead, it’s an intensely musical composition with various voices, motifs, and tones. Its words and images can gather more specific meaning over time, yes, but the experience is still saturated with the variety of voices and their moods.
3. If you think of Eliot as all the voices in the poem, then the poem plays with gender and sexuality more than you might expect. The speaker in the poem is male, female, indeterminate, and in the case of Tiresias, canonically intersex. This in 1922 people! Some read the poem as misogynist, a logical deduction from Eliot himself being easily indicted as a misogynist. Yet I didn’t find it so. The men and women in the poem are degraded, damaged and distressed more or less equally. I do see two plausible gender inequality issues in the imagery woven in the poem: sexual violence in the underlying Philomena-related refrains which we may read as a female-role specific event; and if we read the final section as mostly in the male poet’s voice then only one character, a man presumably, Eliot himself presumably, is allowed to emerge from the waste land and into some consoling resolution. If I ever write my long personal piece I’ll go further into those things. In summary: I found that I could read, experience and perform the poem with sympathy and shared grief for those sufferings regardless of the faults of Eliot.***
4. Eliot, a smart, talented, but also wounded and limited soul could not have made this poem himself. Ezra Pound and his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood were necessary editors and midwives. While I resonate with “The Waste Land” I’m not particularly connected to Eliot’s work in general, though the musicality of it can charm me. “The Waste Land” may be an example of how muses speak through, despite the limits of authors. And just this year it occurred to me why so many of the poem’s words are paraphrases or quotes—used musically as samples might be if this was a hip hop record. The new thought that came to me: the damaged and constricted Eliot couldn’t (or wouldn’t) allow himself to write those words in his closed-in depression.**** I think that later in his life, the emotional expression of “The Waste Land” frankly scared Eliot.
5. Want a demonstration of the points made above, that “The Waste Land” wants to primarily convey emotions, not sense? That it becomes vivid when performed, like music? That its voices are gender-fluid in their variety? This highly recommended Fiona Shaw video below is better than a raft of scholarly papers or old-men’s Internet posts in empirically demonstrating the poem’s impact. It does ask 35 minutes of your attention however.
I plan to return with more musical pieces and encounters with other poems here shortly with a focus on Halloween, ghosts, and the gothic.
*For example, there was a new documentary this week broadcast on the BBC which I cannot yet see since I’m a US resident. I posted an earlier version of this piece on Twitter myself, but the Twitter audience and algorithm is smaller for me than this blog. Want another blog post with an incisive take on the critical blind-spots in representing “The Waste Land?”Lesley Wheeler’s recent take caused me to jump in a bit too hot and barking in my shared frustration with those cold, shiver and sliver of humanity, appreciations of “The Waste Land.”
**The infamous footnotes — which I now explain in a footnote — were a makeshift tactic to lengthen the poem for hardcover publication. They may have also helped a closed-off fellow like Eliot cover the emotional tracks of the poem his name was now on, but even Eliot later admitted they weren’t the secret decoder ring to his poem.
***Plausibly, I should be more concerned with authorial intent, or how some misogynist or anti-Semite could view or perform the poem differently from me. The points that gender, joyless power-unequal sexual acts, and sexual violence are integral to the events and imagery of the poem is incontrovertible to me, and were overlooked or down-played by the “let’s find the secret scholarly message” critics for decades until queer and feminist readings emerged. Saying above that you can appreciate the poem without stopping for deeper analysis isn’t denying that deeper thought and examination isn’t worthwhile. Even given the professional format of many scholarly papers, I read some of them and out from me comes a “Yes! Someone else finds, sees, feels this too.” Lesley Wheeler again gives us links to one such set of papers from a 2020 conference. Oh, and if the idea of how one can personally resonate with poetry, how it can change how poetry works, her most recent book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, written for interested readers and requiring no scholarly pre-requisites is recommended.
****If you’ve ever suffered depression, you may relate to this.
Let me briefly slip, Wordsworth-like, into reverie, and note that “Oft, when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood…” I turn to the vast daffodilian array of scanned material available from a brief Internet search. I’d been thinking about Irish poets after reading this exchange between poets Ann Grá and Sean Thomas Dougherty. Grá asked “What’s the best way to improve one’s active writing vocabulary?” Dougherty’s answer? “Read Irish poets. Everything will improve. Including life.” Irish poets mentioned — and William Butler Yeats enters the chat. You may have noticed that I led-off last time by remembering a Yeats poem about a friend whose work has come to nothing. This all entered into seeking another Yeats poem to perform this week. I came upon this one. Poetry workshop devotees, note that I read it even though it has just about the most generic title imaginable: “A Coat.”
Then, as often now, what sits on the page as if it’s an objective bit of selected poetic criticism is really an insider comment from those who already know each other in some way.** Pound reviews “A Coat” specifically in his piece, just a few pages past the poem’s American unveiling. “Is Mr. Yeats an Imagiste?” Pound is rhetorically asked. “No,” Pound answers himself, “but he has written des Images as have many good poets before him.” In writing here about Yeats then current poetry Pound praises the directness of style and unfussy language and syntax the Irish poet is now using. He mentions that Yeats’ earlier poetry with a more 19th century music and setting has attracted followers and imitators in their now 20th century, but perhaps the imitators miss some of its vitality — so much so that Pound wonders if the reader would “Rather read Yeats in the original” than these bad copies. Pound’s conclusion? “I’ve not a word against the glamour as it appears in Yeats’ early poems, but we have had so many other pseudo-glamours and glamourlets and mists and fogs since the nineties that one is about ready for a hard light.”
So, why do Irish writers have something to teach us other English speakers about using our language. First off, as a colonized and exploited country, they may look at the language from a critical parallax. If it’s the language of your colonizer, your oppressor, you may want to ask what English words should do, and you have reasons to be warry of what they can do.*** And I have a second idea, less fully-formed, that the whole mists and fogs of Celtic folklore, to which Yeats added his own caldrons of turn-of-the-20th-century magic and occult stuff, offer a conscientious poetic distiller a chance to speak the shades of the ineffable vividly in their poetry because their folkloric traditions and magikal folderol have already saturated their personal needs for glamorous elaboration. Other poets embroidered robes, either traditional or ceremonial, will get caught in such, but if one can escape, you have the contrast of a new clarity. This clarity is different — you have the experience of having worn the long robe, and now the new Eden.
Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, then Adam explained plant-based couture Eve wonders why she suddenly knows the Latin genus Toxicodendron.
Today’s performance of Yeats’ “A Coat” has music for solo acoustic guitar, something that I’ve fallen back to often this past summer. The final guitar performance turned out to be an exercise in the various timbres I could pull from the guitar. The tuning and chord voicings used had several two and even three-string unisons which resonate and sustain, and then some contrasting pizzicato muted notes. You can hear it with a player gadget below — or if you don’t see that, with this backup highlighted link.
*Reading Monroe’s 1914 account reminds me of just how alien Sandburg’s poetry must have seemed to an early 20th century ear. To my 21st century ear and mind, I can more easily find the music in it, and I treasure now his Imagist “direct treatment of the thing” being applied to ordinary life, workers, immigrants, and the cultural powers that obfuscated that with elaborate English language.
**The American Pound and the Irish Yeats were both in London at this time. It’s likely that Pound himself was the conduit by which the new Yeats poems found their way into Monroe’s magazine. London then was the locus of the new Imagist ideals which stressed simplicity. Poets who wrote primarily in metrical and rhymed forms then, such as Yeats, Frost, Hardy, and Edward Thomas absorbed or resonated with this new, fresh, directness as a poetic effect.
***Though for various reasons this project has limitations on using modern English-language poetry, it strikes me that contemporary American poetry benefits from similar parallaxes. I was going to supply a catalog of those groups who know English as having been used as the language of an oppression, but it occurs that anyone who’d go with this thought can already supply their own catalog.
Some things others wrote this week brought to my mind an early post on this blog that has had thousands of web visits over the years: my presentation of William Butler Yeats’ “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.” Back in 2017 when I performed that Yeats’ poem I couldn’t help but wonder: who was the friend, what was the work that had come to nothing? I probably spent several hours researching that over a couple of days* and came up with the name of the man, the nature of his project, and the final fate of each. The man came to an abrupt end soon after Yeats wrote his poem, yet the project that was his aim eventually became partially successful. You can read that early Parlando Project post via this link.
When I looked back at that post, I found that I had spent the first half of it honestly dealing with the problematic nature of poetry as a method of communication. One can draw an auditable bottom line from those issues: most poets have few readers, many have nearly none. Furthermore, thoughtful, intelligent, deep engagement from those poetry readers would be from a subset of those small groups. That being so, the question of why do poets persist occurs, and that has no simple answer — but one element of that is that the act of writing has an ineffable magic. The very act of saying and recording, even what will rarely and barely be understood, has a power.**
Art & Nature: a Louis Sullivan building ornament with various fall fungi and lichens. Photos by Heidi Randen.
Around the time I performed Yeats’ poem and wrote about my encounter with it here, I wrote a poem of my own which was not successful in performance to the level that I could present publicly. Since the Parlando Project is primarily about presenting other people’s words not my own, it was easy to set this one aside. This past summer I found that old poem as I cleaned up the song-sheets in my studio space, and I considered a new performance of it. Given the way life is postponing my efforts still, finding out what a new performance would sound like took over a week, but I completed a version today. That poem, now song, “Write Me Down,” is about the challenges, duties, connections, and consolations of life. I fear “Write Me Down” is a confusing multi-faceted catalog of those things. The handful who read it years ago when new found it uncompelling and impenetrable, but I haven’t had heart or mind to revise it since. But here’s today’s point again: as the title might indicate, it says something too about the motivations to write things down, even poetry, to manifest them for an uncertain audience. We poets have great imagination! We can imagine an honest and merciful judge will read us, and we can do so even where our imagination retains other limits: where and while we don’t know how long we will work with our life, and we don’t know how close to nothing it will come to. We can only know the love in the work.
You can hear my performance of “Write Me Down” with a graphical player below if you see that, or with this backup highlighted link. Thanks, as always, for reading and listening.
*I was only able to find the significant details that Yeats left out of his poem to make it a more universal and general statement after work with Google’s index of published and not yet public domain books that was part of an ill-fated project that I understand was stopped due to copyright issues. I wish I had noted the book or books where I found that info, but the kind of in-between-life research that I found time to do, and my own general sloppiness, kept me from recording that. I regret that, and have tried later to make a point of linking others’ research that I’m grateful to have found.
**The direct inspiration for this piece’s words as I recall is a blessing associated with Rosh Hashanah new year’s celebration: “Shana Tova Tikateivu,” which means “May you be inscribed in the book of life for a good year.”