How is everyone finding the increased frequency of posts so far this April?
It’s been extra effort for me, but I’m enjoying what I’m finding out as I encounter these poems and poets. and I hope that comes across to you the listeners and readers.
I’ve got a lot more planned for National Poetry Month 2019. We’ll return to our serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” soon, and I’ve got additional stuff in what’s turning out to be a “Roots of Emily Dickinson” series as we look at another poet who inspired this Founding Mother of modern American poetry.
Besides looking at Poetry’s Greatest Hits and poets like Eliot and Dickinson that are too large to ever get around, we’re also going to look at some more of the unusual, lesser-known, and should be better-known works again. If we have time, there may even be something new that Dave Moore or I wrote ourselves.
Scenes of winter past: what is that thing bleeding some vital fluid outside my window?
What else? Some things I don’t know yet. This project is about exploration, and when you find one thing it often leads to another surprise. But you don’t have to wait, as there’s probably something to surprise you in the over 300 pieces available in our archives.
I’ll leave you today with the most listened too and liked audio piece of 2018, Emily Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” first released here last February.
As we continue our accelerated exploration of poetry for National Poetry Month, let’s look at another way that poetry, and in particular T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” manifested itself in popular culture in the black & white TV era.
Yesterday’s post about a Twilight Zone episode shouldn’t be all that shocking. Rod Serling made his bones as a screenwriter first, and many of his TZ episodes were adaptations of short-stories, albeit genre short-stories that might not pass muster in Western Lit classes. Burgess Meredith, who embodied the Prufrockian Harold Bemis had a long career in stage plays that were literary adaptions as well, including directing Ulysses in Nighttown and a touring production titled James Joyce’s Women.
Still, in the unnamed straddle-decade of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, science fiction and fantasy were rarer than televised literary adaptations. What was extraordinarily common was “Westerns.” A plethora of cowboys, gunfighters, sheriffs, horse-soldiers and ranchers rode the gray sage range. Watching them now I’m struck buy some things. They are often surprisingly violent. The small fuzzy low-contrast home screens wouldn’t have portrayed the later exploding blood-squib aesthetic of Peckinpaugh and Tarantino well then, but the Westerns of this era intensified the meanness, meaninglessness, and sadism to Jacobean revenge play levels.*
The moving pencil moustache writes, and fashion notices. Richard Boone as Paladin and Bob “Marshall” Dylan who’s taken to wearing dark western gear in his later years. Not pictured: Johnny “The Man in Black” Cash.
Taken in general they are also shockingly racially ignorant and ahistorical. The lead roles, the protagonists and antagonists, are nearly always white men, and then if the Western is a way to examine the historic violence of white men that could have its value, but it’s often white man against white man that is the central focus on the small screen. The issue of the conquest, displacement and decimation of First Nations people is rarely dealt with in any searching or complex way, and so that fault has become a commonplace in comments on the 20th century Western. What’s even more obtuse is the lack of any significant ethnicity beyond WASP-white. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and first generation immigrants in general are all highly under-represented and when present, most always stereotyped.** Latin-American characters exist to a greater degree, given that much of the settings for these dramas would make it impossible to white-out them from history.
So, black & white television Westerns of this era are largely white & white.
I can’t hold it up as an exemplar in these matters, but my favorite of the era was Have Gun Will Travel. It wasn’t consistent in mitigating these massive blind spots, but it had its moments.*** And as a half-hour drama, many episodes present almost poetic compression: striking unusual characters that exist for a scene only, tales told in only a few stanzas, epigrams dropped in as dialog. Watching a good episode is so unlike modern season-arcing prestige TV. You’re left to fill in the life before and after of most any character, and conflict doesn’t brew and simmer over hours, but often is “An intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
‘50s TV may have bleached the Old West, but that didn’t mean Afro-Americans and others had to go along with that.
So how am I going to stretch things to bring“The Waste Land” into this six-gun waving post before I wind it up? Well, the Have Gun Will Travel “Waste Land” referencing episode “Everyman” is so bold-faced that the writer certainly intended it, though I can’t say if anyone thought many viewers would catch the in-jokes in between the cigarette and laxative commercials.
This attempt to incorporate elements of “The Waste Land” fails to succeed overall, but some things about it are still striking. The mysterious Danceman character (a Summoning of Everyman/Seventh Seal dance of death reference?) could appear in a Bob Dylan song and not be out of place. The strange and sketchy dynamics in the shopkeeper and his daughter might subtly be riffing off “The Waste Land’s” sexual anxiety.
Once more, let me leave you with a Parlando audio piece featuring the LYL Band using the words of Carl Sandburg, this time his “Long Guns” which I mix with a little Howlin’ Wolf. The player is below. The full text of Sandburg’s poem is here. And as to Howlin’ Wolf, well you just need to seek him out, but the man learned at the feat of rural mixed-race early-20th century Modernist Charley Patton.
*Alternate reader and keyboardist here, Dave Moore wrote a chapbook about he and his brother watching these shows as kids and making a game of totaling up the dead. It’s certainly math of higher numbers. Even in the half-hour dramas, one can be fairly certain there will be death along with threats of death—often multiple deaths, often murders, along with executions, duels, and battle deaths.
**Historically, the “Old West” was demographically diverse, just as most frontiers are.
***Two examples: “The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs” featuring singer/guitarist Odetta, and a flawed episode with some strong elements written by Gene Roddenberry “The Yuma Treasure.”
Continuing our exploration of National Poetry Month, let’s open another door. You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…
Yes, I’m speaking of mid-20th century TV, and specifically The Twilight Zone. Once more there is a revival of this series, helmed this time by the talented Jordon Peele. I think there’s something difficult in his task, one that may not matter in terms of audience or financial success, but one that I notice when I look at the old gray-screen stuff from 60 years ago. It’s two of those qualities I look for in poetry: compressed expression and memorability.
If older people remember some of those shows like poems, it’s because they were much more like poetry than prestigious television is today. For one thing the 30 minute drama was a thing. Isn’t this odd? We talk today about ever-shorter attention spans incessantly, as if we ourselves have forgotten that we’ve already talked about that subject—but the predominant television format today is the video equivalent of the serialized novel. Even the basest form of “reality TV’ shows are season-long arcs of hour-long episodes, and most of the prestige shows intelligent critics like to write about unwind over multi-season plots. That’s a valid concept, but it isn’t the only possible one. Those old 30 minute shows had to express the experience and clash of ideas fast, they weren’t about long-form character dynamics, they were about epiphanies.
Do folks feel they remember 21st century television episodes, in a sense they possess them completely as recollections of sensations and apprehensions; in the way that one possesses a poem, even one not completely memorized, where one may hold and carry a key stanza or final couplet in our mind?
There are several Twilight Zone episodes that seem to have the quality of memorability shared with poetry. For the literary sort, the 1959 first season episode “Time Enough at Last” starring Burgess Meredith as a man who so loves to read books would be one. The gist of the story is so memorable I’m not going to summarize the plot, because you’ll remember it if you saw it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the 25 minutes of your time, and there will be no spoilers here. Only the final (spoilers!) scene is available on YouTube, so don’t go there, but I expect some streaming services will have it.
Instead I’m here to note two small things you may have forgotten, though I have no idea if Twilight Zone’s creator, producer, and screenwriter of this episode Rod Serling intended these details.*
T. S. Eliot and Harold Bemis played by Burgess Meredith. Two bank clerks who’d rather be reading.
First off, Burgess Meredith’s character, Harold Bemis, works in a bank and his marriage is spectacularly dysfunctional. I found it odd that I hadn’t remembered the key scene between the married couple, which is so intentionally cruel and specific as to equal or exceed the empty-hearted offhand cruelty between men and women in “The Waste Land.” Even if the wife’s character is stereotypically shrewish, the ending of their scene is so heartbreaking that I can’t say why it isn’t more remembered. Of course, the whole sexual politics of this echt-’50s trope of the controlling female denying the freedom of the male should be bothersome, but did the TV show intend to reference the scholarly T. S. Eliot circa the writing of “The Waste Land” then working in a bank, famously hamstrung by his own dysfunctional marriage?
Probable? I can’t go that far, but it’s more of an outside possibility than you might think. T. S. Eliot was never Tennyson or Longfellow famous, but in the 1950s he was as well-known as a poet could be then**, and poetry was still considered something of a co-equal branch of literature, a substantial part of culture.
And that was the other detail that stood out watching “Time Enough at Last” again. The couple’s scene revolves around Harold Bemis wanting to sneak a read of a book. A classic novel? A bit of science fiction or fantasy? Hemingway on bullfights and fly fishing? The Second Sex in French? A hard-boiled detective yarn? Philosophy? History? A collection of “Can This Marriage Be Saved” columns?
No, it’s A Book of Modern Poetry. Bemis’ character says of it “This has lovely things in it, really. There’s one or two from T. S Eliot. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Frost. Carl Sandburg.” My ears perked up. That’s the kind of stuff you find here!
Now Harold Bemis is also a stereotype, the nebbish, maybe the idea that the thing his domestic bank clerk life most wants is modern poetry is meant to underline that caricature—that he’s too bookish. It’s not like he wants to anachronistically read The Art of the Deal. Despite the sadness of the scene, it cheered me, it could also mean to say, even a little, that that is what he needs. And in any case, Serling at least thought that an audience in 1960 would know these poets in some way, even superficially. If Jordon Peele or someone would rewrite that scene today and his modern Bemis was to speak of Frank Bidart, Tychimba Jess, Peter Balakian, and Gregory Pardlo*** as the lovely things he most wished to read, would the audience read anything in those names?
Well those four poets could well have as much or more to say to us. Why wouldn’t they? On the other hand, I can perform the older poems I use here freely as I encounter them, and it would be a chore to try to get unencumbered use of current poets for my small project. So, here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “At A Window,” available with the player below, and full text to read along here. All four of the poets he mentions in his scene would have difficult messages that still might console Bemis, all four could write a lovely line, even about harrowing things. But I’d choose this one from Sandburg for him to read aloud.
*Serling’s screenplay was based on a 1953 If magazine short story by Lynn Venable. Venable also has Harold Bemis as henpecked and working in a bank, but her story has Harold’s spouse so dead-set against him reading that it’s said he hasn’t ever been able to finish a book, and the only book author name-checked in the entire story is Spinoza. Her scene between Bemis and his wife is told in a much blander flashback.
**Before there was a national poetry month, on April 30th 1956 T. S. Eliot spoke in the Twin Cities, filling one of the largest capacity basketball arenas in the country (somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 capacity)—not for a mythic men’s Final Four between Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, but for a solo lecture sure to pack’em in today: “The Frontiers of Criticism.”
***Those are the last four winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Unfair! Bemis’ book was an anthology of modern poetry, those poets he longs for all had been publishing for 40 years. But just for contrast, here are the poets who won the Pulitzer in the ‘50s, “recent years” to the 1959 TV screenplay: Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren, and Stanley Kunitz. Of course, poets in your rear-view mirror may appear larger/greater than they are to contemporaries, and it does look like the Pulitzer committee was more likely to give “lifetime achievement” awards in the ‘50s than they have been in our century.
I once thought that one of the marvels of Emily Dickinson is that she was able to create such revolutionary poetry without any supporting circle of fellow writers. She had poetic heroes: Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she never met them. Well, it turns out there’s a bit more to her story.
Last year I followed a thread that her sister-in-law, neighbor, and friend Susan Dickinson wrote poetry, and as a result performed one of Susan’s poems “Crushed Before the Moth.” Interestingly, it sounds a bit like an Emily Dickinson poem. This year, I’m reading Genevieve Taggart’s biography of Emily Dickinson, one of the earliest written—researched in the 1920s when people in Amherst who knew Dickinson and her family were still living. And it’s inside that book that I met up with Helen Hunt Jackson.
Helen Hunt Jackson: poet, novelist, activist.
Helen was the same age and a childhood classmate of Emily Dickinson, but she married a brilliant military engineer and left town.* Taggart’s biography tells me that she returned to Amherst and visited Dickinson several times. By the 1860s Helen too was writing poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson was connected with Thomas Higginson, the editor/abolitionist/feminist who Dickinson famously reached out to and corresponded with, and who helped edit the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry after Emily died.
Helen and Emily exchanged work and discussed writing. Genevieve Taggart even says that Jackson was selecting work for her first collection of poetry while visiting with Dickinson. Unlike Dickinson, Jackson aimed to be published, and did so not only in magazines but eventually in over 20 books.** While Thomas Higginson discouraged Dickinson from publishing, Helen Hunt Jackson adamantly urged her to. Jackson midwifed the publication in an anthology of one of Dickinson’s poems “Success is counted sweetest” the only poem of Dickinson’s published in a book during Dickinson’s lifetime.
Did their writing influence each other? It’s hard to say. Jackson certainly didn’t convince Dickinson to become a publishing professional author, but another woman of the same age and town selecting and publishing books of poetry had to encourage Dickinson at least as much as the far-away Bronte and Browning. On the other hand, it seems that Dickinson had already written a great deal of her now famous work before she renewed her childhood friendship with Helen.
I was intrigued to find out that Jackson wrote a novel in 1876 Mercy Philbrick’s Choice which featured a heroine who was socially reclusive, wore white and wrote poetry that some think might be a novelized tale of Emily Dickinson. I skimmed through it this week. At one point in the novel, a friend of the poet character sends two of her poems to a noted editor who responds favorably, and my heart leapt up, as this sounded like a description of Dickinson’s famous letter to Higginson. There seem to be other tantalizing passages that could be a friend roman à clef’ing Emily Dickinson. But one has to remember that the novel’s author herself, Jackson, is a poet, from the same age and home town. Mercy Philbrick could also contain elements of her own life and character. That certainly seems so of the title character’s poetry quoted in the book—it doesn’t sound at all like Dickinson.
So, here’s today’s piece, a poem written by Helen Hunt Jackson about an Italian wheat field. It’s kind of a revoicing of Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils” poem, but it has its own charm and details. We celebrate National Poetry Month here the same way we present poetry the rest of the year, a mix of the well-known and the forgotten. To hear my performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Poppies on the Wheat,” use the player below. Want to follow along with the text while listening? Here’s the full text of the poem.
*Emily met Helen’s husband Edward Bissell Hunt when the couple visited Amherst and Emily noted that he was one of the most fascinating men she’d ever met. Edward Hunt was killed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Civil War while leading the testing of a top-secret weapon of his own design, a self-propelled torpedo. Helen remarried after Edward’s death extending her formal name to Helen Hunt Jackson, though she often published using the non-gendered pen name H. H.
**While her poetry is not well known today, Helen Hunt Jackson became a campaigner for Native American rights starting in 1879. In 1881 she published her first book under her own name, a book setting out the reasons for her cause A Century of Dishonor which she sent to every member of congress. Three years later she novelized about Native American issues and wrote a best-seller Ramona which has been characterized as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, only dealing with Native American mistreatment.
Was I being audacious when I compared Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to a modern hip hop/rap production sampling various parts and levels of the world’s culture? I don’t think so (though maybe I should be worried). I’m not going to get into a rap battle between T. S. Eliot vs. Missy Elliot, or a discussion about “Kendrick Lamar, is he a ‘real poet?” like my generation used to discuss Bob Dylan. My aging generational knowledge isn’t deep enough to discuss Lamar or Elliot as intelligently as I should. I’m more comfortable discussing folks who were born long before I was, but someone like Charley Patton is too O. G. to bring up here often. After all, T. S. Eliot and Charley Patton are my grandfather’s generation, born in the 19th century. People like me can be pretty good in figuring out what lessons our grandparent’s completed lives impart, not so good at what lessons our children should learn from us, and terrible at what lessons our children could teach us.
Charlie Patton and T. S. Eliot: two young swells put their best foot forward beside different rivers in the 1920s.
Eliot may have thought he was copying cubist paintings or cinema montage or some French poetry, but he chose this sampling tactic or he would have done something else. Who was Charlie Patton copying? I don’t know exactly. Maybe he made it up. Maybe some griot or indigenous shaman whispered it in his ear.
T. S. Eliot was his own kind of odd guy, odd to his contemporaries, even if he eventually became enormously influential in the Modernist literary movement that had taken over poetry education by the time I was a student. When I first introduced “The Waste Land” here I said there’s two things you need to know to approach it, and they aren’t esoteric at all: first that it’s musical and intended to be, and second that it’s written by a person suffering from depression, a common human malady that colors and filters perception profoundly. Now, following my grappling with it in the past few years, I’ll add two more things, neither of which require reading about Grail legends or From Ritual to Romance either: it’s written by a man writing for a culture coming out of a tremendous wartime trauma and it’s written by a man struggling to come to terms with human sexuality, it’s sins, pleasures, and disappointments.
On the war issues, Eliot is guiltily living, not dead, in a world where many others weren’t so lucky. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 15 and 19 million people were killed in WWI, the majority from the European theater that had become Eliot’s home. Given this level of death, it’s not surprising that Eliot personally knew people killed in the war. Most of his British literary contemporaries served in the war, he didn’t. Indeed, while WWI raged, he tried to disengage from the war, to continue to focus only on scholarly issues and his literary writing.*
Eliot’s an American from St. Louis in a foreign country and he’s gotta figure out how to trans-Atlantic code-switch. He goes in full-force, becoming so completely English that he eventually was able to style himself as an authority on what was appropriately British. After the conclusion of the war, as a literary critic he can write about “objective corelative” and all that, but he can no longer ignore the trauma his adopted country and the rest of Europe has suffered.
Last year’s segment “A Game of Chess” rolled-up into one audio file in our last post, portrays marriage darkly and introduces rape and sexual coercion as one of the underlying themes in “The Waste Land.” Here we know little about Eliot’s own experience, other than his marriage to an English woman was dysfunctional. As we move further into our section for this year, “The Fire Sermon,” sexuality is further brought forward in an unflattering light.
As the section begins in the segment I call “Sweet Thames” we’re back in a ruined landscape, the titular “Waste Land.” The scene seems post a debauched party season, missing even the messy vitality of that. Eliot, a man who grew up near the banks of the southern Mississippi is now on the banks of London’s Thames river.
And then he, or some incarnation of the poem’s speaker, the many voices in Eliot’s head, is fishing. Following the literary and critical references, this is the Fisher King, and we could look to a trail of ancient myths, but I chose to keep it immediate and funky in performance. This is a dirty, river-rat frequented urban river. He wants us to know that he’s fishing next to a gashouse, which I take to be one of those now obsolete processing furnaces that turned coal into coal gas, a smelly and polluting process usually relegated to the worst part of town. The anachronistic pendant in me found this amusing, as a decade after ex-St. Louis boy Eliot wrote “The Waste Land” his home-town Cardinals baseball team used to intimidate their opponents by wearing stinky unwashed uniforms and were given the nickname “The Gashouse Gang” for their smell and general lack of decorum. There’s no known connection for this coincidence, but it’s good that they didn’t wait until later in “The Fire Sermon” and to then become the World Series winners dubbed “The Young Men Carbuncular.”
As the section nears an end point another song-sample break is dropped,** the Mrs. Porter section. Eliot noted that it was an Australian army folk song, and further research indicates that the Mrs. Porter may have been a Cairo brothel keeper known to the ANZAC troops heading for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where a dear friend of Eliot, Jean Verdenal was killed in battle. Depending on how salty the soldier-singer may have felt, the body parts being reported as washed varied.
I like to think that Charley Patton, further down the Mississippi river, might have known that tune, but since neither he nor T. S. Eliot are here to sing this, you can hear my performance using the gadget below. If you’d like to look at the text of “The Waste Land” while you listen, the full text is here.
**And for all you carpe diem fans, did you note the sample from Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” here, when just before Mrs. Porter soda-washing-song he says “But at my back from time to time I hear…” and instead of a winged chariot, it’s motorcar horns. If given the choice of grave or sex, I think Eliot would have held out for a third choice.
Each April, as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month, the Parlando Project has been presenting in serial form T. S. Eliot’s High Modernist masterpiece “The Waste Land.” This year, we’re up to the third section of the poem “The Fire Sermon,” but before we present new material, I want to give our newer listeners/readers a chance to catch up.
It’s possible to read the entire “Waste Land” aloud as a dramatic monolog in less than 40 minutes total time. Fiona Shaw has done this, and her performances of it cannot be praised or recommended enough. But for me personally (and this goes back to my first readings of the poem) I’ve always been struck by “The Waste Land’s” intense musicality. The collage process of various voices is musical, and “The Waste Land’s” constant changes in tone and insertion of quotes from other poetry eerily predict hip hop mix tapes in a 78 rpm world. Themes emerge and fall back and are then repeated later on, just as they do in long-form musical composition. Eliot even quotes song lyrics multiple times in the poem.
He got $2,000 for service to letters, but our aim is to demonstrate the music in it
So, I’ve long dreamed of performing “The Waste Land” with music—and now, as part of this project I’m realizing that dream on the installment plan. While I think the music can help bring some solace and additional shadings to Eliot’s unstinting look at human failure and limitations, the resulting performance is lengthy. It’s not the kind of thing I can take on creating and performing lightly—and to listen to it, even casually, is not light entertainment either. The Parlando Project normally focuses on shorter poetry, the lyric impulse. Almost all of our pieces are under 5 minutes, and we have hundreds of them available here. So, don’t feel obligated to listen to these longer “Waste Land” pieces. They are not for everybody, and I believe they are consistent with Eliot’s design to write only for those willing to look at dark impulses and feelings, to weigh and consider them within your mind and heart.
Here’s “I. The Burial of the Dead,” the first section that famously opens with “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land…” which is likely a reason that April is U. S. National Poetry month (and may already be referring to another poem, Walt Whitman’s Lincoln elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”)
And here’s last year’s contributions, the section “II. A Game of Chess” rolled up into one piece for the first time here. I start out this one by making an ex-post-facto connection of Eliot’s lavish and dissipated opening of “A Game of Chess” with the late-night, dragged out, “Ain’t it just like the night” style of Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan, and it ends with an appearance of a guest reader Heidi Randen for the monolog about Lil and Albert and their just-discharged-from-the war marriage.
This month we’ll continue our serial presentation of “The Waste Land” with one of its longest sections, “III. The Fire Sermon.” If you’d like to read along with the text of the poem while listening, the full poem is here. With these musical presentations I maintain that you can listen to them and not feel that you need to understand what the poem means in the essay-question sense, and instead only require the poem’s words to strike you with scattered connotations and impacts. There are a great many resources for those who would like to delve into deeper meanings of “The Waste Land,” all the things that Eliot intended to put there—and also the things he only inherently and accidentally included. For those that enjoy that, there’s much there at that level, but I remind you of the concept I laid down a couple of posts back regarding Emily Dickinson’s much shorter poem: a poem isn’t so much about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas.
Let’s continue our celebration of U. S. National Poetry Month!
If Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are the parents of modern American poetry, then one poet is most nearly the descendant with an equal inheritance from both: Carl Sandburg.
Sandburg’s poetry has two modes: the tightly compressed Imagist poem and the expansive, iterative, catalogic Whitman-like ode. I find him effective in both styles—and sometimes he mixes both, as in today’s selection. Each line in his “10 Definitions of Poetry” is its own compressed poem, but taken together in a list they express different aspects of poetry.
The forgotten American Modernist. Sandburg! thou shouldst be living at this hour!
I’m something of an advocate for Sandburg here, as I feel he’s fallen out of favor during my lifetime and now is more than due to be re-evaluated. The major knocks against him in the later part of the 20th century were that he wasn’t complex and subtle enough, that his poetry didn’t dig deep enough in to the hard-to-grasp philosophic questions at the core of meaning and human existence, and to a secondary degree that his poetry wasn’t, well, poetic, that it was neither lyrically beautiful nor painstakingly constructed.
I won’t lay out a complicated case for Sandburg on those two issues here today, but on the first issue I’ll say that Sandburg’s Socialist and working-class outlook leads him to address universal issues of the human condition, from top to bottom of our current social organization; while other poets, ones with an avowed aesthetic focus or a calling for self-contained spiritual insight look at only part of the situation. Even those that don’t share Sandburg’s politics can benefit from his insights. On the charge of Sandburg not being a poetic craftsman, I’ll say that while I don’t know much yet about his working methods, I can look closely at some of Sandburg’s shorter works and find well-chosen small things—and whether they were intuitively there in his vision or created by exhaustive study and revision, I find that less important than their existence.
I’m also sorry to say that Sandburg’s poetry can sometimes be—as reflected in some of his definitions in this list—fun, funny, entertaining. You’ll just have to overlook that.
And if he’s charged with those things, weren’t Whitman and Dickinson also charged with these faults throughout the 20th century? Our current century looks at Whitman and Dickinson and sees their still startling differences—but has begun to realize that where the past saw in those differences infelicities of expression or simple directness, that they are instead part of their genius, part of why our need for those poets has not been replaced. And if we need Whitman and Dickinson, then perhaps we also need their hybrid descendant Sandburg too—he of his synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.
I took my musical inspiration today from Sandburg’s first definition: “Poetry is a projection across silence of cadences arranged to break that silence with definite intentions of echoes, syllables, wave lengths.” My guitar part runs through some modulation effects and an echo/delay; and underneath, working with my electric bass-line, a wobbly Mellotron* waves along. Hear this with the player gadget below, check back soon for more combinations of various words with original music—and, oh yes, please let others know what we’re doing here at the Parlando Project.
*No, I don’t have an actual funky tape strip Mellotron. Thankfully the tapes have been converted into digital samples and can be played with an inexpensive MIDI keyboard or controller.