I have my partisan convictions, you may have them too. And yes, our particular governmental and economic institutions are imperfect instruments. Natural forces only partially in our control and as small as a virus and as large as a changing atmosphere are still arrayed against not just our nation, but our planet. Proud racial and ethnic caste systems divide our forces against these things.
How to be humble and not loose heart? How to rejoice if there are things to do? Well, I believe that without joy we cannot achieve any needed changes or maintain any necessary things—but there’s much I don’t know, and as with all the things I think or say, my beliefs and actions are less important than yours, particularly if you are younger than I am. Laugh at all that clap-trap about named generations with variant but supposedly sharp an defended borders and a fixed list of characteristics like some crummy astrological sign summary. You are, or you need to be, The Greatest Generation.
I hope to have new audio pieces with posts in the next week, and there are lots of them already posted here. Here’s one of those older pieces you may not have heard yet, featuring the words, voice, and keyboard playing of Dave Moore titled “No Common Ground.” The player gadget to hear it is below.
I recall being on the shores of Lake Superior, North America’s great internal sea, on the morning of the last U. S. Presidential election, a day very early in the run of this Project. The lake and wind were calm, and I was out alone at dawn at a place where you could hear the water-lapped gravel stones at one part of the shore clinking against others.
I arose this morning at dawn in my diverse urban neighborhood and rode and old bicycle down to a low creek near the border of the city. That waterway is running low, exposing the ragged banks it used to wear. On the way back I picked up a take-out breakfast and rode past my voting place where I saw some of my fellow citizens entering and exiting to do what I had already done a few weeks ago.
I am ill at ease for my country, my family, and myself, something that accelerated throughout this year. I’ve read all the information, added to it all my speculations, but I have no source or way of knowing if that helps. It seems likely that my country’s fate will be decided in varied places across a continent, by a group of people I don’t know, by rank strangers like and unlike me.
We call that system democracy. Our republic filters and strains that democracy, weighs us unequally. There are days that call to mind diverted poet Winston Churchill’s famous line “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” and other days were my mind’s ear hears singing poet Leonard Cohen* intoning that “Democracy is coming (slight, sly, pause…) to the U.S.A.”
Books and votes and viruses and a world that weighs them with a right thumb in your eye and a left thumb on the scales. And you? Close your fist to protest. Open your fist to read, to vote, to grasp each others hand.
I know some come to this blog to find something other than politics and self-assertion, and others as a break or supplement to earnest efforts at those things. Readership and listening stats here have never been higher, even as many of you have no-doubt been as troubled as I have been this year, so I feel the call to leave you with something today. I have picked a text from a writer that I often turn to in troubles: Carl Sandburg. When I first presented this audio piece, I said that Sandburg had seen every evil and injustice I had seen, would not deny what he had seen, but still retained an embrace of humanity. So, I’ll give you a selection again from his “The People, the Mob” for this election day. The player gadget should appear below.
*That Cohen died on the eve of that last U. S. Presidential election still seems like an epitaphic metaphor.
It was those other Twenties, the last ones before ours. Some people are in the streets, angry and sad in every mixture, protesting lives that will taken away by force of law. Authors Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay* are among them. Mounted police are before this ragged line of protestors who are sagging back from the horses of disaster.
Here’s Porter’s account** of a moment in that night, resurrected from her notes 50 years later for a magazine article:
One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge!’ and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment’s pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were half-conscious.”
That’s a remarkable story, one often recounted about Lola Ridge in our newer century, and it was my first introduction to the poet whose text I’ll present today. What might one think from this testimony about Lola Ridge? Brave, foolhardy, self-less, self-harming, committed, able to throw it all away?
Perhaps as an aesthetic choice, Ridge never smiled in her photos.
Best as I can tell, she was all these things and more. Before this event she had been born in Dublin Ireland and her family had emigrated to New Zealand while she was a child. Eventually finding herself as a young woman in a bad marriage there she fled to Australia, took up poetry and visual art, emigrated once again to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, but proceeding to New York City and the Modernist and Anarchist ferment there around the time of WWI.
She was published by and was associated with the leading Modernist publications of her time, and her poetry was firmly in the free-verse and Imagist style, but with a significant commitment to portraying poverty and urban grit . Even among her co-revolutionaries in politics and the arts she stood out then by her austere commitment to these then somewhat intermingled causes.
It’s a complicated story about why you may not have heard of Ridge, but today you’ll get to hear one of her poems performed. Titled “The Dream,” it’s easy to see it as an Imagist poem. Like so many of the Modernist movement poems it’s a charged, compressed moment told with images without a single overt statement of emotion. The uneven lines and unusual line breaks and the use of colors for adjectives are hallmarks of Imagism. The full text of “The Dream” is linked here if you’d like to read along.
“The Dream” was published in Ridge’s second book-length collection Sun Up in 1920, but I don’t know when it was written. It’s possible that it, or some version of it, might date back to her days in Australia, since Sydney harbor is mentioned. Following from its title, it can be taken as a somewhat apocalyptic or fantastic vision. Or you can take it as expression of a rough morning’s awaking. It’s also a word painting of an urban scene, and in that guise it seems to focus in on pollution. Indeed, part of it could pass for poetic reportage on the strange Australian and American skies this year after the massive forest fires.
“Air heavy…Vapor of opium…Sulphurous mist…Its sun the junk of red iron” skies after massive forest fires in the Western US and earlier this year in Australia.
I made do with a simple demo recording of the main vocal and acoustic guitar track for my presentation of “The Dream” so that I’d have time to complete the string quartet part of two violas, a violin, and a ukulele bass faking a pizzicato cello part. Real string composers and players will note how simple my parts are for the quartet. I sometimes think of my string writing as “punk-rock orchestral,” in that I hope simplicity in my technique and conception brings a certain focus on the unfussy parts of music that might still have an impact on the listener. The player gadget to hear it should be below (unless you read this on the WordPress reader for the iPhone or iPad, in which case you’ll need to switch to a browser to hear the music, or subscribe to the audio pieces via Apple Podcasts).
My teenager asked me what I’m doing, overhearing me test-shouting the text of today’s piece Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England 1819.” Here’s a link to that text if you want to follow along.
“Shelley, the perfect English Romantic Poet, might have been the most radical poet of his time. In matters of sex, religion, politics, aesthetics and philosophy he was explicitly in opposition, and he was chased out of England for it. But still he was capable of being driven to a new level of outrage by events.”
“The ruined statue in the desert guy?”
“Yeah, that’s him. And some readers forget that as beautiful a poem as “Ozymandias” is, that there’s real anger behind it—but you can’t miss the anger in this one.”
So, once more I’ll write today about the process of translation. Not from some other language to English, but from perfectly fine English and a past you may not know, to our time. “England 1819” is 201 years old, and some superficial particularities could make it seem a little antique. It wasn’t so when it was written—and it just so happens that the rhymes of history may make some other specifics in the poem ring out to a reader or listener today.
What was it that set Shelley’s anger to a new heat point? In August 1819 a large meeting was planned by reformers in Manchester England. The organizers seemed to take care that it be a powerful but peaceful demonstration. Chief among the subjects of the event: the granting to ordinary people the ability to vote.* On the appointed day, tens of thousands turned out, including whole families. Many were dressed in their “Sunday best” to hear speakers in St. Peter’s field, an open space in Manchester.
I’ll summarize the brutal details of what happened. Given that it’s 1819 there are no photographs, no bystander cell-cam video: one has to read and use imagination to picture it. Mounted police were sent to arrest the speakers and organizers on a temporary stage in the midst of the large field while the event was happening. Their horses were slowed and tangled in the crowd (described as so dense, that the hat brims of the attendees touched one another). This led to additional mounted militia and eventually regular soldiers that had been held in reserve to be sent against the crowd. Sabers were used as the horsemen struck out at those surrounding them, and of course the horses themselves were trampling on those who fell or were in the way. In some ways it seems miraculous that “only” eleven were killed. Hundreds were injured: men, women, children. The organizers were arrested, convicted, and jailed.
Wikipedia says the banner the woman on the left is holding that day would say “Let us die like men and not be sold as slaves.”
One of those who was injured, and who died a few days afterward from his wounds, was a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, the famous British victory of four years earlier. With bitter irony this event was called “The Peterloo Massacre”
It took a few weeks for the news of this outrage to reach Shelley who was in Italy. That September he wrote today’s sonnet, along with a longer work “The Mask of Anarchy” and a third poem in a song form. Despite that he was already a self-exile abroad, none of them were published during his lifetime. There was a reason for that: merely publishing an account of The Peterloo Massacre was considered sedition and libel. He asked his friends to not publish them, for there was a real risk of imprisonment for them to do so. The poems were circulated informally, and finally published over a decade later after Shelley had died.
“England 1819” then has some specifics. The stabbed in line 7, the army in line 8, and the sword in line 9 aren’t only metaphors—they are, albeit second-hand, reportage. Adjusted for the speed of communication in Shelley’s time, they are roughly as immediate as a blog post, just in the form of a sonnet.
What about the possible correspondences of history/rhyme I mentioned? I could write how in some way that the charges laid out against the 1819 English government power structure and the insidious way they used their power could be compared to my country in 2020. I almost wrote just such a section—but anyone who remains in my audience can likely do that for themselves. I personally found some of them as bitterly ironic as the decision to call the 1819 event Peterloo. You may think otherwise. Feel free to do your own translation today. As to prophetic Shelley’s concluding “glorious Phantom,” the Phantom that may emerge from the graves created and filled by those that then recognize they are dying themselves: what tempest will that day bring? A cleansing, nourishing rain, applauded in the leaves of trees, or a hurricane?
The player gadget to hear my performance of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England 1819” is below.
*For over half-a-century in my life, voting is something that would seem uncontroversial—at least since the heroes of the Civil Rights movement, some of whom died to make that mundane. Indeed, how many radicals have I met who invoke the saying that if voting could really change anything, they’d make it illegal. Now I hear that statement backwards. If there are current efforts trying to impede voting, reduce it, and denigrate it—there must be powerful people afraid of some change it could bring.
Before I present today’s audio piece, once more a story, one that has kept me up reading and thinking about it for the past week. Like many of the stories I’ll tell here, the events may seem at first to be far off and unrelated to you, as much a “who cares” as poetry is to many people. But the story behind the poem affected me, now, in our current age, just as poetry written long before I was born might.
In 1878, a man was born in Germany named Erich Mühsam. When he reached the proper age he was sent off to a fine boarding school where young Mühsam recognized two things: he didn’t much care for the school’s rigorous discipline (“corporal punishment,” the polite word for instructional beatings, was the order of the day) and that he wanted to become a writer, a poet. So, the teenaged Erich wrote an article for the local Socialist newspaper about the school’s abuses. For good or bad, that was his ticket out of there. He was expelled.
As the new 20th century began he returned to his home city of Berlin and fell in with some young folks who were running what in my day would have been called a commune: “Neue Gemeinschaft” (New Society). It’s there that Mühsam met Gustav Landauer, who though only eight years older, became a sort of guru to the young Mühsam. Landauer was a theorist, a charismatic one at that, for a type of Anarchism that believed that the most effective direct action was to begin living the theory rather than seeking (and likely waiting) for some revolution to give Anarchists that opportunity. He encouraged Mühsam to develop as a poet, and poetry was part of Landauer’s world-view. Landauer’s wife was also a poet and a German translator of works of Wilde, Poe, Rabindranath Tagore, and Walt Whitman.
Mühsam absorbed much from Landauer, and you can see that in the text for today’s piece, a poem Mühsam wrote in 1909—but Mühsam was a more active revolutionary, though much of it was through literary efforts: poetry, plays, cabaret works, essays, and editorship of his own anarcho-communist journal Kain. The Left in this period was (as it often is) splintered—sometimes most sure that those with beliefs most adjacent to a segment’s own were as dangerous to the cause as overt opponents. Mühsam was non-violent but open to alliances with those that weren’t. Landauer and Mühsam sometimes found themselves on opposing sides, but their relationship was never severed. Landauer was accused of being to professorial and uninvolved in active struggle. Mühsam was thought by some as too provocative. *
Mühsam, Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber. How does that last guy fit in? Read on. Is it just me or does Mühsam have a little Marc Maron thing going on?
How many of you find this Anarchist theology boring? Well, here comes WWI. Boring also to some, but also deadly and existential.
The war stifled critics of the Imperial German government, at least at first. Even the activist Mühsam had a hot take where defending his country and citizens seemed an imperative.** Write anything critical of the government and you might be arrested and jailed. Support strikes by war-workers? Go directly to jail. So, eventually Mühsam was jailed.
By late 1918 the dam broke. Beside the mountains of deaths on all sides, unimaginable before this first full-scale mass-production European war, Germany was losing, and no amount of government propaganda could convince many that this was not so. Sacrifice for winning can be cast as heroic. Sacrifice for losing is a harder sell.
And if you were waiting for it, here it comes: revolution!
In November 1918 the Kaiser abdicates as WWI ends. In the Bavarian regional capitol, Munich, the Independent Socialist Party declared the “People’s State of Bavaria.” A guy named Kurt Eisner was named its President. Seeking alliances with others on the left, Mühsam and Landauer are offered positions in the new government. They don’t take them up on this, but during this time the two old friends are now in Munich.
Eisner’s Socialists were democratic, republican (small case, they believed in elections). In the midst of this chaos, with even basic social functions in turmoil and the new Socialist alliance unable to prove any of its theories, they held elections in January 1919. They lost. Eisner went to parliament to present his resignation, true to his beliefs. An assassin shot and killed him on the street before he arrived. Now a new government is proclaimed “The Bavarian Soviet Republic.”*** And now Mühsam and Landauer join up.
Ah, so now the story of sleek agitators and thoroughbred theorists pressed into harness as government draft-horse functionaries? If only my story could stay so boring. This government lasted six days. I’ve had left-over pizza that lasted longer than that! And Wikipedia says that during this less than a week time a “mentally ill Foreign Affairs deputy” declared war on Switzerland. How could they go up against all those multifunction knives and prevail? Oh! Such comedy, dark as it is!
Trust that dark. That’s where we’re going.
Now yet another government is declared in Munich, this time led by Communists and a guy that his contemporaries said “Wanted to be Lenin. He thought he was Lenin!” Mühsam is arrested by this new government and thrown back in jail. Given that he was so provocative, one doesn’t have to imagine him stretching his talents far to piss them off. Lucky him. The more mild-mannered Landauer has suffered in this winter the death of his talented literary wife (a victim of the 1918-19 flu pandemic) and the dashing of his hopes for wider realization of his theories. He sticks around, out of power. Is he frozen by grief that winter? Spring comes. There’s a revolution one can count on…
…but not just flowers are coming. The Freikorps, a right-wing militia, goes into Munich to put down the revolution. This they do, hundreds die. Who can tell Landauer’s mind, but Landauer had refused advice to leave in that spring. He’s rounded up, imprisoned. The day after May Day, the guards take him to a room. They beat and abuse him. They shoot him. They beat him some more. They shoot him again, finally killing him, and toss him into a common grave.
Mühsam escaped this because he had been imprisoned by the last revolutionary government. But in the aftermath, he’s still a notorious revolutionary, so he’s put in a new prison as an enemy of the new central German Republic government.
While he’s imprisoned, in 1920, a collection of his poems titled Brennende Erde(Burning Earth) is published, and this month I got a pdf scan copy and did a rough machine translation in order to peruse it. Why did I go looking for this obscure collection? I’d read a passing reference to him as a poet and activist, and something drew me to look, in this time when I’m questioning the arts and poetry and the seeming necessity of activism that I feel unequipped to take on.
I did a more careful, human, translation of the first poem in that collection, “Zum Beginn “ (“At the Beginning.”) It carries a subheading there telling that “At the Beginning” was first published in Gustav Landauer’s magazine, and given the importance of Landauer to Mühsam and the short interval between the publication date for the collection and Landauer’s death, it’s easy to read it as a comment on what Mühsam learned from his teacher. Here’s my English translation, the one I perform today:
Can one read things in it that seem to speak to today? I believe one can. I wonder if whoever was putting together the collection before publication thought it spoke to 1919 too. That line written in 1909: “Plague air hangs over the world” could be read in 1919 as a comment on the great influenza pandemic, not as a mere metaphor, just as you might read it now in Covid-19 times. The closing litany of people awakening to the power of realization, that too could be more than a dusty relic as folks marched this summer under a growing common understanding of oppression and “nets tightly wrapped around the forehead…until it can’t breathe.”
So, what happened to this young poet who turned activist/poet? In 1924 there was an amnesty declared for political prisoners and he was released. Lucky him! Another lucky man released by that amnesty had tried to declare a new government from Munich too, this time in 1923: a painter turned activist named Adolph Hitler. You probably haven’t heard much of his paintings.
Just as his 1909 poem foretold, Mühsam arrived by train in Berlin after release from prison and was met by a crowd of admirers, cheering and lifting him onto their shoulders. Someone thought things got out of hand, and soon the edges of the crowd were being attacked and beaten, though Mühsam was carried to safety that day. More than a decade after he wrote his poem, those with the fists still had the power—or some of it.
Mühsam took part in the artistic and political ferment in Berlin for almost ten years. Shortly after that pardoned painter/activist succeeded in getting power in Germany, someone burnt down the Reichstag, and it was time to round up those that had ticked off Hitler and his supporters. Mühsam was one of the first taken in. You know the quote attributed to the conservative German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller? The one that starts “First they came for…?” Jews, Gays, Leftists, avant garde artists? Was there any group Mühsam didn’t qualify for? Lucky man, head of the line.
He was sent to a concentration camp. There he was beaten and abused. In short order he was taken into a room and abused and beaten until he was dead. The guards hung his body and said he committed suicide.
There are martyrs we remember and martyrs we forget. Phil Ochs wrote a song “Too Many Martyrs” and we might slag him off for stating the obvious rather than the artful—but the obvious is likely the truth here. At least in the United States we have next to no remembrance of Mühsam or Landauer. As far as I can tell from a brief search, Mühsam’s poetry has not attracted interest from English translators, with one site that did feature some English translations (and tantalizingly, some set to music) now defunct—and the domain name takes you to a place with bogus antivirus pop-ups flashing all over your screen. Both do have some interest to Anarchists as political figures. That’s a bit odd. Isn’t one of the romantic knocks against artists turning activists: ars longa, (and their political concerns), vita brevis? Countering that is what I call Donald Hall’s Law: that poet’s statement that almost all poets, even prize-winning poets, are largely unread 20 years after their death. I fight that here, but Hall may be right.
History had a few more things to offer me as I read this sad and affecting tale of these two men.
Mühsam wasn’t the only one who had their life impacted by Landauer and his idea of practicing egalitarian Anarchism right now in a communal and immediate relationship. His most famous pupil was probably Martin Buber, whose influence on humanism in the mid-20th century was considerable.
Remember Landauer and his wife, and his belief in the monad of domestic life as a model for change? Well that talented writer and translator and that theorist of humanist Anarchism had a child. And that child, Brigitte, survived her parents and married a doctor in Berlin. In 1931 they had a child, Mikhail—and later that decade they got out of Dodge before the painter/activist/ Führer got around to those not first on every part of his list.
They settled in America and adopted an easier to spell-and-say name, so their grade-school-aged son Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky became Mike Nichols. He became a radio folk-music DJ, an influential pioneer in popularizing improv comedy with Elaine May, and then on to a significant career as a stage and movie director.
Strange, the undernotes of history. I’ll likely never listen to a Nichols and May routine or watch a Nichols-directed movie like The Graduate again without thinking of that grandfather, that heartbroken, widowed man being abused to death after watching the revolution, one he didn’t want to wait for, fail. I’ll still laugh. The laughs are just darker.
Today’s music is more in the “bash it out fast” manner, no pretty string quartets, no subtle sound design, just two electric guitars, bass, drums and my effort to speak the words. The player gadget is below if you read this in a browser. Apple WordPress Reader users, use the Reader’s gadget to open this in Safari to see the player.
*Among Mühsam’s early 20th century beliefs were “free love” and gay rights/acceptance. The communard Landauer believed that a loving and equalitarian family unit was a small-scale model for society.
**He took that back, and wrote anti-violence and war poetry during the war. Can one imagine Twitter in 1914? The telegraph lines would have melted.
***OK, if you stayed with me so far, with “Socialist” and “Communist” being thrown around in addition to the “aren’t they the guys who throw little black round bombs” “Anarchists,” “Soviet” might be the final straw that chokes your metaphoric dolphin or turtle or other benevolent creature. “Soviet” means in this context, a worker’s council as a source of authority. As far as Anarchists were concerned, that’s a good thing. Anarchists are often against violence, and particularly state violence, torture, and oppression—but they are very much for long boring meetings, which have a special dispensation from being defined as torture or oppression.
Are there people today still falling in love, or not falling in love together, or remembering love and almost love? Seems like a silly or rhetorical question doesn’t it.
So, yes, I suspect there are, as there have been before.
People fall in love on marches, at the barricades. Policemen fall in love. People fall in love in the time of plagues. Old people fall in love. Young people remember love or almost love. Oppressed people fall in love. People fall in love, but their partner doesn’t, and sometimes that partner is the wiser of the two.
So, is this the time for a poem of romantic love to be the most popular piece this past season? This is a time of new dangers and old evils. This is a time that predicts greater uncertainties and promises change if we act, and despair if we don’t. Can poetry put its “Queer shoulder to the wheel” as Ginsberg wrote? Should it?
I’ll be honest, I think about that a lot this spring. It’s a large part of why it’s hard for me to get around to creating new work here as this spring unfurled. Honestly I have little right to present short pieces here on Emily Dickinson, Du Fu or Arthur Rimbaud, but I may have even less authority to write briefly on politics, economics, sociology, or epidemiology—much less American racial dichotomy and all it’s injuries.
My observation that many who do write of these things have no more authority than I do is not helpful. Another observation is that all us artists have is that: our observation. We must strive to be careful seers and more exact sayers of what we see, though we tend to be flat seers. Heaven and wildflowers: that’s leveling. Romantic love, that often-brief thing; and disaster, that sometimes-brief thing that harms long and painfully, we see them both, we write about them as if they’re equal.
The player gadget to hear Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” this love poem written by a 20-something about old age, is below. Thank you very much for reading and listening, and an extra thank you to those who’ve helped spread the word about the Parlando Project. There’s a lot of stuff here from the four years of this project to listen to, and I’ll still attempt to have new pieces here soon.
Here’s the other pole of Carl Sandburg, a prose-poem about the nature of government. It seems so far from the tight compressed Imagism of “Gargoyle” that one might wonder how it could be from the same poet. I may have a clue there, so read on, I’ll return to that thought.
But first let me note that Carl Sandburg had some unique experience to bring to this subject. This poem comes from his landmark Chicago Poems published in 1916, a collection that both established his bonafides as a Modernist poet and as a foundational writer of American proletarian poetry. But before that he’d been a first generation immigrant,* a Spanish-American War soldier, a college dropout from a no-where college, and an itinerant worker. In the first decade of the century, as he turned 30, he was working as a daily paper journalist as he began a period of political activism in Wisconsin as a Socialist party organizer. In 1910, the city of Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor, and Carl Sandburg took a position in his city administration. He was a self-proclaimed idealist as well as an aspiring poet. In his new job in government he was ready to—well, let me quote how he remembered itin an interview in 1953:
We were to build in Milwaukee the kind of planned city which existed in some places in Germany and in other European cities where socialism had taken hold….Then came the jarred awakening. Hordes of job-seeking Socialists descended on our office wanting the crumbs of victory. They behaved just like the Republicans and the Democrats on that day when they swept into power. This was not idealism; it was the old spoils game.”
In another account he said that his first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway.
After two years in government, Sandburg kept with poetry but went back to Chicago and to getting his paycheck from the Fourth Estate. Thanks to Ben Hecht, a fellow Chicago newspaperman, we can sense what being a newspaper reporter in Sandburg’s Chicago era might have been like. Hecht’s play The Front Page has been made into a movie three times, with most favoring the middle version, His Girl Friday, as cinema, but the original 1931 version is most faithful to the original play and era.**
Sandburg’s “Government” may not be one of his greatest poems, but I’ve maintained that poetry (like other arts) can serve us even when it’s not some sublime act. You’ve heard me maintain that Sandburg has poems that deserve to be considered in that sublime class, but this one shows us something too.
So now that we’ve detoured in the non-aesthetic realm of politics, let me come back to that thought, however unformed, that I have about the compressed Imagist Sandburg, the one we forget or underestimate, the poet who has poems that can stand with the other Modernists in concrete and incised compression. In “Government” Sandburg, though in a prose-y and less concise manner than the Imagist Sandburg, shows government in its evil and corruption is us, human us. It seems an institution as we speak of it in tired language that poets must avoid and repair, an external thing, like a building or statue put up long before our time—or if living, a monster from the other. However impure, however damaged, our republic is; however unclean our language is; however dull, ignorant, insufficient our thoughts are; we are the blunt weapon that damaged it, we are the only tool to repair it. Blunt tools break, sharp tools repair.
Here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Government” available with a player gadget below.
*I grew up in a small Iowa farm town with substantial Swedish heritage. In my half of the 20th century I believe I may have underestimated the impact that Sandburg’s parents were immigrants, or that parts of WASP culture may have noticed this about Sandburg more than you or I might think. Last year when reading more about another under-considered Midwestern Modernist Edgar Lee Masters who crossed paths with Sandburg in Chicago, I was struck at how often Masters referred to Sandburg as a Swede/poet in a context that I believe was meant to be read as a natural incongruity, that such a coarse background could be associated with the athenaeum of poetry.
**Footnote fans, be prepared for a wild mouse of a ride in this one. In The Front Page remember how the corrupt mayor is indebted to “the black vote.” In 1915, the black vote was largely Republican, and the Chicago mayor that year was William Hale Thompson, a character that could give our 21st century President a run for his money. He survived WWI politically despite being pro-German and reflexively anti-English, and with a drain-the-swamp campaign that was working to make sure the money sump-pump went toward his pockets. He was finally voted out of office by the campaign of Anton Cermak, the most important mayor in the history of Chicago. In that campaign, Wikipedia quotes Thompson as Tweeting (well, I guess not, it’s 1931 after all—but the flavor sure sounds reminiscent of our contemporary) “I won’t take a back seat to that bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack, or whatever his name is. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”
So, what’d Cermak do that was so important? In 1933 Cermak took a fatal assassin’s bullet that could have hit the U. S. President-elect Franklin Roosevelt standing next to him. Regardless of who took what bribe from who, or who did a better job of expired canine disposal, or even weighed against the epic odyssey of the Afro-American migration to urban centers, the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 would have likely changed America and the world’s history immensely.
By way of footnote dénouement, I’ll note that Cermak’s son-in-law Otto Kerner chaired the commission that was charged with evaluating the urban riots of The Sixties. Read this linked article for a sense of what was said then, and then consider Sandburg’s words in his great poem “I Am the People, the Mob:” “When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.”
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.