Just suppose that back in the 1920s someone wanted to record a Blues song based on Emily Dickinson’s “A Soul selects her own Society,” and so they waxed a 78 rpm platter at Paramount records “New York Recording Laboratories,” located back then in, well, Wisconsin.*
If they did, it might sound a little like this.
We offer this sort of nonsense as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month. Then again, maybe it’s not nonsense. Dickinson’s poem does fit into “Old Weird America” and its music shockingly well. Why’s that?
As best as can be determined, Dickinson wrote “A Soul selects her own Society” during her highly-productive mid-19th century, but for a variety of reasons, this poem, like almost all the other poems that she wrote, wasn’t published until near the end of that century. Somewhat “regularized,” Dickinson’s poetry was bound then into book-length collections that sold well for poetry by an otherwise unknown author, partly due to the myth of her eccentric later-life used as hype for the verse, and because some of her poetry was disarmingly informal and approachable — at least on the surface.
Literary poetry gradually began to take notice of her. I presented Sandburg’s audacious mention of her in 1914 as an “Imagist” earlier this month, and over the course of the 20th century her work has eventually been judged as important as Whitman’s in presaging 20th century Modernism. Now, I daresay that if one was to survey living poets in 21st century America for what 19th century American poet they read, admire, and use as an influence, Dickinson would beat out Whitman — and those two would leave the rest of the field far arrears.
What else happened around the beginning of the 20th century, but took serious critics and culture a while to notice? Afro-American secular music — Blues and Jazz — which would come to significantly define American music internationally and become the dominant strain of our country’s music ever since. Americans were highly important in English language poetic Modernism.** Afro-Americans had their Modernist revolution to offer too, and a great deal was musical in this era.***
So, in another way, this unlikely pairing of Dickinson and Blues isn’t as odd as it seems.
Three ways to hear this performance of speculative fiction: a graphical player is below for a portion of you, but if your way of reading this blog doesn’t show that, this highlighted link will also do the job.And the new lyric videos we’re doing this month is the third way to hear “Soul Selector Blues.” Oh — it’s not your speakers or computer — it’s supposed to sound like a Paramount 78 RPM record!
*Port Washington Wisconsin to be exact. I’m not entirely sure why Paramount Records wanted to make it sound like it was in New York, perhaps for prestige, and despite the name they had no connection with the motion picture company Paramount either. What was a record company doing in Wisconsin anyway? Well, they made furniture (the upper Midwest was a timber source) and that led them to make cabinets for the new entertainment device, the phonograph. And if they made phonographs, why not seek another income stream from the “software,” the disks to be played on them?
If you choose to view today’s lyric video you’ll see a sampling of how they marketed to Black Americans variously (I can hear the meeting: “Who really knows what they like and will buy…”). High culture to gut-bucket, spirituals to sexual rebels (Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me” is about exactly what the illustration on its Paramount ad might lead you to think it was about). They had a pitch for your money and ears.
**Curiously, almost exactly 50 years before the “English Invasion” brought British rock’n’roll bands to the U.S., a small but influential group of Americans were over in England evangelizing poetic Modernism. Were The Beatles payback for Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot?
***Even literary minded Afro-American writers, critics, and poets weren’t necessarily ahead of the curve in seeing Jazz music and Blues lyrics as an authentic Modernist revitalization of tired-out existing tropes at first. Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg were exceptions a century ago in seeing this.
How has it been this far into National Poetry Month before featuring Emily Dickinson here? Well, no matter, time to get onto that today, as a number of our most popular pieces over the years have been related to Dickinson. Today’s piece is one of my personal favorites, our orchestral setting for her “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”
When I did this setting and then its subsequent performance back in 2017 I went intuitively with a contrary reading of this poem. Generally, Dickinson’s poem is read as saying that when we reach a point of uncertainty bordering on no knowledge whatsoever, we may still press ahead, and if we don’t exactly find our way, we may find a way.*
But that message is delivered in a vivid little parable whose details can undercut that “persevere” moral — and those images’ undercurrent, along with some American cultural dread from that time, led me to make it more dismaying. The sense I was communicating in my music and performance was more at that we may become accustomed to the dark, but that’s not a good thing.
The lyric video
If we view this as a poem of voyaging mysticism or stoic perseverance — or if we view it as us no longer noticing that we’ve left the comity of friends and turned our back on knowledge — the poems finest choice in imagery is both odd and comic. Emily Dickinson seems to be something of a Transcendentalist, the insurgent “New Thought” movement of her era, and one that held that the universe’s highest knowledge and truth were to be found in the book of nature. Dickinson’s poem does meet nature partway in: a tree. Such reverence for nature eventually birthed an epithet: “Tree Hugger.” Dickinson doesn’t go with that exactly. How then? You can find out three ways. There’s a graphical player below for some, but for those who don’t see it, this highlighted link will open a backup player in a new tab. And as we’ve been doing during this National Poetry Month, we have a lyric video with a thumbnail picture link to view the video above.
I’m posting a bit late in the day, but it’s International Women’s Day, and so today’s audio piece uses as a text a poem by a very international woman, Lola Ridge. Ridge’s poetry is perhaps best known for a fierce commitment to social justice and the situation of the poor in early 20th century America; but she was born in Ireland, left with her parents for New Zealand as a child, emigrated from there to Australia to attend college, and then to America, eventually New York City, where she mixed with most of the political and artistic radicals of the early Modernist era, including on the arts side: Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams and the rest of the circle around the NYC Modernist magazine The Others. Over at the Midwestern anchor of Modernist American poetry, it’s editor/founder Harriet Monroe was said to have called Ridge a genius, and she won awards and some favorable reviews in the years between the two World Wars.
Late in the 1930’s she apparently fell from the scene politically and artistically, and when she died in 1941 she was as poor as the people she wrote about, and then seemingly the subject of a rapid and rather complete forgetting for the rest of the 20th century.
Luckily our 21st century has become interested in reassessing the women who were on the scene a century ago along with the male Modernists, and there’s now a revival in considering her work.
Unlike some of Ridge’s poetry, today’s piece is not formally Modernist. It’s not only a sonnet, it attempts to present a passionate if conventional poetic argument regarding the abstract ideal of artistic beauty. Taken by itself it’s more Percy Bysshe Shelley than William Carlos Williams, but if we look just a little beyond its surface we can be reminded that Shelley was a thoroughgoing political and social radical as well as a Romantic era poet. Here’s a link to the text of Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty,” from a blog that does a great job of presenting sonnets and similar shorter poems, FourteenLines.blog.
Ridge’s poem starts by worshiping beauty almost as an awed acolyte unable to face the godhead. But in the midst of the poem, something strange starts to manifest itself: a buzzard (an ugly, carrion-eating bird) appears gussied up by “The wizardry of light” to appear “All but lovely as the swan.” I read this as Ridge saying that artists and society can fail, can deceive, can fake beauty.
A musical metaphor follows this that says despite the diversity of artistic endeavor — including false beauties or injustice like unto our buzzard — that beyond the dissonance and the harmonic stress of this dialectic, that the chords can resolve. The poem ends avowing that true beauty can still chime through ugliness, falsehood, and strife.
Beyond sonnets, I will now make a turn in this post before giving you a chance to hear my performance of Ridge’s poem. Let me quickly summarize the event I attended this past Sunday remembering Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. There may be more than coincidence that Lola Ridge started this off.
Ethna McKiernan reading, with lipstick, and Lola Ridge, I’m not sure.
Minnesota weather and continued Covid-19 concerns might have conspired to reduce attendance, as the side streets were still full of sloppy snow from Saturday’s snowfall.* I arrived early and helped the bookstore staff setup chairs. They seemed to be expecting maybe a couple of dozen, which may be par for a Twin Cities local-writer poetry reading, but both the event organizer and myself the bystander suspected we’d need to maximize the amount of chairs the space could hold. I think we were able to get nearly 40 folding chairs into the designated space, but as the crowd started to assemble, extra chairs needed to be rounded up and put in the various aisles between the bookstore shelves to handle those that kept coming in, and we had a few standees who fit in where they could.
More than typical bookstore poetry readings, I suspect most of the crowd knew Ethna for a long time. And that may have given a boost to the eight poets who read poems of Ethna’s, a smattering of their own, and gave short thoughts about her as a writer and a person. So less a usual public reading where some poets might be nervously trying to consider how they would come off presenting their work to an audience which might not know it, and more like an experienced and informal poetry group of long-time colleagues.
Several of the readers were members of other periodically-meeting writer’s groups that included Ethna, like unto the Lake Street Writer’s group that Dave Moore, Kevin FitzPatrick, Ethna, and I were decades-long members of. I’m sure that if Kevin had lived, he would have been a valued part of this event, as Ethna often credited Kevin as an influence on her writing — but he died a few weeks ahead of Ethna. I tried to make myself useful by playing stagehand and raising and lowering the mic stand for the variety of readers.
Many of the readers spoke of Ethna’s work with homeless outreach, and read some of her poems that dealt with that work, something that echoes today’s poet Ridge. Though the audience was entirely masked, a few noted that Ethna was a stickler for always putting on lipstick when out in public. For all anyone knew, what with our Covid era masks, we all were wearing lipstick! Who could see — but I believe all of us were remembering Ethna.
Covid-era ambiguity: “Lipstick? We were supposed to wear lipstick?” A portion of the crowd at the “Remembering Ethna” event last Sunday.
So, as I speak of a woman who promoted culture, wrote beautiful poetry, and was committed to helping the economically desperate, I will now leave you with a piece using the words of another woman who a century before us did the same. You can hear Lola Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty” with a graphical player below if you see that, or if you don’t, with this highlighted link.
*My friend and participant here in the Parlando Project Dave Moore was unable to attend due to concerns with the street conditions. I’ve attended two other book-launch poetry readings given by Ethna herself, and this Sunday’s was the smallest crowd of the three. Consider though that most of those who knew Ethna are “senior citizens,” and some are frail as well.
Today I’m going to start a short series here celebrating Kurt Vonnegut, a writer generally filed under “novelist” on bookshelves.
Most of the words this project uses started out as poetry, and poetry is a form of literature. So, one might assume that I’ve read a lot of novels. I haven’t. I’ve set no ban against the form, and I’ll read one or two a year, but the ones I read aren’t usually considered great literature. Essays, poetry, poetry collections, biographies (and less commonly memoirs), non-fiction accounts long and short, historical and current — my reading dance-card is full, and at my age I’m not sure I’ll ever rebalance my reading investments.
As he aged, Vonnegut apparently fell out with the conventional ideal of the novel too. Even some of his earlier novels had elements in opposition to long fiction either literary or popular as generally considered, and so his reputation as a “great writer” or as a “best seller” were both constrained.
Luckily for this project, which likes to combine words with music in various ways, and prefers short, condensed forms of expression for that, Vonnegut is very quotable. Fictional characters who are quote collections and makers of short speeches are not the stuff of literary esteem, but then the results have other uses. Today’s piece is an infant-baptismal litany that a character in one of Vonnegut’s earlier novels* proposes to give, and it’s become one of Vonnegut’s most remembered and requoted passages.
The performance here, and probably the rest in the series to follow, was performed live in one-take by the LYL Band on April 15th 2007, the week that Vonnegut died, and these presentations are taking place in the week of the 99th anniversary of his birth. All these performances are imperfect in one way or another, but at least for me I still hear the emotions in-between the notes as Dave Moore and I made note of a departed writer’s spirit. Today’s piece was the first one we preformed that day.
*The Vonnegut novel this passage appears in is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which I must confess I haven’t read. I say that just as a matter of honesty, not as a review or recommendation which I’m obviously not qualified to give. I suspect I’d like it when and if I get around to it. For counterpoint, here’s a review, contemporary with the novel’s publication, from the New York Times were the reviewer proves a maxim that I often repeat here: “All artists fail.”
I thought I might get a second American Labor Day piece in from a few ideas I had last week, and this is the one that survived the cut. Well, maybe it’s more than one, as it’s a two-in-one, combining poems written 40 years apart: Lola Ridge’s “Wind Rising in the Alleys” and Dave Moore’s “Big Kids in the Alley.”
Ridge is a figure that could fascinate several different ways. She has a life story that would defy the most expansive novelist to invent. She was “on the scene” in both the literary avant garde of the NYC area of the first half of the 20th century and in touch with the political radicalism* of that era, and as woman who clearly saw the limitations of gender roles, she was allied with the wave of feminism arising then as well. A several-time immigrant herself,** she wrote with insight into the immigrant experience.
Having an interesting life isn’t the same as writing interesting poetry or poetry that compounds its interest over time, and I blow hot and cold myself as I once more start to read some of it. She has more than one style of poetic diction, occasionally sounding a little bit 19th century, and then sometimes flat and spare, to other times striking out with passionately with intense tropes of natural phenomena intending prophetic power. The first time I featured her work here I could easily see how that last kind of writing could link in with our era of Climate Change. In my second time into her work this summer I may be starting to “get” her, and Ridge may be one of those poets who one needs to get over the ways she seems “wrong” before understanding what she’s doing that’s uniquely “right.”
Accidents or coincidences, can sometimes help me do that. Reading her poem about a so red sky in contemporary times of widespread fire-smoke is one such connection. And my second time with Ridge happened when I saw this poem where nature in an urban alley is portrayed at a prophetic level. When I read this poem first published in 1920 I thought of a Dave Moore lyric used in the first Fine Art record in 1978. I made a note immediately to myself that they could be combined.
Are these Labor Day poems? Sandburg’s piece from “Smoke and Steel” I used last time is certainly one in the context of the larger poem it concludes. “Wind Rising in the Alleys” is the concluding poem in Ridge’s Sun Up, a collection of mostly short, sometimes Imagist style, poems and “Wind Rising in the Alleys” is the last one printed in the book’s final sub-section which also includes poem-portraits of famed Anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. The poem for which the section is named, “Reveille” starts “Come forth, you workers!” and ends “Let us meet the fire of their guns/With greater fire/Till the birds shall fly to the mountains/For one safe bough.” “Reveille’s” militant final lines compress parts of Ridge’s rhetoric: fervent radicalism combined with a “who would guess it would come next” poetic image.
As I mention here political beliefs and calls for direct action following from them, I’m thinking that some of you may not share those beliefs. So, let me stop for a moment and mention something important to poetry as an art. Poetry is not a very efficient method of communicating ideas, much less particulars of strategy and tactics. To say that it fails in these things (or to overstate what it may do in some part) is to find the obvious, for poetry fails as expository work or argument closer to the degree that music does. What poetry can do instead, is to tell you what having some idea or intent feels like. Do you recognize what it feels like the moment that someone you love or desire lets you know that they feel the same? That’s what poetry can do, and do intensely. Of course, it may happen that that lover turns out to be flawed, or an outright heal, just as much as they can turn out to be a partner for a lifetime and the treasured ancestor of ancestors.
That moment of love and connection is powerful to feel, and it’s not just romantic love poetry that can present that connection.
The optimistic winds in the alley Ridge speaks of have hope in them, hope for change. I can’t say exactly when it was written, but for publication in 1920 it may have been written in a time that was not at all hopeful for American labor and political radicalism. Berkman and Goldman were deported in 1919, and that year saw red-scare round ups and a particularly deadly year for anti-Black race riots. Whatever it is, “Wind Rising in the Alleys” is not a victory march.
I write about poetry and music on May Day or Labor Day, you can easily find others who will discuss political and economic matters. Let me just summarize a lot of complex history to say that workers and capital have both advanced their lot in the United States greatly since 1919. Hooray for Labor Day. Has justice advanced too? Yes, but the argument that that has been to a lesser and insufficient amount is strong. Hooray for Labor Day — and the days afterward.
Here are the texts of the two allied alleys that I’ve put together today.
Step forward to 1978. Dave Moore’s “Big Kids in the Alley” was written at the request from a rock band named Fine Art forming and making its debut album. I’ve written elsewhere a short history of that band, one of the earlier bands in the Twin Cities area to make and record original music in the Punk to New Wave transit station on the route-way of Indie music. Just as “Wind Rising in the Alleys” was the “album closer” for Ridge’s Sun Up,“Big Kids in the Alley” closed Fine Art’s record and was the encore or set closer for a lot of live sets I saw. At this time it remains one of two studio-recorded songs of theirs that can be found on the Internet, and it was even sampled and used in a hip hop record in our current century. Here’s the YouTube link to that cut from the vinyl record.
You may think that’s quite the intense showpiece. On stage it could be even more so, and it’s certainly not the kind of song you’d want to put in the middle of a set list with other songs immediately following. Rhythm guitarist Ken Carlson was always solid and tasty, and vocalist Terry Paul used a more aggressive style here than what was customary for her, but “Big Kids in the Alley” was also a feature for Fine Art’s lead guitarist Colin Mansfield. You can hear effects pedals sweep frequencies in the song, and Colin would usually play all or most of the parts using the edges of a Zippo lighter in his right hand as a string and pickup exciter as well as a pick. Colin had some understanding of avant garde and other orchestral instrument music under his belt before Fine Art, and while what he was doing here was unprecedented in punk and new wave bandstands in the Twin Cities in the 70s, unorthodox sound generation methods had some pedigrees there. Outside and Free Jazz players would also do similar things, though because those styles were usually wind instrument based, the precedents are less direct. A short-lived rock band movement in NYC at the same time (documented in the No New York LP also of 1978) used random noises and alternative guitar tunings often played by naïve players.*** Colin wasn’t a naïve player.
Lyrically, Dave Moore’s words for “Big Kids in the Alley” starts as a parody of “The Internationale” the 19th century labor anthem. If you read this Wikipedia article compiling the various versions of “The Internationale’s” lyrics over time and in many languages, you can see that they vary considerably, but the opening’s general thrust, retained with some intensifying language in Moore’s parody, is mostly honored. I sometimes wonder how many folks in pioneering venues that supported “punk” or “new-wave” bands in the Twin Cities 40 some years ago recognized the reference. You never ask such things when dancing.
The final chorus of Moore’s version adds an unexpected departure. This morning I realized I’d never asked Dave what his intent was in what he wrote there. I called him up, and he explained “That you’re going to have setbacks, that they are going to react violently. That you should realize that.” Note that the arrangement on Fine Art’s version ends on Dave’s final thought, which emphasizes its impact.
I didn’t use Fine Art’s music for this performance, and my musical setting is simpler while referencing a similar flavor. I did dig out an old Zippo lighter I keep in a drawer in my studio space, but I didn’t quite get Colin’s exact effect in my “get’er done” charge to record today’s piece.
You can hear this loud rock band combination of these two texts written 40 years apart with the player below, or if winds haven’t blown that up your alley, this highlighted hyperlink in an alternative way to play it.
*Early American Modernists, unlike an appreciable number of European or European-based Modernists, tended to be left-leaning, even radical. Many of the American publications that printed the work of Modernist poets or visual artists were equally if not more so concerned with social reform or outright restructuring.
**Though, I do not consider the elements in anyone’s background determinative, I enjoy on a superficial level the diversity of ethnic and regional variety in English language poetry. Ridge is a case where the hyphenation cannot cope. Born in Ireland, immigrated to New Zealand at 8, then to Australia where her career in the arts gained a foothold, then to the American West Coast were she at least touched bases with the contemporary arts there, and finally to New York City where she lived the majority of her life, including time in the teaming immigrant Lower East Side.
***A less-remembered pioneering American punk band Pere Ubu was working some of these ideas as early as 1975. Sonic Youth was connected to and arose after the NYC No-Wave scene was receding, becoming a successful band in the Indie Rock era. In the Twin Cities, The Wallets later presented a more song-oriented version of what some of the NYC No-Wave bands did.
Visits to this blog tend to go down on weekends, on holidays, and in the summer — so, congratulations if you’re reading this, you’ve managed to beat the crowds!
America is a young country, but after a bit of a slow start, we’ve been meeting our quota for poets, and by now the record shows a great variety and number of them. Who’s great? Who’s dispensable? Well, some days I wonder if any of that matters when poetry still has challenges getting traction on the slick surface of our nation. Still, one thing’s clear to me if I take stock of American poets, there’s no more American poet than Walt Whitman. That’s no accident: it was his life’s work to become the most American of poets. Few poets before and since have sincerely tried for that. Whitman did.
This Sunday is American Independence Day. Has he been right?
Our first piece today is one of Whitman’s best-known poems. In its litany of lines he shows us two things: that Americans love to sing and that America is the sum total of our varied labors.
Taking the last first. Whitman is going to concentrate on manual labor and trades in this poem. He could have written about other work and workers, even poets or professional musicians after all — but he says the songs he’s going to note are “those of the mechanics,” meaning the mechanical trades,* using the word in the same meaning that Shakespeare uses it when burlesquing the “rude mechanicals” and their ardently inept art in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Whitman is not making fun. He says nothing about the quality of their songs or singing, but the very length of his list indicates he values something in their number and variety. Overall (or overalls?) there’s celebration of masculine traits in the poem, though some work associated with women — and specific, specified work, not just sentimental “remember the ladies” stuff — is included in his list.
It’s fitting that in this summer month, as a holiday weekend approaches, that he ends his poem with a party, a get-together, but throughout “I Hear America Singing” songs continue in work, in comradeship, in love. I would wish you too just as happy a July 4th.
It’s complicated to judge if American poetry disproportionately influences the world in our time, but one doesn’t have to go hard to make the case that American music has done so in the time since Whitman’s death. Whitman speaks of poetry as a bardic art, and so he uses “song” and “poetry” interchangeably when he speaks of his art, even if later most have come to see these as separate arts and that it’s important to distinguish between them.
Whitman asked that — more than that, promised that — there’d be many significant American poets to come. He got musicians. Close enough Walt.
Checking on the predictions of two American poet-prophets: Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes
Some decades later, one of the poets that Whitman prophesied wrote an “answer record” poem to “I Hear America Singing.” In “I, Too” Langston Hughes, an Afro-American poet, decided to add one more labor example to Whitman’s litany. Hughes’ poem is sung from the position of a servant.** In Whitman’s 19th century time, many/most of the jobs that Whitman cataloged would have been self-employed, and it’s clear that Hughes’ worker isn’t. Furthermore, as an Afro-American his segregation from the “company” is double-more with his class status. Make the food, serve the food, wash the dishes — but you won’t eat in the room with the guests.
Hughes too is going to prophesize a future America then from his 1925 present. Don’t speak too soon, the wheel’s still in spin he says in effect about that stay-in-the-kitchen status. He’s going to spin that wheel.
Nearly a hundred years later*** how have things worked out with Hughes’ prophecy? Poets have written. Songs have been sung. Work from American political mechanicals has gotten us partway there to equality of opportunity, to recognized accomplishments, to appreciation of Black beauty.****
Is this an unpatriotic thing to say on this holiday, that our workmanship on some important civic matters is slipshod? I’m no prophet, but if I was one, I might say that some day we could build the temple in time where we can see beauty presently while being ashamed in the past tense, just as Hughes promises.
What Americans could build this temple? If not us, who else?
*I note that in his catalog Whitman mentions specifically house carpenters, the job his father held. He also mentions wood-cutters. Ezra Pound’s family had connections to the lumber industry, and in Pound’s poem “A Pact” about Whitman, Pound calls out Whitman as a wood-cutter while patting himself on the back as the more developed “carver” of wood, a job further down the supply chain and further up the artistic hierarchy. Sick burn Ezra.
**Details of this aren’t completely clear, perhaps intentionally. Hughes poem’s speaker could be enslaved, or he could be a paid domestic servant. He could even be a restaurant worker, a job that Hughes himself held for a short time. Early in his life, his poetry career got a boost when he left some poems at the table of diner Vachel Lindsay when that Illinois poet visited the establishment where Hughes worked. Lindsay read them, thought they had value, and touted Hughes as a result.
***When the country was younger, July 4th was a day for speeches on our history. Now, for me, so strange to be so old, and how disappointing how slow citizenship equity is. In my youth, it was common to speak of racial justice and full rights as being an American goal a hundred years old, using the end of slavery as the starting line. And now we near 100 years from Langston Hughes’ poem. The famous “arc of history” is such a long archway that one should wonder why it hasn’t collapsed in the middle.
****Speaking of I hear America singing: disproportionally the reason that strains of American music are known worldwide is due to Africans taken to these American shores. American singing, American music, has many tributaries, many are important, even the many-ness itself is important — but as I’ve said here before: I am an American musician. Most of the notes are black.
Let’s hope I don’t overextend my love for American poet Kenneth Patchen with yet another example of his work today, which happens to be the opening day for baseball in my city. Patchen wasn’t quite the modern day spoken word poet, but even 80 years ago he was writing in a form that works in that presentation — though more here in a mode where the listener is immediately attracted by references to our common life and speaking idiom, and then finds the poem going off somewhere else between its lines before it ends.
Many poets are indifferent readers of their own work, but Patchen is usually quite good. I actually muffed one line in his text today, but Patchen has modified several lines, either from the variations of performance, or in the case of the lips of the “girls of heaven” he seems to choose a gentler metaphor here.
Baseball used to brand itself as “America’s Pastime,” and this poem makes something of that with its intimations that like love’s fancy and poetry it fills time and makes a joke of watches and schedules. I note too, that Patchen, the pacifist whose world was at war when he wrote this, knows that concerted effort is not always noble, and that the blessing of wasted time is better than time wasting from want or wasting one’s fellow humans.
Oh yes, the prophets among us can see clearly that professional baseball is a business enterprise, full of the commercial slight-of-hand that parodies patriotism and oh-so-righteous conflict. I myself remarked last year as I was reading the newspaper, that I had finished the section dealing with the businessmen who wear uniforms and was now moving on to the — why-is-it-separate? — sports section. But then, oh prophets, who really can find any remedial pleasure in cheering on a grocery chain or brokerage firm?
As I write this, over at the baseball field the home team has just answered the visitors’ one run with four runs in the bottom of the 3rd and now a light rain says we stop and wait for rainbows — or if the game is called, it will all go away as if it had never happened. Time knows it’s real. Everything else is illusions.
Sunday is World Poetry Day and I should do a piece about poetry and poets to mark it. The specific idea of World Poetry Day is to celebrate every nations’ poetry, something I try to do here with fresh translations sometimes, but for today I’ve decided to use works by two American poets. The United States is still a young nation, still used to using the cruder tools of youth to impress itself upon the world, but our poets have had their innings, so today I’ll sing them to the rest of the world. First up: Wallace Stevens.
It’s not uncommon for poets to write poems about art or the art of poetry itself, but Stevens did this often. So it’s no surprise that “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” starts off with an assertion about poetry, even though the rest of the poem seems to progress into an argument about religion and religious propriety. Here’s a link to the full text of Stevens’ poem in case you want to follow along.
Stevens’ poem slows down our understanding of what it means using two tactics. First, it gives us at best one-half of a conversation: a little like hearing a person talking on a phone in public where the other party is inaudible. It takes considerable effort in comprehension to settle on what issues and points are being addressed in the poem’s speaker’s argument. I’m not totally certain I grasp them myself despite several readings and going on to perform the piece. Our high-toned old Christian woman may be expressing outrage at some more pagan and unfettered artistic expression on Stevens’ part. Stevens’ response is to point out that art has its own religion of a sort, its own myths and beliefs. That unheard party, the HTOCW, seems to make an objection regarding Stevens’ or art’s outrageousness derived from its beliefs and theoretical constructions, and Stevens’ then parries with a short aria on the extremes of Christian asceticism bellowed over a tink-tank Vachel-Lindsay-ish Salvation Army band. In summary he’s claiming they are alike: that the HTOCW and her co-religious cohort and he the poet both have their own guiding constructions (supreme fictions), their own expectation of meaningful belief and actions that promise — well, what do they promise, or rather assuredly deliver?
He’s not sure. A poet’s masque (a play) performed on earth may aspire to cosmic importance, but we can be sure the planets will not be all that moved. And the most fervent displays of religious piety can’t move the heavenly spheres who would at most judge them as unserious “hullabaloo.”
The second way Stevens intentionally slows down our comprehension is with language, the stuff and lexicographic music of his poetry. Most any stanza of a Stevens’ poem is equal to a “Word-A-Day Calendar,” and this poem doesn’t disappoint: nave, citherns, peristyle, masque, epitaph, flagellants, muzzy, and hullabaloo are not common modern English language words, and I’ll wager that most readers, even the most educated among us, would be hard pressed on getting 100% on a definition test with that list.* I’ve always “read” Stevens as having fun with his use of these obscure words, and in many cases here he’s punning on their sound, so we think we understand something we hear in a performance from the sound, while on the silent page they remain stumpers. Making someone a nave/knave is to fool them. A peristyle projecting upwards sounds like a periscope from a WWI U-boat or trench. A masque might as well be a mask. Flagellants with muzzy bellies sounds like flatulence from fuzzy bellies.
And while not an obscure word, “palm” is repeated several times in the poem with different meanings pressed onto it by context. It first seems to be Christian praise, as in the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, a moment of triumph to be followed by Good Friday (and then, yes, for believers, Easter). In its second mention, the poet might earn laurels, palms of honor for their work, but like the praise of the crowd it may be fleeting, pace what I call Donald Hall’s Law. And lastly, the palm plants become hands I think, the two seemingly opposed, the two sides — the prim believer and the pagan poet that the poem has satirized — I believe, palm to palm, a pair making a prayer.**
Let’s look at the poem’s end at last: Stevens seems to be saying that salvation by faith in art or religion is unclear. Widows wince when doubt says they may not meet their husband in heavenly reward or when that doubt (or belief) is sung impiously by some poet who calls his art, his mythology, the “Supreme Fiction.” God and the muses are both winking at us, telling us that we only half have an understanding, flirting with us on that unknown stage of our best fictions.
Stevens was a famous late-starter, publishing his first poetry collection Harmonium where AHTOCW first appeared at age 44. Millay was already on to her second collection featuring First Fig at age 28.
What then to make of the poem I combine with it, a short poem with plain words that many feel they understand at first sight: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig,” the one that begins, as so many have memorized, “My candle burns at both ends.”*** Is this not also a poem of faith in poetry? Yes, with the same limits and lack of assuredness. Is it also one half a debate with another point of view? Yes too, though it be a short epitaph “unpurged from bawdiness.”
In effect, “First Fig,” the opening poem in Millay’s A Few Figs from Thistles, is the title poem, the dedication of that short collection that set out the Millay outlook on youth, freedom, and autonomy sexual and otherwise. It made her famous for a while, and unlike Stevens’ knotty poems, hers (and herself) seemed understandable. Here’s its full text.
We understand this poem quickly to say: that one may, from our passions artistically — or otherwise in that mere and yet larger life — expend or risk so much that we allow it to be foreshortened, but that we believe that intensity is illuminating, possibly worth the sacrifice. Note, there’s no explicit conclusion. Millay’s poem doesn’t say outright it’ll be worth it, and other poems in A Few Figs from Thistles are not sure either. Its illumination is brief, a night in length it says. Yet a poem we think we understand, that we might memorize and carry in our muzzy brains may change as we project its light on different walls.****
Given Stevens’ satiric and philosophic wordiness, I came to think pairing it with Millay’s short heart-song would be a worthwhile contrast, each stronger with their lights against the ground of the other. You can listen to the performance and see if that’s valid — but before I go, is there one thing we don’t understand about Millay’s short poem?
Well, there’s the title. It’s such a short poem, yet we forget that there’s this added pair of words. I’d guess that many that know or have even memorized the poem forget the title. One thought was that it might be referencing an idiomatic English expression: “I don’t give a fig about…” which could easily be given an intensifying modifier “I don’t give a single (or the first) fig about…” I had assumed that fig, like the euphemistic interjections sugar or darn, was just a word used to replace a ruder word that started with the same letter-sound. I even wondered: was that idiom around when Millay wrote her poem in 1920? Well, just as I wouldn’t know muzzy or cithern fully when I read Stevens, it turns out I was off a bit. The idiom seems to date back to Shakespeare’s time or even more, which is odd in that the fig isn’t even a native fruit in England. It comes from Spanish and Italian; and it’s not only a word but it has a Mediterranean hand gesture to illustrate the thought, involving the thumb placed between two raised fingers. The intent in gesture or word in this idiom is to refer to low pink-toned lady parts, and in the patriarchal context then it’s an expression of contempt.
Did Millay know the derivation of the idiom? I don’t know — but she likely knew the non-etymological meaning of the phrase. In the context of the one-side of the debate that “First Fig” is presenting, that indicates that the speaker doesn’t give a single fig for the off-screen speaker who disapproves of the possible costs of passion.
*Ones I’d miss or get half-credit for? I knew citherns were an instrument from my interest in unusual instruments, but I wouldn’t be able to describe one definitively. I probably once knew peristyle from an early interest in classical theater, but had forgotten its meaning. Muzzy was dark to me and would have been a clear miss. A good dictionary then or the Internet now allows us to decode the original denotative meanings, but these still keep us from understanding Stevens too soon. And they can just be fun to come upon in a poem!
***If HTOCW may be Wallace Stevens’ mother, one of those that had memorized Millay’s “First Fig” was my father, who once or twice recited it to me. What caused him to memorize it, or to read Millay? I never knew. He never lived a bohemian life, and as far as I know he lived a modest, constant, and long life. I can guess however why he recited it to me, who did have my bohemian modes and times: to say that he knew something of that, or that I could have faith that something worthwhile could come from that.
****I’m increasingly seeing readings that see coded (intentionally or unconsciously) in this poem an expression of Millay’s bisexual/polyamorous autonomy.
Today’s piece is a winter poem for troubled lovers, but in the wandering tradition of this project, we’re going to go somewhere else on our way there.
Next week there is to be an inauguration of a new American President. It’ll be the 13th new President in my lifetime. Though I remember witnessing all these inaugurations in part through news reports, photographs and recorded footage; to the best of my recall, I have only watched two as they happened. Which ones? Most recently, I watched Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 while working in a place with a newsroom; and then, before that, as a schoolchild I watched John Kennedy’s inauguration.
I believe this is so because in our democracy we have a tradition of our Presidential terms ending and beginning uneventfully and with a comforting regularity. It’s not that we citizens ignore that there’s a new President, but the event itself happening is largely unremarkable.
Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 was contemporaneously recognized as a post-WWII milepost, the Presidency passing to a young former enlisted man in that war, moving us beyond a country ruled before by 19th century men. As I said, I was a schoolchild. My class watched it on a single gray TV set placed up high in front of our schoolroom instead of our usual lessons. I don’t think I was alone in the audience for that event in thinking it was important to pay attention to what was said, watching for news of a new era we knew was new.
Obama’s election and inauguration said something about America recognizing it had changed its evaluation of people of color.* It’s become a mark of sophistication and analysis to say that was an illusion, disproven by everything wronged people and close examination brought forward then, and since then. I thought, and think, we’re in the midst of things. If more know that now, the marker post of Obama can still tell us where we’ve come from and where we can go.
Is it a coincidence that both of those Presidential Inaugurations had a poet read a poem as part of the ceremony? That’s not a common choice: Kennedy was the first President to ever do so, and only one other President, Clinton, did so besides Obama.
Now, as it happens, I hope to watch the Inauguration next Wednesday, because this one seems more precious to me, more extraordinary, something not to be taken for granted. I will not watch it expecting or requiring great words — no need anyway, because the event alone now has a greatness thrust upon it. Yet coincidence or not, there will be a poet, a particularly young one, reading next week: Amanda Gorman, all of 22 years old.
There are several videos of Gorman reading on the web, but I wanted to bring forward what she says here about her poem for Independence Day, which starts with Phillis Wheatley and mentions that she’s speaking in the Washington-Longfellow house that day. It occurs to me that Gorman seems to be essaying a kind of civic American poetry that Longfellow might recognize.
So, now I’m ready to return to today’s piece, one using the words of American poet Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.” If you’d like to follow along with the text, here’s a link to the poem. “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” seems to fit my times, and perhaps it fits yours too, and so we may think of it as my unofficial poem for this January’s Presidential Inauguration.
What did Patchen intend with the repeated image here of deep snow? As a northerner I know one thing it portends, a restriction of movement, and it’s often too a trope of accumulated time. I read something now in the image that Patchen may not have intended, restricted as I am in movement by our current epidemic and having just endured a cloddish act of insurrection deep in whiteness. It seems, or we hope it is, that that “war has failed.”
Patchen says the snow is beautiful though — but specifically it’s beautiful in a fallen state, something meteorologically and theologically true in Patchen’s poem.
The poem’s third stanza has muffled terrors. What a strange and yet strong line “Only a few go mad” is! And the whiteness “like the withered hand of an old king” undercuts any sense of simple winter landscape beauty. To say twice “God shall not forget us” implies this is in question, doesn’t it?
The poem has it what we know more than we know by faith: our love, our lovers. How beautiful it is to be loved, to love. And to know that after talking of politics in a world where lies and flags are used as shields and lances to beat each other with!
My performance of “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground” can be heard with the player below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink. The musical core today is my naïve piano playing, over some drums and small percussion instruments. To add some character to the string bass part I doubled it with a synth-bass. Thanks for reading and listening, particularly as my ability to produce new pieces is reduced right now.
*There was something else about that Presidency. I’ve lived a long life, and yet in all those years Barack Obama is the only President I’ve ever had who was younger than me.
Recently I mentioned I might return to the Modernists of 100 years ago who inspired a lot of the material I’ve used here over the years. And indeed, I read two early William Carlos Williams collections early this new year looking for material as I prepared to do that.
And then, as a novel from 1925 warned: “Somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night….” and we’re borne ceaselessly into Make the Confederacy Great Again. Doomscrolling overcame me, and my concentration scattered without need for pepper spray. Unlike some others this week, I don’t want to play-act armed revolution — and despite the abundant wrongs and injustices of my government, I’m not even enthusiastic about the real thing. If I can’t bear up under the tedium of actual politics and its incremental proposed solutions, why then must it follow I would want the excitement of the barricades?
I had to sidestep new pieces for a while. Yesterday I was granted a few hours in which I might work on them, and so I felt compelled to return to what I had thought of using for the new year, and this poem from American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams was on the top of the stack. It’s called “January,” and it was published 100 years ago this year.
As to doomscrolling vs. poetry, Williams said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
By some caprice of the muses, this century-old “January” seems to address my situation in this one. Williams speaks of the distractions outside himself as he continues to write, and to winter’s “derisive music” he replies he’s still “bound to my sentences.” I can’t be sure what specifically inspired this poem. Williams could simply be sick of winter, that season that litters itself all over the landscape and then freezes itself in place. Or it could be speaking of his place in the Modernist movement, which was gaining traction culturally while (in Williams’ judgement) it wasn’t recognizing his part in it sufficiently.*
For our own arts, that’s an indispensable act for us: to stay committed to our work. Beside the world’s events that tell me that what art does is not quick acting enough to serve as a vaccine for our society, beside doubts that I should be better at what I do before presenting it, beside my own particular guilts that I should spend less time doing these things and more at promoting it, there’s no work to fail or be ignored unless one does one’s work.
I had to work quickly on the music, relying on some things that have become stylistic standbys for me in this Project: bowed strings (contra-bass this time), electric piano, electric guitar, and drums. In his poem, Williams develops the idea that the distracting winter wind is playing music to interrupt his own word-music. He describes this music as featuring the chromatic scale interval of the fifth. Reading the silent poem, you might think he’s talking about a dissonant interval since he also says twice the winds’ music is “derisive.” But the fifth is instead a sweet interval, even if one plays minors or major scales against it or piles on fuzzy overtone-rich distortion. From a musical perspective, I’m thinking Williams is saying that even the winter winds are not as cutting, honest, and to-the-bone as he wants to write. They’re derisive because they are merely sweet.
*The collection this poem appeared in was titled Sour Grapes. Williams thought — and some later critics began to agree with him — that American cultural critics were more enamored of WASP writers and overly eager to establish their own Ivy League version of the Oxford-Cambridge hierarchy for poets and poetry. Williams’ father was raised in the Dominican Republic and his mother was from Puerto Rico. Now of course, both Williams and some guy named Trump both went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is officially in the Ivy League. While Williams did post-graduate travel and work in Europe too, unlike some other American Modernists he was committed to making his poetry speak in, and to, an American way.