As we continue into the last week of National Poetry Month I’m going to remind casual readers here that poetry is not only beauty or amazement, even if during this month we often emphasize those qualities. Yesterday’s piece by Chicago’s Carl Sandburg was about a lovely evening, about a generalized bonhomie with love, music, and moonlight. Today’s poem is by Sandburg’s Chicago contemporary Fenton Johnson and it’s about abject dejection and bitterness. It’s called “Tired” and it’s strong stuff, even today more than a hundred years after it was written.*
As you might expect, it was controversial when first published, even among Johnson’s fellow Afro-American writers. Some didn’t care for the poem’s prosey free verse. Some thought it’s despair unseemly or unreflective of the demonstrated willingness of Afro-American’s to struggle and overcome. Here’s how James Weldon Johnson,** a multi-talented Black American who republished “Tired” in his pioneering anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, judged Fenton Johnson:
He disregarded the accepted poetic forms, subjects, and language, adopted free verse, and in that formless form wrote poetry in which he voiced the disillusionment and bitterness of feeling the Negro race was then experiencing. In some of this poetry he went further than protests against wrong or the moral challenges that the wronged can always fling against the wrongdoer; he sounded the note of fatalistic despair. It was his poetry written in this key that brought him recognition. The central idea of this poetry was startling. Doubtless its effect was in some degree due to the fact that it was an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced. Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.”
There doesn’t seem to be any good summary available to me about what Fenton Johnson himself thought about his poetic methods, or his political beliefs — but after reading a range of his published verse accessible to me I believe “Tired” to be a “persona poem,” presenting one of a series of characters,*** not the author speaking their own memoir as poetry, not a summary of correct political stances, but one of a variety of examples: some comic, some ironic, and none quite as despairing as the speaker in “Tired.” My theory: much like Sandburg and other early Midwestern Modernists such as Edgar Lee Masters, Fenton Johnson wanted to show a range of outlooks and modes of expression.
Do James Weldon Johnson, or others who’ve wrapped Fenton Johnson with the label of bitter and despairing, know better? You and I should consider that. Still, even when they speak of Fenton Johnson’s work in mixed terms, that testifies to the shear condensed power of “Tired’s” expression and how it struck them as it might still strike you today.
Sandburg’s “Back Yard” celebrated immigrants, and Chicago’s Afro-American population in 1919 included a lot of interstate Black immigrants fleeing a Jim Crow South.
As National Poetry Month continues, still three ways to hear this piece. There’s a graphical audio player below for many, and this highlighted link if you don’t see that — and our April bonus, a lyric video with more 100-year-old photographs like those in our contrasting-mood Carl Sandburg “Back Yard” video last time.
**These two Johnsons aren’t related, but it makes references to the pair in this post more longwinded.
***The “Last Chance Saloon that haunts “Tired” appears for example as a place of musical conviviality in another character poem of Johnson’s that I’ve performed here “The Banjo Player”. A third Fenton Johnson poem I’ve performed is his masterful recasting of a spiritual sermon “A Dream.” Feel free to click the hyperlinks for those two to get a wider view of Johnson’s poetry.
Here’s a poem written by a second-generation immigrant about immigrants, and about Chicago in 1916, or my present city neighborhood of immigrants, or summer, summer nights — and it’s about love and affection, and about the moon that we’re all immigrants from when we fall in love.
The child of an immigrant who wrote this was Carl Sandburg, a man highly identified with the city of Chicago because he broke-out as a poet there and called his first collection, where this poem appeared, Chicago Poems. Though Carl got around and had traveled before and after this time in his life, he’s settled here in this poem, happy in the poem that night in summer Chicago hearing the accordion, watching the courting, thinking of a neighbor thinking of cherries growing in their backyard.*
How much is different in my Minneapolis neighborhood now? It’s hard to say. I live a more separated life than Sandburg did then I suspect. Yet, I hear the Mexican music at night drifting down from a block north on summer weekends. A hajib-wearing African-born woman is shuffling her children into a minivan a few doors south as I ride by on my bicycle. A Central American refugee father would wait with me for the school bus to drop off our children when my teenager was in grade-school. The stuffed-muffled boom of car stereos has seemingly had its peak, but I still hear them occasionally. Sitting on my porch reading in the summer, the scattered parade on the sidewalks falls in with families, many accounting with babies in slings and front-packs, or strollers, and then they or their siblings go on to toddling, to walking, to scooting on bikes without pedals.
The moonlight though? Some of our silver lights now are downcast close-in little screens. Oh, we still see the moon — but streetlights and houselights, business lights and car lights, more-or-less wash out the moonlight.
But, but, we cannot wash away the moon.
How do we know love emigrates from the moon? Oh, because it’s above all of us, widely appreciated and sometimes almost touchable, other times slim and sliced and out of reach. Because it waxes and wanes yet is always there, even behind clouds. Because it speaks the language all of us speak when we’re speechless. Every person who falls in love is a new immigrant from the moon.
Even though I think this performance wants to slip away from 1916 Chicago, I couldn’t help but put a lot of period Chicago photos in the video.
We’re still in our April National Poetry Month mode, so three ways to listen to my performance and music for Carl Sandburg’s poem “Back Yard:” a player appears below for some, an alternative highlighted link is here for backup, and we have the new lyric video above. Oh, did Carl write all the words you’ll hear in my performance? Seems like a few others’ words crossed the border to join in the night. If you happen to have some headphones or earbuds handy, this song’s mix will make it worth getting those out.
*The poem’s cherry tree in the backyard gives me reason for a thought, not knowing much about immigrant communities in pre-WWI Chicago. I know the tenement neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side, and there aren’t likely trees or backyards there. Minneapolis might well have had trees in poorer working-class neighborhoods, even if the housing in some areas would be ramshackle. When Sandburg lived in Milwaukee before coming to Chicago, his wife raised urban chickens, and it’s just possible that this poem is a Milwaukee poem bound in a book named for Chicago.
This Friday is International Jazz Day, and for a project that subtitles itself “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s a little odd that I talk less about the musical half of what we do. My project assumes that poetry, even on the page, can be defined as words that want to sing. What manner of tune fulfills that desire? It varies.
Early in this project it became apparent that I was going to feature a lot of early 20th century verse as it was the newest poetry that was clearly available for reuse. This was the time when literary Modernism came to English language poetry, greatly expanding the tactics that could be applied to poetry, and it came in too with an idea that much of what had become expected of poetry was tired and worn out, inauthentic and false.
Almost simultaneously, a very similar movement was happening in music. Though largely segregated from European Modernist composers in person, Afro-Americans were developing at the turn of the century a twisted helix of musics that came to be called Blues and Jazz. Differentiating between those two things is a complex matter. Blues is a nearly inescapable element of Jazz, and Blues is more substantially a vocal music, and so Blues needed a poetry from the start. That means that Blues song lyrics are the Modernist revolution as originally expressed by American Black people, though because of their context and place in American culture this was not understood as such. Like Modernist poetry, Jazz and Blues too demonstrated freedom to use new tactics, and they too wanted to replace tired and false musical tropes.
Poets, even those who intend for their work to be published and read on the page, can’t help but be informed by the music they know and admire. Earlier this month I’ve speculated on Emily Dickinson’s use of 19th century hymn-song meter and a possible connection for her deviation from strict poetic forms informed by her own improvisations on piano. By 1920 we had a Modernist Jazz music coming to America’s attention, and literary Modernist verse, though not without its naysayers, had reached an American audience too. It’s like flame and gasoline, isn’t it? When are they going to meet?
I can’t say what the first Jazz Poem was, or who wrote it. If it was composed by an Afro-American it may have been unnoticed, unpublished, and unrecorded (save by the oral tradition and the folk process which didn’t keep their names). Some of the traditional folk-blues lyrics seem to date from the turn of the century, but they were not printed as poetry then — and even as vocal recordings, the oft-cited first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” dates from 1920.* The recording history of Jazz predates that a bit, with the all-white but still claiming “Original” Dixieland Jass Band’s broadly comic “Livery Stable Blues” coming out in 1917, and that’s sometimes cited as the earliest Jazz record. Two poems already featured here: Ray Dandridge’s “Zalka Peetruza” and Fenton Johnson’s“The Banjo Player”were available in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.** The former’s “tom tom” beat and the later’s Modernist free verse could make them Jazz Poetry. Some articles cite Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” of 1925 as the first Jazz Poem, and it is unquestionably a Jazz Poem, but even Langston Hughes had some issues to overcome with it. Back in our February focus on Locke’s The New Negro anthology of 1925, recall that the elders mentoring and gatekeeping The Harlem Renaissance weren’t yet welcoming Jazz into high culture and were unsure of its effect on their project to elevate America’s appreciation of their race.
No, not that Prince’s band. A 1915 example of proto-Jazz and Blues being integrated into society dance music.
Which brings us to the underrated Modernist figure of Carl Sandburg,*** the white Midwesterner who had won the Pulitzer prize for his free-verse poetry in 1919 while being based in Chicago. In 1920 he publishes a follow-up collection, Smoke and Steel containing today’s poem called “Jazz Fantasia.” This too is clearly Jazz Poetry. It appears to be portraying an instrumental performance, and while unlike Hughes’ poem it quotes no Blues lyrics, it’s clearly a Jazz performance with its imitation of horn sounds, the husha, husha, hush of brush work on the high hat, and their sandpaper swish on the snare, the tin can of cowbell, and the knocking pan-metal ring of stick hitting rim.
If not Blues form as such, two details from Sandburg’s 1920 words (here’s a link to the full text of the poem) stand out to me. Half-way in, there’s a car, a cop, and… “bang-bang!” Striking to hear a still modern pain in a 100-year-old poem isn’t it! And the poem’s conclusion makes a case for the breadth of Jazz expression infrequently made in the fad for Jazz during the Jazz Age: that it wasn’t only frantic music with comic musical effects suitable for careless youth further forgetting their cares, but that it could also portray some green night lanterns and the boats ceaselessly beating against the current.
It was imperative to me that today’s musical performance for International Jazz Day must use some approximation of Jazz. I play no brass instruments and I find them hard to approximate with virtual instruments articulated by keyboards, so you’ll hear an anachronistic, more modern, Jazz trio: drums as featured in Sandburg’s poem, guitar, and bass. The player gadget for this may appear below — and if it doesn’t, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance of Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia.”
*In 1903, Afro-American composer W. C. Handy encountered a Blues playing guitarist in Tutwiler Mississippi, noted he was singing a Blues song with recognizable Blues lyrics. He thought the music was “The weirdest thing he’d ever heard” but by smoothing it off and adopting it to the composed brass band and society dance music he was familiar with, he made use of those Blues elements.
**Other examples of Jazz Poetry influenced writers I’ve managed to sneak in here are Kenneth Patchen who read to Jazz music, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a poet who also wrote widely about Jazz, and even words by Laurie Anderson who was influenced by fellow Chicagoan Ken Nordine who had released several LP records he called “Word Jazz.” The music on Laurie Anderson’s recordings doesn’t read as Jazz to most, but focus instead on her voice and you’ll hear that same ‘50s cool jazz phrasing.
***I often make the case here that Sandburg’s poetry contains some admirable examples of the compressed and spare Imagist aesthetic, but besides poetry he’s intimate with the rise of photography as an art via his wife’s brother Edward Steichen, he was reportedly the first daily newspaper cinema critic in Chicago, and he was an important popularizer of American folk music.
And speaking of Langston Hughes achievement, Hughes’ early poetry often sounds unmistakably to me like he had “heard” Sandburg and taken some of his riffs into his own heart to be further extended by Hughes’ personal familiarity with the Afro-American experience.
Since I’ve been unable to supply new pieces for the past few days, it has occurred to me that I could point out some other pieces this project has already done that fit into the Black History Month theme. Here’s one that has been found by a number of visitors during their own searches here this month: Fenton Johnson’s “A Dream.”
Johnson is another Afro-American writer who sometimes gets linked with the Harlem Renaissance even though he doesn’t seem to have spent significant time in New York. Instead, Johnson worked in Chicago. He was active and publishing before Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, yet while James Weldon Johnson’s earlier The Book of American Negro Verse included a selection of fine poetry from Fenton Johnson, The New Negro only mentions him in passing. As we’ve seen earlier, some of what Locke aimed to do was to bring forward quite young poets and writers, and even if Johnson was only 38 when The New Negro was issued, it may be that he was considered “the older generation.”
Fenton Johnson. Dressed conservatively here, but he wrote Modernist and socially engaged poetry.
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.
So how did the Spoon River Anthology get created and published in 1914, such an early date in the emergence of Modernist verse? Let me see if I can summarize what I know so far. In the early part of the 20th century Edgar Lee Masters was a busy lawyer practicing in Chicago. The most oft-remarked part of that career was that for a time Masters was partnered with the famed Clarence Darrow known for his progressive views and participation in numerous famous cases of the era.
I’ve quickly scoured a great deal of information this month on Masters, learning more each day, but it’s clear that for some time before 1914 Masters wanted dearly to become a writer of some kind, with a “trunk” of prose, plays and poetry, and a fair amount of rejection letters. It’s possible that, in his time, he might have been categorized by writers and cultural figures as a type that still exists, which for lack of a better name I’ll call a “wanna-be.”
Like all stereotypes, the wanna-be is unfair to some tagged with it, while seeming to be a useful short-hand among those who apply it. Authors from book tours only need to start a story with another about the businessman who buttonholes the author to say that they too have a novel, often partly written or even “just an idea, but…” and the fellow author will nod and immediately fill in the stereotypical details. Modern authors maybe divided into commercial, academic and bohemian enclaves, but all three can bemoan someone from outside those realms who thinks they are a writer, while giving signs that their real-life choices, risks, experience, and focus lie elsewhere.
Masters was certainly not the kind of wanna-be who claimed he had a novel in him, or “I once wrote poetry when I was young.” Despite what he described as a busy legal practice, he was writing—good bad or indifferent, he was taking his swings.
Here’s another stereotype label that could be applied to Masters in his time: “womanizer*” which is someone who engages in endless, usually short-term, love affairs: a cycle of attraction, infatuation, discovery of imperfection or the newness wears off, and then repeat. For a time prior to writing Spoon River, Masters was in a two-year extra-marital relationship with a Chicago woman Tennessee Mitchell.** Mitchell was a musician who taught piano, broke a glass ceiling for women as piano-tuners (lady brains can’t handle the complex tempering of all those notes you know), and who ran a salon where patrons, artists, and radicals mingled.
One question I had when I wondered how Masters could write a thoroughly Modernist work of poetry so early in the movement was did he cross paths with Chicago’s Poetry magazine and Carl Sandburg, then living and working in Chicago. In the case of the later, he certainly did. He struck up an acquaintance with his fellow Midwestern Modernist,*** and they took walks together and presumably talked about poetry as Masters was writing Spoon River. Masters referred to Sandburg in letters from this time as the “Swede Bard,” which even just between friends sounds dismissive and nativist, but this does point out something that shouldn’t be forgotten about Sandburg: he was the child of an immigrant. Masters didn’t have to “prove” his American legitimacy when he cast a critical eye on parts of its culture. Sandburg, though different in his politics from Masters, could be just as critical, but he was casting his critique from a different standing.
And Poetry magazine, a critical American organ in the dissemination of Modernism? Masters seems to have been stymied there. At one point he was having another of his affairs with a woman described in places as an editor at Poetry,*** but I so far haven’t seen that he was published in Poetry prior to Spoon River.
Instead the Spoon River Anthology owes its major inspiration and initial publication to a man down the Mississippi from south-western Illinois, William Reedy, the editor of Reedy’s Mirror in St. Louis, who like Harriet Monroe’s Poetry was ready and willing to publish American poets who were unabashedly American and willing to forge American verse in new modes, as Whitman and Dickinson had shown was possible in the previous century.
Inspiration? Well, for someone promoting American verse, Reedy’s prime move was to send Masters a copy of a recent translation by a British scholar from classical Greek late in 1912: Epigrams from the Greek Anthology.
A gift that helped start American Modernist poetry. Ironic, or Ionic?
Masters had an idea that stories from his southwest Illinois youth were good material, but he didn’t know how to present them. Even in 1913 he was thinking of shaping them into a play.**** As 1914 began, Masters, still being goaded by Reedy to drop his often florid and European-modeled verse and do something American, started writing the Spoon River epitaphs, accepting the incongruity of a classical Greek style of summing up a life being used for American Midwestern townfolk as having a certain satiric flavor. Masters sent a batch of them to Reedy, and as Masters himself recounted this, they were submitted in something of a mood of: you want American, well I’ll give you American and I’ll bet you won’t think it’s poetic.
Reedy published them, praised them. Throughout 1914 this process continued: Masters writing feverishly on the weekends while continuing a busy legal practice and sending off batches to Reedy and his Mirror of new Spoon River epitaphs to be published. Does Masters feel validated? Has he found his voice? There may be some ambivalence on his part at first. He has them published using a pen name Webster Ford. Some of that may be to protect his law career (lawyers who tell secrets about lives aren’t exactly sought out by clientele.) Part of it may be because he’s unsure. It’s even possible that “Webster Ford” may have been a way to escape his lawyer-who-thinks-he’s-a-poet issues with Chicago literary figures.
Ezra Pound, off in England, but considering himself the world-wide talent scout for all things Modernist, fires off a letter to Harriet Monroe. Pound is no stranger to urgency in speech, but he’s in full florid ALL CAPS shouting mode:
“GET SOME OF WEBSTER FORD’S STUFF FOR ‘POETRY’…Please observe above instruction as soon as possible.”
By the end of 1914, Masters drops the Webster Ford mask and puts his own name on the poems, and he’s looking to have Spoon River Anthology published in book-length form. He’s on his way, even if he’ll soon enough loose it.
For today’s Spoon River piece, here’s a companion to “Cooney Potter,” “Fiddler Jones,” showing the dialectical contrasts Masters likes to weave into his collection. With its invocation of music it was an immediate favorite with me. Besides the contrasts in values and outcomes that Masters uses, there are families’ and relationship stories throughout the book, but it’s unclear to me if Fiddler Jones is related to other Jones-surnamed characters in Spoon River.***** Jones is a common name, used as synonym for “anyone” idiomatically. But it’s also Welsh in origin, and there is a Jones family of specifically Welsh ancestry in Spoon River.
Reading “Fiddler Jones” I thought the character might be Afro-American. There’s one stated Afro-American character in Spoon River, and I wasn’t sure of the exact ethnic makeup of the region of Masters youth, but like finding out about the Afro-American community in Emily Dickinson’s region, assuming all-white is false default. As so often when I come to something like this, the Internet is my friend. It’s actually easy to search census demographic records for the two towns of Masters’ youth, and they were around 1% African American by those records. Of course, Masters’ book isn’t a documentary or demographic treatise, but that means there are 30-35 Afro-Americans living in Spoon River’s models in the later 19th century.
Strings link things: African styles mixed with Celtic styles in America.
From my musicological interests, the idea that that fiddler could have Celtic or Afro-American roots is apt, but in doing my music for today’s performance of “Fiddler Jones” I didn’t really follow traditional fiddle styles. I don’t play violin, and the solo violin line featured in today’s piece was played on guitar with a MIDI pickup using a lot of string vibrato and little of the short, rhythmic chops that might drive a field of dancers. Wondering what’s the dance tune they step off too mentioned in the poem? This blog has a good guess. The lyrics to that tune also end, as does Spoon River’s in the grave; and as Fiddler Jones does, with no regrets.
In composing the small orchestra accompaniment, I made sure to feature the bassoon and piccolos that bedevil Fiddler Jones in his mind as he tries to plow. I found myself rather enchanted as Fiddler Jones was, and as a result today’s piece is a bit longer than most here, but I hope you’ll find the spell as moving as I did. Player’s below.
*Particularly, but not exclusively, among arts and bohemians, even in Masters time there would also be women who were not called “mananizers” for some reason, and bisexuality and same-sex relationships too. The power relationships in such relationships would be too complex to discuss in a footnote: some exploitative, some less so, some respectful, some carnal, some duplicitous, some honest, and so on. So far, in my rapid overview of Masters he doesn’t seem particularly exploitative, and Spoon River shows he’s listening to women.
**Click this link and read about Tennessee Mitchell! After the end of her affair with Masters she eventually married another wanna-be-but-actually-could writer, an advertising man and entrepreneur Sherwood Anderson who went on to write Spoon River’s prose-in-law: Winesburg Ohio in 1919.
***At this point, do we need to broach the question of if Edgar Lee Masters was trying to sleep his way to the top of Modernist poetry?
****More irony, the brief poetic monologs in Spoon River so revealing of key details of entire lives in flat descriptive dialog became a staple of audition readings for actors since they so readily allow an actor to show keen presentation of character in a few lines.
*****We’ll meet one of those other Jones in Spoon River soon. You may think, small town, must be related, but in the 19th century Midwest residents are largely internal migrants from the previously settled regions of the U.S. and so, even later, it’s not certain. In my 20th century hometown, smaller than Spoon River, 20% of my class had the last name Johnson and were not related. As you might imagine, I thought the running joke in Blazing Saddles that every white townsperson is named “Johnson” was particularly funny.
My guess is that there’s an issue with Sandburg’s more expansive mode, present in some of his work, Whitmanesque in character and scope. The Pound and Eliot school of Imagism wasn’t much on Whitman, charging him with lack of craftsmanship and concision. And then there’s the issue of cultural affinity, which while outside the text, is important. Of the above, only Lowell was from a wealthy background** (and Flint’s childhood seems positively Dickensian) but they all saw themselves as culturally elite. Most were familiar with classical languages, some had Ivy League educations (though none were Oxbridge, save for Hulme who was thrown out after a bit more than a year for rowdy behavior), most had spent time in Europe , even Williams, the most American-focused of these.
Sandburg? Born working class to two immigrants in the Midwest***. Drops out of school at age 13 to go to work. The jobs he had in the first 40 years of his life were modest in prestige, but varied in location and nature. Coal-heaver, farm laborer, Army private, milk-truck driver, political organizer, bricklayer, “The Front Page” era urban journalist. What T. S. Eliot knew about the whole of literature, Sandburg knew about the whole of working-class work and life.
One could make one mistaken generalization from Sandburg’s biography, that like Whitman self-advertised himself, he’d be “one of the roughs,” a man whose art would be artless and as unconcerned with the niceties of aesthetics as the correct fork for which dinner course. But just like the lazy assumption that there’d be no poets in foxholes, the idea there are no aesthetes who punch a clock is bogus. Sandburg’s early work is as concerned with Modernist beauty and style as working-class dignity—and he is very concerned with working-class dignity!
Is today’s Sandburg piece, “Back Yard” an Imagist poem following the three Imagist rules? Let me paraphrase them:
Direct treatment of the thing: that is, the focus in the poem is on the image itself which will be described, instead of the image being a decoration and figure of speech within the body of a poem more concerned with its moral or message for which the image is only a “like” illustration. Conciseness: no extra words, and though not stated, it’s corollary is no less-apt words used only to make the rhyme. And freer rhythms: word-music, like sound-music, is not required to limit itself to only extraordinarily regular and repetitive rhythms.
Direct treatment? The outdoor, summer night scene is just that. One is hardly aware here that it’s an image, it seems like simple reportage. Is it merely the “hardly news” that on a summer night if one is outside, perhaps sitting on an open porch, you’ll hear and see other people outside too?
Concise? Pretty much. It’s not In A Station of the Metro, or The Pool, or The Red Wheelbarrow, there is some re-iteration in it, even a single line refrain, but even by the standards of lyric poetry, this is a short poem. The elements of the scene are evoked, but there’s little extravagant or showy description. One element that many Imagist poems share (though never a formal rule AFAIK) is that colors are used to simply describe objects, though since this is a moonlit night scene the colors are more monochromatic.
A follow up question: how minor and mundane is “Back Yard” really? I can’t claim it’s a poem of great originality—but that’s not the job of every poem, and this is more a poem of the continuity of change, a moment of shared perception, not a striking new vision.
I think its intent, in it’s just over 100 words, is for us to see a chain of life in a Chicago night early in the 20th century; and in its everyday exactness, state those things that might link to a night tonight where we live today. The silver moonlight in the scene seems almost a preservative, everything is frozen in that direct moment. In my night tonight it may not be an Italian boy with an accordion, but Mexican music from the back yard at the end of the block. The couple Sandburg says will marry next month, are now-dead grandparents of people as old as I am. An old man has fallen asleep in the late and waiting moment, his back-yard cherry tree’s fruits held in a moonlit unmoving until his eyes close. He will likely pass on sooner than the marrying couple, and his dreams and those long-ago cherries will be returned to the place that dreams, fruit, and poems go and come from.
The poem closes with a perennial thought delivered in the scene’s description. The clocks, the poet relates, say he too must go. The clocks say that to all of the characters in his poem, and by extension to us, his audience. Sandburg, the artist, the poet, has the job like the moon to fix this moment in silver. Was he thinking here of the silver of his brother-in-law Edward Steichen’s art photographs? What does he mean by the poem’s closing line? What are the “silver changes?” My best understanding is they are the endless succession of such fixed moments. There will be more and more silver changes, a great richness, even as we are entirely not there.
Fancier than my back yard: “Nocturne-Orangery Staircase” (1908). Sandburg occasionally collaborated with his brother-in-law and pioneer in fine art photography Edward Steichen.
For the performance of “Back Yard” I decided to intersperse some other night moments, sung as commentary on Sandburg’s poem. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Want to read along? Here’s the text of the poem.
*Yes, Imagism is only a label, a piece of sticky paper put on some writers and writing. But because Imagism was so vital to the formation of English poetic Modernism, excluding Sandburg, “The Forgotten Imagist” from its usual ranks was part of how he was diminished in the late 20th century. The artistically-chosen stark simplicity of Imagism was admired, but similar directness in Sandburg was seen as populist simple-mindedness. For an example, here’s a long review of a late 20th century biography, where the dagger is that Sandburg’s poetry was “dumbed-down Whitman” and the charge seems to be that he was a pretentious yokel who was also a phony who pretended to be a yokel.
**I’m of the impression that Eliot and Pound’s family had at least upper-middle-class wealth too, but my informal memory is that some estrangement or streak of independence led them to live outside their families’ wealth.
Isn’t it odd that early 20th century Modernists used the locomotive as one of their talismans? After all the railroad train wasn’t particularly new at the time, though like buildings and the airplane it eventually became a fine armature upon which to sculpt the curved Streamline Moderne style—but that was later in the century, and before it arrived the train was already the nightingale of the make-it-new crowd.
“…Shining, just like gold. Don’tcha hear me cryin? Ah Wooo-Hooo,,,”
It probably comes down to speed and power. Much of America in the pre-1920 years was still held between walking and horse-saunter speed, trains were exceeding the magic mile-a-minute rate, a supersonic difference to then. The sight of a long train rolling through the countryside must have been a majestic contrast of speed, noise, and human-constructed momentum.
Limited. Shortly before he died, my father told my son and I that he recalled one thing from his childhood visit to the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933-34, the Zephyr streamlined train. That year we visited it, exhibited in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and sent him a picture of us by the train.
But today I want to celebrate Carl Sandburg during America’s National Poetry Month, and to advocate once again for this forgotten Modernist, the son of an immigrant, born in the Middle West of our continent. The poem I use today isn’t particularly difficult or full of samples and beats from everywhere like “The Waste Land,” or subtle in its questions like much of Emily Dickinson. Sandburg gets into it, drops its Imagist payload in a sentence, and then makes its point. As Harriet Monroe said in reviewing Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, in which “Limited” appears: “His book, whether you like it or not, whether you call it poetry or not, is fundamental in the…majestic sense.”
And a poem like “Limited” is fundamental. What it says isn’t novel, but what it says is low enough down beneath our florid lives to be overlooked. We often ask great poetry to tell us something we don’t know, to surprise us, but there may be a place for it also to tell us something to which we can say, dismissively, “Well, yes, I know that!” and for the poem to remain, silent at its ending, saying “If you know that, why haven’t you acted like it’s something you know?”
20th Century musicians loved the train too and its rhythms, that rattling phrasing and doppler marcato. For this performance of “Limited” I tried to touch on that and let some guitar tracks run out. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Not a long text today, but for those who like to see as well as hear the words, click here.
*One of the interesting side-lights I picked up in Genevieve Taggard’s Emily Dickinson biography, one of the first full-length treatments of her life and work, and written early enough that she could talk to people who overlapped Dickinson’s life in Amherst, was that her domineering father, who looks so stern and austere in his photograph was well known in the community for always wanting the fastest team of horses in for his buggy. I see Vin Diesel et al in a prequel Fast and Amherst, but Drift it Slant. Hollywood, call me, I can put the blog aside….
Don’t worry, we’ll be back with more audio pieces soon. Ironically, some of the interval right now in new music is because I’m working on experimenting, organizing and recording a bit this month. There’s always plenty to hear in the archives here, if that’s what you came for. Listenership seems to go down on the weekends anyway, so let me dance about architecture and talk about music this time.
This week I was driving, and the radio station where I used to work played the Temptations “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” A driveway moment ensued. I probably hadn’t heard this record in years, perhaps decades, but I heard it plenty when it came out in 1972. That was back in a time before the death of the Top 40 radio format, a once popular but now oddball idea, where radio stations played a wide variety of music constrained by a tight playlist that repeated the same songs often enough that they imprinted on listeners. Radio formats still do the repetition, but such variety of genres would be considered commercial suicide now. Here’s a link to a list of the most popular songs of that year, the kind of songs you’d hear right before and after “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” but it may be meaningless now to those who don’t know them. Take my word for it, schlock and genius (sometimes in the same song) in a mix of genres that would never have anything to do with each other in later years.
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone” doesn’t have to apologize for itself, it puts the needle-gauge over against the genius pin and keeps it stuck there for the entire piece. It’s a great performance. The Temptations, a vocal group, reportedly didn’t care for it because long portions of the record are instrumentally focused, but it’s a great group vocal performance none-the-less, with each singer getting to play a character not just a harmony singing register. As a listener though, what captured me then and now was the musical setting. The single was nearly 7 minutes. And it’s 7 minutes that never leaves the mono-chord minor groove and is through-composed featuring a prominent electric bass ostinato, spare trap drums and strings by moonlighting Detroit Symphony Orchestra players. Besides the voices, electric guitar and a heavily modified trumpet that sounds more like a modern synth patch than a real trumpet step forward and drop back.
Dancing on your grave: that slow, ominous groove confronts even the Soul Train dancers with a new problem
Listening to it again, enraptured by the instrumental arrangement, I thought, “This sounds remarkably like some of the stuff I do for the Parlando Project!” Please excuse that thought. I wasn’t thinking “I can play as good as those guys.” I try, but what I mean is that compositionally I’m often working the same concepts. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was arranged by Paul Riser, whose name I had to look up. Listed composers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong may have had input, particularly on the vocal melodies and of course the memorable lyrics, but musically when you’ve got what is essentially a one-chord vamp, I’d look to the arranger for those tasty colors.
So, here’s this arrangement, this set of timbres, demonstrated in a highly popular single from more than 45 years ago, that I continue to exploit from time to time here—but that’s not where I first got the idea. For that I must step back to another man, even more obscure than Whitfield and Strong, as unknown as Paul Riser: Charles Stepney.
Charles Stepney was a genius of tonal and timbral color who worked extensively in pop music genres. One reason that you haven’t heard of him is that when you work in pop music genres and aren’t held responsible for hits you tend to disappear. Unlike “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” I can’t point to a Charles Stepney record that many of a generation would remember instantly on mention. I knew Stepney most from his work with an equally obscure Chicago group of the Sixties and early Seventies: Rotary Connection.
If you were to listen to Rotary Connection albums today (they appear to be available on leading streaming services) your personal schlock/genius meter may waver from cut to cut. Particularly on the cuts from the Sixties, there are elements that sound like a soundtrack composer trying to portray “hippie-dippy sh*t.” In some instances, I’m not sure that Stepney wasn’t trying to signal just that, intentionally, as part of an extended collage of elements as Frank Zappa would do around the same time. Other times, what could be considered outré elements, “exotica” sounds of the quiet-village sort, need to be heard with an open mind and in the context of the whole presentation. Also in his Sixties work with Rotary Connection, there’s a fascination with extreme vocal effects, greatly aided by Rotary Connection singer Minnie Ripperton, who was asked to use her extraordinary vocalese techniques during those earlier records. You may find that strange, even off-putting, or a waste of a perfectly good voice that could be used in a more conventional soul-music style.
Problematic miming-to-an-early-record clip. Co-lead singer Sidney Barnes is hidden in the back, and the third lead singer Judy Hauff * had left the band. Worse yet, the TV host has a mansplaining moment with Minnie Ripperton.
Rotary Connection sometimes (like those Motown Whitfield/Strong productions) gets labeled “Psychedelic Soul.” Rotary Connection sometimes self-labeled itself as “Progressive Soul.” Interestingly, over in England the idea of combining 20th Century orchestral concepts and extended timbres with rock band instruments was a coming thing. It would get called, succeed as for a time, and then be filed on record shelves as “Progressive Rock.” Fashionable, then unfashionable, now something that one can experience without the danger of it taking over too much musical attention.
A contemporary arranger with some similarities, David Axlerod, has gathered a tiny bit of 21st century notice that has largely escaped Stepney. Even given Axlerod’s use of William Blake texts, I prefer Stepney. Perhaps that can be laid to my listening to Stepney’s work with Rotary Connection as well as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf** when these records were new, and I was young and ready to be imprinted. In this rare interview from 1970, Stepney sounds at times like Quincy Jones (although I wonder if the Downbeat interviewer may be an influence in that). If Stepney had relocated from Chicago to LA, closer to the heart of the post-1970 record business, could he have had a more Quincy Jones career?
His use of orchestra colors (like Riser, he used available symphony players, this time from the Chicago Symphony) combined with rock band instrumentation is what I admired, then and now. In the studio some of the rock band parts were played by Chicago jazz guys, both soul jazz types like Phil Upchurch and more outside cats like Pete Cosey. The combinations he composed aren’t really like anyone else’s—and different often makes demands on listeners to listen differently, and without preconceptions.
What happened to Stepney? He died young. He had just turned 45 in 1976, and—heart attack. He was starting to work with an upcoming group of jazz to soul players who also saw an opening in the Progressive Rock concept for longer pieces with more colors (yes, melanin pun intended). It might have been hippie-dippy to call themselves after their astrological signs: Earth Wind and Fire.
*although I focus today on Stepney’s instrumental arrangements, this unknown band had three outstanding vocalists: Ripperton is the best known; but Sidney Barnes was an arranger too, interested in expanding the soul-singer’s techniques, and Judy Hauff? She became a force in the shape-note hymn singing revival later in the 20th century, composing and arranging pieces for harmony choirs.
**although not orchestral, and I suspect less under Stepney’s direction, these two records(Electric Mud and The Howlin’ Wolf Album) by the Blues’ greats used some of the same jazz and rock musicians as were used on the Rotary Connection records. Reviews were almost entirely negative at the time. (TLDNR: sacrilege due to idiotic pandering to the hippies) Eventually, a handful of listeners heard the intent by younger Afro-American musicians to do something different with the tradition, as opposed to a mistake by crass marketers. The cover of the Wolf album was just this text: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.” My opinion: like many experimental works, not everything works, but when it does, something new happens.