Memory of June

As promised, here’s a love poem, one written by Claude McKay the Jamaican-born poet and writer who worked for many years in the United States. McKay sort of bridges the gap between Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance for Afro-American poets.

Like Dunbar, Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his poetry was written early enough to be included in James Weldon Johnson’s pioneering 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Like Dunbar, McKay could write a smooth metrical/rhymed poem in the 19th century style, but like Fenton Johnson he often set his poems in distinctly urban settings: the northern U. S. cities that were the terminus of the Great Migration of southern Afro-Americans during the 20th century. Alas, also like Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his published poetic work seems to have fallen off by the late 20s, though McKay’s prose career continued throughout the 30s.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

 

One of the poems James Weldon Johnson included in his anthology continues to be one of McKay’s best known, his sonnet “If We Must Die,”   a passionate ode to desperate self-defense that doesn’t once specifically mention the white race-riots, lynching and other terrorism that was a cardinal problem for the civil rights movement between the abandonment of Reconstruction and the middle of the 20th century. I find this an interesting choice on McKay’s part. I’m certain many readers of “If We Must Die”  understood in McKay’s time exactly what he was writing about, even to the specifics of it down to names, places and horrific details. But that’s not in the poem itself, unless you count the “O kinsman” address in the 9th line and the external knowledge of who that might be defined via McKay’s skin color. Is McKay’s choice intentional? By omitting his race and context, which his readership largely knew anyway, he’s saying self-defense isn’t a thing to be granted to or earned for Afro-Americans somehow, but a fundamental human right to be self-asserted. McKay had many other poems in which race is mentioned after all—makes it seem all the more to be a choice.

By choosing to state this universally, “If We Must Die”  has even engendered an unverified factoid that Winston Churchill quoted this poem in a speech during the most desperate days of WWII—but all that is in war and ugly violence, and I promised you a love poem, and “Memory of June”  is that—though it has one somewhat ambiguous phrase that might make it part of a struggle.

Here’s the text of McKay’s “Memory of June:”

Memory of June

 

Did you spot it? You should know I’m not about testing you; you are to only score yourself here. I didn’t see it the first time I read it either. Do you think it’s the phrase “your brown burning body” celebrating mutual Afro-American love and desire? Well this is poetry, a pleasure, not bomb-defusal, feel free to hold for that. It is a pretty poem, a romantic one, isn’t it?

The subtle, ambiguous line I eventually noticed is earlier: “For one night only we were wed.” McKay is now widely assumed to have been gay, though he never “came out” and nothing I’ve read so far tells me why this is now assumed as known.*

Let’s assume this is so. It is also safe to assume that few readers of the poem when it was first published in 1920 knew this, other than those in McKay’s intimate circle. Now the course of love is complex. Many nights of love are singular for many reasons. And Afro-American couples accrue special challenges. But McKay chose “wed,” the thing that gay couples were officially denied until late in my lifetime.

McKay might well be using the same tactical move as he used in “If We Must Die”  in a different context, one where a then more secretive circle would read this poem differently from the common reader.

So here we are in June, a traditional month for weddings and also gay Pride month, and I present Claude McKay’s “Memory of June,”  a love poem, not another poem about war or violence. Except love isn’t simple, and good love poems aren’t.

The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*This sort of ex-post-facto outing without a diary, journal or other unpublished manuscript that would be easily cited if it existed often comes from gossip or oral history—two names for what is largely the same thing, but gay history has fewer paper records to rely on. So, evaluating that isn’t simple, and McKay isn’t notable enough for this to be something I can find quickly.

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Higginson’s June

Here’s another post in our informal series “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Now a title like that may lead some to think I’m some sort of Dickinson scholar—which would be a fine thing to be, but I’m not. Frankly, when I started this project a few years back I assumed I’d present some Emily Dickinson poems. After all, not only do they famously fit well to music, but she was part of the poetry canon that I was raised on. Then something unexpected happened.

When I started to dig into Dickinson poems they grew mysterious, not just the elusive mystery of their intent or even their true subject, but the somewhat more external mystery of how they came to be written in the mid-19th century in a town in rural Massachusetts without any sure models for Dickinson’s new kind of poetry.

We know how many other writers assembled their machines and what fueled them. Shakespeare and Bob Dylan worked within successful entertainment enterprises, even if they were to reshape them. T. S. Eliot had a scholar’s interest in a wide range of art and spirituality across history, and after the trauma of WWI a significant part of the culture was waiting for someone to reassemble it however dolefully, even if it was in his Cubist collage. The Surrealists were crystal-clear about their influences and the impact of Freud and psychoanalysis. The G.I. Bill after WWII and the following post-war American prosperity introduced large numbers to colleges and college towns, including some who would likely not have attended before the war. This fueled not only the Beats, but the more academic-associated American poets of my youth. The 20th Century urban migration of Afro-Americans and the Talented Tenth tactics of the early 20th century U.S. Civil Rights movement encouraged the Harlem Renaissance and similar artists.

Emily Dickinson? It’s just not so clear to me. My best guess remains that she was a Transcendentalist of some sort in a household dominated by a father that wasn’t. Transcendentalism, staunchly individualist in it’s outlook has no mandatory dogma, but the sense that the intense, even visionary study of nature reveals the deepest spiritual truths seem to me to be its core. Received truths, any established customs and traditions, are to fall before this apprehension.

However individualist in philosophy, the Transcendentalists and the Boston publishing and cultural nexus were intimately connected socially in a way that Dickinson was not.

One incident, often judged as a quasi-accident* closed this circuit. In 1862 as the 31-year-old Dickinson had begun her extraordinary five years or so of white-hot poetic composition, she wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed a few of her poems. A string of correspondence ensues, and eventually the two met in person.

Dickinson’s letter is conventionally seen as a “cold call” prompted by Higginson writing a magazine article in The Atlantic “A Letter to a Young Contributor.”  That article is largely unremarkable if sensible, the subject one that is covered over and over wherever there are editors who accept written submissions. Submit clean, legible copy. Re-writing is as important as writing. Remember your audience and take pity on them. Hey, the editor is on your side—they, like the writer, want to produce good work.

And here we come to the next beat in the story as it’s usually told. Higginson is often portrayed as something of a doofus, the archetypal mansplainer who can’t understand Dickinson’s greatness. He suggests Dickinson write more conventionally and doesn’t think her work is suitable for publication. Presented with one of the founding geniuses of Modern poetry, he’s blind and hesitant.

Is that so? Well, there’s a lot we don’t know. First, we only have letters from Dickinson’s side of the correspondence. I’ve delayed this post so that I could at least read some of Higginson’s writing on other contemporaries of his and Dickinson, and one thing stands out from his later 19th century accounts of his life and times: he’s the soul of discretion (obscuring names for embarrassing incidents), generous even to his opponents, and extraordinarily hesitant in claiming credit for any of the things he may have been instrumental in. As an editor and literary critic, he seems to have a fairly good and objective eye, and he does not shy from pointing out shortcomings in writers he admires. I read his essay on Emerson written shortly after Emerson’s death, and his admiration for the man and his intellect does not keep him from agreeing with judgements about the faults of Emerson’s poetry. It therefore seems likely he could have suggested changes to Dickinson in his correspondence.

How artistically wrong would those suggestions have been? How harmful might they have been to the isolated Dickinson? Even if he was “wrong” could he have been tactically right about what mid-19th century audiences would tolerate? Here we don’t know the devilish details, but we know some things otherwise: Dickinson wrote most of her nearly two thousand revolutionary highly condensed poems as this correspondence was initiated. If Higginson squelched her or convinced her to temper her individuality, he must have been bad at it. If, on the other hand, what he said encouraged and kept her going, that would be consistent with what occurred.

Here’s something else we know objectively: in 1890 he was instrumental in getting Dickinson’s posthumous-published-career off the ground.**  He did not prevent and may have agreed with the conventionalizing of Dickinson’s punctuation, adding of titles to title-less poems, and so on—but historically those editions sold well right from the start and gained Dickinson a reading public. He added his prestige to the launch with the book’s introduction where he framed her (not yet knowing how well Dickinson would sell) as a sort of art brut phenomenon:

“In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed.”

This may be false, even if it’s an accurate advertisement for the impact reading Dickinson for the first time may have on a reader. Yes, Dickinson was likely a more conscious and careful artist than this impression leaves us with. But it worked! Remember, there was no Dickinson tradition to be misinterpreted when he did this. To a large degree, the reason we have an on-going debate about Dickinson that more than a handful of graduate students and eccentrics like me care about is because of his work in insuring that original edition.

Now for a surprise. I did not know that Higginson had written poetry until I came upon this poem by accident while looking for June poems. I can find nothing about it, but in the absence of knowledge I’ll speculate it might be from Higginson’s college-age youth. Here it is:

June

I may be full of perplexing thought even if this June day isn’t

 

It’s a graceful sonnet. I’m not in love with the slightly over-egged consonance of the “Lieth the lustre of her lovely life” line, but I’d suspect other readers would point it out with appreciation. On the other hand, the vowels of the preceding line “All the long day upon the broad green boughs” are pleasing to me. And the poem’s fine opening line, referring to June’s summer overture, “She needs no teaching,—no defect is hers” is hard for me to not read, whenever it was written, as the proper way to approach Emily Dickinson’s genius. The ending of the octet “While too much drugged with rapture to carouse/Broods her soft world of insect-being rife” is a truly strange one, half awkward “poetic diction” perhaps necessary to make the rhyme, and half a striking William Burroughs a-century-too-early image of June on the narcotic nod as summer’s insect-being is partly suppressed for the moment.

The sestet is not as distinctive, and I wonder if “zone” was chosen for its rhyme rather than being the best word at the end of the 12th line, but overall more interesting than most 19th century American sonnets. In his “Young Contributor”  article Higginson sagely notes that duality of the critic who’ll offer criticism when they themselves are not accomplished in the arts they criticize. “People criticize higher than they attain” he says.

After all that, here’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s sonnet “June”  and my performance of it. The player gadget to hear it is below.

 

 

 

*The writer of the standard Dickinson biography Richard Sewell believed that regular Atlantic  reader Emily Dickinson was attracted to Higginson’s nature articles which he’d published in The Atlantic  prior to the “Young Contributor.”  Early Dickinson biographer Genevieve Taggard speculates that George Gould (which she identifies as Dickinson’s ex-fiancé) may have suggested Dickinson write Higginson.

**I’m still underinformed on all the details of how we got to the 1890 publication of the first large batch of Dickinson poems. Originally, Dickinson’s sister looked to Sister-in-Law and intimate friend Susan Gilbert Dickinson to shepherd the publication. Susan Dickinson said (after the successful Higginson-introduced 1890 edition) that she had a big idea for presenting Dickinson in a fuller way from the start, but the project didn’t seem to get off the ground in the mind of Dickinson’s sister who was legally the rights holder. In an example of the multivalent family dynamics of the Dickinson family, the mistress of Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s husband (Emily’s brother, Austin) Mabel Todd Loomis, was then brought in as well as Higginson to edit and arrange for the first publication of Emily Dickinson’s work. Where Higginson comes in within this series of connections and who selected who, I don’t know, but seeing the book to completion and getting it published and launched with notice and eventual surprising sales has to be presumed to be largely Higginson’s work. He was the man with the connections, track record and prestige after all.

I Saw a Peacock

There’s not much to say about the author of today’s words, as they are anonymous and somewhat older than I am—“I Saw a Peacock”  dates to sometime before 1655. Somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s “May-Flower”  poem, this poem is on the face of it a chronicle of wonders and mystery, but it can also be read as a puzzle. Here’s the text of it:

I Saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail,
I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail,
I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round,
I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground,
I saw a Pismire, swallow up a Whale,
I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale,
I saw a Venice Glass, Sixteen foot deep,
I saw a well, full of mens’ tears that weep,
I saw their eyes, all in a flame of fire,
I saw a House, as big as the Moon and higher,
I saw the Sun, even in the midst of night,
I saw the man, that saw this wondrous sight.

 

The key to the puzzle is to read the lines starting at the middle and continuing to the middle of the next line. Read this way the things connected seem more commonplace and less mysterious. Given it’s age, there not a lot of out-dated words in it. A “pismire” is an ant.

Coppa_decorata_con_scene_di_carnevale

A Venice glass, not actual size.

 

This is a fairly sophisticated play with the powers of enjambment in a line of poetry, where the stop of the line makes one pause and consider (if only for a moment) the thought contained within the line, even if the thought is not actually completed yet. But I’ve chosen (as I did with Dickinson’s “May-Flower”)  to not perform it as just a riddle or exercise. Emily Dickinson’s poetry for her flower riddle was too mysterious and sensuous for me not to play to the mystery. Similarly, “I Saw a Peacock’s”  surface of surreal combinations of the like/unlike is too strong to not go with that side of the Mobius strip.

Although I just ran into “I Saw a Peacock”  this month, the poem has collected its fans over the centuries. I saw it at the Interesting Literature blog (which is, by the way). Writer Margaret Atwood once wrote that it was “The first poem I can remember that opened up the possibility of poetry for me.”

There is at least one other setting of this poem to music, a choral setting where the composer, Caroline Mallonee, uses a double choir to present both ways of reading the lines. That’s another artistic solution, different from my decision to present it “unsolved.”

My musical setting uses double instrumentation too. There’s a standard rock trio, albeit playing quietly (drum-set, electric bass, and electric guitar) and a quintet of double-bass, two cellos, violin and tuba.

You may have noticed I’ve been away from this blog for an interval of a few days as I work on another project this spring. I’ve noticed that folks are looking at the nearly 350 audio pieces we have here in our archives more and more, which is a great way to get your fix of music and words combining. To hear today’s piece, “I Saw a Peacock,”  use the player gadget below.

 

Beach Burial

In the United States this is a long holiday weekend, ending with Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who died in wars. Other countries have similar days, but in the US it has largely become the embarkation point for the joys of summer. Yes, oh yes,  there are those who have specific and somber memories in Memorial Day, but despite our generally observed notion of honoring all who fought in our wars on our side, whatever the war, for whatever the reasons, this day, set aside for those who gave their lives, may include only brief offerings to them.

Intentional death, for whatever reason, is a complex subject. Perhaps it’s best if we don’t think about this unless we’re really ready to think about it. There are so many questions, some of which I have no answers for even after a long life, and even if I did have answers, what matters more (if you are younger than me) is your  answers—and what you do while waiting for answers.

Is it always “Sweet and proper to die for one’s country?” Note, we know that phrase from Latin, written as it was by Ovid. It’s used in several English-language poems, often still in Latin, as it is engraved over an entrance to the U. S. Arlington National Cemetery: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”  So, it’s not an American phrase,* not even written knowing what America was!

Oddly Memorial Day comes out of Decoration Day when the graves of the dead from both sides of the American Civil War were visited and decorated by those who lived through that war, honoring those who, as in all civil wars, were seeking to kill their own countrymen.** That’s a complicated act, is it not?

So, it’s perhaps understandable that for many of us our outdoor grilling, our sports and play of summertime, our readying for graduations and vacations are not deeply troubled by the Memorial in Memorial Day, as huge and final as those sacrifices are, for those sacrifices are both simply total—and complicated.

Today’s piece doesn’t use words by an American either, it’s by Australian Modernist poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor, and it comes from observations he made while serving as a war correspondent accompanying Australian ground troops during the battle of El Alamein during WWII.***  I believe it to be a masterful poem by a writer too-little known outside of Australia.

Kenneth Slessor war corespondent

Kenneth Slessor as the official Australian WWII war correspondent

 

I could go into it line by line and point out what Slessor does that makes this poem work, but I also believe “Beach Burial”  needs only your attention to make itself felt.

I’ll add only one thing, though I’ve long lost the notes to where I found it. Some other explications of “Beach Burial”  are puzzled or make out the nakedness of the bodies as only metaphorical. The account that I read said that the sea-torn bodies from the burned and sunk ships that were washing up were indeed naked or nearly so, and that this was part of the effect Slessor chose to make with his poem and account, that the men doing the hasty burials in the midst of battle could not tell friend from foe from non-combatant.

Still they probably understood, as Slessor did, that some of those they were burying were their mortal enemies. It they, or you, were to think about the moment in Slessor’s poem, it’s complicated. This is an example of the sort of act I speak of above, things you might do while you are waiting for answers.

As it happens, today’s audio piece is an older live LYL Band performance recording from before the Parlando Project got underway. I hear some imperfections in it that are different than the imperfections I still hear in more recent pieces, but perhaps a different sort of imperfection will seem fresh to you. The player gadget to hear the LYL Band performance of Kenneth Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  is below. The text of the poem, for those that want to read along is here.

 

 

 

*One American phrase, made famous in the movie Patton  as spoken by the titular general is “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

**I’m sorry, but I must add that one side was fighting of course for the chattel slavery of other of their countrymen. This doesn’t make the acts of these early Decoration Days less complicated, only more so.

***And I point out, one side in this battle was aligned with the cause of an odious tyranny that sought to extract via meticulous death and slave labor the lives of many, due to some crackpot racist nationalism. That doesn’t make this poem less effective, it makes it more so.

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.

 

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.