A Letter to Those Who are About to Die

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

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

Kenneth Patchen 1939

A photo of the young Kenneth Patchen in the 1930s

 

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

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

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

 

Andrew Bird’s “Bloodless” official video.

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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Hitch Your Wagon to a Star

As we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month here, I ask your indulgence—today’s piece isn’t based on a poem. Earlier this week I did use a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem, mentioning then that his poetry often fails. Well, there are compensations—as an essayist, Emerson often expresses himself poetically.

Today’s piece is part of an Emerson essay published in The Atlantic in April 1862 called “American Civilization.”  In it Emerson ranges quite a bit, including some racial and regional stereotyping that may shock some modern readers with its ignorance and prejudice. But rather than concentrate on what Emerson got wrong—after all, I don’t need to go to 150-year-old writing to find that sort of thing, our own age will supply all we’ll ever need—I want to present to you some things that Emerson might have gotten right.

I’ve selected a handful of sections from Emerson’s essay for today, the parts of the essay that strike me as if they were a poem. I call my extracted text “Emerson’s Wagon,”  in that one of the phrases it popularized became a pervasive folk-motto: “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

What do you think that means when you hear it today? Most likely you think it means have high ambitions, aim for success not mediocrity, that if you only make it half-way you’ll still get farther than if you’d set your sites lower.*

If so, you may be surprised to hear how Emerson meant that phrase. Indeed, the whole argument Emerson makes in today’s piece is a subtle and surprisingly contemporary one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson at desk

Emerson wondering if his essay will go viral—wait—can something go viral on the telegraph?

 

“Emerson’s Wagon”  starts by telling a technology story. While he’s speaking about the telegraph, a recent marvel of his time, the metaphor here could just as easily be applied to the Internet on which you are reading this.**  In this metaphor we meet the essay’s first wagon, and it’s, well, stuck and broken down. He points out technology has found a way to get around that.

OK, nice story. Interesting contemporary parallel.

Then mid-19th century Emerson starts considering renewable energy. A couple years back I was talking to someone about that very subject and he mentioned Massachusetts had fewer resources than some other parts of the U.S. for that, which I found ironic, because Emerson’s 19th century Massachusetts was leading the country in exploiting water and tidal energy for industrial power.

Here is Emerson’s second wagon, the first one he hitches to a star. He’s not talking about personal advancement particularly, he’s talking about harnessing nature’s renewable power, and working with it to improve our civilization.

Now his technological story is getting more interesting. How many times have you heard of nature and technology portrayed as opposites? Enough that you may think that technology inevitably destroys nature, or that technology is replacing nature, and so on?

Emerson’s asking you to think of technology (and also nature, as we’ll soon see) differently. Technology comes from close observation of and analysis of the powers of nature. And in concert, the book of nature can tell us something about how to use and deploy technology, and how we should share the bounty of that.

Finally, Emerson goes somewhere you probably won’t expect. His third wagon*** says that moral principles are natural principles (and vice versa). We moderns may have some doubts about this, but it was part of the Transcendentalist ideals that Emerson and his fellows believed. From that equivalence, he says that for American civilization to succeed, for us to fix those broken and stuck in the mud situations like that first wagon, we must align ourselves (if we wish to make change) with the moral principles of a nature that spreads over all and gives benevolently. To do so makes us more powerful agents of change that cannot be defeated in the long run.

An interesting thought for a time of lies and behavior that isn’t pulled forward by the tides of heroic stars, that instead aims at the lower level of personal enrichment defended with the muddy shield of not-quite-legally-indictable.

To hear me perform Emerson’s story of three wagons, use the player below, and electricity will transfer it to you in its invisible pockets. To read all of Emerson’s essay, you can find it here.

 

 

 

*It was a phrase my mother would use, and in this sense too. She raised her large and different family whose members did different things, so maybe it has some value used in this way as well.

**The “invisible pockets” he has the telegraph carrying data in so easily become the “packets” that have flown through TCP/IP routers to bring this post or the accompanying audio file to you. Did you know that some of the savviest conceptual thinking about how the Internet works can be expressed via carrier pigeons?

***As he once more returns to the line “hitch your wagon to a star” Emerson eventually reels off a list of constellations named after heroes. You might be thrown by the first one on his list “Charles’ Wain.” I’d never heard of it. Turns out it’s another name for the Big Dipper. Wain is a Middle English word for, yes, wagon and together Charles’ Wain sort of morphs into the name of legendary king Charlemagne.

I Thought It Mattered

Today is May Day, a day that combines many things. Neo-Pagans can point to it as Beltane or the morning that follows Walpurgis Night. Since the late 19th Century it’s been “International Worker Day” associated with labor and Socialist movements. It’s about midway between Spring Solstice and Summer Equinox.

It was also once a more or less secular holiday celebrated because by now it’s likely Spring in essence, not just Spring in some calendar’s notion in northern climes. A long time ago, in my childhood, in my little Iowa town settled by Swedes, May baskets were still exchanged—this before Easter had become one of the commercial candy holidays paired with Halloween. In Britain May Day still a bank holiday, celebrated next Monday with sundry celebrations.

In Minneapolis, this Sunday is the date of an annual parade organized by a local urban puppet theater. We will sit on the curbsides as Indigenous dance crews, drum bands, anarchists, political candidates, stilt dancers, decorated bicycles, giant papier-mache puppets, and various cause marchers pass by to music by flat-bed truck rockers and strolling brass bands. The Minneapolis May Day parade combines all those May Days into one thing, a Whitmanesque democratic cultural event, a container of multitudes spilled open on a city street.

I used to take pictures and film it, but now I just go and watch it. It may be just me, but in the past couple of years the level of invention in the costumes/puppets seems to have fallen off, but that may just be me and nostalgia filters. Ah, for the good old days of 2010! I’m holding that this is just random variation—but in the end it’s the gathering of South Minneapolis people, parading and watching who make me most appreciate it.

The 2010 theme incorporated William Blake, and my soundtrack to this slideshow features Blake’s “The Tyger.”

 

Today’s audio piece, “I Thought It Mattered,”  has words and music by Dave Moore, and is sung by him along with our more spontaneous incarnation, the LYL Band. Dave’s song speaks of lifetimes, marchers and causes. I think it’s one of his best songs, so give it a listen using the player below.