Following up on In Pursuit of Spring

I completed reading Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring  yesterday, the book about a bicycle tour across southern England published just before his transition from a self-described hack writer to a much loved English poet. I’ve already noted some surprises in a reply to a comment earlier, but now that I’ve finished I have more to say.

I at first thought the journey was more than a month long, as I read a quote from the book mentioning finding May at the end of his journey—but that was poetic license on Thomas’ part, his bicycle trip from London to the Bristol Channel took only a few days, it was only the vicissitudes of English climate that he was expressing. So, my supposition that the time on his bicycle on a country trip helped break the cycle of hack writing is likely wrong. And more than the time-span says this. The book internally shows evidence of work for hire. Parts of it are uninspired writing—prolix and tangled  writing at that—which is doubly surprising given that Thomas’ poems are usually so sharp and short, where every word tells. The book contains digressions which may or may not have been conventional in English travel books of the time, but they vary in quality and subject. At one point he simply begins to tell a folk tale about two sisters for no reason I can discern. Some of the digressions geek-out on detail. There’s a monolog on clay pipes that I quite enjoyed, which might still pass today as a post on a hipster blog. His shorter discussion of “waterproofs” (rain gear) for bicycling would gather likes in a post today too.

Edward Thomas 2

“I have discovered that sellers of waterproofs are among the worst of liars, and they communicate their vices with their goods.” Even today, many all-weather bicyclists would agree with Thomas.

 

Thomas’ hack work included literary reviews, and there are mini-essays on several English poets thrown in amidst the travelogue. The only living poet this 1913 book dealt with at any length is Hardy (Thomas approves of him) but the strange case he recounts of the 18th Century rural poet Stephen Duck lead me to look for more about him. Thomas was reviewing the contemporary early 20th Century Modernists at this time, and no doubt absorbing some of their tactics, but he does not speak of them in the book.

Over the course of the book he spends an inordinate amount of time in village churches and their graveyards, often cataloging the ordinary names of those buried there—not just the plaques enshrining local now-forgotten notables—and he recounts many epitaphs he finds. This seemed padded and tiresome to me at first, but as the book continued I just grew to accept it. Was this a conventional part of travel book writing then? Are the family names or ordinary people particularly redolent of a region in England? I don’t know. But as this practice continued at every town, I recalled again, this is less than two years before WWI changed England and four years before Thomas met his own Eastertide death in that war. Prophetically intended or not, the book’s catalog of graves does begin to tell.

Another Thomas tic, carried over somewhat into the poetry, is his naturalists-level knowledge of plants and birdsong. At one point early in the book he’s riding off in the morning and identifies a great number of the birds calling by their song, and he never seems to pass a plant without knowing it’s common name.  When I think of his much beloved “Adlestrop,”  a poem I much admire, written only a bit more than a year later.  I wonder if he had to restrain himself from cataloging for several stanzas the species that make up “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”

When Robert Frost saw the poetry in In Pursuit of Spring,  he performed a task of greater perception than I expected, even though there are lovely phrases, a keen intellect that pops in and out, and an odd charm to the whole thing.  Have you run across the current craze for creating poetry by redacting the greater part of large blocks of text so that found poetry emerges? Frost must have mentally done something like that.

How much of Thomas’ mode of prose expression was warped by the pay-by-the-word and deadlines/assigned topics of hack work I can’t say, but the poet Edward Thomas is all the more remarkable to me after reading this.

No new music today, but since I mentioned “Adlestrop,”  it would be good to remind newcomers that they can hear it. The player is below.

 

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The Oven Bird

With today’s post, we’ve reached the 100th official episode of the Parlando Project, where we mix words from many sources (mainly poetry) with various kinds of music. For the 100th piece I’ve decided to feature an older recording of mine, almost 10 years old, of my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,”  because it marks some of the initial ideas that lead me to this ongoing Parlando Project.

Parlando Project 100th audio piece

the Parlando Project has posted 100 audio pieces combining music and words

 

Frost’s “The Oven Bird”  is a devastatingly accomplished lyric poem written early in the 20th Century. The rhythm of the lines both grooves and varies itself, like the best music, and the rhyme scheme is elaborate, yet it never falls into forced rhyme. Frost’s language here is so plainspoken, ironically saving the fanciest and longest word for the poem’s last line. Frost is as rigorous a modernist as any of his contemporaries in the Imagist school. He’s as willing as any of them to hack away all the overused and overgrown 19th century “poetic language” and to use no word more than needed, but he does it here while writing a sonnet in rhymed metrical verse that sounds as natural as any free verse.

Allow me to indulge for minute my musical interests for a moment. What Frost does here (and elsewhere) is like what John Coltrane did shortly before changing his focus to what was to be called “free jazz,” where melodic freedom was stressed by radically simplifying the underlying harmonic structure. Coltrane wrote and recorded the most devilish difficult set of rapid chord changes constantly shifting the harmonic center, an obstacle-course of a composition called “Giant Steps”,  and then proceeded to improvise over it as if it was no matter to him to make those changes. Like Coltrane, Frost could seem free, natural, and innovative, while writing inside a constraining form. This sort of kindred accomplishment speaks to what attracts me in the Parlando Project to equally privileging music and words.


“The Oven Bird”
  has a reputation as a downbeat poem, and while Frost will not sugar-coat the human condition, I did not, and still do not, find it so. In “The Oven Bird”  Frost draws our attention to a bird that sings on, past the promising days of spring, and whose song is none-the-less, loud and insistent, even though he’s singing in a season where he might well feel out of place and out of time for song. Then in the closing section we’re first told that the future holds the fall season—and by extension, both the fallen state of man and the death cycle of nature—and “the highway dust is over all.” Some have read that line as Frost noting the coming of the 20th Century roads that will close out even more forest and bring some measure of end to the natural world. I think instead the “highway dust” is more at a statement of the death of all living things (dust implies in my reading “to dust”) and that dust is the dust of a set, laid out, road.

Oven Bird

The oven bird: “He knows in singing not to sing”

 

Finally, Frost hits us, and me specifically near 10 years ago, with his conclusion—one that says much for this project that seeks to find “The place where music and words meet.” He says those of us, also mid-summer and mid-wood who listen knowing these things, sharing the bird’s predicament, should know that the bird has these teachings to pass on to us, “He knows in singing not to sing” (a zen koan of a line) and that the present question is “what to make of a diminished thing.” What a progression to this, from the plainest language with simple words never more than three syllables long, singing us the oldest cycle known to self-conscious humans—and then Frost gives us a line suitable for meditative thought and a question.

This is where I break from those who see this as a despairing poem about death, failure and decline. The poem asks what to make of that, offering the example to loudly sing.

To hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird”, the 100th offical audio piece posted here as part of the Parlando Project, use the player below. “The Oven Bird”  performance is voice and acoustic guitar, but if you listened to others,  you know that the music and poetry we use varies. If you haven’t listened to other audio pieces in this project, check out the monthly archives for more. And if you like this, hit the like button or the follow button, and share this post or this blog address on your favorite social media channels. Those who’ve already done so help keep Dave and I encouraged to create new material, and you have helped grow the number of people listening to pieces from “Parlando – The Place Where Music and Words Meet.”