Here’s a short piece using a poem by a person who started out as a poet but who spent the greater part of her life working for her country, India’s, independence: Sarojini Naidu.
Sarojini Naidu, like Edna St. Vincent Millay around the same time in the U. S., impressed people as a capable poet while still a teenager. Her talents lead to her being sent abroad to England for college, and eventually she connected with the Rhymer’s Club, the turn of the century London organization that was the last stop in the 19th Century for some of the poets who would launch the poetry of the 20th century.
Today’s piece, “The Poet to Death” was first published in England as part of Naidu’s initial collection of poetry The Golden Threshold in 1905. Fluent in several languages, the pieces in The Golden Threshold are in Naidu’s own English. Some accounts say that the young Sarojini was modest about her poetry at the time, worried that her work was less-substantial because it is lyrical and song-like; and retroactively English-language Modernism did discount that sort of poetic gift. So, while her poetic work is still remembered in her homeland, where Wikipedia says she’s called the “Nightingale of India,” Sarojini Naidu will be a new name to most of our reader/listeners.
During the WWI years Naidu transferred her focus from poetry to working for Indian independence, a cause in which she became a principal, alongside Gandhi and the other independence leaders.
Did the world loose a poet for India to gain its independence? Perhaps. I do not know enough to say. In her English poetry, I can see the influence of the earlier 19th Century English romantics, but her language is less extravagant. She can remind me at times of Christina Rossetti (readers here will know I consider that a good thing), and “The Poet to Death” is a concise version of a trope Keats used as well.
India gave us chess. Chicago gave us Muddy Waters on Chess records.
Today’s music employs a polyrhythmic blues. Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by the “till I am satisfied” line in Naidu’s poem to think of Muddy Waters and his “I can’t be satisfied,” though what I ended up playing has some elements of Skip James’ guitar style too. At a conscious level, I was working on this while thinking of poet Donald Hall, having read a review of his new collection of essays coming out this month, and then hearing later in the same day that he had died at age 89. In his last couple of decades, Hall has often written of what continues until it ends in the course of aging.
Donald Hall. His book of essays “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety” drops in July.
For some reason the version of the text I worked with did not have Naidu’s first stanza, which specifically speaks, as a younger poet, for death to stay his hand. In the remaining two stanzas, the age of the speaker is less determined, and so the situation is joined whether it is a young poet or old. The blossoms are always there a short time, at any age.
To hear my performance of Sarojini Naidu’s “The Poet to Death,” use the player below.
A couple of mornings ago, I awoke after a night’s sleep, and as I took my bicycle out to the alley to ride off for breakfast, I was surprised to see the road dusted in torn blossoms and several small tree branches cast about on the wet ground.
While I had been still and sleeping, a storm must have come up.
That contrast, the stillness and the broken change is at the heart of today’s poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Hunter.” Williams opens his poem with an allusive image. “In the flashes and black shadows of July.” Is this the lightning of a summer storm? I thought so at first. But it might be just what one sees lying on summer grass and looking up through the boughs of a tree. The whims of a breeze or the caprices of squirrels and birds on the thin branches will flutter the leaves’ fan of shade revealing the sun in a flash.
Yet, summer “seems still.” The animals of summer appear “at ease.” But what if there is danger in the world, as in the unmet character in the poem’s title, the hunter?
In a last-ditch attempt to increase readership of his poetry, William Carlos Williams decided to try that Internet staple: cute kittens.
In Williams’ poem, the hunter does not appear, ready to shoot the game. The hunter is invisible, as the hunter is time, the hunter is change.
For today’s music I combined an orchestral ensemble and electric guitar with an appearance of a harpsichord. The player gadget to hear my performance of “The Hunter” is at the bottom of this post.
I’ve noted that there has been a steady listenership for the other William Carlos Williams poems posted in the archives lately, and that helped inspire me to look for more of his work to present. As we move into summer, I remind visitors that there are over 220 pieces available here. Use the search box or just wander through the monthly links on the right.
Here’s a list of poets and poems, along with the year they were written:
OK, you probably already read the title of the post, so you know what they are.
This list comes from an article I bookmarked this summer that intrigued me, and today I returned to it because I’m thinking a bit about “The Canon”—those poems and poets that are judged by some generalized panel of experts as being worthy.
The whole The Canon thing is full of controversy, with complaints that it doesn’t include enough of what some favor in terms of poetic expression, or that it’s too-much a dead white man’s club; but part of what makes that discussion worthwhile is that The Canon is how almost all of us got introduced to poetry as an adult practice. Somewhere in our school years, we will be asked to open a textbook, and there on the pages will be some “great poems” that we will be asked to grapple with. Some of us will be puzzled that we can’t figure out how to do the sums of what these poems mean; and some of us will want to emulate them, to steal a little of their vision of existence, and some will hope to someday gain for ourselves something like that esteem in the eyes of others, to be, in our words, on a page in an anthology.
Sure, we may have already encountered nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss, and perhaps some song lyrics, but these poems are the adults, writing the adult things. Poetry sections of literature classes can be as fraught with adolescent frisson as sex ed.
The article I was intrigued by was written by Emily Temple and posted on Lithub. It’s a painstakingly counted-up list, collated from twenty anthologies of poetry. The selection of anthologies has some problematic focus: half of them were specifically focused on American poetry, and nearly half (eight) were anthologies of modern or contemporary poetry. Still, the work to make this list must have been considerable, and I don’t know any similar, but better, efforts to use instead. For this post, I’ve decided to take even more shortcuts, over and above relying on Temple’s work, so bear that in mind.
I’m going to focus on the “Top 20,” the poems that appear in nine or more of the twenty anthologies. While this doesn’t eliminate the anthology-weighting to modern Americans, I think it means that these 20 poems and their authors are safely in “The Canon” as constituted in our current century. Here are a few scattered, short, observations about these most of the most anthologized modern American poems.
I had read and/or remembered reading all but three of the poems. (“Musee des Beau Arts,” “Skunk Hour,” and “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”). I suspect anyone who’s been interested in American poetry for a few decades would come in around that.
I sometimes worry that I’ve concentrated here too much on works from the first quarter of the 20th Century, and particularly those connected to the “Imagist” revolution in the center of that time. From this list, I shouldn’t. Nearly half the list (nine) is from this period, and if one was to play the “Kevin Bacon game” with Ezra Pound concerning these, your number is always zero to one, or you’re Wallace Stevens. I use so much from this era because I have trouble even finding the time to seek the rights to present a piece still in copyright, but also because I happen to find that era fascinating—and it turns out as far as modern American poetry is concerned, it’s still the core of The Canon.
However, even though the Parlando Project is closing in on 140 pieces, we’ve only done two of these top twenty poems (“The River Merchant’s Wife,” and a small portion of “The Waste Land.”)
What era other than the Teens and Twenties of the 20th Century was over-represented? The Fifties, four selections, and you could consider Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1960 “We Real Cool” sneaking in as a fifth.
Dead White Man’s Club? Not as bad as it was when I was in school. Not Dead White Males: 7 out of 15 authors if I count William Carlos Williams’ second-generation Puerto Rican heritage and don’t count that Richard Wilbur, though white and male, and still alive. The Canon is always historical, always trailing the contemporary. It’s not 7 out of 20 because five authors had two works in the Top 20. If someone does this article in 2117, or even 2067, I wager the pale dead males will be less than 50%. This is an easy bet (I won’t be around to collect from after all) but also because if we take the short-term acclaim of literary awards for new work in the past few years, I informally believe we’re already at that level. I know some will object to even mentioning these distinctions for various reasons. That’s a big topic, another time. If one wants to make an argument for tokenism from either side of that debate, that only the white males got double selections in the Top 20 would be your data point.
UPDATE: not to belabor the White Males count, but as I pointed out when we presented “The River Merchant’s Wife” back in July, the authorship of that poem in a complex subject. It is a translation of classical Chinese poet Li Bai. Pound’s Chinese translations are acknowledged to be of the looser variety however. If we split that one 50/50 we’re halfsies on White Males.
Here’s one that was interesting to me as I think about another issue: how old were the authors when the wrote their “Top 20 poem?” Go ahead, guess….
You didn’t look ahead, did you?
I guessed low. I was of the impression that poetry was a young person’s game, and many of the poems I’ve used here were written by authors below the age of 30. Turns out the average was a fraction over 40 years old, with Elizabeth Bishop at 65 and Wallace Stevens for his second selection at 75 making appearances for the Medicare set. The youngsters? Eliot at 27, Pound at 28 and 30, Auden and Moore at 32, Dickinson and Plath at 33. One oddity? Despite the average of a bit over 40, no one wrote a Top 20 poem in their 50s. If you’re under 30, don’t despair, as I did, thinking “John Keats died at 25, and what have I accomplished.” If you’re a poet in your 50s, consider a career in the insurance industry and plan on being Wallace Stevens.
This is another of the posts here that I’m tagging “About” that are not occasioned by a new Parlando Project audio piece. For those who can’t wait for the next piece mixing various words (mostly poetry) with original music, here’s that “included in 10 out of 20 anthologies” hit “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” done up Parlando Project style. Use the player below to hear it.
This is the most difficult set of words to read coherently that I’ve presented so far in the Parlando Project. Robert Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night” looks on the page like any other chunk of blank verse (“blank verse:” unrhymed iambic pentameter). Shakespeare wrote whole sections of plays with this rhythm, and the walking one/two with a backbeat of an iamb has a forward propulsion that leads the reader to flow through the words.
The problem is, that even the most iron-lunged and fleet-tongued rapper has to pause for breath sometime. In general, it helps to pause for meaning, where the break for breath adds meaning. However, in the Parlando project I’m seeking to merge the words with music, and the musical cycles also suggest pauses.
I saida hip hop,
The hippie to the hippie
The hip hip a hop, and you don’t stop
“An Old Man’s Winter Night” was tough because I decided on a cycle of chords for the music, rather than basing the harmony around a drone, or simply “through composing” the music to follow the words without a repeating structure. I made that choice unconsciously, but I think I was responding to Frost. The poem seems to repeat itself, and my sense of the syntax was that the sentences seemed to start and begin again, like unto the central incident in the poem of an old person in a room not remembering why he had gone to that room. So the problem was: where to break the cycle of the circular speaking, keeping to cycling verses of chords, while helping the listener understand the meaning.
I got it almost right I think. I was further inspired as I worked by being in the midst of a Midwest below-zero cold snap while recording this.
I normally do not base my readings on others, though it might have helped me to listen to other solutions to my reading problem. Only after committing to the version you’ll now hear, did I listen to Robert Frost’s own reading of his poem and another good reading which does an excellent job of bringing out the meaning. Of those two, Frost aims to bring out the music in his rhythms, but it’s not a perfect reading. Authors have an advantage, in that they likely know the poem’s meaning—but they are also disadvantaged by that—since they know, they cannot always choose what the listener will need to have emphasized. By combining “An Old Man’s Winter Night” with music, I have another advantage over Frost’s own reading: I don’t have to follow the word’s rhythms closely to bring out the music.
“An Old Man’s Winter Night” embodies aged rural loneliness, something that even today’s modern communications can do little to ameliorate. For those of my generation who only remember Robert Frost as an old man, I’d like to point out that Frost first published this when he was 44. Frost beautifully describes being alone, separated, cut off; evoking all the surrounding emotions of that situation—yet he doesn’t once mention loneliness or any of those allied emotions by name. A great trick to pull off, don’t you think?
To hear my reading combined with music, use the gadget that appears below.