Many things have sideways value. Poetry for example. Its mnemonic features give us poems to remember things, like the number of days in a month. And words have their own music, so much so that even verse in a language we don’t know can sound beautiful in an abstract way.
Politics too and public events, for all we toil in or tire of it, has sideways virtues. I’m not much of a philosopher, but a poet like Wallace Stevens still pulls me into philosophic thoughts with his word music and his choral structures. And it seems to me that our current political world, even without intent, is calling us to think about belief. Not just what we believe (a question we sometimes do not pause to ask), but what are the consequences of our beliefs for ourselves and others.
Since the Parlando Project is about poetry meeting up with music, I’m not going to attempt a grand 500 word summary that lays out a philosophic framework for answering such questions today—I’m probably not capable of it—but I am going to offer a new Dave Moore song that makes a useful list to remember, has some nice music to it, and could lead you to ask a few questions.
Dave’s song is called “Five Kinds of Truth.” In my introduction of it today I’ll ask you to consider what the lyrics speak of as “truth” instead as “belief.” Philosophically, or in any strict sense, those two terms: belief and truth aren’t the same thing. But informally and humanly we equate and relate these two things all the time.
Could one fit Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” into dialog balloons? Nite Owl #1, art by Joe and Andy Kubert, written by J. Michael Straczynski
Here’s what Dave said about how he came to be inspired to write “Five Kinds of Truth:”
After loyally refusing to read the prequels written by others for Alan Moore’s Watchmen series for years, I finally broke down when they showed up at the library.
Copyright loyalty aside, they were really very good.
J. Michael Strazinski did a particularly great job with the Nite Owl character, and during one of the soliloquies in search for identity was the concept of 5 Kinds of Truth.
Which I lifted and rephrased because it was too good not to.
Concepts his, words mine.”
So, what did Dave do with this, and what did the LYL Band do to accompany it? Use the player below to find out.
A couple of weeks back a local music legend Willie Murphy died. I’m going to ask indulgence from this blog’s overseas audience, because unless you were around Minnesota in the last 50 years or so, you’ll likely have no idea who Murphy was—no, it’s even more location specific than that—I believe you need to have memories pinned within a few blocks of the intersection of Cedar and Riverside avenues, in a Minneapolis neighborhood near the Mississippi river known as The West Bank.
Many years ago the West Bank was a Scandinavian immigrant enclave, and it is now the home to Minnesota’s largest Somali community. But my story today is in-between, in the second half of the 20th century, when it was home to a thriving bohemian culture, immigrants of a slightly different sort.
Shortly after I moved to Minnesota, I got work at a hospital there, and when I had enough money saved up, I took classes at the University of Minnesota which spans the two banks of the river. I came late to the West Bank scene, but I absorbed the stories of those nonconformist young immigrants who were homesteading something that was called “the counter-culture.” The counter-culture was Willie Murphy’s job, as much as musician: putting together bands, recording other musicians, inaugurating live music venues, working and networking the scene.*
Willie and the Bees getting down somewhere in the past
But he was a musician too. Sang, played bass, guitar, and piano. Interpreted a lot of great R&B and wrote some good songs himself.
He was never the businessman. He engendered some of the things that entrepreneurs like to claim they do, but he never got the cash rewards. It’s a complicated story and I don’t know all the details—but I do know that he was an artist making art on his own terms right up until his last months of his 75th year. In one trope of musician’s slang, musicians “make the gig” or “make the scene.” Murphy lived that literally: he made a lot of gigs, helped make a scene.
Angel headed hipster. Murphy in his later years, still keepin’ on.
Mine’s a complicated story too. I eventually fell in love at the same time with two people who lived on the West Bank. There was music most nights and every weekend at a couple of coffee houses, a short-lived jazz club, a music school, and several bars, all of them within four or five blocks. And for my literary side, besides the University, there was Savran’s bookstore, which was well stocked with small press publications and poetry in several languages. In one’s Twenties many are imprinted on the culture encountered then, but the West Bank in the ‘70s seems an especially strong tattoo—and nostalgia fades in reverse.
Most change happens slowly enough that you never see it happening. One day you look over your shoulder and you see everything behind you isn’t there anymore.
Or you pick up a paper and see that Willie Murphy has died.
Most change happens slowly enough that you never see it happening. One day you look over your shoulder and you see everything behind you isn’t there anymore.
Or you pick up a paper and see that Willie Murphy has died.
I felt I needed to write about this, regardless of how well I could do it. The song I wrote “Willie Murphy (Is Always Playing on the West Bank)” has in-jokes and puns that only West Bank habitués will understand. In the first verse I twisted a line from Ginsberg’s “Howl” that also supplied the name of Murphy’s last band. Punned-in the name of some West Bank bars in the second verse, gave a shout-out to Koerner Ray and Glover in the bridge, and got in a sideways nod to the West Bank’s Mixed Blood Theater before I finished.
A week ago, I sprung it on the LYL Band and we gave it a go, with Dave Moore supplying his piano part off-the-cuff. You can hear it with the player below.
*Murphy recorded an LP with “Spider” John Koerner back in the 60s, and produced Bonnie Raitt’s first LP in the early 70s. Willie and the Bees was an integrated R&B band that mixed funky jazz and danceable grooves for a decade or so from the mid-70s into the early ‘80s.
I indicated when I first presented a poem by Charlotte Mew this month that I’d talk more about her life, but what I know is so limited and sad that I’ll try to condense things.
She was born into a family that had more than its share of illness and mortality. Three siblings died in childhood, two were institutionalized for insanity. Her father died “without making adequate provision for his family” according to the Wikipedia article, leaving her mother and surviving sister to try to scrape by in late 19th Century London. She appears to have been socially awkward and eccentric. Eventually her mother died, and then her sister, with Mew ending up being the final caretaker for both. After the death of that final sister, Mew herself was unable to care for herself. She was institutionalized and committed suicide by the decidedly unromantic method of drinking Lysol.
There is so much unanswered detail in her story. For example, the two surviving sisters are said to have vowed not to marry for fear that the insanity might be hereditary. My now largely forgotten medical knowledge/experience wonders what the exact elements were of these early deaths and the cluster of undifferentiated mental illness. Quick, idle thoughts fall to something like Huntington’s Disease.
Anyway, during her life Mew was something of a writer’s writer. Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf both championed her and apparently got her a government stipend for support. She was not prolific, and she didn’t write grand poetic epics or found a new school of poetry or critical theory. Still from the first time I read her poems this year I was easily struck by how different they often were. In her era there were a lot of Modernist poets who were shockingly different then—and who often still retain easily seen uniqueness today. Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, H. D., and William Carlos Williams made individual showy breaks away from fusty tradition in the time Mew was writing her poetry.
But Mew wasn’t really a Modernist as they were, not in any card-carrying sense. Her breaks from poetic orthodoxy were sometimes subtle and sometimes seem artless in both the good and bad senses of that term.*
Today’s piece “The Trees are Down” is a good example. Although I didn’t include it in the reading, it starts with a biblical epigraph from Revelation: “—and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees—” What follows starts off as if it’s miscategorized prose, as casual as a diary entry, a letter, or blog post. But it soon adopts a subtle rhythm, something like F. S. Flint’s “unrhymed cadences,” with a little symphony of sound verbs and some mixed in background sound from the workmen felling trees.
A London plane tree. Poetic enough…
But Mew will turn from this abruptly, rather than developing that sound and theme, almost literalizing the cliché “red herring.” She recalls finding a dead rat—not at the site of the tree work, not recently—just a rat’s carcass once encountered some “long past spring.” And she remembers thinking that even this “god-forsaken thing” should be alive in spring.
…not quite as romantic as a majestic tree.
Then she leaves this odd aside and begins a passage of irregular rhyme and near rhyme, once more looping in a sample of the workmen’s cries (“Down now!”). Nearly every phrase has end-rhyme, but we are made to wait seven phrases for a rhyme between “fine grey rain” and her return to that seemingly unconnected dead rat with a remark that except for this strange connection with the rat carcass and the death of the trees “I might never have thought of him again.”**
And then she changes once more, back to the unrhymed cadences mode as she begins to introduce her final theme. Her cadence strengthens in her last stanza, and she closes with the introduction again of a series of end-rhymes. She makes her closing case so clearly that I feel no need to make any paraphrase. That case borders on the sentimental I suppose, and I’d guess that any of the few reading “The Trees are Down” in Mew’s own time would see it as that in their context.
Today, when we encounter those same words Mew wrote, we might contextualize them differently. First, we may not be expecting Mew to sound like a fine regular poet with even meters and regular rhymes. Nor are some of us requiring she make it new in some bold way that makes a revolutionary show of novel ways of speaking and writing. We’re are more likely than readers in Mew’s time to be comfortable with poets speaking in unique and personal but merely human terms about events up unto death. The strange anecdote of the dead rat controls the sentimentality of the death of the great and stalwart trees. We may even see a subtext here, one we’ve come to increasingly realize: that of men callously controlling and seeking to reign over and reign in nature.
In the same way that we now read what had once been seen as inconsequential “relationship issues” in the poetry of Millay or Teasdale and see important social dynamics, we might read “The Trees are Down” now a hundred years later and see an ecological perspective.
To hear the LYL Band perform Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down” use the player below.
*Harold Monro, who published Mew’s first book of poetry in 1916, tried to describe this difficulty in Mew’s je ne sais quoi “No argument, or quotation, can prove that the poetry of Charlotte Mew is above the average of our day. She writes with the naturalness of one whom real passion has excited; her diction is free from artificial conceits, is inspired by the force of its subject, and creates its own direct intellectual contact with the reader. Her phraseology is hard and concentrated.” For a modern appreciation of Mew’s style see Molly Peacock here.
**I wonder if Mew, an upright human towering over the dead rat is being compared with the those-who-are-about-to-die trees towering over the humans beneath them.
I’m reading another critic/minor poet’s book about the early 20th century British literary scene, Edward Shanks’ First Essays on Literature. He’s in general more backward looking than Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets where I discovered Charlotte Mew (Shanks’ book has essays on Keats and Shelley) but I was interested what he had to say in his chapter “The Later Poetry of Mr. W. B. Yeats.” Shanks seems ambivalent about Yeats, and this is one of the pleasures of reading contemporary assessments of still active artists. He notes with approval that Yeats’ language has with the 20th century become less formal and fusty, though Shanks feels that gain comes at a loss of a singing quality.* Another conclusion he reaches is that Yeats’ is best when he’s describing the fantastical: “It is not Mr. Yeats’s business to describe the actual world, but to make beautiful pictures out of his dreams.” Though giving Yeats his due, Shanks doesn’t seem to think this is a good thing.
Interesting comment that, though I was already aware of Yeats’ appreciation of Irish myths and his dabbling in his era’s contemporary occultism. It caused me to stop and connect Yeats, and the two lesser known poets I’ve presented this month: Charlotte Mew and Yeats’ associate Walter Turner. Both have aspects of fantasy in their poetry too. And even our staid prelate of High Modernism, T. S. Eliot, while seeking his correlates within the whole timeline of culture, picks out elements of unreal gothic horror to weave into “The Waste Land.” Elements so broad as to make me compare a section of “The Waste Land” to Metal bands.
Did the horrors of WWI and the shifting ground of artistic Modernism impel some poets of the time to retreat (or advance) into fantasy? With the war poets, many of which had been “reporting” from the front-lines, no longer lining-out contemporary events while those events’ questions of outcome and action were pressing on all, was there now after the war a countervailing mode to step away from the pressing real?
If so, it’s no simple thing, and not just a matter of “give me some beautiful art to not let me think about hard questions.” Fantasy is just metaphor presented on another layer of art. Eliot, who unlike many of his contemporaries did not serve in WWI, would have trouble writing about the war as the veterans did after all. And the Surrealists—well their whole point was those “pictures out of…dreams” might reflect something essential.
Fantasy. Escapism? Surrealism? Metaphor presented in another layer of art?
Mew’s “Changeling” from my last post? Yes, it’s a fairy story, as is Yeats’ great “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” but either connects first on an emotional level deeper than any amazement at the fantastic. Talking fish or fairies knocking at windows are mundane compared to the loneliness of old age or the alienation of being an unlike youth.
Well, let’s end for now with an audio piece, an old one of my own. I wrote “China Mouth, A Changeling” over 40 years ago, after listening to a conversation where someone else was bemoaning their alienation. During the conversation the main talker paused to reapply some very red lipstick, its deep red the China in the mouth of the title. Unlike Mew’s changeling—who will run off, who cannot be stopped—there seemed to me to be an element of stasis in that overheard conversation. They seemed resigned that they would have their art and their alienation in a frozen balance. That brought to mind a story in Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” from his 1895 collection The King in Yellow in which a liquid turns living things into statuary. That idea informed the last verse. Depending on one’s taste for mystery, it either saves or ruins the song. Use the player below to hear it and decide for yourself.
*I don’t think I agree, Yeats never stops being musical to me. Shanks himself has an interesting connection between poetry and music, as another chapter in his book “Folk-Song as Poetry” deals with Cecil Sharp and other contemporary attempts to conserve British Isles folk music. Shanks’ first book was a collection of poetry called Songs, one of which lifts the floating verse that found its way into many folk songs, the one that starts “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.”
Have you heard the name Charlotte Mew? I hadn’t until I came upon it in Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets this month. Last post I presented Walter J. Turner, another now-forgotten early 20th century poet found in Monro’s book-length survey of his era’s British poetry. While I doubt we will ever see a full-fledged W. J. Turner revival, with Mew I think there’s room for growth in interest. She’s that unusual and that good.
I’ll probably spend more time on what I’ve found out about Mew when I present another piece, but to hit some highlights: she cut a notable figure even among the unconventional artists of Bloomsbury, wearing tailored men’s suits and displaying a wide-ranging intellect. Mew was both parodied for her eccentricities and praised. Among her literary admirers: Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon, Walter de la Mare, and Harold Monro himself, who published her first collection of poetry.
Maybe she looks like Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but read/listen anyway…
Why haven’t I (and likely you) heard of her? Fame forensics is a fraught subject. She’s one of those authors that straddles the centuries, though she didn’t start publishing poetry until the 20th. Some of her subject matter looks backwards, and individual lines will sound like they could be from a Victorian-era poet. Even so, her poetic style is her own. She uses uneven line lengths and unstable rhyme schemes, yet they don’t fall into doggerel. Mew died in 1928 and was not active in publishing in the last years of her life, so as Modernism was taking over she may have been just a bit “yesterday’s papers.” She may be one of those cases where her career didn’t rise high enough and maintain sufficient altitude to carry her glide-path into the second half of the 20th century. But like her admirer and champion Hardy, Mew is another one of those poets who at first, in some superficial respects, can seem old-fashioned, yet her core outlook is modern and unconventional. If one comes upon her work today and doesn’t expect her to sound like T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens, her uniqueness can still deserve your attention.
“The Changeling” is a fairy story of the chilling variety, more “Belle Dame sans Merci” than Disney. It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin! Like some other Mew poems I’ve already read as I start to look at her work, it’s extraordinarily easy to see modern psychological and sociological analysis in it’s situation. The narrator’s outsider sensibility is right there from the start, and the lure of the old wild natural world makes the order of the urban home and nursery regimen seem like a riot against that.
It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin!
Despite there being no regular line lengths or stanzas, I found it reasonably easy to set Charlotte Mew’s “The Changeling” as if it was a folk song of the “Tam Lin” variety. Alas, as is the case with many of my favorite old ballads, the result is lengthy by song standards. To compensate and decorate the time while you hear Mew’s tale unfold, I’ve added things that a handful of adventuresome British Isles folk-revivalists might have added 50 years ago: there’s tambura, sitar, and my first effort at playing tabla drums.*
So brew up some tea or elfin grot and listen to “The Changeling” with the player gadget below.
*I tried an inexpensive electric sitar a few years ago, but never got the hang of it. I now play sitar and tambura using a MIDI guitar, retuning when desirable. For my attempt at tabla today, I didn’t use a drum controller or pads, but instead triggered the drum hits and pitches with my MIDI guitar as well. As I should always do, I offer my apologies to the real masters of those instruments who have given me much listening pleasure over the years. On the other hand, my 9 minutes or so today is a short piece compared to many traditional South Asian numbers.
One thing I loved doing to stretch my culture and entertainment dollar back in the 20th century was to go to a used record shop and look for unusual records. The more disorganized and undiscerning the shop, the better for my purposes then—since the lowest price was important, and whatever the time spent, it was enjoyable.
It felt so good to come home back then, less a dollar or two, but with a record by someone I’d barely heard of, or never heard of. What would it sound like? What would they be trying to express? There’s a universe of art out there, commercial and not, music, words, every art. What hides itself, unlooked at, unheard, while our summarized cultural attention is elsewhere?
This project has allowed me to do the same thing with the poets of the early 20th century.
One way to find the overlooked is to read contemporary journalistic accounts of an era. They are unfiltered by later consensus, and focused on the day to day of their day, not overly informed by the judgements of history (which aren’t complete, much less unerring). And so, I’ve spent time this week reading Harold Monro’s* 1920 book Some Contemporary Poets. Monro is himself a poet I thought might be an interesting minor writer to examine. Instead, his book led me to at least two other writers that I found immediately interesting. Today you get to hear something from the first of them.
Monro didn’t much like Walter J. Turner, who he refers to as W. J. Turner.** He leads off his book’s short notice on Turner by saying that Turner was “Rumoured in literary circles” as “a genius.” Monro then wastes little time getting on to disputing that, saying that Turner has only learned “the ‘tricks of the trade’ in the neo-Georgian school.” So facile but vapid? No, Monro, extends his critique to Turner’s technique too: “Simple monosyllabic epithets like cold, dim, dark, pale, wan, bright, grey, still, occur in all he has written to such excess that they cloy the reader’s memory like some unwanted tune.”
I happen to think that one of the common faults of poetry is its resort to too many and too uselessly fancy a set of adjectives, so I looked at a few Walter J.Turner poems. I didn’t have to go far to see one that called to this reader’s memory for some—who knows?—unwanted tune.
I haven’t found out much yet about Turner’s life, but those rumors of greatness back in 1920 largely came from William Butler Yeats—a blurb any lyric poet would be glad to get. Turner isn’t as fluid a poet/word-musician as Yeats is (is anyone?) but he seems to have been struck by the fanciful, exotic and even occult aspects that are one thread in Yeats. Today’s piece “’There Came a Lion into the Capitol’” shows this.
Besides poetry, Turner wrote music criticism.
Turner published that title in quote marks, but I can’t find the literal phrase he might be quoting exactly. Lions and rulers and rulers’ seats are a rich trope of metaphor in general, but he may be referring to Cassius speaking about Julius Caesar in dialog from Shakespeare’s play. If so, his poem is very impressionistic, mentioning nothing that links it to Caesar, to Shakespeare, or any particular time or place.
The poem is entirely fantastic, in the strict sense of the word. The title lion somehow materializes from the page of a book (Shakespeare’s plays? The Bible*** or some equivalent? A spell-book? Some other book of lore?) and an apocalypse occurs. By the last stanza, planet Earth is gone and cold space is left.
Musically, I may have unintentionally copped a bit of the sound of one of my favorite used record store finds, the masterpiece of one of the great overlooked Afro-American-led bands of “The Sixties,” Love’s “Forever Changes.”**** My playing and arrangements don’t reach that level, but the orchestration of “Forever Changes” is what comes to my mind when I think of acoustic guitar mixed with a horn section, so maybe one of those dark-horse used records from long ago did become a muse here.
Hey, what happened to the rest of the band? A classic LP cover and my W. J. Turner parody of it.
To hear my performance of Walter J. Turner’s “’There Came a Lion into the Capitol’” use the player gadget below.
*H. Monro is not to be confused with H. H. Munro, the other writer whose penname was “Saki.” Monro and Munro were contemporaries. This might have been embarrassing at literary get-togethers!
**Not to be confused with J. M. W. Turner. He’s the painter.
***Lions appear in the Bible from the Old Testament to Revelation, but though the title phrase sounds like it could be in Revelation, I haven’t found an English translation that has it.
****The group Love was led by Arthur Lee, not to be confused with ace guitarist Albert Lee, who in turn is not to be confused with Albert Lea, the county seat of Freeborn County in south-east Minnesota. If you haven’t heard Love’s “Forever Changes,” you should. “Forever Changes” sold next to nothing—and the lyrics and some of the melody lines are unusual enough to explain that I suppose—but the LP’s arrangements are so rich and attractive that it’s difficult to imagine the real-world timeline that we actually lived through, the one where this wasn’t one of the biggest records of 1967. In our still ongoing time continuum, maybe Flying Lotus or Frank Ocean ought to do a tribute mixtape.
“Red Rooster” was written in 1917. It’s an Imagist poem, a good example of how this pioneering school of poetic Modernism might present things directly, without nearly as much scholarly allusion as later Modernism was prone too.
The same year this poem was written, its poet was published in Poetry magazine, the beacon of mainstream American Modernism, alongside poems by Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, and William Carlos Williams. Three years later the author had a collection published, containing over a hundred poems. Poetry’s editor, Harriet Monroe, speaking from her post-WWI maps-being-redrawn time, called that book “This miracle” and “A richer promise for the new age than may be read in treaties and decrees.”
Other reviews? That book-length collection had a forward by Imagist Amy Lowell who said of the work:
When one reads a thing and voluntarily exclaims ‘How beautiful! How natural! How true!’ then one knows that one has stumbled upon that flash of personality which we call genius.”
So, immense promise, now an assay of genius—though Lowell also cautions that within the collection “Inadequate lines not infrequently jar a total effect…” That first book went through at least seven printings and two other poetry collections followed shortly thereafter.
Go ahead, drop down to the bottom and listen to “Red Rooster” now. It’ll be interesting to encounter it before you know more about the author.
Willie Dixon & Howlin’ Wolf said ”No peace in the barnyard, since the little red rooster been gone.”
Who was the author, the poet with the mystery attached? Hilda Conkling. How come you (likely) haven’t heard of her? Well, we discussed “Donald Hall’s law” here last year. Hall said that most poets, even most poets who win awards and are published in the usual ways, are forgotten by 20 years after their death. There’s that. And Conkling had a short career, no more new poems from her after 1924, though she lived until 1986. But here’s the most significant reason: Conkling wrote “Red Rooster” when she was seven, her first collection was published when she was ten, as her output was already dropping off, and she gave up creating poetry entirely at age fourteen. A teenaged poetic legend like Arthur Rimbaud would be Sophocles writing Oedipus at Colonus in comparison.
Both Lowell and Monroe considered Conkling’s age, and both thought the case of Hilda Conkling might tell us something about childhood and poetic genius. The case for pre-adolescent children creating art has been argued a great deal since then. Art critic Herbert Read encouraged thorough arts education for school-children in the 1940s. Kenneth Koch taught classes where children were exposed to poetry and urged to write it. Koch wrote a couple of books to encourage this in the 1970s, and by that time the idea of arts for children was spreading out generally. In the early 1980s Dave Moore and I had heard so much of this that Dave (raising a precocious Hilda-aged child himself at that time) wrote an LYL Band song called “Kids” where the indignant child artists claimed, “we’re the natural poets, so shut up…” But despite that subsequent educational movement, Hilda Conkling is still a strange case: she started at age four, by the story, spontaneously, not as a pre-school exercise. Her father left Hilda’s mother around the same time, and Hilda told her mother that she’d composed a poem, which she then recited to her as a gift. The poems over the next decade followed the same process. Hilda’s mother was a writer and college literature professor who had exposed Hilda to books and music from an early age. One assumes Hilda learned to write later in childhood, but she would always recite each new poem to her mother, who would write them down.
Your first thought may be same as mine, that Hilda’s mother composed or helped to compose the poems. That’s possible, even probable, though the mother denied this, and said Hilda was always careful to correct any mistaken transcriptions. Amy Lowell deals with the issue by pointing out the childish elements in some of the poems as proof that they were genuine. But that speaks not at all to the idea that the mother improved or regularized the poems, or that some poems, even if they had a germ of an idea from the daughter, had elements that the literature professor mother further developed. It’s not hard to imagine an aiming-to-please daughter accepting some of what the mother transcribed and read back to her, even if it wasn’t what she had said, because she liked her mother’s changes, or didn’t want to disappoint or displease her.
The other accepted plot point in this story is that Hilda’s mother asked Hilda to write down her poems herself as Hilda turned 14, and then Hilda’s poetry stopped. That argues for the importance of the collaboration both as motivation and as conscious or unconscious editorial assistance. There are theories that Hilda may have had a disability which made writing her poems down difficult for her, but no additional life-evidence is offered to indicate that. The suggestion that Philistine and patriarchal society may have pressed the creativity out of the child has been offered. No one seems to have considered that Hilda might have continued to write poetry after age 14 but kept it to herself (a not-uncommon teen-age practice).
So much to wonder and doubt in this story—but we’re left with the best of the Conkling poems, such as “Red Rooster.” Could what’s good in it be unintentional? In the opening observation of the rooster, the metaphors have just the right taste (comparing the irradiance of the bird’s feathers to wet rocks and to boat hulls seen through water). The poem’s turn and development in the last few lines seems even more remarkable. The rooster as symbol of masculinity is time-honored, but we’re ¾ way through the poem before we leave objective and immediate observation to have the rooster characterized as both proud and foolish, and foolish like unto Joseph leaving his family with his “coat of many colors.” The concluding couplet is just great poetic invective. Did a seven-year-old write that, intuiting not just the nature of the conflict in her home, but a vibrant, time-resonating metaphor for it? Was Hilda a 20th Century Mozart, or a prolific creator that sometimes landed a lucky strike? Or was it help from a wronged-by-a-man ghostwriter/mom? As a reader I don’t care. “Red Rooster” doesn’t read as unintentional, as a random combination—but then again, we readers are great pattern-seers, as anyone who’s worked with things like automatic writing or cut-up discovers.
My best guess is collaboration, a child and an adult seeing and sharing the world together. That, like this poem, could be extraordinary too.
Here’s my performance of “Red Rooster.” Give a listen to it with the player below.