After all the storm and breadth of remarking on my several-year presentations of “The Waste Land,” the totality of which takes more than an hour to listen to, it’s time to return to a smaller Modernism. To start that off, let me present a tiny poem by Emily Dickinson.
How many Flowers fail in Wood — Or perish from the Hill — Without the privilege to know That they are beautiful —
How many cast a nameless Pod Upon the nearest Breeze — Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight — It bears to Other Eyes —
Indeed, with some editing/translation it could be a full-fledged, circa-1916 Imagist poem. Dickinson’s poem speaks of plural flowers, and that’s in tune with the point it’s making, but an Imagist might have simply changed it to a singular flower, or at least an instant of several flowers. The negative-pathetic fallacy of the flower’s ignorance of its beauty might have been excised. So, if William Carlos Williams or H.D. had written it in the 20th century it might have arisen like this:
The flowers fail in the wood And perish from the hill. Is there a privilege to know That they are beautiful?
There is a breeze, and in it Some nameless pods — Seeds of scarlet freight Bearing from eyes to eyes.
More or less the same thought and brevity, just a removal of the remaining 19th century Romanticism that Dickinson retained even as she would question it, and of course the word-music changes some. Today I chose to keep Emily Dickinson’s word music and original expression intact. But either poem is making a declaration about art: that it’s often created because it must be, out of an urge that is as omnipresent and mysterious as flowers, and that like flowers it’s part of a reproductive system that allows many seeds for few flowers and even fewer idle reflective eyes to see the flowers, this passing fecundity and unnecessary beauty.
All flowers, like all artists, fail, but “Unconscious of the scarlet freight…”
I present this piece today as I read two memoirs by little-remembered early-20th century Modernists — and from those little-noticed flowers I noticed some others, eyes carried in the wind to my eyes that I hope to present here soon for yours. But for today, we have my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “How Many Flowers.” with a player that will land and bloom for some of you, and this alternative for those who don’t see the player, a highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab to let you play my performance.
*In our 21st century — with grace of a scholarly culture once blind but now can see — the depth and subtlety of Dickinson’s vision and the thought that she’s able to stuff into tiny poems is now widely celebrated.
This may have been one of the first poems I fell in love with: the richness of the language, some sense of strangeness, the exoticness of the depicted setting–all enough for a young teenager. I did not mind the often outdated language then—less then than I do now—as I expected poems then to be written in an old and alien adult literary language.
If you’d asked that teenager what it meant, I would have probably stumbled out something to defend my appreciation of it—but what I did know was that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just flat-out lovely word music.
One could go on about that, but no technical analysis will increase or decrease a listener’s appreciation for that element. Music has a structure, theorems and practices, but it remains subjective and it is not engineering. My performance of it today may not do it justice either, let your own ear or voice be the judge.
You don’t need biography to feel this element in the poem, but Keats wrote this in the spring of a year in which he had cared for his brother Tom as he died of tuberculosis that previous winter. In around a year, the medically trained John Keats would notice symptoms that he well knew were from his own infection. Another year from there he would be dead from the feared infectious respiratory disease of his time. So I read it differently today in our time of the pandemic Covid-19.
But “Ode to a Grecian Urn” isn’t poetry as memoir, a common genre in our time. Instead, despite its failure as an example of pared-back language avoiding words describing emotions, the concept of the poem is not unlike that of Imagists nearly a century later.* Keats looks at a thing, a decorated classical Greek vase,** and records that moment.
I’ve figured out why it’s hard to create this week—the muses are sheltering in place. And it ain’t mine.
I’ll resist the urge to go through this poem line by line, but as the poem’s speaker approaches the titular urn he wants to interrogate it. One could draw a cartoon where the vase is in a police station room and the poet-detective is trying to tease out the details of the caper, while we the audience look on. The vase ain’t talking. The detective says that you were seen with that couple at that musical party, would you like to tell us why she was running? OK, so who were the musicians at the gig? You don’t know! Whatd’ya mean?
But let’s return to that almostness, that never. The lover and the beloved are palpably close, yet they cannot touch. The musicians are playing, but it’s somewhere out of ear-reach. Are they all six-feet, a social distance apart? What’s avoided by this freeze, this lock-down? The sorrow with a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Keats seems to intend this as an illness metaphor.***
The poem tells us this vase includes another scene, a cow being led to a ritual slaughter. A vegan, Hindu, or animal-rights advocate may cringe, but the scene is one of an entire town wishing for this consummation, and we may conclude the scene is “You will die so that we may live or prosper”—which after all is the belief of all such rituals. I’m not supposing that Keats was Joaquin Phoenix, however we may view this sort of thing; and most readers have historically taken the poem’s characterization of this as pious at face value. But Keats could have imagined his urn with another religious scene, and chose this one.
If he doesn’t want an element of dread in the sacrifice scene, why does he choose to add the detail that the pious morn has left a town with eerie deserted streets?
At the poem’s end, Keats places the famous couplet “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As well-known as these lines are, they’re the source of some controversy. Some think them profound, some glib. They are meaningless babble or a concise summary of Keats’ aesthetic.
The urn, this mesmerizing object, has artistic impact, and that means it’s beautiful in an aesthetic sense. It doesn’t mean it’s clear in its message. It doesn’t mean it’s a simple comfort. Yes, Keats says near the end, the urn is “A friend to man.” But friends are friends partly because they will tell us things that mere sycophants or acquaintances won’t, and friends will be there when things are not all wonderful and happy. It’s true too in this sense: that it is not telling itself with ulterior motives or self-interest.
The experience of the two scenes that precede this summing up are not happy ones. Even the consolations of artistic immortality are slight: we know nothing about the end of the lover’s pursuit, the musician’s tune, the name of the village or if it prospered, or if the sacrificial cow had a soul that was reborn.
As I performed it I decided to downplay what that past teenager would have read as a ringing conclusion. After all, whatever Keats’ sweet unheard intent might have been, his object that we can see and puzzle over tells us that the urn is saying this to him, not some “deity or mortal, or both.” A piece of art says what it says in ways its creator cannot control, as the poem predicts it: “In midst of other woe than ours.”
So, I read it today as that weak voice that says, from when this poem was written, from this time when I performed it, in a time of contagious illness, in a time when caretakers were at risk, to a time when our streets are silent, at a time when some pious ready sacrifices instead of remedies, a time when music is silences and lovers parted—that there is somehow something beautiful to be discerned that is still as true as our living moments.
Speaking of musical engineering, I decided to keep the music silent or very minimal for the first part of this one, even though this project is all about combining music with words—the text’s “unheard music” was just to powerful to contradict. I also chose to keep everything in a major key/major chords, because that too is how I read the text: the urn’s subjects think they are in joy, though we see them, like re-viewing films and video of past happy social crowds today, in a different frame. To read the full text of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” go here. The player gadget to hear my performance of it awaits you clicking on the player gadget below. Stay well. Take care.
*The idea of poetry expressing the experience of another piece of art, particularly visual art, ekphrastic poetry, long predates Modernism and Imagism. By using this approach to the everyday encounter with the world, the Imagists extended this technique.
**There is wide agreement that there is no singular vase/subject to discover that Keats actually encountered in a moment. Britain had recently absconded with “The Elgin Marbles” from Athens, a series of marble sculptures that Keats viewed in London, and he had seen period vases, even making his own drawing of one.
***In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag spent a good deal of time on the historical ascribing of tuberculosis to a dissipated or too passionate life-style in pre-germ-theory times. Currently, lovers may be close but separated precisely by our knowledge of microbes.
I almost feel like I need to place a warning label on today’s piece: Rated RE Strong Romantic Emotional Content. Thanatopsic material. May not be suitable for those who have not sufficiently worked through issues with self-harm or the experience of self-dissolution.
Modernism had a strong tendency toward a critique and reaction to romanticism and its characteristic expression of emotional content. A man viewed as the founder of its English-language poetic wing, T. E. Hulme, wished to set it on a course of completely overturning Romanticism. But those bylaws didn’t always filter down to every chapter and member of the Modernist International. Readers here know I love some of the early Imagist works which are parsimonious with overt emotional words, even while seeking to charge their images with a fresh immediacy. These poems aren’t necessarily devoid of emotion if the reader has it to supply themselves—but then some Modernists, such as E. E. Cummings, were perfectly fine with frank emotional outpourings.
Sara Teasdale, in addition to being largely forgotten for the better part of the last 100 years, was never officially a Modernist, so there’s no movement membership to endanger and no expectations for her to fulfill anymore. She wrote intensely lyrical and musical verse in plainspoken and non-archaic language. That’s a surface shiny enough, devoid of hermetic imagery, and with sweet word-music that makes it too easy to miss what she’s saying.
Sara Teasdale is sick’n’tired of you mentioning how pretty her poems are
I knew this already, having presented Teasdale regularly here. Still, I had to go through a journey to inhabit and grasp this poem for this project. I collected it earlier this summer, seeking to stockpile a few seasonal poems ahead of time to have some on-the-shelf ideas for possible use.
Here’s the full text of the poem. If you skim through it, it looks like a fairly common poem subject: summer night. It might seem to hit the expected points too: hey, summer, it’s nice at night (maybe even better than the heat of afternoon). Plants, trees green and full, explicit birds. A Moon one can linger with long enough that you feel that if you stay the night you could watch it change its phase.
Teasdale can write a poem that seems like that. That’s a problem. It’s too easy to miss what she’s communicating if you leave it at “That’s pretty.” You could use her writing as a case-study in why some of the Modernist tactics that frustrate (or delay) understanding might not be counterproductive. Teasdale gets misunderstood quickly as one passes over the words, while someone like Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, or Gertrude Stein causes those who won’t care to read carefully and empathetically to not stop in at all.
As I began to read, really read, “August Moonrise,” to figure out how I might perform the words, the last section seemed dark—and not in the pretty moonlight way. Here are some of the words that hit the notes in her word-music after the poem’s midpoint: bitterness, sorrow, death, wavering, blind, fearful, fire, cold, vanish.
Seeing that, I reexamined the opening half for portents. The swallows are rushing, willfully, together and departing from each other. And is their willful act truly willful? Maybe not, it’s like the movement of dark tree leaves. If that was a spare Imagist poem, or a work of classical Chinese poetry, we’d be confronted with that image, asked on no uncertain terms to deal with it. Here you may think it’s so much minor scene-painting.
The scene-painting gets even more painterly next. Sunset, moonrise. The final palette: “a deeper blue than a flower could hold.” Is that merely a beautiful picture or a statement of more blue than can be sustained?
Teasdale’s singer in the poem is drawn in (note, she goes “down,” descends to it, even though the preceding birds, trees, sunset, moonrise are all things normally above the horizon) because it’s her, or because it will become her. The poem reaches—if only briefly—a quasi-orgasmic happiness. One line here: “I forgot the ways of men” is so rich in ambiguity. I could read it three or four ways easily.
This happiness, this intoxicated leaving of all but the senses (however brief) is portrayed as a consolation. Consolation for what?
And then we enter that section that is so full of darkness, loss, imperfection. Is this section spiritually sublime or just harrowing? I think you can play it either way, though I suspect it works best if the other choice is kept as an undertone. Compare this to Laurie Anderson’s childhood account of Buddhist Midwest night skies and the non-necessity of self, the archaic trials of the Lyke Wake Dirge, or to a searing inventory of imperfection, almost a suicide note.*
Teasdale’s concluding couplet is so searing I think it must be performed understated. The crucial word in it, “theft,” says she doesn’t feel in control of this loss of control. Isn’t that frightening? Spending several hours with this text this week, fitting it to music, performing it, thinking about it was a journey, from “Oh, a summer night poem” to a consideration of the sameness and the difference of exceeding the self and end of the self.
So, am I out on a limb here, thinking this a major poem by a too overlooked poet? Has the seeming conventionality of its setting (subverted as it may be), the gender of its author, the musicality of its expression, the unabashed romanticism of its sensibility obscured our view? If this was Rilke translated from the German would we read it differently? If this was Yeats with swans instead of swallows would it matter? If a Cubist ran it through a copier a few times and then cut up all the lines and reassembled it, would we stop long enough to think about it? The issue of Teasdale’s membership or non-membership in Modernism might have seemed germane in the mid-20th century, but to a significant degree it’s immaterial now.
Well, I’ve done it again. Talked about the words so long that there’s no time to dance about the architecture of the music. Thinking about what I said above, I could have cut up and obscured Teasdale’s words rather than a straight recitation I recorded, but the choice I made has its strengths too. I did try to undersell the sensuousness of the lyric in hope it would cause the listener to consider it differently, but the opposite choice works too, for I’ve discovered this gorgeous and emotionally effecting choir setting of “August Moonrise” by Blake Henson that had me in tears this morning. See my comments last post about how my limitations as a singer and no access to alternative skilled singers focuses my composition into other modes.
I intentionally avoid apologizing for my work. I think that’s a good practice. If you think you should do better, do better or do different, instead of talking about it. My approach to “August Moonlight” with a skip-footed motorik beat and an ominous and fateful tone in the reading and music certainly contrasts with Henson. I could even imagine that hearing Henson’s work after considering Teasdale’s darker undercurrents intensifies it, as it did for me today. You can hear my version with the player below.
*There was a point in the production of this piece that I seriously considered abandoning my presentation of “August Moonlight” because of this. Once I could see that element was present in the work (as it is in Teasdale’s life), I felt it shouldn’t be denied if I was to perform it. Many artists deal with feelings of self-harm and because “All artists fail” in the sense of imperfection and producing things farther, rather than “Something nearer your desire.” I hesitate to present work that might feed into that, particularly with a beautiful and romantic sheen to it all. In the end I decided that Teasdale is illuminating that, and if I presented it so that you can consider its danger, it could have value. Henson’s setting makes a choice to emphasize the perception of beauty, the singular hour of atonement, which also would have answered this concern.
Whose fault is it when a poem is hard to comprehend, to understand? The first thought may be that it’s the fault, or even intent, of the author. Communication via written language has its weaknesses, but we know from our day to day lives that it can convey information successfully. Poetry, particularly poetry of literary repute, has a reputation for frustrating expectations of understanding.
For thoughtful people there should be second thoughts on this matter. If a writer, a poet, asks for a certain level of engagement, knowledge, curiosity, and openness are they always being unfair? I’m willing to grant they can ask too much, but asking too little of an audience of readers has costs as well. Here’s a principle worth remembering as you approach poetry (or other arts): poetry isn’t about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas. Experience isn’t permanent, one-sided or clearly binary. If we for an instant experience something as a simple truth, a moment of clarity, poetry can express that—but properly comprehended simple truths exist in a contradictory and changing world. Sometimes we can misunderstand a simple poem as much as a more esoteric and confusing one.
Early English Modernist poetry, particularly those poets around the Imagists, wanted to explore these things. It may surprise you, but many of its pioneers before WWI made a choice for clarity, for simplicity. It did to me. I came to the early works late, already steeped in the poetry of the post-WWI High Modernists: Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Paul Eluard and Dada and Surrealist associated writers. But look at the pre-WWI work of some English modernists, like this poem by T. E. Hulme, a poem that has been identified as the first Modernist poem in English, “Autumn.”*
A touch of cold in the Autumn night—
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Does it seem strange to you that such a poem could change things? It’s so un-assuming, so easily grasped. Two homey images that require nothing in the way of pre-requisites to visualize, though it may be helpful to be as Hulme was, a rural person who had migrated from the fields of his childhood.** If one pauses and looks again, notice what’s not here: length, words naming emotions instead of objective description (save the single “wistful” which carries power in its exception) and rhyme. A not strict, but appreciable meter appears gradually with the final three lines, but the previous four are free
Today’s audio piece presents another poem by T. E. Hulme, one that isn’t easily understood at all. Hulme often wrote his pieces to demonstrate the theories of Modern English poetry he wanted to bring to the fore critically, and like “Autumn,” the rest of his extant work has a radical clarity. Hulme scholar and professor Oliver Tearle reports that today’s piece “Conversion” may have literally been a blackboard example of a revamped kind of poetry. If so, those looking at the chalk marks may have been as puzzled then as we are now.
“Conversion” starts off conventionally enough: a walk in nature, and hyacinths are in bloom. It’s beautiful and fragrant. We are altogether conventional here, save for the free verse. Then the next two lines are a clear image, but not necessarily an expected one: imaginarily our poet is drugged and kidnapped. In Hulme’s era a rag soaked in some ether or chloroform was a standard illustrated weekly/pulp fiction trope for this, but flowers as an agent is not unprecedented either (Midsummer Night’s Dream) and in the poem the scent of the flowers is associated with this. For all Hulme’s Modernist intent, this does seem to follow a lot of fairy story plots from Tam Lin to “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” The two lines that end the kidnap incident are uncharacteristically sound rich for Hulme: “Motionless and faint of breath/By loveliness that is her own eunuch.” It’s like Yeats or de la Mare broke into the poem for a moment.
I have a theory, one that greater scholarship or historical knowledge than I have might bolster. The word “eunuch” in the poem is our fuse. Eunuch in the context of Hulme’s time would likely bring to mind the Ottoman Empire and the exotic non-Christian Middle East. Exoticism is a complex thing, elements of fascination and sublimated desires are part of it, as are, alas, stereotypes and racism. But one common trope in the European mind of the time was the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of women in eunuch-run harems of Ottoman rulers. My guess is that’s what Hulme is referring to here, and that it might have been familiar enough to his time and audience to assume the reference would be understandable even in this highly condensed poem. The poem’s hard to explain title “Conversion” could also be fit to this idea.
Mysterious Victorian abductions, non-Christians portrayed as evil so that Europeans can look at pictures of ladies breasts.
That still makes the final three lines hard to follow. Is Hulme’s personae in the poem female, or is this a male-male cross-cultural bondage fantasy? Does it end with the death of the personae or just being carried away in quasi-erotic bondage? Come on Hulme, you may be using some unenlightened xenophobic twaddle for your image here but give us a clue!
“Final river” (Tearle reads the mythological river Styx here, and domo arigato Dr. Tearle) “without sound” seems to lean to drowning death. The one thing I came up with trying to figure this out is the apocryphal tale of the 17th century Turkish Sultan Ibrahim (“The Mad”) who was said to have had his harem of 280 concubines thrown into the Bosphorus to drown, a punishment that otherwise would be fit for a peeping Tom-Turk spying on the ruler’s harem.*** But by now I’m feeling like Wylie Coyote standing on thin air trying to explain those sparse final lines.
Drop all the guesses and dodgy cultural stereotypes, even if we blame the author for them, and “Conversion” may still work to some degree, after all what I think the images set out to do is to convey that the apprehension of beauty can involuntarily change one by confusing our priors. The philosophic idea is not instantly clear, its images are problematic and opaque, but the words and the sounds of them intrigue. This “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all” as André Breton later wrote.
Of our three London-based “School of Images” pioneers, only Pound would later write “High Modernist” poems with such knotty allusive problems. F. S. Flint drifted out of poetry after WWI, and Hulme was killed in that war. Pound admired Hulme considerably, and T. S. Eliot spoke highly of him too. Those two may have chosen to follow the Hulme of “Conversion” more than the Hulme of “Autumn.”
Well, this is a long post, and once more I’ve run out of room to talk much about the music and performance of the piece. I decided to make the musical setting discontinuous to reflect the confusion of the narrative and I hope I’ve brought out the mystery and lyricism of Hulme’s poem in my performance. The woodwind instrument featured at the start and finish of the piece is a virtual instrument version of the duduk, a gorgeous-sounding free-reed instrument that might be found around the shores of the Black Sea. I also couldn’t resist blowing a chorus on the Telecaster, an exotic instrument as old as I am, designed by a radio repairman on our western shores. The player gadget is below. Text of Hulme’s “Conversion” can be found in Terle’s post on the always Interesting Literature blog.
*Like the “first rock’n’roll song” or “the first rap record,” there are probably lots of candidates, but it’s still helpful to have a marker to say about it: “This is different, and points to how things can be changed.”
**One cultural-particular is present: in the sunburnt face and white colored children of its two images, it’s not melaninanicly universal, but the particular in the case of poetry can still speak to us. Around the time Hulme wrote this, Charlie Patton was probably singing the floating blues verse that Son House later recorded “My black mama’s face shines like the sun…”
***”Michael Cohen, I like grand viziers who don’t get caught. I’ve got to get me some of the best people.
Last time we made some fun of Shakespeare’s honest love poem, his Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” Well today, let’s give it it’s due.
The fun was that if was a poem meant to attract or hold a lover, it’s, well, not complementary—but there’s no evidence internal to the poem or external to what little we know about its writing, that says that was its intent. It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets that was written to “the Dark Lady.” Great title that. We may feel put off if the meaning of a poem isn’t clear to us right away, but in love and biography, most of us love a mystery. Let’s examine that mystery a bit.
First bit of mystery: it’s not clear exactly how autobiographical the typical Elizabethan poet, such as Shakespeare, intended their poetry to be. The idea of art as a mode of direct self-expression has become increasingly more common in the past 200 years, but it wasn’t necessarily the mode of the 16th Century poet. Showing off one’s language skills and elaborate allegorical metaphors while speaking of popular and entertaining subjects scored points in the game then, and it was less about biography that rhymed.
Poets of that era liked to revisit the same subject over and over, because playing on the same topical court let them measure themselves against each other. And so it was when writing a series of sonnets about love troubles.
But no author can avoid the personal entirely. This has lead to the detective game to identify the “Dark Lady.”
A leading solution is Emilia Bassano Lanier. Like a lot of Elizabethans, a fascinating character of which only scattered but intriguing facts are known. She may have been Jewish, North African, or Italian. Family described as “black” in Elizabethan times. Had connections to the same theater and artistic world that Shakespeare did in London. Musical family. Her father helped Queen Elizabeth with her lute when she was a young girl. Emilia wrote the first book of poetry published by an Englishwoman, and she seems remarkably independent and kick-ass. She even makes it onto the lists of the people who “really wrote Shakespeare.”
This may be a portrait of Emilia Bassano Lanier
Shakespeare wouldn’t be the first writer to use a person they knew as a model for a literary character as an in-joke that his crowd would get, or just as a handy way to gather a matrix of characteristics. And yes, Shakespeare and Lanier might have been a thing.
It’s fairly clear that Sonnet 130 is another answer record/dis cut like our dueling shepherd poems from the same era. However biographical or invented, the poet is telling us that as far as his love is concerned, all the bullcrack about white skin, golden hair, and rosey cheeks doesn’t get his motor running. There is that breath “reeks” thing in his poem, but I’m not sure it was automatically funky in Shakespeare’s time. The word comes from the Middle English word for smoke or steam—so not necessarily stinky breath, just not literally like perfume.
Elsewhere in the “Dark Lady” sonnets Shakespeare praises “black beauty.” Was the Dark Lady Black in the modern sense of the term? I don’t know if we can say for sure. Sub-Saharan Africans were in England in those times, including a trumpeter who was part of Elizabeth’s father’s court.
Birth of the Crewel? Henry VIII and the king of France take in a WWF tag team match.
In the upper left of this tapestry, on trumpet, is John Blanke, also spelled Blak
Was Shakespeare “answering” one particular poem? One doesn’t have to look far for targets, but some point to a poem set to music by William Byrd “Of Gold All Burnished:”
Of gold all burnished, brighter than sunbeams, Were those curled locks upon her noble head Whose deep conceits my true deserving fled. Wherefore mine eyes such store of tears outstreams. Her eyes, fair stars ; her red, like damask rose ; White, silver shine of moon on crystal stream ; Her beauty perfect, whereon fancies dream. Her lips are rubies ; teeth, of pearls two rows. Her breath more sweet than perfect amber is ; Her years in prime ; and nothing doth she want That might draw gods from heaven to further bliss. Of all things perfect this I most complain, Her heart is rock, made all of adamant. Gifts all delight, this last doth only pain.
The poem’s 9th line might be a mondegreen, as it makes sense if the last words aren’t “amber is,” but the perfume “ambergris.” Who wrote the words? That’s not stated in the book which published Byrd’s piece in 1589, but a modern musician and relative of Emilia has put forth the idea it’s a poem by Emilia Bassano Lanier, though I can’t access any cite for his evidence.
Maybe I should have tried to make a lute sound here for the music, but it’s 12-string guitar, bass, a small string section and just a bit of recorder back in the mix for Sonnet 130. To hear it, use the player.
As I’ve all but promised, here’s a piece using another poem by the deserving-greater-notice early 20th Century poet Anne Spencer. It may even be appropriate for Valentine’s Day—though if so, it’s a somewhat complicated valentine. If we think of Spencer’s poem as a valentine, “Lines to a Nasturtium” is a fancy one, but the doily lace on this valentine has strange knots in it.
I was going to present it first, before “Dunbar,” but I felt I didn’t understand it well enough, and after living with it for a couple of weeks, I’m still not sure I’ve found its bottom. It’s beautiful and more than a bit mysterious. My son caught me laughing today as I read an account of James Weldon Johnson, who helped bring Spencer’s poems to publication in the 1920s, sharing a selection of them with the acerbic critic H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s reply? “Tell that woman to put beginnings and ends to her poems. I can’t make head or tails of them, but they’re good.” Yes, I had to laugh, but that’s sort of how I feel right now in regards to this set of words. It’s as gorgeous as the flowers it uses as images, but there’s a puzzling pair of lines “But I know one other to whom you are in beauty/Born in vain;” I feel I should be able to suss out who the “one other” and the “you” are, and I just can’t be sure.
A sensual but philosophical ode to beauty? An early claim to the beauty of women of color against Euro-centric ideals? A Robert Browning-like soliloquy regarding a potential love rival? For awhile this morning, trying to follow the antecedents to that “one” and “you” in the text, I was leaning on that later, but then I was reminded that Spencer thought the entire last part of her poem, under it’s published sub-title “A Lover Muses,” was decorative enough to have it painted on a cabinet door in her kitchen.
Come on, in my kitchen—Spencer’s poem on the door
I don’t want mysteries of meaning to get in the way of enjoying Spencer’s work any longer, so let’s just listen to it today. Use the player below.