It Is Not Always May

I cannot start any presentation of a Longfellow poem here without noting his extraordinary fall from esteem and fame. Once, through a combination of the historical moment in the growth of the United States, his talents, and a desire to write earnestly meaningful poems, Longfellow seemed our national poet. Did it seem, when that was so, that this would be for all time—or at least for an age longer than a decade or two short of a century?

Any reading across this project’s nearly three years will show that I find worth in the less-well-known, the overlooked. But nothing that is honestly popular can be unworthy of examination—after all, even manifold problems and failures of art in that which drew a large audience tell us something about that audience, our fellow human beings. Which case now, overlooked or popular, is Longfellow?

Choice Thoughts from Longfellow

Imagine a current poet whose rep could generate a board game where one wins quotes from their poems (image from Maine Historical Society collection)

 

If Whitman, Dickinson and Frost—or their unseen ghosts in our zeitgeist—still motivate our inner singing muses, can we understand that trio—our current national poets—as reactions to Longfellow, making him still a prime-mover of some interest?

So, let’s listen to “It Is Not Always May”  today. Rhymed metrical English language lyric is not easy to do, and harder to do if you want it to sound easy, and this one is pretty good. Yes there’s a bit of “poetic diction” here, words and word-order that we’d never say in actual speech, and I suspect that would be true even in 1842 when this poem was published, but it doesn’t greatly harm the poem.

The imagery is largely conventional, though as a seasonal poem we may expect some of these ready-mades to be checked off: birds, bird-song, budding trees, the young, the frolic. Can one do a winter poem without snow and stasis, an autumn poem without colored falling leaves, and so on? Yes, this is possible, and originality can be a great strength—but there’s a certain resonance with the choir of poets to sing those ancient notes in one’s own song. Conventional and outdated it may be, but I rather liked the clouds as sailing vessels in a river-fed harbor awaiting a west wind to up-anchor from New England for the “Old World.” And the poem’s refrain: “There are no birds in last year’s nest,” which Longfellow identifies as a Spanish proverb, has its vividness too.

Oh in my soul, I think the Imagists were right, that too many poems use conventional images as mere counters, pro-forma symbols, not real vivid objects we can consider as existing outside the poetic line. But I could just see Longfellow and the sea-side clouds as an actual charged moment.

And how about this poem’s sentiment? Well many acceptable modern poems have opinions, outlooks, sentiments, and so the charge against Longfellow isn’t really that, rather it’s sentimentality, the idea that he has no original outlook, no fresh take. What would his readers in the days of his fame have thought? A feature, not a bug? Longfellow was the premier “Fireside Poet,” suitable for reading to the family, suitable for school-books and children’s illustrated early readers. Did they view this poem as a basic truth to be reminded of, or did they view this as sufficient in itself? I assume some thought each.

Yes, I want more than that from poetry. Reassurance and singular conventional answers aren’t even what children want and need exclusively. But this poem is balanced in a way that I can admire. It’s a carpe diem poem without a smarmy pickup line, a song of the life-death cycle that plays the undertones, a poem that asks subtly for youth to be irresponsible, or responsible to their youth not earned wisdom (“to some good angel leave the rest”).

Do we need a new Longfellow today? I’m not sure. I would be pleased if more people appreciated poetry more widely, and as I’ve argued elsewhere here, that “not great poetry” does no harm, and might even do some good for more unusual or challenging poetry. I think I forgot to say clearly enough in my recent series on “Are Song Lyrics Poetry” that to a large degree we’ve asked song-lyrics to fill this role of poetry in my lifetime. But I do believe we needed a Longfellow at least once to establish the ground on which our foundational modern poets erected their structures.

So, it’s fitting that I chose to sing this May poem of Longfellow’s, even given the limitations of my singing voice. Once more I was drawn to using the less and more than realistic Mellotron flute and cello sounds to signify a pastoral scene. Even with my limitations, “It Is Not Always May”  sings well and easily, and I urge you to hear it with the player below. The poem’s text is available here if you’d like to read along.

 

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Ollendorf’s Wife ‘Bout Changes and Things

Despite Orrick Johns’ lack of poetic fame, our curious audience seems to be responding to “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  Are you forgiving my unilateral revision of Johns’ 1917 words?

OK, here’s another rule breaker. The same day that I recorded the acoustic version of“Ollendorf’s Wife”  I also recorded this folk-rock performance with bass, drums, organ, and electric guitars. Is it better or worse than the acoustic version? I can’t say.

By subtitling this post/version “’Bout Changes & Things” I’m making an obscure reference to a quixotic mid-60s LP by Eric Anderson. Anderson was one of a handful of Greenwich Village folkies well positioned in the ‘60s to step into the new post-Bob Dylan breakthrough were the singers were expected to write their own songs with poetic sounding lyrics. ’Bout Changes & Things  had some of Anderson’s best early songs, songs that were already getting covered by some of the same acts that might also use a Dylan song.

However, about the time it came out another sea-change was occurring. Everyone’s folksinger records were starting to use electric instruments and drum-sets. Earnest acoustic guitar LPs with maybe Spike Lee’s dad on standup bass or Bruce Langhorne on “second guitar” were no longer what was expected. Dylan goes electric! The Byrds were having hits with folk songs and glorious electric 12-string guitars, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky had formed the Lovin’ Spoonful.

The trend was so strong that the production equivalent of revisionist history was resorted to. Tom Wilson overdubbed some session men on top of an already released but unnoticed Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sounds of Silence.”*  Alan Douglas took old tapes of Richie Havens and added new instruments to make “Electric Havens.”**  The former created a hit record and launched a career. The later couldn’t stop the undeniable soul force that was Havens.

Producers and Piano Players

Producers and piano players: Alan Douglass with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus
Tom Wilson producing “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan

 

Eric Anderson just went back into the studio and re-recorded his whole album with a band, and it was released as ’Bout Changes ‘n’ Things Take 2.  It did nothing for his career, and maybe even hurt it. It probably seemed not authentic, scene chasing, or some other sin.

Bout Changes and Things x2

Revisions: One set of songs, two albums.

 

So, there you go, one guy in Greenwich Village years ago who seemed at one point the equal of a lot of other up-and-comers but turned out to be a damp squib that didn’t ignite. And another guy. Same story.

To hear my folk-rock performance of “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Tom Wilson is another one of those “Why don’t more people know about him” characters. Besides midwifing Simon and Garfunkel’s first hit, even a brief look at who he worked with listed in his Wikipedia article should amaze anyone with any interest in mid-century American music. This labor of love web site can tell you more.

**Alan Douglas has an impressively varied producer’s resume similar to Wilson’s, but his ghost could probably stand to be less well-known. His overdubs of Havens work are largely forgotten, but he spent a couple of decades redoing tracks in the Jimi Hendrix archives (including replacing parts on the tapes with newly recorded session men) in an effort that was increasingly seen as fraudulent and cheesy. It’s not that I can’t see their critics’ point regarding Douglas’ Hendrix releases, and the resulting recordings are a mixed bag, but I indulge in the same sins of reusing and re-doing other artists work.

Ollendorf’s Wife

I’m going to do something this time that I’ve done before but is rarely done.

I’m going to revise someone else’s poem without their permission—which I would feel bound to obtain, but the author Orrick Johns is long dead. The last time I did this, it was Rupert Brooke’s work I used, and my excuse was that his fragment that I presented here as On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli”  was likely an early draft left unpolished due to Brooke’s death.

Orrick Johns published “Ollendorf’s Wife”  in his first book-length 1917 collection Asphalt and Other Poems.  There’s little online to help me make sense of Johns’ life, but it’s probable that Asphalt and Other Poems  collected early work Johns had written in his twenties. While most of the poems are short lyrics, Johns works there in several styles. The poems are rhymed, not the free verse of “Blue Undershirts”  that made such an impression on William Carlos Williams. The opening section, “Asphalt” is an odd set of doggerel poems in dialect. I have trouble reading dialect poems, and from my vantage point as a mid-20th century man I can’t make out what ethnicity Johns is representing in these poems. There’s a lot of dropped consonants and dere’s, dem’s and de’s. I assume these poems are intended to be proletarian poetry and demonstrate John’s solidarity.

Another section “The City”  has other poems dealing with social issues of the day, but without the distraction of dialect. It includes one of the book’s longer poems, “Second Avenue,”  infamous in its moment of possible fame for being the poem that beat out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence”  in The Lyric Year’s  poetry contest.

Almost nothing in Asphalt and Other Poems  grabbed me. Nothing passed the Emily Dickinson test, there was no spectral cold and the top of my head remained attached throughout. While it was trying to depict its modern world, the music was awkward for me, with some forced poetic diction and conventional sentiments that made it more similar to Margaret Widdemer than Millay or Sara Teasdale, contemporaries that were writing prize-winning short rhymed lyrics at the same time as Johns. Like Widdemer, and unlike Millay or Teasdale, the poetry in this book of Orrick John’s is understandably forgotten.

There was one poem in a section titled “Country Rhymes”  that did seem to have a germ of something though.

Ollendorfs Wife 1 Page final

Johns’ poem as it appeared in “Asphalt and Other Poems”

 

Like T. S. Eliot, Johns grew up in St. Louis, but unlike Eliot he stayed in the Midwest for college. The “Country Rhymes”  section reflects that longer experience, and nowhere better than in “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  First off, the poem is generally free verse, with uneven line lengths and sparse rhymes. And it has some vivid images. Ollendorf’s wife significantly has no name of her own in the poem. She works her farm plot assiduously, with no love showing in her face, but also as if it’s her last child. How many children, like her name, go significantly unmentioned? The fields she works, and the farm wife are “drawn together” by a “knowledge…greater” than “each other’s best.”

At its core, this poem works by the things it leaves out, fulfilling Hemmingway’s Modernist theory that you can remove the most important things in a story correctly, and by doing so depict them all the more intensely.

So out of care for “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  I revised it, intensifying that paring away of the unneeded, leaving only the cutout cameo around the farm-wife’s charged day in a life. I added nothing really, but took away words that restated something otherwise established, and rewrote lines aiming to make connections stronger. I made one additional repeat of the “day after day” phrase, because there the repetition is  the image. Though I intended to perform my revision, I generally wasn’t thinking of making the poem more “sing-able” as I changed things, but I suspect that factor worked its way in as well.

Ollendorfs Wife revised

Here’s my revised version of Orrick John’s poem

 

As I said at the beginning, this is not something that is commonly done. There are poems that use the subscript of “after a poem by…” but those poems that are revised and re-voiced are usually much older or in a different language than the new version. Obviously, such an act could fail as well as succeed. You are the judge in this case. The gadget to hear my performance of my revised version of Orrick John’s “Ollendorf’s Wife” is below.

 

They Say Life is Precious

Creativity is escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. Routine can take you to your place reserved for freedom, you may believe you’re going to the same place, and then something else happens.

Every so often I present a set of words I wrote here rather than following my usual practice of using other people’s words and “other people’s stories.” I didn’t plan to do a piece of mine here, though I did plan to revise this poem from 2016 yesterday. Sticking-with-it.

But first, I thought I should take the opportunity to play a little acoustic guitar in a quiet house on a cold grey day. Avoidance.

This is one of the good things about my multisided creative life. If I put off or am outright avoiding one side, for example, writing or rewriting my own poetry, I may flee to my music side, to the shear tactile pleasure of playing an instrument. Or to the poetry written by others and this project. Escape.

So there I was at the guitar. I tuned it to “double drop D,” and because the guitar that was at hand has too narrow a neck width at the nut to suit my less flexible older fingers, I capoed up to the second fret which gave me a little more room. From there, by ear I started to work on some chord forms that sounded interesting together in this alternate tuning. This is one of the virtues of altered tunings on the guitar. I have some understanding of the guitar’s conventional tuning, but an altered tuning requires new exploration.

None of the chords I ended up playing would have been difficult to find or fret in standard tuning, but the altered tuning I was using has three strings tuned to the same note (though one’s an octave lower than the other two) and that not only makes it easy to get a drone going while playing other notes on top, but that trio of strings resonates sympathetically.*

I was quite receptive to the sound that was developing, and next to me as I played was the manuscript of the poem I planned to revise. Could the resonating chords be fit to it? Yes, it looked like they could. Attention.

Performing a written piece can be an aid to revision. As I worked on the music I was cycling through sections of the poem, and some lines began to volunteer themselves for deletion. The poem lost five lines, and it was the better for it. The ending wasn’t strong enough, so I added a couple of sensuous verbs which I think made it better. The line deletions happened almost without attention. I was years separated from when I thought they were a good idea to be included, and the repetition while thinking mostly about the music and its flow simply made them seem unimportant. The revision of the ending was a more literary endeavor, but by that point the music was coming together, and I came up with choices sharply focused on getting that ending “fixed” so I could record a finished version.

That piece I ended up working on, today’s piece “They Say Life is Precious,”  was intended as a page poem, but the process I went through with it on Thursday made me think it works better as a performance piece—but even on the page I think it works better now because of the time I spent performing it as I composed and recorded the music.

They Say Life is Precious
We pay for life by filling it’s container, time, with attention. You can put money in there, but it can’t read what’s on the currency.

 

The acoustic guitar part didn’t turn out to be difficult. I recorded it and my vocal. The chords of the piece are E5, E minor 7, and two voicings of Bsus4.**  To fill out the sound I added Mellotron violins and flute, a simple contra-bass part, and an upper-register fretless electric bass line.

Escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. By avoiding the revision and choosing to play guitar first, I accomplished the revision—and when I thought I was just going to play guitar, my composition routine refused to relinquish itself and drew my attention.

To hear my piece “They Say Life is Precious”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*Many musical cultures have instruments that use drones or sympathetic vibrations. South Asian music is full of them, but so to are Celtic pipes, Norwegian hardanger and any number of African stringed instruments. Even something as common as the piano when played undampened pulls up resonances.

**If there are any guitarists who want to try to play this, it’s a good introduction to altered tunes as the fingerings are easy. First drop your high and low E strings one whole step to D. To match the recording, capo the guitar at the second fret. The following fret-hand fingering positions are used: Chord E5 = 3rd string at 4th fret, 2nd string at 5th fret. Chord Em7 = 4th string at 5th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret and 2nd string at 3rd fret. The higher sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 11th fret, 3rd string at 11th fret. The lower sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 4th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret. Technically this Bsus4 also has the C# that makes it a Bsus2 as well.

A Letter to Those Who are About to Die

Certainly not the most self-love inspiring/invest me with hope/promise to give me beauty title for a poem. Mid-century American poet Kenneth Patchen could supply those sorts of things, but in his first book, Before the Brave  published in 1936, he was looking around him, and the things he saw and felt were ominous.

In that collection and this poem, Patchen seems militant and politically committed in tone, though the poems seem too immediate to the times for me to fully decode his advocacy. “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die”  indicates something’s coming, but it doesn’t simply say what. Violent revolt or revolution? Another World War? State-run oppression? Radical social change? If we study history, we know that it turned out to be some all of that. By the time Patchen was writing “A Letter to Those Who are About to Die,”  the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China were at hand or a few months away. Hitler was firmly in power in Germany. America was in economic crisis—and if you were poor, black or another ethnic minority perhaps only a generation away from another country that might be equally troubled, your life was now doubly challenged.

Kenneth Patchen 1939

A photo of the young Kenneth Patchen in the 1930s

 

I know the later Patchen, the pacifist, the poet of love, the painter of illuminated outsider pages, but this was an angrier voice, more desperate than I expected. He was all of 24 and he’d just found the love of his life—but this wasn’t a newlywed world of hope. Could we look back from our perch informed by 20th century history and say he was wrong, that he was over-reacting? No. The ovens, the bombs, the death marches, the battle beaches, the truncheons, the gulags, the lynchings, the public gunshots.

Someone called Patchen’s mid-century cohorts The Greatest Generation. They fought for and against these things, perhaps in roughly equal numbers, and there are claims in all alignments that some of the above list of horrors were necessary to defeat some others also of the above. Objective history can tell us this all happened, even if it can’t speak with one voice on which horrors were justified. As far as I know, Patchen was against all of those horrors, which made him an outsider in his generation. Idealist? Naïve? An individual who opted out from being blamed for history?

I’ve been taken this spring by a song of Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless.”  Bird’s an artist that I’ve previously admired more than I’ve wanted to listen too, but this song has a laid-back Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye groove and heart that I can’t deny, with lyrics about the poets exploding like bombs “And it feels like 1936 in Catalonia.” That feels, in my present, like today’s Patchen poem.

 

Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless” official video.

 

So, even with that title that refuses to be attractive, I’m willing to give Kenneth Patchen a read and a performance, and you may be willing to give it a listen.*

Musically, my band and voice aren’t going to be keeping Andrew Bird awake on those nights when it’s music and not the parallels of the Spanish Civil war that interrupts his sleep. However, Patchen is one of those pioneers in combining spoken/chanted poetry with jazz-influenced American music, including collaborations with John Cage and Charles Mingus and a series of LPs with other musicians issued in the ‘50s. I do not expect or wish to frighten the ghosts of Cage and Mingus, only to honor their, and Patchen’s, independent spirit. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. There is no easy place to read the text of this poem on the Internet, but this link may work for those that want to read along.

 

 

 

 

*By coincidence, the Poem-a-Day from poets.org today is by Fatimah Asghar titled I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What we’ve Done to the Earth,”  which title probably equals Kenneth Patchen’s in click-through rate, even though the poem itself might ask us to read the title after the poem rather than before. I sat in a bakery this week and overheard two older white guys, looked my age or a bit younger, discussing the ridiculousness of fears like unto Bird’s and Fatimah Asghar’s these days in America. I wonder what Kenneth Patchen would say if he were to stop by?

See Emily Play: May-Flower

The great thing about Emily Dickinson and her around 2000 poems is that there’s always one you haven’t experienced yet—and just this week over at the Interesting Literature blog I saw this Dickinson spring poem. “May-Flower”  has Dickinson doing her most subtle music to accompany her most Blakean attention. Just like it says itself: it’s a “bold little beauty.”

It’s short and compressed, and if you read it quickly and silently it may seem slight and slide right by you. Spring, May, flowers, check. Robins. Yup, spring. Its abrupt ending might stop you for just a moment. It ends: “Nature forswears/Antiquity.”

Oh, I get it, the flowers in early May are new, there isn’t such a thing as antique flowers. Easy enough to see that—but the undercurrent is deeper, because this is another carpe diem poem, though this time without much bombast and no overt hey-baby-what-about… pickup lines. Yes, there are no old flowers, and so this flower will come and go with May.

Not many words in this poetry-machine, but without choosing any esoteric ones, Dickinson has made some choices that may arrest you the second time you read it. “Punctual,” the flowers know right when to be there. “Covert” those early signs of spring, like some advance spies. “Candid” for May, and spring fully here, no need to hide as a generic bud. Even “Dear” in “Dear to the moss” is a choice I wonder about. I’ve even read it incorrectly as “Near to the moss” once or twice, and sound-wise “near” works very well and is clear in meaning.  Does Dickinson want to pun on deer, another spring poem perennial? Does she want to pickup and connect that D sound from “Candid” in the line before it rather than predict the upcoming N sounds of “Known,” “knoll” and “Next?”

Which brings me to this: if you listen to the poem, or plant it in your own mouth, the sound is exquisite. Rhymes and near-rhymes abound without locking down to a scheme: “small/punctual/low/April/knoll/soul” and “every/beauty/thee/Antiquity,” and consonants and vowels are echoing each other too.

See Emily Play Games for May HD

Foreswears antiquity: I’m not sure if anyone who reads this will remember the poster I’m referencing here.

 

To perform “May-Flower”  I made some choices. First, to slow the listener down, and to give extra chances to hear that echoing sound-play, I repeated each line. And to emphasize the moment rather than its passing, I interleaved the first and second stanzas as responses to each other. In the last stanza, the responses are just additional echoes of that stanza’s lines.

For the music, I decided to refer to The Pink Floyd. No, not the auditorium and eventually stadium-filling rock band, but the original 1967 Syd Barrett-fronted line up, which was based more around the sound of that era’s electric organs with a taste of Barrett’s unique take on slide guitar. So, time to dabble and wobble organs and break out the Telecaster and a finger wrapped in a vase of glass.

Emily’s poetry-machine obliviates the need for dodgy recreational chemicals. Attention is the drug. This is not the first time I’ve referred to Emily Dickinson’s visionary side here. I see it coexisting with her skeptical wit. And this poem, for all it’s Blakean a heaven in a wild-flower aspect was also intended by the botanically knowledgeable Dickinson as a riddle, the correct answer is a particular New England wild-flower, the trailing arbutus.  See Emily play. There is no other day. Free games for May….

Here’s the text of Emily Dickinson’s May-Flower if you’d like to read along.

May-Flower text

This is the regularized version with conventional punctuation. Emily’s own was full of her dashes.

And here’s my performance of it with original music. Use the player below.

 

Smoke and Steel

Today is May Day, the international labor day, so I spent it working, looking through poetry books for something about our lives of work. There’s less there than there should be I think, the world of work somehow not seeming as poetic as human love and desire or as sublime as the observation of nature and things of the spirit without any human sweat in it.

This lack leads me to admire poets who address this imbalance. And the first one that came to my mind turned out to be the one I ended up using today: Carl Sandburg. That Sandburg might come to mind for others too as a poet of labor probably didn’t help his reputation at the start of our current century. He doesn’t come by that classification lightly, having had a career as an itinerate worker and labor organizer before he began as a poet, and even while he was publishing groundbreaking works of early American Modernist poetry like his Chicago Poems  in 1917, he had a second, less well-known life as a Socialist radical.

Carl Sandburg at work

Carl clocking in in his later years when his day job was goat farmer

 

Somehow Sandburg survived both the post WWI and post WWII red scares without great harm to his reputation, but by late in the 20th century there was less interest in Modernists who wanted to write about work and labor issues. The bohemian fringe more or less looked at straight work as an unfortunate event*, and the academic establishment was more interested in aesthetic rigor and the ability to carry lightly evidence of a full-fledged college education for its poets.

Proletarian writing had been done already. Time to move on.

As I keep reminding you and myself, our current century is now old enough to vote, it’s approaching adulthood. It might want to re-evaluate those judgements the old century made about its youthful innovators.

So, for today, May Day, I took the opening to Sandburg’s longer poem that gave its name to his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel and turned it into a labor hymn. “By this sign all smokes know each other.”

The player gadget to hear it is below. If you want to read the whole poem, or just read along to the opening section I used, the full text is here.

 

 

 

*as leading beat-generation scholar and theorist, Maynard G. Krebs put it in his famous essay “On Work, An Existential Examination” “Work!?”