Here’s a mysterious poem by Carl Sandburg that makes its mystery in an unusual way. I think it may have been written for a child or for children, but by accident or design the matter of the poem makes a different sense as I read it now.
What makes me think it was written with children in mind? There’s the repetition of the idea of spelling these two short, common words in the title, neither of which are “spelling demons” that are difficult for adults to spell. And then further repetition in saying the two words “Good Night.” It seems something between a lullaby or a book like Goodnight Moon, beloved of parents seeking to ease their child to sleep. The middle of the poem has three episodes of things gloriously becoming gone and away, as if being left for sleep and dreams.
This is where the poem now seems to take on a layer that I’m unsure was part of Sandburg’s intent in 1920 as I read it in 2020. He starts with fireworks—which are firing all about me on this Independence Day night as I write this post. Besides the noise—and noise normally has a note-length and measure—a visual aspect which a fireworks display is notable for is its short duration. Those colors and light against a night sky may be stunning, but they are short. They are memories almost from the moment they burst.
And then comes two other short episodes: a steam train and a steam boat. The steam train on a moonlit night is moving of course, but its spume of exhaust is also leaving skyward. Likewise, the river steamboat is moving past a geography leaving the sound of their steam powered horns carrying across the fields they are not as stationary as.
Carl Sandburg. From the size of it, that microphone looks like it could be steam-powered too.
Sandburg the boy would have known those two steam-powered things. A child in 1920 could know them too. They were the ordinary things of freight and travel. In a few decades these steamers would be obsolete and all but extinct. 1920 is a little too early for Sandburg to know that. When he wrote his poem they were moving and gone. Now they are gone and gone. Carl Sandburg is gone too of course. And if he told this poem to his children? They grew up, aged, and are gone too. Many ways to say good night. Many ways to spell good night. Many ways, all leaving. Oh! the boom! The red and yellow, the blue and gold spreading and tailing! Ah! Many ways, all leaving.
*Unless you’re reading this on the WordPress Reader app on an Apple phone or tablet, which for some reason can’t show the player. If you switch to viewing frankhudson.org in the Apple Safari browser, you’ll be able to hear the music. Alternatively, the audio pieces are available as a podcast in Apple podcasts. Thanks for reading and listening!
Each quarter I like to look at the pieces here that have received the most listens and likes. It’s time to look back at this year’s spring, and so I’ll be doing that this week. However, I once more need to report that it’s become increasingly hard for me to desire to create new pieces for this project. I say that partly as an apology to those who do enjoy the weird mix of the known and unknown writers whose work I present here, and partly as a statement of the cold facts of our time and how it impacts this artist. Perhaps I’ll write a post about this at greater length soon, but I don’t want to stand in the way of those of you who enjoy what the Parlando Project does. I appreciate you too much.
And too, part of these Top Tens is not just to point out what you liked, but also to help new readers and listeners understand this project beyond the one piece they find here from a web search or something you found linked-to on your social media feed or another blog. We have 460 audio pieces posted here in a range of musical styles and authors.
So on to our countdown, starting today with the 10th through 8th most liked and listened to piece. The bold title is also a link to the original post where the piece was first presented if you missed that earlier.
10. The Old Nurse by Frances Cornford. One of the constraints of this project is that so much of it requires my own voice, which has its limits of which I’m aware. From the beginning Dave Moore has been a great boon as an alternate contributor here, but age and Covid-19 is making that difficult. This spring my wife Heidi Randen has been good enough to take time to contribute her voice a couple of times, and this piece received enough response to just make it onto the Spring Top 10.
“The Old Nurse” is by little-known British poet Frances Cornford. I’ll write more about her soon, but this ghost story requires no introduction or framing to be effective I think.
9. Morning by Sara Teasdale. This project loves the subject of poets whose work needs to be better known (or known in a different way.) Teasdale’s a good example of this. She’s a contemporary of T. S. Eliot (and grew up in the same town and neighborhood, though there’s no record they ever met that I’ve found) and for a time, just as Modernism was arising as a poetic movement in English around the years of WWI, she was recognized as a substantial writer.
And then she fell off the barrel of the canon while others got launched into the circus catch-net of remembered poetic artists. Was this because she was a woman, or that she wrote rhymed metrical verse? The former reason is important, the later not completely unimportant, but I’ve come to think a large part of this is that she wrote short, lyric poems. “Lyric” in this sense does not mean she wrote words to be set to music (though her poetry is extraordinarily amendable to that.) Lyric means that her poems tend to be short and present “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” That phrase, one of the definitions of pioneering Modernism in English, soon became honored more in the breach than the observance. Big subjects, tackled by big poems, often anchored once more in allusions to substantial cultural markers beyond our eternal instant became the ideal in the 20th century. Teasdale didn’t do that, it wasn’t in her range.
Our complex instants in time became a forgotten subject.
So, this project asks you to pay attention to the complexity of Teasdale’s spring moment.
Carl Sandburg and coven with a satanic familiar at his shoulder strike a chord for lyric poetry. Let’s sing along: “See the U.S.A. with your Chèvre, hey….” And guitarists: an interesting voicing for C minor 6 with a 9th in the bass if you sound the open D string.
8. Monotone by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg isn’t exactly a case like Teasdale, though like her, he also is less honored now than during his lifetime. He was able to write long poems on big subjects, eventually becoming known for a multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln that retained portions of his long-form poetic style. Where he became less rated as an important poet, it was due to his apartness from a later high-culture and academic-oriented school of poetry that viewed his work as insufficiently formed and shaped, as too unsophisticatedly straightforward in expression. The prose-poem looseness of his free verse became just as out of style as Teasdale’s verse.
All of which obscured the Imagist Sandburg, just as dedicated to the “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” as Teasdale. Like Teasdale, I feel that these now less-remembered shorter poems of Sandburg deserve more attention and consideration of their complexity.
Here’s the other pole of Carl Sandburg, a prose-poem about the nature of government. It seems so far from the tight compressed Imagism of “Gargoyle” that one might wonder how it could be from the same poet. I may have a clue there, so read on, I’ll return to that thought.
But first let me note that Carl Sandburg had some unique experience to bring to this subject. This poem comes from his landmark Chicago Poems published in 1916, a collection that both established his bonafides as a Modernist poet and as a foundational writer of American proletarian poetry. But before that he’d been a first generation immigrant,* a Spanish-American War soldier, a college dropout from a no-where college, and an itinerant worker. In the first decade of the century, as he turned 30, he was working as a daily paper journalist as he began a period of political activism in Wisconsin as a Socialist party organizer. In 1910, the city of Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor, and Carl Sandburg took a position in his city administration. He was a self-proclaimed idealist as well as an aspiring poet. In his new job in government he was ready to—well, let me quote how he remembered itin an interview in 1953:
We were to build in Milwaukee the kind of planned city which existed in some places in Germany and in other European cities where socialism had taken hold….Then came the jarred awakening. Hordes of job-seeking Socialists descended on our office wanting the crumbs of victory. They behaved just like the Republicans and the Democrats on that day when they swept into power. This was not idealism; it was the old spoils game.”
In another account he said that his first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway.
After two years in government, Sandburg kept with poetry but went back to Chicago and to getting his paycheck from the Fourth Estate. Thanks to Ben Hecht, a fellow Chicago newspaperman, we can sense what being a newspaper reporter in Sandburg’s Chicago era might have been like. Hecht’s play The Front Page has been made into a movie three times, with most favoring the middle version, His Girl Friday, as cinema, but the original 1931 version is most faithful to the original play and era.**
Sandburg’s “Government” may not be one of his greatest poems, but I’ve maintained that poetry (like other arts) can serve us even when it’s not some sublime act. You’ve heard me maintain that Sandburg has poems that deserve to be considered in that sublime class, but this one shows us something too.
So now that we’ve detoured in the non-aesthetic realm of politics, let me come back to that thought, however unformed, that I have about the compressed Imagist Sandburg, the one we forget or underestimate, the poet who has poems that can stand with the other Modernists in concrete and incised compression. In “Government” Sandburg, though in a prose-y and less concise manner than the Imagist Sandburg, shows government in its evil and corruption is us, human us. It seems an institution as we speak of it in tired language that poets must avoid and repair, an external thing, like a building or statue put up long before our time—or if living, a monster from the other. However impure, however damaged, our republic is; however unclean our language is; however dull, ignorant, insufficient our thoughts are; we are the blunt weapon that damaged it, we are the only tool to repair it. Blunt tools break, sharp tools repair.
Here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Government” available with a player gadget below.
*I grew up in a small Iowa farm town with substantial Swedish heritage. In my half of the 20th century I believe I may have underestimated the impact that Sandburg’s parents were immigrants, or that parts of WASP culture may have noticed this about Sandburg more than you or I might think. Last year when reading more about another under-considered Midwestern Modernist Edgar Lee Masters who crossed paths with Sandburg in Chicago, I was struck at how often Masters referred to Sandburg as a Swede/poet in a context that I believe was meant to be read as a natural incongruity, that such a coarse background could be associated with the athenaeum of poetry.
**Footnote fans, be prepared for a wild mouse of a ride in this one. In The Front Page remember how the corrupt mayor is indebted to “the black vote.” In 1915, the black vote was largely Republican, and the Chicago mayor that year was William Hale Thompson, a character that could give our 21st century President a run for his money. He survived WWI politically despite being pro-German and reflexively anti-English, and with a drain-the-swamp campaign that was working to make sure the money sump-pump went toward his pockets. He was finally voted out of office by the campaign of Anton Cermak, the most important mayor in the history of Chicago. In that campaign, Wikipedia quotes Thompson as Tweeting (well, I guess not, it’s 1931 after all—but the flavor sure sounds reminiscent of our contemporary) “I won’t take a back seat to that bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack, or whatever his name is. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”
So, what’d Cermak do that was so important? In 1933 Cermak took a fatal assassin’s bullet that could have hit the U. S. President-elect Franklin Roosevelt standing next to him. Regardless of who took what bribe from who, or who did a better job of expired canine disposal, or even weighed against the epic odyssey of the Afro-American migration to urban centers, the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 would have likely changed America and the world’s history immensely.
By way of footnote dénouement, I’ll note that Cermak’s son-in-law Otto Kerner chaired the commission that was charged with evaluating the urban riots of The Sixties. Read this linked article for a sense of what was said then, and then consider Sandburg’s words in his great poem “I Am the People, the Mob:” “When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.”
I said last time that the Midwestern American poet Carl Sandburg is not often thought of as an Imagist when we recount the Modernist revolution in poetry. Indeed, I get the impression that his work as a whole is summarized as folksy/clumsy by academia, the efforts of a low-fi Modernist with middlebrow pretensions to real artistic innovation.
I wonder if some of this is an unexamined hold-over from the High Modernists who made a cult of academic culture and credentials in the mid-20th century. Sandburg certainly intended to be a Modernist and wrote thoroughgoing Imagist poems. And yes, he can present himself in a friendly, non-pretentious way in some of his poetry. T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound rarely seem to welcome in the casual reader, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams may puzzle us on first encounter. Amy Lowell will let us know this is salon-worthy art. E. E. Cummings may charm us in a playful way while still remaining elusive. Marianne Moore likes the seemingly earnest statement, but when I try to absorb an entire poem I’m often at sixes and sevens.
Sandburg can seem a bit too straightforward. Which he’s not, or at least not always. Williams can have his red wheelbarrows and plums, Pound his wet petal Metro pedestrians, and we understand this is willful simplicity in the context of their more elaborated work. Poor Sandburg. He’s misunderstood for being thought understood. Understood too quickly perhaps.
Here’s an example of a poem that hardly seems like Sandburg at all. If I presented it, unattributed, as translated from the French it might seem Surrealist, but it was published in 1917 before Surrealism was a movement. Even at the time I was performing it, I had only been able to absorb it as a sensation, and I’m not sure yet if I could paraphrase it even now. Here’s the link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. It seems to be a poem about violence and strife, about suffering and infliction of suffering. Is the poem’s gargoyle war, Moloch, capitalism, the demonized exploited, or the demon exploiter?
Is it possible that Sandburg intended this ambiguity? The sensation of this poem is so strong, yet it doesn’t seem easy to solve into a one-to-one allegory. One could use Orwell’s famous decades-later statement as a gloss on this poem:
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Two things ground this poem, and Imagism wanted to be grounded, not intellectually abstract. First is the gargoyle, which was a commonplace building ornament in Sandburg’s Chicago, secondary to the beau arts style popularized by the 1893 Worlds Fair there and to the widespread availability of immigrant stone carvers in the city. Gargoyles are ugly and often open-mouthed,* as this poem’s gargoyle is.
But Sandburg’s poem subject is metal, which is not impossible—there are cast metal gargoyles. I’m no expert on metalwork trades, but the actions described in the poem sound like hot metal riveting. Is the “gargoyle” some metal construction which is having red hot molten rivets being pounded into holes one after another?
A riveting video? Maybe not for everyone, but a few minutes of watching will show how a four-person team works together in hot metal riveting
Or is this poem’s subject a child’s nightmare? After all, twice Sandburg wants us to know a child could visualize this.
So, an elusive work, but the horror certainly comes through. My performance is straightforward, just acoustic guitar and bass. Sort of a folk song, if the kind of folks you hang around with like Michael Hurley. The player is below.
*They are sometimes functional downspouts, designed not just as ornament, but as a way to direct roof rain water away from the building and it’s foundation. Gargoyle as a word is derived from the French for gullet, or throat.
I love me some early short-form Carl Sandburg. Oh, I can enjoy him in his lengthy Whitmanesque catalog mode and I surely appreciate his too little recognized work in forging what we more recently call Americana, but in much of his early work he’s writing in a mode that people often forget. It’s similar to some of the other early Modernists before the High Modernist style absorbed that revolution and used it to make a complex and literary bureaucracy of allusions and images that were more showy and complex on the surface.
If you have a moment, look at “Monotone,” a nine-line poem, linked here. How easy it would be to overlook this poem. There’s no exotic words or settings, and the images seem to risk falling into the banal. What’s there? A rainfall, a sunrise and a sunset. If most of us were to put those as the major images in a poem, our poems would likely fail to seem unique in any worthwhile way, or we’d stress and strain to make them unique. I myself might reach for the surreal or the odd detail because I would think I was otherwise making a poem with no worthwhile freshness. And perhaps Sandburg fails in that way for some readers here. What is he risking that failure to convey?
In these nine lines he wants to write a love poem of the least common kind. Poems of desire, poems of the kind of overthrow of the senses and proportion that new love brings, poems of enchantment with possibility—those are legion. And they’re worthwhile. Love and desire, like other visionary states, illuminate things we are otherwise unable to believe. Some of those things are true and some are false, some are the painful disguised as beautiful. They proclaim for us to give ourselves and give up ourselves.
Sandburg’s “Monotone” isn’t that. It’s a lyric poem of a long-time relationship. Even its title dares to be unexciting. Monotone word-wise is near enough to monotony, and musically who would be attracted to a piece that claims that as its title?
The poem’s opening image makes an argument for musical monotone. A rainstorm has no melodic invention, but if listened to without seeking that quality and being disappointed that it lacks this, it has dynamics of volume and rhythm. Listen to what’s there, not to what’s missing the first stanza asks of us, and we’ll find the “multitudinous rain.” This is not a showy stanza, but since multitudinous is by far the least common word in the poem, that one ornament stands out all the more. Even if one remembers only those two words “multitudinous rain,” one can carry it with ourselves and experience rain in new ways while thinking on that phrase on some grey and otherwise unappealing day.
Is the second stanza banal? If you think so I can’t give you an argument that’ll refute you. Yes, the sun on the hills is beautiful, and sunset over seas too. Thank you very much Carl Obvious Sandburg, but why have you wasted our time with those three lines about what everyone has already noticed. What value might they have? Well, for one they are common. Carl Sandburg is fully baptized in the belief of a common humanity, so the fact that he states what we all know isn’t quite the sin that another artist might abhor. What Sandburg does with these commonplaces is to let us know there’s something we still don’t know about them, even when we think they’re too prosaic to have anything yet to perceive. In those few words in the second three-line stanza there is the notion that the sunset (precious, golden fire) is captured by the cold sea. So easy to overlook if we read it like a prose paragraph, assuming only quick utility. If one had to translate this from a foreign language, if this was written in Chinese ideograms, perhaps we’d slow down and see this. The beautiful in the guise of the desired, is captured, is quenched, rises and sets.
Now the third, three-line stanza concludes this book of changes, bringing synthesis to the previous two. Beholding one’s long-time partner, one sees the multitudinous monotone rain and the moments of passion or anger, unease or loss, joined. With the “Monotone” title at the head and the ending line I read that sunny mountain scene and picture postcard sea-sunset of the second stanza as being measured against a rarer and more precious multitudinous rain of long-love.
With this simple concise expression of a complex feeling, the poem requests you to see that. In 1916 when this was published in Sandburg’s Chicago Poems its very simplicity was still audacious, and that itself made the case for this poem. In a generation or so it would seem to not be trying hard enough to capture our attention. While poetry was free to leave strict meter and reliable rhyme schemes behind, it had returned to an aesthetic of surface complexity equaling merit.
Espoused. Carl and Lillian Sandburg around the time “Monotone” was published. Photograph by Lillian’s brother, the photographer Edward Steichen. Earlier, inn 1908 Sandburg wrote “I would rather be a poem like you than write poems,” but we got the multitudinous rain of his poetry anyway.
A few words on the musical setting before I remind you that you can click on the player gadget to hear my performance of Sandburg’s “Monotone.” As I composed this I was concentrating more on timbre and less on melody. The dominant keyboard sound in the piece is a complex combination of a grand piano with every bit of string resonance brought forward, an electric piano, and a keyboard piano bass (that last a sound mostly known from Ray Manzarek’s playing with the Doors). It’s kind of the idea of the “Hard Day’s Night” chord being used throughout the piece. this is another composition where it would probably be better if I wasn’t the vocalist who sings it, but that’s who I have available. Listen to it with the gadget below.
I neglected to plan ahead enough for today’s U. S. Presidents’ Day holiday. It’s an odd holiday anyway, of no great interest to the large number of readers/listeners this project has overseas. And for Americans, the title and avowed purpose of the holiday may be especially fraught in our present day.
Back when I was young, it was two holidays, celebrating two specific Presidents: George Washington’s Birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. The first President, a leader of the American Revolution, had a cardinal virtue: he could have become the dictator of the newly independent country. That after all, is the result of many revolutions. He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the new country, full-fledged in the 1% for certain. Yes, part of his wealth consisted of enslaved men and women he owned, but these facts strangely testify to this one important fact in his character: he could have been that dictator. He could have run our country as a personal plantation. He would not.
Abraham Lincoln is another case entirely. I’m not au fait with the demographics of the early 19th century United States, but Lincoln’s family was undistinguished in wealth and fame then, and the circumstances of a rural frontier farming family in his time and place would rank his conditions with those of the world’s poorer regions today.
American poet Carl Sandburg was born less than 70 years after Lincoln, the son of a wealth-less immigrant in a rural America that was different from Lincoln’s, but much closer to Lincoln’s country life than we are today. When, in the last previous decade to be called “The Twenties,” Sandburg chose to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he could see those differences, smaller though they were to his eyes. And his eyes were an Imagist poet’s eyes.
This led to an unusual book,* one that was once central to Sandburg’s contemporary renown, but now is generally less well-regarded. Sandburg chose to tell the Lincoln story, as he might portray a scene in one of his poems, with a great deal of humble detail that at any moment could slip into a wider context unexpectedly. His palpable reverence for those humble details is unmistakable.
When Lincoln wrote and spoke the great American civic poem called “The Gettysburg Address” he famously began by noting our “fathers brought forth upon this continent.” Sandburg though, in telling Lincoln’s story was not exclusively beholden to the patriarchy. And so, however late for Presidents’ Day, here’s a piece more directly about the holiday’s forerunner: Lincoln’s Birthday, as portrayed in Sandburg’s book.
I could see Sandburg, being a poet, choosing poetic methods of refrain as he tells the story of Abe’s birth, and then but a few pages later the death of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Each event is set in humble rural isolation, with a central image of a bed of poles and animal hides, cleated to the wall in the corner of a hand-built, dirt-floor hut. This is where Nancy Hanks first presented us Lincoln’s birth day, and also where she died nine years later.
When Dell books got the paperback rights to Sandburg’s condensed version of his Lincoln book, they also made a 1956 comic book from it. The unknown artist didn’t follow Sandburg’s text accurately for the interior scenes however. The cabin drawing is based on a later reconstruction and the interior panel could be a 20th century home familiar to the 1950s reader.
Can we believe that’s an American story, much less the story of the birth of a President? It seems like a tale from somewhere else, particularly today. Oh, so much, particularly today. Like a grim fairy tale passed down from some old country. That the Lincolns’ nearest neighbors have the name “Sparrow” only adds to this effect. I decided that Sandburg’s Lincoln tale needed an invocation, a striking way to set us in readiness. My choice for that was to begin with a quote from Patti Smith’s “Birdland,” another place where music met words to tell the tale of a child who had lost a parent. In the little section I chose here Smith—like Sandburg will at times in his tale—steps outward from the particular in her poem to the promise of an ecstatic future.
The player to hear this performance should appear below. Because I was so late in getting this piece together, the main section retains a “scratch” rhythm section track I used while constructing the piece that I’d normally replace, but I doubt it detracts much from Sandburg’s story.
*The first book, published in two volumes, Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years was followed up several years later with Abraham Lincoln: the War Years published in four volumes. These books were in their time a success, and helped form the American cultural understanding of Lincoln in the 20th century. After another interval of years Sandburg created his own one volume condensation of these books, greatly shortening the original text. With my short deadline, it was from that later edition, the one I could get quick access to, that today’s text it extracted.
Emily Dickinson isn’t the only one of this project’s favorite American poets to write a Thanksgiving poem. Carl Sandburg did so too.
Long time readers here will know how much I like Sandburg and how often I like to speak toward the canon-keepers to point out that early Sandburg was a devoted Modernist with a strong American democratic take on Imagism, one that kept to Imagism’s unfussy and concise mode of expression without dressing itself up with any unnecessary scholastic references. Of course, I’m no opinion-shaper, and even if William Carlos Williams has undergone a reassessment as a domestic Modernist of the same era, Sandburg doesn’t seem to have benefited from the same second look.
I think this is a great pity. A poem like Sandburg’s “Clark Street Bridge” is as perfect an Imagist poem as any written in London or Paris, and Sandburg’s subject matter and life-experience is broader than most of his fellow Modernists, because he traveled across America with his Imagist eye and working-class soul.
That said, I have to say that today’s Sandburg text is a partial example of why this might be so. This is the kind of Sandburg poem that people think he wrote. It’s somewhat sentimental, unquestioningly patriotic, and there are almost no strong, immediate Imagist images in it. Although it’s not that long-winded, it seems to me longer than it is—and if it had broken into a Whitmanesque catalog of a hundred things at least it would have the courage of its convictions.
So, it’s a Thanksgiving poem, but it’s not great Sandburg. Why bother?
Its central Pilgrim history myth may not be entirely accurate, but it is a good story—one that children were told in his time and mine, and perhaps even sometimes now: tempest-tossed dissenting religious immigrants undergoing tremendous trials. For good or bad, Sandburg leaves out the native Americans who helped them survive,* and who were rewarded with a few decades of peace before the wars of conquest ignited in the Pilgrims’ region.
Historians like to point out that the Pilgrim Thanksgiving didn’t include most of the foods that we’ve come to expect for the modern American holiday harvest meal. Sandburg reduces it to “soup and a little less than a hobo handout today,” which is also inaccurate but makes the connection he’s trying to make. America always has pilgrims like these somewhat mythologized Pilgrims. Sandburg, the child of working-class immigrants knew this completely, the ones who worship the God of broken hearts and empty hands.
And though he doesn’t show it here, Sandburg also fully knows the imperfection of America, and yet still wishes to say yes to gratitude, to thanks “if so be” for himself and his child.** He wishes to say yes before perfection—and continue yes “Till the finish is come and gone.”
So, while this is not the poem to restore Sandburg’s rightful place in Modernism, I think it’s still worth hearing on this holiday. The full text of the poem is here, and the player to hear the LYL Band perform it live*** is below.
**And before we leave that, let me point out that Sandburg is the rare Modernist who deals with children wholeheartedly.
***LYL principals Dave Moore and myself are both dealing with the inability for our hands to follow what musical precepts we hold, and this has reduced the appearance here of the more spontaneous LYL Band recordings. I’ve been missing that element and we’re trying to do what we can.
We’re a couple of weeks past Halloween, but let’s finish out our series on American poet Adelaide Crapsey with a ghost story about two families. Perhaps you don’t believe in ghosts? That’s OK. In this story one family believes in ghosts and the other one doesn’t.
As we learned yesterday, a young scholar and writer of poetry, Adelaide Crapsey was struck down just days after she turned 36 in 1914 by tuberculosis. Though greatly weakened by her illness, she had worked on organizing a book-length collection of her poems in her final year, including a section introducing examples of a new poetic form she had created.
Alas, she didn’t seem to have a publisher when she died. It’s uncertain who knew about the poems she’d selected. Adelaide had a strong belief in self-reliance and not burdening her friends and family, and so for as long as possible she’d kept the news of her grave diagnosis from them, and some of the poems in her manuscript (such as the ones used in our last post) spoke frankly about her illness, pain, and thoughts on mortality.
A grave marker that doesn’t burden you either. She ended her collection of poems: “Wouldst thou find my ashes? Look/In the pages of my book”
There were some external reasons for this desire not to burden her family. Her father, Algernon Crapsey* had been a prominent Episcopal priest in Rochester New York, one who had practiced a ministry to the poor and other disadvantaged portions of the Gilded Age. Adelaide’s father came to believe that certain spiritual beliefs of his church were not only of doubtful accuracy, but that taken on faith they would hinder service to the poor. Once he decided he was right about this, he wouldn’t shut up about it either. He preached it, he wrote articles and books about this: if you believe in miracles and heavenly rewards you are all too likely to not feel the need to make your own miracles by action here and now, in this life, on this Earth.
This put his church in a bind. Here was a churchman who was known for manifest good works around the state of New York, a Christian hero of a sort—but who was also vocally opposed to church doctrine.
So it was that a few years before Adelaide Crapsey died that a committee of investigators from the Episcopal diocese came to the parsonage where Adelaide had grown up to question her father on these matters. Her father was out, doing those good works. Her mother was worn-out from dealing with this all. Adelaide, like any good PK,** stepped in as hostess. The story is told that she served them tea and kept them graciously talking as the tea went down.
Oh, and she had spiked the tea with rum. It was said the investigators inquisitorial rigor suffered a decline during their wait.
But Adelaide’s father would not keep quiet. He eventually met with a church trial for heresy.*** He claimed the heresy of the church not serving the poor as Jesus commanded was far greater than any they could charge him with over supernatural events, but the church’s hierarchy convicted him. Maybe he wasn’t a heretic who believed in different gods or another heavenly host, but it just wouldn’t do to be a priest of their church who didn’t profess the right beliefs.
No burning at the stake though, he was just written out of his job and the church. The family had to leave the parsonage where they had lived for decades for a house some supporters found for them elsewhere in town.
Adelaide, like her family, didn’t believe in heaven and hell. And now she was dead, and as her poem had put it, her mouth was now part of the quiet as with falling snow and the hour before dawn.
In another part of the same town, there was a successful architect, Claude Bragdon. What kind of architect? Do you know the names of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, or Buckminster Fuller? Claude Bragdon was that type, committed to artistic principles, in his case to a religious and mystical level. Indeed, he had a strong side-interest in Theosophy, a 19th century unified field theory of spiritualism and hermetic knowledge. He had known the Crapsey family and Adelaide at least somewhat. Adelaide had taken his mystical bent in stride, calling him “cube man” due to his fascination with the hypercube (which I think may be related to Buckminster Fuller’s theories about the geometric nature of the universe).
“The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone/Causes Galileo’s math book to be thrown” Claude Bragdon sings the Tombstone Blues.
Claude Bragdon had not been married long when Adelaide Crapsey died. His new wife, Eugénie had never met Adelaide. One day, in that silent time of the hour before the dawn, something happened. Here’s how he described it in his autobiography:
One morning in the summer of 1915 I was awakened by my wife Eugénie, who asked me if I knew anyone by the name of Adelaide. I told her that Mrs. Algernon Crapsey’s name was Adelaide, and it had also been that of her daughter, who had died a short time before. “Take me to see Mrs. Crapsey,’ said Eugénie, ‘because I was awakened by the sound of her name, repeated over and over: Adelaide! Adelaide!’ “
Now if a chill runs up and down your spine to hear this, the architect and his wife may have taken it more calmly. Not only were spirit voices and mediumship part and parcel of Theosophy, Eugénie was a “Delphic Woman” in her husband’s estimation, one who used automatic writing to take down sayings and messages from the ether.**** And so now Eugénie’s automatic writing sessions became peppered with messages from the late Adelaide Crapsey. With a little interpretation, the messages seemed to be referring to the poems, the book-length collection Adelaide had been working on.
Book negotiations have been known to get complicated, and I haven’t read all the source materials for this story***** but somehow the husband and wife mystic family convinced the social-gospel materialist family to go through the late Adelaide Crapsey’s effects, and retrieve the manuscript. I can see this scene written in Mulder and Scully dialog.
Claude came out of the Arts and Crafts movement, so buildings weren’t his only art. He also ran a small press for books on his theories and other Theosophical works. He became the book designer and publisher that introduced the world to Adelaide Crapsey the poet and determined ghost.
What became of Adelaide’s ghostly voice? It didn’t do a book tour or poetry readings—pity that, it would have pipped Tupac’s hologram by nearly a century and spiced up the valves of many a bookstore. The final automatic writing messages thanked the Bragdons for their efforts and assured everyone that the other side was a fine and happy place where she didn’t miss living at all. Just so much “Bread and butter notes” from the beyond.
Well, I did say that Claude Bragdon had many artistic interests. One of his friends was Alfred Stieglitz, the pioneering art photographer who was connected to another famous photographer Edward Steichen, a friend and brother-in-law of Carl Sandburg. Either through that connection, or Sandburg’s strong early interest in short poems created with concrete images rather than abstract words, or some Great Lakes leftist linkage between Adelaide’s social gospel preaching progressive father and the Milwaukee and Chicago based socialist Sandburg (maybe more than one of the above?) made Carl Sandburg aware of Adelaide Crapsey’s poetry and story, and he wrote a passionate elegy for her.
*I should have warned you: as elsewhere in this story, the 19th century names are full-flavored. If Lemony Snicket reads this, let it be known that I will defend my intellectual property to the upmost here!
**PK, “Preacher’s Kid.” As a class, they have an opportunity to grow up with an interest in philosophy, ethics and words, but also with a childhood were the expectation to be good and the desire to rebel have to be balanced from a too-early age. Alternative reader here Dave Moore and my wife are both PKs.
***The story of Adelaide’s father Algernon Crapsey sounds eerily similar to a tale from The Sixties and another Episcopal clergyman (a bishop no less!) James Pike. Pike was also committed to social change and questioning of religious dogma and was threatened with an ecclesiastical trial for heresy. Coincidentally, Pike eventually worked with a medium to try to contact his dead son.
****We now use Twitter. Much better. But are those odd messages we read from bots or….the other side!
Carl Sandburg. I get the impression that he’s been filed away as a folksy peculiarity, a 20th century and less-original echo of Walt Whitman, an artist not worth considering these days. Readers of this blog will know I find him otherwise: a first-generation English language Modernist, just as concerned with making it new as anyone else in that movement.
The young Josh Homme and Kim Deal get lessons from some old flannel-clad grunge guitarist.
Here’s a piece using words by Sandburg for Halloween. I’ll note that almost alone among the first-generation Modernists he sometimes writes poems about, perhaps even for, children. “Theme in Yellow” can serve as both. Of course, since we’re all “obsolete children” the audience isn’t limited to them.
Anyway, it’s a good piece for the holiday that’s about the whimsy of fear and how far from reach we can hold death. Oh, and in our modern America, it’s also about candy, for which the Jack O’ Lantern’s teeth were meant to warn us.
Sandburg’s poem is just slightly old fashioned—the harvest festival aspects of Halloween are now abstracted from most of us, though it was in Sandburg’s personal experience. But we might still dress our stages with straw, and with cobwebs and lanterns, setting our fears as old.
May all your fears be old.
Today’s music has lots of electric guitars (seven tracks, four different guitars) mostly because I’ve been missing their sound. Lots of coordination to get all that traffic running—and I don’t know if I did right by it—but it was fun while I had time to make some noise this afternoon. You can hear the results with the player gadget below, and if you’d like to read Sandburg’s poem while you listen, it can be found here.
Before I reveal the most listened to piece during this just past summer, indulge me in a little “shop talk” as I report a few things about how the listenership for the audio pieces and readership for this blog have been going this summer.
Listenership on the audio continues to be somewhat volatile. June’s listenership was pretty good, July’s was excellent, and then August’s listenership fell to average at best, and early September followed that August trend.
This could just be “noise in the signal.” Or it could say something about seasonal variations in listenership. Spotify Parlando audio piece listenership (which I get broken out separate from those that listen on the player in the blog posts and those who catch the audio pieces on podcast services like Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Player.fm etc.) didn’t follow the pattern, rising throughout the summer. Spotify has just started allowing their podcast audio to be added to playlists with the newest version of it’s mobile app, and this could help in the future, as it’s a convenient way to collect favorites (or to be honest, skip the ones you don’t care for).
And that last factor could be part of it too. It could be that folks just liked the July audio pieces more. My series on Spoon River Anthology, performed particularly poorly in numbers of audio listeners, something I wouldn’t have predicted. I’m comfortable with the thought that the deliberate eclecticism of genres I use will lead to differing responses. Still, the abject listenership failure of what I think of personally as one of my best pieces: August’s “Fiddler Jones” from that Spoon River series kind of bummed me out. Oh well, pieces sometimes get a second wind once they enter the long tail of our archives. Maybe that one will.
For a guy who likes data, the readership of this blog has a completely different trendline. That’s been on an upward slope ever since the launch of the blog, and then last April we had a huge readership jump during our U.S. National Poetry Month celebration, nearly doubling our best previous month’s readership. Readership held up all summer, and August, the same month that disappointed for listenership, set a new highest readership. There’s a week to go yet in September, and it’s already second only to that new readership high, and on track to surpass it before the month ends. Go figure…
So what was the most popular piece this past summer?
Back Yard by Carl Sandburg. Well this piece does sound pretty good too, and Sandburg is deserving of this level of attention. Not only does Sandburg not get enough credit for the Imagist integrity of his early 20th century verse, but this poem is lovely sounding. Sandburg’s “Back Yard” is ready to take the fixative of the silver moon rain and change into a moment, which then changes into another moment—always still, always changing. Always still, always changing. Ah, life….
Americana artist looks to break through with his hip voicing of the Fsus chord
Things I find odd about how Sandburg has been judged: first there’s the judgement that he’s just not subtle enough, when I say those critics can’t see the subtleties—which if I’m right, proves my point; and secondly, the evaluation that his poetry is just broken up prose mislabeled as verse. That would be odd, Sandburg has an important secondary career as a popularizer of what we came to call “folk music” in the U. S. and was serious enough about developing his guitar chops that he asked Andres Segovia for a lesson. There’s music behind many a Sandburg poem, like this one, and composers more accomplished than I find it.
It may well be that the word-music of poetry and the music—of well, music—are two separate fields to be judged differently with different instrumentation, rules, and aesthetics. But until this is shown to be surely so, I tend to trust the judgement and tastes of musicians and composers over the judgement and tastes of literary critics and theorists on these matters.
Give a listen to Sandburg’s “Back Yard” with the player below. If you’d like to follow along with the text, you can read it here. And really, thanks for listening and reading along as we encountered music and words here this summer in order to see what we find!