I said last time that the Midwestern American poet Carl Sandburg is not often thought of as an Imagist when we recount the Modernist revolution in poetry. Indeed, I get the impression that his work as a whole is summarized as folksy/clumsy by academia, the efforts of a low-fi Modernist with middlebrow pretensions to real artistic innovation.
I wonder if some of this is an unexamined hold-over from the High Modernists who made a cult of academic culture and credentials in the mid-20th century. Sandburg certainly intended to be a Modernist and wrote thoroughgoing Imagist poems. And yes, he can present himself in a friendly, non-pretentious way in some of his poetry. T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound rarely seem to welcome in the casual reader, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams may puzzle us on first encounter. Amy Lowell will let us know this is salon-worthy art. E. E. Cummings may charm us in a playful way while still remaining elusive. Marianne Moore likes the seemingly earnest statement, but when I try to absorb an entire poem I’m often at sixes and sevens.
Sandburg can seem a bit too straightforward. Which he’s not, or at least not always. Williams can have his red wheelbarrows and plums, Pound his wet petal Metro pedestrians, and we understand this is willful simplicity in the context of their more elaborated work. Poor Sandburg. He’s misunderstood for being thought understood. Understood too quickly perhaps.
Here’s an example of a poem that hardly seems like Sandburg at all. If I presented it, unattributed, as translated from the French it might seem Surrealist, but it was published in 1917 before Surrealism was a movement. Even at the time I was performing it, I had only been able to absorb it as a sensation, and I’m not sure yet if I could paraphrase it even now. Here’s the link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. It seems to be a poem about violence and strife, about suffering and infliction of suffering. Is the poem’s gargoyle war, Moloch, capitalism, the demonized exploited, or the demon exploiter?
Is it possible that Sandburg intended this ambiguity? The sensation of this poem is so strong, yet it doesn’t seem easy to solve into a one-to-one allegory. One could use Orwell’s famous decades-later statement as a gloss on this poem:
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Two things ground this poem, and Imagism wanted to be grounded, not intellectually abstract. First is the gargoyle, which was a commonplace building ornament in Sandburg’s Chicago, secondary to the beau arts style popularized by the 1893 Worlds Fair there and to the widespread availability of immigrant stone carvers in the city. Gargoyles are ugly and often open-mouthed,* as this poem’s gargoyle is.
But Sandburg’s poem subject is metal, which is not impossible—there are cast metal gargoyles. I’m no expert on metalwork trades, but the actions described in the poem sound like hot metal riveting. Is the “gargoyle” some metal construction which is having red hot molten rivets being pounded into holes one after another?
A riveting video? Maybe not for everyone, but a few minutes of watching will show how a four-person team works together in hot metal riveting
Or is this poem’s subject a child’s nightmare? After all, twice Sandburg wants us to know a child could visualize this.
So, an elusive work, but the horror certainly comes through. My performance is straightforward, just acoustic guitar and bass. Sort of a folk song, if the kind of folks you hang around with like Michael Hurley. The player is below.
*They are sometimes functional downspouts, designed not just as ornament, but as a way to direct roof rain water away from the building and it’s foundation. Gargoyle as a word is derived from the French for gullet, or throat.
Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.
This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows” and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.
Dickenson can do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.
I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of “Forever..” and to “Crumbling…”
First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.
The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.
Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.
In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.
The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.
Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not
The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act” as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.
If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.
It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.
Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme.” Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.
In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.
Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.
*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.
I’m still unable to think of completing new content here, but let me quickly follow up to say that we seem to have passed through the worst nights featuring the burn and bust cadres on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Which leaves only the sorrow and injustice, more than enough to tamp down my muses.
If plagues, oppression, and fires seem Biblical, then we get miracles too. Take the scene of the semi-truck coming down the freeway with thousands sitting on the pavement in focused protest just past a gentle curve. I have surely slighted the murmurations of crowds in a recent post, because they parted in an instant of flight seen in the video that looped over and over in coverage last week. Moses and Aaron never saw the like—not a single significant injury. Knowing America bristles with guns governmental and otherwise is not a comforting thought any night for me, but also the guns barking hardly at all* (so far) seems nearly as miraculous.
Plagues and miracles: additional phone video showed some of the first to the cab stopped retribution being taken on the driver.
I continue to be amazed and gratified at the racial diversity of the protests here. That shouldn’t be a miracle, but it’s noticeably different than the earliest BLM protests. This may be a result of the clear casual atrocity of the George Floyd killing or some “Great Awokening” kind of evolution. Call them the Prince Rogers Nelson brigade. Afro-Americans seem to be leading the protests and observances now and focusing on the issues and pain. When people jumped on the still crawling forward semi-truck and yanked the driver from his controls in the furious moment when several tons had just missed killing and maiming hundreds, it was Afro-Americans in the crowd who stayed the blows.
There’s been much chatter in the neighborhoods/local social media and in some mainstream media articles about who the smash and burn cadres are, and if they are in some organized sense. From watching hour after hour of coverage and trying to use what rusty “radar” I have from old activist days, I suspect at least some small-group organization aided by modern cell-phone tech and automotive mobility is a factor. When I talked to alternate Parlando voice and keyboard mainstay Dave Moore last week I said “Give me 50 agile young people with some hand tools and fire accelerants and I could create all the significant destruction of the past week.” Five teams of ten, even if they aren’t together, would work just as well. Largely unconfirmed reports have these as anything from leftish anarchists, to younger right-wing militia types who hate the police too, to drug seeking gangs.**
Multi-racial neighborhood people seem to be on edge about this. It’s not just some rehash of the old “outside agitators stirring up our good local Negroes” trope. As the protests become more focused and organized, they also seem more effective at recognizing adventurist acting out and curbing it.
When I spoke recently about the Gloomy Gus progressives, the ones who will sagely tell us how nothing ever gets better, and how this or that supposed progressive advance was an illusion or failure, I perhaps should have made clear I was talking to an element in myself too. My nature and life says the human condition is limited, even though it can store immense amounts of hate and love, creativity and indifference.
What are those limits? What elements will be part of the solution or part of the precipitate? What I think about these things, what I can do about them, is less important that what you and you and you think and do.
So, nothing new today, but here’s Dave Moore and I performing a poem written in a set of wet ruins by the supreme classical Chinese poet Du Fu centuries ago, and translated by myself. Was Du Fu a Gloomy Gus? Maybe, though like Robert Frost when he was lost or downhearted, he knew to press on anyway. Here’s the text if you’d like to read along, and the player gadget for the peformance is below unless you’re reading this with the WordPress IOS app (try using a browser instead to hear the audio piece in that case).
Jade Flower Palace – Du Fu trans. by Frank Hudson
The stream winds, the wind sighs.
Rats are running in the rafters.
The prince who owned this palace–
No one knows his name,
But it stands, abandoned beside these cliffs.
In dark rooms green ghost fires are shinning.
The streams now run over the boulevards.
From the trees I hear flutes? Voices?
Autumn leaves are wet with rain and rattle in the wind.
The young palace ladies,
Once painted on scrolls:
Now yellow dust buried in the earth.
What use now their robes,
their makeup and kohl?
And his gold chariots and the men who drove them?
There is only this carved stone horse.
I sit down on the grass and try to write of this,
But my ink is overcome by rain or tears
There are many paths away from here
How long are any of them?
None of them go on forever.
*One man reported shot and killed in what was sketchily reported as a looter/store-owner confrontation is all I know of. He seems forgotten in the surplus of events.
It’s been a rough series of days in the Twin Cities. Other than no great new loss of life (only fear of it) there’s not been much accomplished in my home or in my city.
I have a few new pieces in various stages of completion, and ordinarily I’d be working on additional ones for this project. This spring the pandemic quarantine measures have been bothersome, but so far Dave and my family have been coping and doing the best they can. Given the number of people sickened and killed by Covid-19, bothered and coping might as well count as “the best we can do.”
Then comes a public act of callous manslaughter. Worse for not being unprecedented. Worse for being tied to the sickness of racial oppression. We have a vaccine and a natural immunity for that: It’s empathy and love. Yet, many refuse to be vaccinated, or don’t have the vaccine available to them.
The phrase “the best we can do” has fallen into disrepute. Perhaps you’ve come upon this piece after reading or hearing someone else remarking on why this phrase is dispensed with, or should be dispensable.
For the last two nights the quarantine from the virus has been trumped by the fires and murmuring crowds. Crowds with the wisdom of crowds, which is to say, not much. Crowds work like a jangling overstimulated nervous system, tingling with pleasure and pain receptors, with a prejudice for why not.
My family, my friends, my artistic compatriots, my neighborhood are at the epicenter of this. Long time readers may know that alternate voice here Dave Moore was associated with a 20th century literary magazine that called itself “The Lake Street Review.” Minneapolis’ Lake Street is (insert here the English verb that needs to be invented that stands for the balance of hope/fear/despair in our present moment poised in is/was/will be) a multi-ethnic, multiclass (if mostly working class) strip of enterprises where you can get diapers, groceries, your prescription filled, that part to keep your old car running, foods from fast to global, places where bands used to play before Covid-19, bookstores, libraries, arts labs, paper and toner for your printer, intoxicating beverages, hardware stores, your laundromat-load destination, where you go when your car needs gas and air for the leaky tire. It’s were the Latin Americans and African and Asian immigrants have their shops. Lake Street is an early 20th century construction. Apartments still over the retail ground-floors in older buildings, houses and apartments right next door behind the stores, closer than modern codes allow. Great portions of this are now gutted, looted; still smoldering from last night or cold ashes from the night before that.
I’m sure what we live is a hugely interesting phenomenon for commentators, political philosophers, or folks just looking for a “news hook” to write or say something. Some will be civic sports-bar-tone arguments for who needs to be shot on sight for the sight of their targets, others will be earnest explainers about how rioting is the only effective language of the dispossessed, and that the wreckage of the places that a large percentage of those from the middle on down to the homeless frequent and depend on isn’t the disaster for them that it looks like to those less-evolved in their political consciousness.
As I’ve said already, I myself fear I’d dishonor this with my broken prose and dim eyes. And what old men think about this is less important than what those younger who may read this think, resolve, and do.
Yeats poem written while sequestered in Ireland with his wife during a civil war. “Stare” is a old name for the starling, considered a nuisance bird.
Beneath the beach, more paving stones.
Friends of my family since both our children were born spent the hours around midnight wondering if the unchecked flames from a torched gas station would spread to the homes next door. My neighborhood post office (the same one where Lake Street Review submissions used to come in) went up in big black smoke as it was deliberately broken into and set aflame. I’m not sure if anyone looted stamps.
My wife asked around midnight if we should flee.
“Where would we go?” I asked.
“Away from the flames.” She said.
All this is happening in a mix of memorializing assemblies at the site of the callous killing, protest marches with pointed aims, and then the looting and vandalism. I’ll offer one piece of observation that you may have not seen in the reports and thumb-sucking think-pieces: the memorializing, the protestors, and the vandals are an integrated lot. Skin tone and hair, those markers for ethnicities we use in our great cultural mythology of race, is My Rainbow Race in these events from the pious, to the protest, to the break and burn brigades. Watching cell-cam videos and media long-shots has impressed on me that the palette of the sufferers and perpetuators of these actions are not one shade. Racists are going to need to ignore these visuals as they form their illness’ distortions. The guy smashing the library window, setting fire to the auto parts store, or acting like a drunk frat boy he would never righteously be as he shoves the burning dumpster nearer to the building might well be white in these nights.* And the “Nothing-ever-changes” cadre of gloomy-Gus activists** are likely too tired and weary to notice that the white, Asian, and Latin American participation has increased markedly in this time’s repetition of events sad, demanding, and chaotic.
I used gendered pronouns in moving to the vandal side of things, as that part does tend to become a sausage-fest. My wife is going off to join others this afternoon to sweep up broken glass. Not to get into gender stereotypes here, but how much do you want to bet that the gender mixture there will be distinctive too?
Tonight, I do not know what will happen. The memorializers will continue to do so, for George Floyd is still dead. The protestors will continue to protest, for it’s still wrong. And the vandals, not even interested in the materialist desire of the looter *** for a case of beer, a flat-screen TV, a book of Yeats collected poems or LeRoi Jones’ liner notes will continue to maintain that the best refutation of a failed “the best we can do” is: “the worst we can do.” The tao is too strange for me to know. Blessed be if they are right.
This is all the squishy thinking and writing I’ll be capable for a while. Tonight, I will probably not sleep, or fall asleep in imponderables. Will my wife be able to sleep the night before our anniversary? Will someone’s laddish fire, set with self-congratulating righteousness, find its equivalent of four Birmingham Sunday-school girls? When will America’s Valkyrie gunfire (I say with dread: remarkably rare so far) begin to sing? Will progressive change crest and recede? How happy is Donald Trump, our king of misrule, as his empire expands while progressives proclaim nothing ever changes as proof of their progressive acuity. Tell me, I want to believe, I need comfort: are you sure too it can’t get worse?
This is a week where I have been in my own little run-down tower, seeing out my window as Yeats showed me. Brothers and sisters, read the last stanza of Yeats poem in tears—even though they don’t put out fires directly.
Rather than a link to the text you’ll see it above in its entirety because I urge you to do that. If you’d like to hear my performance and music for this, the player gadget is below.
*Having tasted but not absorbed the fibrous materials of current cultural appropriation tropes, do any white anarchist allies as they smash the state at the library window, or get all dewy being a revolutionary fire-starter in a multi-ethnic neighborhood wonder if they are being authentically respectful of non-white culture from their skin privilege?
**I have long wondered at the futility of the salesman (as an agitator is, to a large degree) who paints their product as ineffective in use and their allies and audience as always deficient. I’m an old man. I understand being sick and tired. I’ll buy the “I can’t believe we’re still fighting these same old battles” T-shirt. But don’t tell me it itches, it’s guaranteed to fall apart, and isn’t available in my size.
***A few years back someone, who I cannot remember in order to credit, said that rioting with looting combines the two least attractive tendencies in American culture: shopping and violence.
Continuing on from my post late last night, and the feelings of insufficiency we as artists may feel in the face of horrible things: cruelty, injustice, the taking of lives, the crippling of souls. As one of America’s sublimated poets put it, I think it all together fitting and proper that when we do this, that we feel this insufficiency. If something has risen to the level of being unspeakable, how can we speak it?
I’m still silent with answers tonight—and as with many things, my answers as an old man are less important than those you may find. So, let me instead give you a story and a testimonial.
The story may seem long ago to you, but it doesn’t to me. It happened in 1963, in my lifetime—not 1863 and the time of Lincoln, slavery, and Civil War.
It begins not with art but a group of domestic terrorists who were bombing and burning things in Birmingham Alabama. Terrorist is an ugly word, as it should be, but it’s likely that most terrorists think of themselves as partisans, as fighters against oppression, the necessary ones who will take the steps others shrink from.
Of course, I see these men as simple killers. I can suspect them of getting off on the clandestine evil of setting bombs and fires, of shooting into the night. And the “oppression” they are righteously bombing to oppose? They are more at the license to continue an oppression of others. On a Sunday morning, September 15th in 1963 they set off a bunch of dynamite at a church in their town. Just another bombing in a series.
This time they kill four little girls getting ready for sunday school.
Earlier that year, another of America’s displaced poets, Martin Luther King, had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in that town, that great document of the necessity of ending racial oppression, and now that year he would eulogize the four little girls. Eloquence was in town, continuing political pressure was in place, and the evil light of the terrorist bombing illuminated the words of those the bombers opposed. How sad and horrible it is to recount that.
That same year a jazz musician, John Coltrane was very busy earning a living with his art. When I say busy, I mean busy in a sense that boggles the mind. In that year alone he released four studio LPs while gigging constantly with his Quartet. Two weeks after he would have heard the news of the four little girls, he was due to play a New York City engagement at the Birdland club, which produced the live recording that gives its name to today’s post. Right after Coltrane finished the Birdland engagement, the group was off to Europe for a tour there. Four little girls dead, dynamited by their fellow human beings in furtherance of an evil idea. John Coltrane kept working.
Weeks then in Europe, and upon returning to the States the gigs and recordings continue. Somewhere between the day after the bombing in September and a one-day recording session on November 18th Coltrane came up with a musical piece that he called “Alabama.”
Then at the beginning of December when Coltrane’s tour was stopping in San Francisco he recorded a TV show. The format of the show was for the artist to play 3 or 4 songs and engage in a few minutes of interview with the host, but Coltrane begged off the interview. The host, Ralph J. Gleason, Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and all, subbed in a little explainer about the how jazz was like writing poetry in the middle of a supermarket. Cringe if you like at the metaphor and the white guy non-musician explaining it all to us,* but that’s what Coltrane and the Quartet then do. “Alabama” is strictly-speaking wordless. The John Coltrane Quartet spoke with their instruments.
The TV show where “Alabama” premiered. At 7:40 Gleason gives his “poet in a supermarket” metaphor, and at 9:35 the Quartet starts “Alabama.”
The four little girls, so cruelly and unjustly dead that same fall. In the interim, a U. S. President has been killed too. Hot studio lights for the cameras, a cost-saving bare sound stage to film in. Those five minutes of “Alabama” have been introduced to an audience for the first time.**
To my taste, Coltrane’s playing on the TV show performance of “Alabama” is even richer than the recording made a couple of weeks earlier though the rest of this Quartet of great musicians were a bit sharper in the recording studio take—but in either case there are notes he plays in “Alabama” that are quite possibly the saddest and most resolute notes ever to come out of a horn.
That winter “Coltrane Live at Birdland” is issued as an LP record which includes the recording studio version of “Alabama.” Another release in Coltrane’s furious pace of working and creating. The liner notes on the record were penned by the man who’d sign them then as LeRoi Jones.***
The art of the liner note is a dead art now, but today’s piece quotes a few lines from Jones’ piece of work (the entirety of which you can read here). Those that remember Jones’ notes often recall its opening line, which is also the first line I speak here today. If the job of a liner note writer was akin to writing advertising copy, to attract the consumer, that opening line is highly subversive of that intent:
One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.
Way to ship units LeRoi!
When it comes to writing about “Alabama,” the song on the record where the Coltrane Quartet most directly speaks to that vileness, Jones writes:
I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.
Jones knows what the tune’s about surely. I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed that sentence yet, but if you are a person for whom 1963 might as well be 1915 or 1863, and you want to know what it felt like to know of such evil and endure it with an open heart, and to counter it with something that is beautiful (Oh! How can that be?), then you can find it in John Coltrane
Jones says John Coltrane’s art can change us, though neither he nor I will guarantee it. Can it? These are days that cause me to doubt. But if Coltrane doubted, he didn’t’ stop. I honor that belief. Perhaps art works in ways small but deep, and then only for some portion of us humans some of the time. If art like Coltrane’s carries me through sometimes, is that a reason I create art myself?
The player to hear me read a small section of LeRoi Jones’ liner notes to Coltrane live at Birdland is below. When I created this performance early this month I did not include any of the sections where Jones talks about the tune “Alabama,” but I was trying to give some flavor of Jones parable about Coltrane’s power and conviction. Musically, my composition and performance is just a trio, there’s no saxophone.
*Yes, I cringe because I recognize myself there in a black&white mirror. Because I operate a musical instrument at times, I claim to be less guilty of the cringe factor. This likely convinces no one.
**Some have sought to document Coltrane’s gigs and recording sessions. There’s no account of “Alabama” being played at any of the live gigs before this TV show. The version on “Coltrane live at Birdland” is not live, but from that short studio session in mid-November.
***Later Amiri Baraka. A man who went through so many stances and positions in his life that it’s unlikely that any sane man can find agreement with all of them.
This Monday is American Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those that died in my country’s warfare. At its onset it was a solemn day for decorating graves, but over time it has lost some of that focus, with celebrations touching on generalized patriotism or military service. It’s also the calendar marker for the beginning of summer. In my youth it was celebrated on May 30th every year, but it’s now a Monday holiday that floats around a bit—but the reason it’s placed at the end of spring still goes back to the original purpose: it was set for a time of year when fresh flowers were in season across the United States, flowers for decorating those graves.
And so it is that this ambiguity makes it odd to wish someone rotely “Happy Memorial Day.”
The Parlando Project has marked Memorial Day with performances of poems over the years, but just as the reason for the holiday is somewhat problematic for mere celebration, it’s not easy to figure what poetry to mark it. Long time readers here will know that there is plenty of poetry that speaks honestly about the experience of warfare, and that WWI produced a great deal of it. But in its specific way, Memorial Day isn’t really about that. It’s about the mourners and their duty.
So, I cast about this week for a poem that spoke to that, and I found this poem by someone that this project has presented before: British poet Charlotte Mew. She was an unusual person when living, and the case of her poetic legacy is unusual too. Her poetry received some small amount of interest in the London scene around the time of WWI. Thomas Hardy, Walter de LaMare, Virginia Woolf, and even the American Ezra Pound recognized her work’s value, but this those-that-know praise never developed into any appreciable readership in her lifetime. Culture was still a bit of a boy’s club, and with the explosion of Modernism going on, you either planted the make-it-new bombs or faced being obliterated by them. Mew didn’t fit in any movement, and after her death, forgotten happened with efficiency.
Today a handful of scholars seek to make the case that she’s greatly underestimated and that her work needs to be reevaluated. They have a case which can be made with considered reading of her poetry. It doesn’t sound or work like anyone else’s.
Mew wasn’t just strikingly original in her poetry. Most pictures show her presenting androgynously.
So, here is one of her poems about the experience of mourning during wartime, written, just as it says on the tin, in June 1915 as the massive extent of the casualties and stalemate in World War I was becoming inescapably apparent in Britain. Here’s a link to the text of this short poem.
Recent readers have seen that I’ve been writing recently on how poets who write short lyrics sometimes get underestimated. We readers might flow through the poems like we would paragraphs of prose, appreciating perhaps a bit of the poetic rudiments of rhyme or meter. This can go by so fast that there’s no time for more than surfaces, but great lyric poems can have depths that ask us not only to read them, or even to say them or sing them once, but to consider them for longer than the minute it may take to get through them a single time. A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.
A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.
Many Modernists sought to slow us down deliberately to oppose this one-and-done tendency. Obscure imagery, typographical variations, or syntactical sabotage are deployed for this. Mew goes in only for a light touch of the last here, with complex sentences that seem to end up somewhere else from where they begin. Her language here is quite plainspoken. There’s some interesting choices being made in the music of thought, with simple words being repeated to depict the stuck-ness of grief. I like the powerful simplicity of the repeated word “broken” here. Also notice the concise depiction of grief is externalized, depicted to a large degree by the seeming opposite in the child and the spring scene. Though not a recognized, full-fledged member of the 20th century Modernist flock, Mew’s poem of mourning and grief is not done in the Victorian manner. Even when she uses explicit emotional words, something done but twice, they are “the face of grief” and “the face of dread.” She may have rightfully believed that a contemporary British reader would understand the wartime context of this poem, but in the Imagist manner, “June, 1915” doesn’t say “war,” instead choosing to drill down into the charged immediate moments.
There’s no showy “stop and see how clever” imagery here either, though do not rush through consideration of the line contrasting the springtime child whose sunny lane is “as far away as are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.” This line worked powerfully for me early in my appreciation of this poem, yanking the alienation between the child’s state and the mourners state a distance of light-years apart. I’ll note that a specific of Mew’s London times in the spring of 1915 has become obscure to us, but the “veiled lamps” aren’t just misty eyes, for on May 31st of that year nighttime Zeppelin bombing raids on London had commenced and blackout precautions were being practiced.
Mew could have chosen to make this poem itself as specific as its title. She didn’t. While I find it very appropriate for Memorial Day, the complex moment of this poem, so starkly told, is not even limited to the wartime dread and sorrow that engendered it.
How about the ending? I sensed an undercurrent, even an intent, the first time I read this that the child’s small eager hand isn’t just thinking of the first June rose, but is about to pick it, to turn if from a living, pollinating plant to decoration—that he innocently is aping the harvesting of souls in The Great War. If I may own the poem, I still want that there; but upon further review I don’t currently believe that was Mew’s intent.
Mourning. Grief. Dread. Part of the borderless human condition. Timeless because of its forever, returning briefness. To know this is a bare consolation, as memory is.
You can hear my performance of Charlotte Mew’s “June, 1915” with the player gadget below.
Musically we ricochet again (as this project often does) from last-time’s acoustic South Asian ensemble to today’s rough’n’ready one-take rock band. For the words though, maybe not so great a jump, even though Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost are approximately a century apart.
Emerson is the prime American cultural instigator. Like many pioneers it’s easy to see where his maps may have been a bit off, his cultural borrowings misunderstood or missing sufficient attribution, but the route he set the American culture on, however paved, fueled, and electrified, is still one many travel on today. His conceptual school, Transcendentalism, whether acknowledged or not, can be found easily in 21st century America. It is impossible to think and write about ecology, perhaps even to use the word at all, without echoing Emerson. It’s difficult to examine mysticism or Asian religious traditions in America without going places that Emerson went before the Civil War, and if we do either of those things along with some practical sense that we’re using them to rebuild and reform our individualist understanding of the world, we’re doing as Emerson urged. It is both diminishing and praising of Emerson to say that he’s the first self-proclaimed “self-help” American authority.
If Emerson isn’t a great poet, America’s greatest poets often owe much to him. Whitman sought to use his concepts. Emily Dickinson clearly absorbed some of his then new thought. And so too Robert Frost, who is always examining nature and mankind and drawing hard lessons from the pairing of them. When Beat poet Michael McClure’s speaks as a bird or otter, and declaims public maxims,such eccentricities are Emersonian as much as they are from Emerson’s own small-town neighbor Thoreau.
So, today’s piece, which Emerson called simply “Fable,” may not be a great poem if we have criteria to judge such things, but it has begotten great poems. The sage as small animal theme would please Dickinson. The flattening of greatness across multitudes of small things would be Whitmanesque. The cracker-barrel retort of the squirrel who knows, for all external mightiness and achievement, that his daily talent to be able to crack a nut is exquisitely necessary would fit Frost. The charge of change in attention, that the mountain is also just a squirrel-track, would serve Wallace Stevens well.
Returning to end, why the rock band today? The current Covid-19 situation has removed coincident live music—that joy of sounds and breaths in the same room—not only in public performance but in the kind of informal get-togethers that musicians of all skill levels and genres have enjoyed forever. I now miss even the difficulties and limitations of such things, finding it sad that I have no way of knowing when I’ll experience them again. “Fable” today is an approximation of a live band. I started with the drum pattern, added bass, the rhythm guitar, the piano track, a second “lead” guitar part, and declaimed Emerson’s words, doing each in one pass. There’s no composition process as a separate step, no great consideration on instrumentation. Even if it must be done sequentially: end, back to start, and track again, I wanted to approximate what playing live with others feels like.
In Emerson’s “Fable” the mountain calls the squirrel a prig: a self-righteous, self-superior, self-satisfied prude or killjoy. That’s an odd accusation: a majestic mountain charging a little bottom-of-the-food-chain critter with unjustified audacity. Gee, Mountain, project much? The squirrel is “self” indisputably—it cannot be otherwise—but that doesn’t mean it must also be any of the other things on the right-hand side of “prig’s” synonyms. Covid-19 is a mountain, large and natural, undeniable. My little squirrel track, my little path to crack the nut today, is not majestic nor considered in geologic time. What care I for the age and resolve of the mountain. The eagle, the owl, the car-tire have already said there’s no time to waste.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Emerson’s “Fable” is below. If you’d like the text of the poem, here’s a link—and at that page there’s a link to someone else performing “Fable” with music, music with it’s drone and percussion that sounds a little like last time’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
Often when I present Robert Frost poems here, I ask your indulgence to point out that what is often drawn from them doesn’t represent what Frost seems to be trying to impart. “The Road Not Taken” isn’t about the critical importance of taking the “road less traveled,” but about the irrelevance of choice and dangers of “analysis paralysis.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” isn’t about tarrying by a beautiful winter scene instead of getting on with life’s duty, but about someone lost in rural darkness. Even this month’s “Acquainted with the Night” —while, yes, frankly dealing with despair—is about living with depression rather than dying from it.
But “Nothing Gold Can Stay” does seem to be saying what most everyone draws from it—and so, unlike these other Frost poems, it’s loved for exactly what it is saying: that certain kinds of beauty and states of grace are transitory; and then by implicated extension, that to hold them inside a memory or a memorable poem is our consolation. So, what’s left for me to say then?
Well, maybe there’s this element: that a catch phrase drawn from it, “Stay Gold,” is not in Frost’s poem, and his poem indicates that will not happen even if wished; but I’m willing—as was Carl Sandburg in our last post “Monotone” —to cut humanity a little slack here. Sandburg in his middle stanza of “Monotone” tells the same story as Frost’s more famous poem, though more of us remember Frost’s expression of the idea, which may be testament of the power of Frost’s rhyme in memorability. Sandburg’s point however, the one I subscribe to, is that there’s something to be admired that is left after the loss of moments of perfection or passion in both memory and the continuing changed moments.
One other thing I’ll admit I hadn’t noticed until preparing this piece this month: “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a spring poem about tree blossoms as much as it’s an autumn poem about falling leaves: “Early leaf’s a flower.” The tree blossoms on my bike rides this spring are, it seems to me, more numerous, fragrant, and beautiful. Is this a side-effect of the closed in spring of our current epidemic? I think too, not only of Sandburg’s “Monotone,” but of Meng Haoran’s “Spring Morning,” and my own “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.”
Early one morning this month, I rode my bike down 40th street to the now closed schoolhouse, the route I rode a few years back with my child in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street.” I remembered one fine tree full of blossoms there a block before a bicycle bridge that crosses the then busy freeway, and the flowers’ smell that day that told me the tree was louder to my nose than the traffic under the bridge. This morning, this month, I was surprised to see not one, but a whole row of trees, all in bloom.
Blossoms revisited. The other side of the street from the rusty camper was a tattered car with blankets blocking all it’s window glass, evidence that some of the cardboard sign beggars at the nearby freeway entrance may have slept there the previous night.
A few words on the music before I ask you to listen to my performance of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The music I created for this is based on my appreciation of South Asian music, a style that I refer to sometimes here. This is a complex musical tradition of which I have little knowledge of other than as a listener, yet like some others I’ve been drawn to its tactics from the first time I heard it.* Oddly, the top line musical instrument I used for this is a uniquely American one: the mountain dulcimer, a small, fretted, plucked string instrument.** And the percussion instruments here do not include the tabla drum sets used in South Asian music because I don’t have access to them, but are instead approximated with a mix of “Latin Percussion” drums and rhythm instruments, like congas, bongos, and small rattles, bells, and such. I do have good tampura and harmonium virtual instruments that I can play with my MIDI guitar and little plastic keyboard, so I did use those traditional South Asian sounds.
I like how this turned out. Why this music for Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay?” There’s no harmonic progression to it. I don’t notate this sort of composition with chord symbols the way I might a rock music piece. If I did it would be sort of Dsus4, D, D5, Dsus2—so really it’s just about the drone center of D and how one steps out and back to the D note in a rhythmic/melodic dance. Nothing gold can stay, but the D drone reminds us musically that change is return, that return is change.
Here’s the player gadget to hear the performance.
*Like many Americans it was Ravi Shankar LPs on the World Pacific label, reinforced by his appearance in rock concert films like Monterey Pop and Woodstock, and other audacious appreciators who (like me) started to drop in things they drew from these performances into their own work.
In the early 70s in New York I worked in an E. R. with an Indian surgeon who would sing melodies acapella while suturing away. Those melodies would keep us going during long nights.
**The mountain dulcimer has a mysterious past. It’s like and then not like a lot of other instruments from around the world. It seems to have been played by rural Appalachian mountain country settlers, often from Celtic backgrounds where harp instruments and drone wind instruments were common, but it’s not a harp. What it is though is an instrument that was relatively easy to make at home without complex tools or fixtures. In quiet times in those night-time hospital E.R.s I would sometimes quickly construct a rough fretless one out of a cast-plaster box and rubber bands.
I love me some early short-form Carl Sandburg. Oh, I can enjoy him in his lengthy Whitmanesque catalog mode and I surely appreciate his too little recognized work in forging what we more recently call Americana, but in much of his early work he’s writing in a mode that people often forget. It’s similar to some of the other early Modernists before the High Modernist style absorbed that revolution and used it to make a complex and literary bureaucracy of allusions and images that were more showy and complex on the surface.
If you have a moment, look at “Monotone,” a nine-line poem, linked here. How easy it would be to overlook this poem. There’s no exotic words or settings, and the images seem to risk falling into the banal. What’s there? A rainfall, a sunrise and a sunset. If most of us were to put those as the major images in a poem, our poems would likely fail to seem unique in any worthwhile way, or we’d stress and strain to make them unique. I myself might reach for the surreal or the odd detail because I would think I was otherwise making a poem with no worthwhile freshness. And perhaps Sandburg fails in that way for some readers here. What is he risking that failure to convey?
In these nine lines he wants to write a love poem of the least common kind. Poems of desire, poems of the kind of overthrow of the senses and proportion that new love brings, poems of enchantment with possibility—those are legion. And they’re worthwhile. Love and desire, like other visionary states, illuminate things we are otherwise unable to believe. Some of those things are true and some are false, some are the painful disguised as beautiful. They proclaim for us to give ourselves and give up ourselves.
Sandburg’s “Monotone” isn’t that. It’s a lyric poem of a long-time relationship. Even its title dares to be unexciting. Monotone word-wise is near enough to monotony, and musically who would be attracted to a piece that claims that as its title?
The poem’s opening image makes an argument for musical monotone. A rainstorm has no melodic invention, but if listened to without seeking that quality and being disappointed that it lacks this, it has dynamics of volume and rhythm. Listen to what’s there, not to what’s missing the first stanza asks of us, and we’ll find the “multitudinous rain.” This is not a showy stanza, but since multitudinous is by far the least common word in the poem, that one ornament stands out all the more. Even if one remembers only those two words “multitudinous rain,” one can carry it with ourselves and experience rain in new ways while thinking on that phrase on some grey and otherwise unappealing day.
Is the second stanza banal? If you think so I can’t give you an argument that’ll refute you. Yes, the sun on the hills is beautiful, and sunset over seas too. Thank you very much Carl Obvious Sandburg, but why have you wasted our time with those three lines about what everyone has already noticed. What value might they have? Well, for one they are common. Carl Sandburg is fully baptized in the belief of a common humanity, so the fact that he states what we all know isn’t quite the sin that another artist might abhor. What Sandburg does with these commonplaces is to let us know there’s something we still don’t know about them, even when we think they’re too prosaic to have anything yet to perceive. In those few words in the second three-line stanza there is the notion that the sunset (precious, golden fire) is captured by the cold sea. So easy to overlook if we read it like a prose paragraph, assuming only quick utility. If one had to translate this from a foreign language, if this was written in Chinese ideograms, perhaps we’d slow down and see this. The beautiful in the guise of the desired, is captured, is quenched, rises and sets.
Now the third, three-line stanza concludes this book of changes, bringing synthesis to the previous two. Beholding one’s long-time partner, one sees the multitudinous monotone rain and the moments of passion or anger, unease or loss, joined. With the “Monotone” title at the head and the ending line I read that sunny mountain scene and picture postcard sea-sunset of the second stanza as being measured against a rarer and more precious multitudinous rain of long-love.
With this simple concise expression of a complex feeling, the poem requests you to see that. In 1916 when this was published in Sandburg’s Chicago Poems its very simplicity was still audacious, and that itself made the case for this poem. In a generation or so it would seem to not be trying hard enough to capture our attention. While poetry was free to leave strict meter and reliable rhyme schemes behind, it had returned to an aesthetic of surface complexity equaling merit.
Espoused. Carl and Lillian Sandburg around the time “Monotone” was published. Photograph by Lillian’s brother, the photographer Edward Steichen. Earlier, inn 1908 Sandburg wrote “I would rather be a poem like you than write poems,” but we got the multitudinous rain of his poetry anyway.
A few words on the musical setting before I remind you that you can click on the player gadget to hear my performance of Sandburg’s “Monotone.” As I composed this I was concentrating more on timbre and less on melody. The dominant keyboard sound in the piece is a complex combination of a grand piano with every bit of string resonance brought forward, an electric piano, and a keyboard piano bass (that last a sound mostly known from Ray Manzarek’s playing with the Doors). It’s kind of the idea of the “Hard Day’s Night” chord being used throughout the piece. this is another composition where it would probably be better if I wasn’t the vocalist who sings it, but that’s who I have available. Listen to it with the gadget below.
A few posts ago I said I was holding back some material, going instead with other pieces that weren’t quite as dark. One of the pieces I was holding back was this one: Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.”
This is often thought of as Frost’s most harrowing poem, even though it achieves that effect descriptively, largely without explicit emotional terms. Some of its tropes have become standard “Noir” features since the poem was written making the nighttime despair, loneliness, and alienation especially easy for modern readers to “read.” Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to read along.
So, we have the poem’s speaker (let’s call him Frost for the rest of this) walking alone at night in a city in that time which is past late but too dark to be early. It’s raining. He meets only one other person, a watchman, and avoids him. He hears but two things: his own steps, and at the poem’s high point, someone else’s voice. The poem ends with him noting a “luminary clock,” and a remark casual or crucial he says it indicates “the time was neither wrong nor right.”
The incident of the cry in the third stanza is the key moment in the poem, the most telling. It’s so quiet in the rain (so not a full-on stormy gale or thunderstorm) and the cry is so far away that Frost stops walking because the sound of his footsteps is the loudest thing in the night city. He wants to make out that cry, which I think is “interrupted” by his own solitary footsteps. And what does he discern in that cry? That it’s not calling him back or bidding him leave either. Whoever he’s walking to get away from, it’s not their voice, but he wants to know if it is.
This incident is highlighted too because the poem opens with the idea of constant walking: Frost says he walked past the city limits and back. I’m hitting a muted low string on the guitar in my accompaniment to try to suggest that footsteps effect, that Frost is in motion even if he doesn’t know where he’s going.*
The last external thing Frost notices in the poem is the incident of the clock. Interestingly he uses an odd adjective for the lighted clock: “luminary” rather than “lighted” or “luminous.” I assume Frost would like us to think of the clock as an auspicious authority, a luminary, not just lit. I should also note that some see the clock as the moon in this poem. I don’t. I think if he’d wanted to depict the moon he’d say so. The lit clock face is moon-like, so I can understand that alternate reading, and what with its “unearthly height” Frost likely intends that overtone at least.
The poem is often read as a depiction of depression, and there I’ll agree as well. Depression is experienced by different people in different ways, but the situation here is familiar to me. Depression can confuse your judgement and ability to weigh things. Frost can walk all night because he is in some dispute with someone else (that voice he interrupts his steps to hear) but he’ll never figure it out even if he walks the entire dark city. He may step between self-pity and wanting to be seen as right, and self-abnegation and judging himself irrevocably wrong, but that only gets him out and back again. The luminary clock hands down it’s judgement: Frost, you’ll not figure it out tonight, which means you could return again to this night walk some other night—but it means also that one will be able to return, or turn elsewhere. Over time one may come to understand better that old acquaintance, the night. Roughly 30 years after writing this poem, Frost as a then old man said this to an interviewer “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”
In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”
Some see today’s poem’s luminary clock moment as an existential consideration of suicide. The clock (or moon if that’s your reading) somehow prompts or symbolizes the decision that this night is not the time for that decision. There’s another way to read “neither wrong nor right,” that the clock** indicates only a moment as time, and Frost’s realization about life is that it goes on, that it moves like this poem’s night walk, that that is its meaning: it’s movement.
Let me just say a bit about the poem’s beautiful structure. It’s a sonnet, and it’s a format I’ve used a bit myself lately: four tercets and a concluding couplet rather than the Shakespearean three quatrains and a couplet. But Frost has used Dante’s terza rima scheme of interlocking rhyme in the stanzas, and this knotted interlocking reinforces the endless walking and knotted thinking. And as one more music-of-thought feature, the poem ends with the first line—it walks out and back again just as the poem’s Frost does.
The player gadget to hear my performance of “Acquainted with the Night” is below. I wouldn’t decorate such a lonely poem with anything more than a single electric guitar this time.
**Yet another plausible meaning for “neither wrong nor right” would be that the traditional clock face might say half past four in the most deserted time of the night, just as it will say the same half past four when 5 PM quitting time approaches in the daytime afternoon. The clock’s face is ignorant or unreliable in that regard. It may be saying it’s time to end this night walk as the night is ending and life and people will return soon at dawn, in the same way it would be saying that it’s time to leave the work of trying to figure out the knot of the dispute before the poem starts, to clock out of the work of the night-office where that question was being worked on.
Frost’s poem doesn’t identify the city the walk is taking place in. For those that hold to the clock theory, London’s Big Ben has been suggested as the clock tower. John Timberman Newcomb in How Did Poetry Survive? suggests the clock tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, which as the tallest structure in New York City when completed in the early 20th century was a lighted timepiece of unearthly height. Many smaller cities of this time would have had prominent courthouses or main transportation terminals with lighted clock towers too.
For the moon theorists, the time is usually assumed to not be the time of day but a more general “time,” though it’s fairly easy to tell the time at night with a full moon (it’s overhead at midnight, like the sun is at daytime noon). However, “high moon” midnight would not likely be as deserted as the night walk time described in the poem.