Adelaide Crapsey, A Ghost Story

We’re a couple of weeks past Halloween, but let’s finish out our series on American poet Adelaide Crapsey with a ghost story about two families. Perhaps you don’t believe in ghosts? That’s OK. In this story one family believes in ghosts and the other one doesn’t.

As we learned yesterday, a young scholar and writer of poetry, Adelaide Crapsey was struck down just days after she turned 36 in 1914 by tuberculosis. Though greatly weakened by her illness, she had worked on organizing a book-length collection of her poems in her final year, including a section introducing examples of a new poetic form she had created.

Alas, she didn’t seem to have a publisher when she died. It’s uncertain who knew about the poems she’d selected. Adelaide had a strong belief in self-reliance and not burdening her friends and family, and so for as long as possible she’d kept the news of her grave diagnosis from them, and some of the poems in her manuscript (such as the ones used in our last post) spoke frankly about her illness, pain, and thoughts on mortality.

adelaide crapsey grave

A grave marker that doesn’t burden you either. She ended her collection of poems: “Wouldst thou find my ashes? Look/In the pages of my book”

 

There were some external reasons for this desire not to burden her family. Her father, Algernon Crapsey* had been a prominent Episcopal priest in Rochester New York, one who had practiced a ministry to the poor and other disadvantaged portions of the Gilded Age. Adelaide’s father came to believe that certain spiritual beliefs of his church were not only of doubtful accuracy, but that taken on faith they would hinder service to the poor. Once he decided he was right about this, he wouldn’t shut up about it either. He preached it, he wrote articles and books about this: if you believe in miracles and heavenly rewards you are all too likely to not feel the need to make your own miracles by action here and now, in this life, on this Earth.

This put his church in a bind. Here was a churchman who was known for manifest good works around the state of New York, a Christian hero of a sort—but who was also vocally opposed to church doctrine.

So it was that a few years before Adelaide Crapsey died that a committee of investigators from the Episcopal diocese came to the parsonage where Adelaide had grown up to question her father on these matters. Her father was out, doing those good works. Her mother was worn-out from dealing with this all. Adelaide, like any good PK,** stepped in as hostess. The story is told that she served them tea and kept them graciously talking as the tea went down.

Oh, and she had spiked the tea with rum. It was said the investigators inquisitorial rigor suffered a decline during their wait.

But Adelaide’s father would not keep quiet. He eventually met with a church trial for heresy.***  He claimed the heresy of the church not serving the poor as Jesus commanded was far greater than any they could charge him with over supernatural events, but the church’s hierarchy convicted him. Maybe he wasn’t a heretic who believed in different gods or another heavenly host, but it just wouldn’t do to be a priest of their church who didn’t profess the right beliefs.

No burning at the stake though, he was just written out of his job and the church. The family had to leave the parsonage where they had lived for decades for a house some supporters found for them elsewhere in town.

Adelaide, like her family, didn’t believe in heaven and hell. And now she was dead, and as her poem had put it, her mouth was now part of the quiet as with falling snow and the hour before dawn.

In another part of the same town, there was a successful architect, Claude Bragdon. What kind of architect? Do you know the names of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, or Buckminster Fuller? Claude Bragdon was that type, committed to artistic principles, in his case to a religious and mystical level. Indeed, he had a strong side-interest in Theosophy, a 19th century unified field theory of spiritualism and hermetic knowledge. He had known the Crapsey family and Adelaide at least somewhat. Adelaide had taken his mystical bent in stride, calling him “cube man” due to his fascination with the hypercube (which I think may be related to Buckminster Fuller’s theories about the geometric nature of the universe).

Claude_Bragdon

“The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone/Causes Galileo’s math book to be thrown” Claude Bragdon sings the Tombstone Blues.

 

Claude Bragdon had not been married long when Adelaide Crapsey died. His new wife, Eugénie had never met Adelaide. One day, in that silent time of the hour before the dawn, something happened. Here’s how he described it in his autobiography:

One morning in the summer of 1915 I was awakened by my wife Eugénie, who asked me if I knew anyone by the name of Adelaide. I told her that Mrs. Algernon Crapsey’s name was Adelaide, and it had also been that of her daughter, who had died a short time before. “Take me to see Mrs. Crapsey,’ said Eugénie, ‘because I was awakened by the sound of her name, repeated over and over: Adelaide! Adelaide!’ “

Now if a chill runs up and down your spine to hear this, the architect and his wife may have taken it more calmly. Not only were spirit voices and mediumship part and parcel of Theosophy, Eugénie was a “Delphic Woman” in her husband’s estimation, one who used automatic writing to take down sayings and messages from the ether.****  And so now Eugénie’s automatic writing sessions became peppered with messages from the late Adelaide Crapsey. With a little interpretation, the messages seemed to be referring to the poems, the book-length collection Adelaide had been working on.

Book negotiations have been known to get complicated, and I haven’t read all the source materials for this story*****  but somehow the husband and wife mystic family convinced the social-gospel materialist family to go through the late Adelaide Crapsey’s effects, and retrieve the manuscript. I can see this scene written in Mulder and Scully dialog.

Claude came out of the Arts and Crafts movement, so buildings weren’t his only art. He also ran a small press for books on his theories and other Theosophical works. He became the book designer and publisher that introduced the world to Adelaide Crapsey the poet and determined ghost.

What became of Adelaide’s ghostly voice? It didn’t do a book tour or poetry readings—pity that, it would have pipped Tupac’s hologram by nearly a century and spiced up the valves of many a bookstore. The final automatic writing messages thanked the Bragdons for their efforts and assured everyone that the other side was a fine and happy place where she didn’t miss living at all. Just so much “Bread and butter notes” from the beyond.

At this point the man with the skinny tie and narrow lapel suit should step forward from the shadows and wrap things up, but where’s today’s audio piece?

Well, I did say that Claude Bragdon had many artistic interests. One of his friends was Alfred Stieglitz, the pioneering art photographer who was connected to another famous photographer Edward Steichen, a friend and brother-in-law of Carl Sandburg. Either through that connection, or Sandburg’s strong early interest in short poems created with concrete images rather than abstract words, or some Great Lakes leftist linkage between Adelaide’s social gospel preaching progressive father and the Milwaukee and Chicago based socialist Sandburg (maybe more than one of the above?) made Carl Sandburg aware of Adelaide Crapsey’s poetry and story, and he wrote a passionate elegy for her.

Here’s my performance of that poem of Sandburg’s, available with the player below. The full text of Sandburg’s poem is here if you’d like to read along.

 

 

 

 

*I should have warned you: as elsewhere in this story, the 19th century names are full-flavored.  If Lemony Snicket reads this, let it be known that I will defend my intellectual property to the upmost here!

**PK, “Preacher’s Kid.” As a class, they have an opportunity to grow up with an interest in philosophy, ethics and words, but also with a childhood were the expectation to be good and the desire to rebel have to be balanced from a too-early age. Alternative reader here Dave Moore and my wife are both PKs.

***The story of Adelaide’s father Algernon Crapsey sounds eerily similar to a tale from The Sixties and another Episcopal clergyman (a bishop no less!) James Pike.  Pike was also committed to social change and questioning of religious dogma and was threatened with an ecclesiastical trial for heresy. Coincidentally, Pike eventually worked with a medium to try to contact his dead son.

****We now use Twitter. Much better. But are those odd messages we read from bots or….the other side!

*****Two women have worked to discover and catalog much of what is now known about Adelaide Crapsey’s life and work and are the prime source for much of what I know: Karen Alkalay-Gut who has written a biography of Crapsey Alone in the Dawn and Susan Sutton Smith who has written about the Crapsey and Bragdon families’ associated papers and published the Complete Poems and Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey.

Three More Cinquains

Once more, let’s travel back to 1914.

For several months, as summer 1913 turns to ’14 through autumn and winter, a 35-year-old woman is creating the manuscript for her first book-length collection of poetry. Creating a book-length manuscript is always a challenging task, and regardless of whatever realistic expectations the author might have for its reception, hope is normally the fuel for this. First collections are like that, as a poet figures out how to introduce themselves to strangers.

But this woman, Adelaide Crapsey, is also producing her final collection of poetry, and she likely knows that. She’s not working in her study or at some granted writer’s retreat, but at a sanitarium* where she’s suffering through the last stages of tuberculosis which has spread to her brain. If 1914 is The Year that Imagism Broke, it’s also the year that she will die.

Saranac Lake Cottage Sanitarium circa 1918

There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them?” Du Fu

 

The book that she is working on will be published in 1915, and it will be the place where she’ll introduce her own poetic form, the cinquain. The cinquain is a short five-line verse form, primarily iambic, that uses an increasing series of syllables: two in the first line, four in the second, six in the third, eight in the fourth, and then back to two in the final line. Some have noted that the increase creates an expectation of growth or expanding sense, only to have the ending come up short and terse. I’m not the first to see this as a symbol of Crapsey’s life and art itself.

Still it’s remarkable that Crapsey chose such a small, tight form into which to pour her thoughts on illness and approaching death. Some might choose a short but loose form to conserve energy; others might turn rangey trying to get all their last expressions in. Crapsey seems to find in the form’s limits the borders within to hold her place.

Three More Cinquains from Crapsey

Here are the three cinquains I used today. Illness and the eventual passage of dying is something we all share. Crapsey used tiny poems to bear vivid witness.

 

In the early 20th century world of Modernist American poetry, her tragic story lent a degree of publicity to the posthumously published book, but it was a small fire which soon burnt out. As I mentioned last time, extremely short poems and the direct lyric impulse is not where Modernism headed after the 1920s—but in the long run, we can still access these poems the only way that poetry can be reached: by directly taking them inside us. These cinquains don’t ask for a large place.

For my performance of three more of Crapsey’s cinquains of 1913-1914 I composed music for strings which sounds acoustic even though there is some spare, bell-like Rhodes electric piano and a cello line that is treated with a strong resonant echo that I think adds some poignance. I don’t know where this melody and counterpoint came from, but as I tried and played some string lines on my MIDI guitar it came to me quickly, as if out of the air. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Looking to see what I could find about a Saranac Lake sanitarium I found a fascinating story about a small upstate N. Y. town that welcomed tuberculosis patients for palliative therapy in the early 20th century. Other literary residents after Crapsey included novelists Allan Seager and Walter Percy. On first reading “sanitarium” I had visualized a large dreary hospital building, but the setting appears to be surprisingly humane. Coincidentally, the remaining buildings were sold a few weeks ago.

Two Cinquains from Adelaide Crapsey

Let’s imagine that it’s 1914, and on both sides of the Atlantic curious short poems with precisely chosen and concrete imagery are appearing here and there. This is Imagism, the premier movement of Modernism in English. Long-time readers here will know* that these small and unpresupposing poems came from several sources: the away-with-19th-century-Romanticism ideas of T. E. Hulme, the promotional verve of Ezra Pound who also set out classical East Asian poetry as an ideal, things apprehended from French poetry by the slum-born F. S. Flint, and the fresh eyes and forms of Americans Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

This new poetry was quite unlike the Tennysons and Longfellows that preceded it, but also it is by and large not Modernist poetry as we’ve come to know it later in that century or in our current one. It seems altogether simpler, pared down. It partakes of poetry’s timeless lyric impulse: the thought that a poem need not be long to be complex if it keeps itself true to the goal that the poem isn’t about ideas but the instantaneous experience of ideas. Nor is it a marathon course of those feelings and experiences, rendered on kaleidoscopic canvases.

To some this new kind of poetry is cheating. Where are the grand themes? If the poem doesn’t develop itself like an essay or history where is the effort or the worth of the effort? The poems often don’t seem to use heightened poetic language, and they may at first seem to have no metaphors—rather, the poem is the metaphor.  That these poems often eschewed rhyme or conventional meter added to the “anybody can do this” sense many had.

As I imply above, this is not the Modernism that eventually emerged triumphant. Yes, a Red Wheelbarrow” and A Station of the Metro  will be constantly anthologized, but Williams and Pound will become known for their longer more esoteric poems. Even if some WWI poets could use these compressed poetic methods to express horror while the fighting was going on, the post-war world wanted it all expanded on, and the thought that expansive sur-rationality was the appropriate response to world-wide mechanized violence came to the forefront. Art needed to be as big or bigger than the things it was opposed to.

Adelaide_Crapsey

“Reading” pictures is risky, but this photo of Crapsey just seems to say determination.

 

All this ferment brings us to Adelaide Crapsey, a woman who has been forgotten in all the fuss. First, look at that name. It sounds like a character in a satiric novel. It’s so pre-20th century that you can’t imagine Modernist verse having it attached to it (perhaps Hilda Doolittle was savvy in immediately accepting Pound’s rebranding of her as H. D.). Also, if there was such a thing as Middle School in her youth, can you imagine the trauma of carrying her family name?

In The Year Imagism Broke, 1914, Crapsey was not only writing Modernist verse in the initial Imagist sense, she had made a study of English prosody and had created her own form to put her concise poems into: the cinquain. Just as many of the short Imagist poems owed some of their tactics to classical East Asian poems, the cinquain sought to create an English language equivalent to the understanding of forms like the haiku.

Just as with Amy Lowell from earlier this month, I think it may be worthwhile to not let these two poems of Crapsey’s that I use today wash over you quickly, as if they are essays or narrative personal memoir in verse. Each word was chosen carefully, precisely, to evoke a moment you might choose to share inside of her experience.

two Cinquains from Adelaide Crapsey

Ten lines and two of Crapsey’s cinquains that seem to tell the story of this year’s late fall

 

Am I setting this method of shaping poetry out as the best or only way to approach verse? No, though I’ve come to believe that we may have lost something when we abandoned it for the new more impressive edifices of post 1920s Modernism.

Musically I was thinking of one of my musical heroes and models, Steve Tibbetts, but alas my deadlines, and my musical and production skills this week produced only a rough approximation of what Tibbetts can do. I really tried to rip him off here: a down-tuned acoustic 12-string with paired unison (not-octave) strings. Lots of time-based effects (like reverb, phasing, echo, and delay). Hand percussion leading off to heavier stick drumming. Feedback-loud electric guitar arriving from off-screen into the landscape.

Yesterday, my disappointment in what I had down was fairly complete. My electric guitar solo could be better, and it’s been too long since I’ve played at that volume. The 12-string wasn’t naked and exposed enough. Where’s the space I keep telling myself to leave in? I had no idea of how to duplicate Tibbetts’ characteristic delay and echo effects. My percussion tracks had nothing like the splendid variety that Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Marc Anderson routinely achieves.

But my son reminds me that Kurt Cobain thought he was just ham-handedly ripping off the Pixies and still came up with something that was worthwhile, and the Steve Tibbetts’ thing is not something commonly heard—so 20% of Steve Tibbetts level might still be worth listening to for what it is, not what it wanted to be. So, here it is, available with the player below surrounding those two 1914 cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey describing our current November season.

 

 

 

 

*This is a reminder that since “poetry is the news that stays news” that the Parlando Project has nearly 400 examples of what we do that may be just as interesting to you as the current post. Using the search function or just diving in at random to the archives is worth considering.