A Misplaced Landmark in Modernist Poetry Part 1

Readers here know I have an affinity for the lesser-known, the forgotten, the underpraised participants in the Modernist movement. In any historical or literary period, there have to be some that are overlooked. Why? Geographic, gender, racial prejudice? Bad luck or spotty publishing history? Yes, all those can play a role.

But today’s case is a weird one. He’s a white guy and not obscure, his breakthrough masterpiece sold well the year it was published and then for decades afterward. The early American Modernists praised it, recognized it as a Modernist work. There’s circumstantial evidence that it could have even influenced them when they produced their now esteemed breakthrough masterpieces.

Yet, it’s largely left out of the cannon today, and as such it’s also left out of the short histories of the emergence of English language Modernist poetry. One way to focus that story is to point to the publication in 1922 of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  as the moment in which everyone had to stop and take notice of this new poetry.

Let me roughly state some things that were remarkable about this landmark work.

It was episodic. A longer poem, it was made up of shorter poems, retaining the compression of short lyrics while telling a larger, multivalent story. Characters drifted in and out.

It was written in free verse. It didn’t rhyme, it didn’t use a strict and unvarying meter, while still making use of the other tactics of poetry. Since this was still somewhat novel, the sound and form could take off from and seem to readers like a non-rhyming translation of poetry from a foreign language, even an old language like Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.

It’s highly skeptical and iconoclastic about modern society. War and business was corrupt, humanity shortsighted. Dialog was often in deadpan with an emphasis on the first syllable, as if spoken by ghosts.

There’s an anachronistic, satiric element to some of the talk too. Everyday people of the current era may speak at times in the form of older literature, and we’re meant to note this as strangely halfway between a sense that time has not changed humankind and it’s eternal problems, and a sense that modern folk are not really as noble as the classical fore bearers.

Though written by a man, women’s voices and a woman’s viewpoint are prominently given a place in the work.

Love and sex was not a balm in this world. In fact, partners are invariably at odds, yet often still yoked together somewhere between torment and ennui. So degraded is the sexual politics and power in this account, that rape is a crucial trope, with references to Ovid’s mythic tale of Tereus rape of Philomela serving as a talisman.

Endurance is still celebrated; one must suffer but keep on, even if it be in vain. Music, yes even popular or folk tunes, may help make this more bearable.

Oh, I may have confused you! I’m not speaking about Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  I’m talking about this popular yet now misplaced Modernist breakthrough: The Spoon River Anthology  by Edgar Lee Masters. I’m going to talk more about it and present a few pieces from it in the Parlando Project manner, but before we end today with a piece from Spoon River,  here’s something that never was impressed on me as I learned about American literature, and in particular Modernist English poetry: “The Spoon River Anthology”  was largely written in 1913-1914 and published in 1915. Eliot was writing “Prufrock”  then, but it had not been published. Pound was making his transition from poetry as we presented here in our “Before they were Modernists” series into Imagism, with the first publications his new style in the U.S. in 1913. My personal favorite, Carl Sandburg was starting to write in this new compressed style with a cache of poems published in Poetry magazine in 1914.  Others,  Alfred Kreymborg and William Carlos Williams’ East-Coast-based and more avant garde journal of new verse is yet to come, it began in the middle of 1915. Franz Ferdinand is an obscure central-European duke who has yet to lend a name to a successful Scottish post-punk band.

Edgar Lee Masters

It’s been a quiet week in Spoon River, not so many rapes, murders, and early deaths as usual: Edgar Lee Masters

 

How much of this new verse style had Edgar Lee Masters read and how much of his style was he independently inventing and discovering from the 19th century’s Whitman (or Stephen Crane) and even older classical sources? Given that both Masters and Sandburg were present in Chicago and developing a similar sound for their free verse (while differing in sensibility) at the same time, it’s possible that there was a cross-influence there. One thing this timeline makes clear: The Spoon River Anthology  was not some later attempt to popularize or adopt the revolution of Modernist English language poetry to tell a Midwestern story, it’s created roughly at year zero.

The Spoon River Anthology  presents itself as a series of epitaphs for dead residents of Midwestern town like the one Masters grew up in, some short enough to be carved on a burial monument, others bending the form a bit into short monologs spoken by the dead. The lifetimes of the speaking dead vary and overlap but appear to be from two to three decades before the American Civil war until the early 20th century.

For an initial subject I’ll take one of the sons of the initial settlers,* who tells us he got 40 farm acres as his inheritance, and who sums his life and aims up in a few lines. His name was Cooney Potter.

The player to hear my performance of his Spoon River tale is below. For those of you that have waited for me to drop the synths, we’re back to acoustic instruments today: guitar, piano and tambura.

 

 

*Well, hmm, yes there were those other folks, the ones who lived there before.  Even though the Black Hawk War of 1832 between some indigenous peoples and these settlers and their government was fought in the Midwest during the times of this settlement, I don’t recall it or the Native Americans being addressed in Spoon River, though the 1861-1865 American Civil war fought by two factions of the settler government is significantly mentioned.

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August Moonrise

I almost feel like I need to place a warning label on today’s piece: Rated RE Strong Romantic Emotional Content. Thanatopsic material. May not be suitable for those who have not sufficiently worked through issues with self-harm or the experience of self-dissolution.

Modernism had a strong tendency toward a critique and reaction to romanticism and its characteristic expression of emotional content. A man viewed as the founder of its English-language poetic wing, T. E. Hulme, wished to set it on a course of completely overturning Romanticism. But those bylaws didn’t always filter down to every chapter and member of the Modernist International. Readers here know I love some of the early Imagist works which are parsimonious with overt emotional words, even while seeking to charge their images with a fresh immediacy. These poems aren’t necessarily devoid of emotion if the reader has it to supply themselves—but then some Modernists, such as E. E. Cummings, were perfectly fine with frank emotional outpourings.

Sara Teasdale, in addition to being largely forgotten for the better part of the last 100 years, was never officially a Modernist, so there’s no movement membership to endanger and no expectations for her to fulfill anymore. She wrote intensely lyrical and musical verse in plainspoken and non-archaic language. That’s a surface shiny enough, devoid of hermetic imagery, and with sweet word-music that makes it too easy to miss what she’s saying.

Sara Teasdale2

Sara Teasdale is sick’n’tired of you mentioning how pretty her poems are

 

I knew this already, having presented Teasdale regularly here. Still, I had to go through a journey to inhabit and grasp this poem for this project. I collected it earlier this summer, seeking to stockpile a few seasonal poems ahead of time to have some on-the-shelf ideas for possible use.

Here’s the full text of the poem. If you skim through it, it looks like a fairly common poem subject: summer night. It might seem to hit the expected points too: hey, summer, it’s nice at night (maybe even better than the heat of afternoon). Plants, trees green and full, explicit birds. A Moon one can linger with long enough that you feel that if you stay the night you could watch it change its phase.

Teasdale can write a poem that seems like that. That’s a problem. It’s too easy to miss what she’s communicating if you leave it at “That’s pretty.” You could use her writing as a case-study in why some of the Modernist tactics that frustrate (or delay) understanding might not be counterproductive. Teasdale gets misunderstood quickly as one passes over the words, while someone like Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, or Gertrude Stein causes those who won’t care to read carefully and empathetically to not stop in at all.

As I began to read, really read, “August Moonrise,”  to figure out how I might perform the words, the last section seemed dark—and not in the pretty moonlight way. Here are some of the words that hit the notes in her word-music after the poem’s midpoint: bitterness, sorrow, death, wavering, blind, fearful, fire, cold, vanish.

Seeing that, I reexamined the opening half for portents. The swallows are rushing, willfully, together and departing from each other. And is their willful act truly willful? Maybe not, it’s like the movement of dark tree leaves. If that was a spare Imagist poem, or a work of classical Chinese poetry, we’d be confronted with that image, asked on no uncertain terms to deal with it. Here you may think it’s so much minor scene-painting.

The scene-painting gets even more painterly next. Sunset, moonrise. The final palette: “a deeper blue than a flower could hold.” Is that merely a beautiful picture or a statement of more blue than can be sustained?

Teasdale’s singer in the poem is drawn in (note, she goes “down,” descends to it, even though the preceding birds, trees, sunset, moonrise are all things normally above the horizon) because it’s her, or because it will become her. The poem reaches—if only briefly—a quasi-orgasmic happiness. One line here: “I forgot the ways of men” is so rich in ambiguity. I could read it three or four ways easily.

This happiness, this intoxicated leaving of all but the senses (however brief) is portrayed as a consolation. Consolation for what?

And then we enter that section that is so full of darkness, loss, imperfection. Is this section spiritually sublime or just harrowing? I think you can play it either way, though I suspect it works best if the other choice is kept as an undertone. Compare this to Laurie Anderson’s childhood account of Buddhist Midwest night skies and the non-necessity of self, the archaic trials of the Lyke Wake Dirge, or to a searing inventory of imperfection, almost a suicide note.*

NY Times Teasdale Death Story

Teasdale: not waving, but drowning

 

Teasdale’s concluding couplet is so searing I think it must be performed understated. The crucial word in it, “theft,” says she doesn’t feel in control of this loss of control. Isn’t that frightening? Spending several hours with this text this week, fitting it to music, performing it, thinking about it was a journey, from “Oh, a summer night poem” to a consideration of the sameness and the difference of exceeding the self and end of the self.

So, am I out on a limb here, thinking this a major poem by a too overlooked poet? Has the seeming conventionality of its setting (subverted as it may be), the gender of its author, the musicality of its expression, the unabashed romanticism of its sensibility obscured our view? If this was Rilke translated from the German would we read it differently? If this was Yeats with swans instead of swallows would it matter? If a Cubist ran it through a copier a few times and then cut up all the lines and reassembled it, would we stop long enough to think about it? The issue of Teasdale’s membership or non-membership in Modernism might have seemed germane in the mid-20th century, but to a significant degree it’s immaterial now.

Well, I’ve done it again. Talked about the words so long that there’s no time to dance about the architecture of the music. Thinking about what I said above, I could have cut up and obscured Teasdale’s words rather than a straight recitation I recorded, but the choice I made has its strengths too. I did try to undersell the sensuousness of the lyric in hope it would cause the listener to consider it differently, but the opposite choice works too, for I’ve discovered this gorgeous and emotionally effecting choir setting of “August Moonrise”  by Blake Henson that had me in tears this morning. See my comments last post about how my limitations as a singer and no access to alternative skilled singers focuses my composition into other modes.

I intentionally avoid apologizing for my work. I think that’s a good practice. If you think you should do better, do better or do different, instead of talking about it. My approach to “August Moonlight”  with a skip-footed motorik beat and an ominous and fateful tone in the reading and music certainly contrasts with Henson. I could even imagine that hearing Henson’s work after considering Teasdale’s darker undercurrents intensifies it, as it did for me today. You can hear my version with the player below.

 

 

*There was a point in the production of this piece that I seriously considered abandoning my presentation of “August Moonlight”  because of this. Once I could see that element was present in the work (as it is in Teasdale’s life), I felt it shouldn’t be denied if I was to perform it. Many artists deal with feelings of self-harm and because “All artists fail” in the sense of imperfection and producing things farther, rather than “Something nearer your desire.” I hesitate to present work that might feed into that, particularly with a beautiful and romantic sheen to it all. In the end I decided that Teasdale is illuminating that, and if I presented it so that you can consider its danger, it could have value. Henson’s setting makes a choice to emphasize the perception of beauty, the singular hour of atonement, which also would have answered this concern.

Soon Be Gone

I start off talking about the words or context in which I experience the words, mostly poetry, that are used here. That goes on, and I notice that I’m getting near to—or even above—what I consider to be reasonable length for a blog post (around 1,000 words*) and I haven’t mentioned the music.

In the end I’ll often mutter a few things about the instruments used, urge you to listen—and roll the footnotes!

So, let’s start off today talking about the music for a little bit. I enjoy the variety of musical contexts I use for the words here. I have wide musical tastes, and yet there are still genres and sounds I haven’t yet used that I will use as this project continues to push toward 400 audio pieces. Inexpensive technology has offered an enormous audio palette to a composer/musician, unbelievable sounds and resources compared to what was available even to the commercially viable counterparts of my childhood. And yet all these possible variations are not used. How curious. How self-limiting.

Well, there are reasons for that. While I admire musicians that push out the boundaries of what they do, the marketplace often finds such efforts self-defeating, and I don’t know that they are misreading substantial audiences in their verdict on that. I’d like the audience for what the Parlando Project does to grow. Indeed, reflecting on the amount of effort that goes into this, it’s nutty that it continues at this level for an Internet audience a thousands-time smaller than pictures of a sandwich. But I’m also grateful for an audience that can at least tolerate my musical varieties on top of poetic varieties. That’s you. You’re rare. You’re not supposed to exist, and yet you do. That’s the audience this project deserves.

Perhaps a more important reason is that technology, tools, resources—while they can extend what an individual musician/composer can do—in the end revolve around the axis of the abilities of that musician/composer. I’m far from a virtuoso on any instrument, some days I’m not even competent on my core instrument, the guitar. And then there’s a key problem I work around constantly: I’m a poor singer.

I use spoken word, chant, talk-singing, altered timbres, but real, full-voiced, pitched singing of melodies escapes me. A beautiful resource I don’t have available! This limit constrains me, frustrates me—though it sometimes leads me to work on ways of integrating poetry and music other than the existing traditions of art song.**

But some material must be sung. Today’s piece is one of those. “Soon Be Gone”  is imaginatively taken from an episode early in the adult life of my late wife, who left her Twin Cities hometown to follow a mountebank to southeast Iowa where he had a job offer to work as a radio announcer. It didn’t go well, or work at all really, and she traveled back north by north-west to home where she accepted my pretentions.

When I wrote “Soon Be Gone”  some years back, not long after she had died, and decades after the events, I made some choices. I think primarily from my grief, I wrote it from the view of the mountebank, who in the piece is reflecting immediately on his loss of her.

Soon Be Gone lyrics

“Hebrew sun?” If you’re facing north, one reads its daily path from right to left

 

The opening two lines of the bridge section before the final chorus are a variation taken from a translation of “The Song of Solomon”  which had a special meaning to my wife and I.***

As a lyric writer I often prefer to leave “the plot” of a song undetermined, and if it works “Soon Be Gone”  doesn’t require that the listener know those things. I mention this as a suggestion to writers here that compression and leaving out details could add a mysterious power to a song or poem. If your listener wants to connect, give them space to fall into your words.

farfisa where the action is

It’s an organ. And it’s LIVE! Forget the dance—run!

 

The difficult and ultimately imperfect task of recording the vocals for this piece aside, I did enjoy plugging my Telecaster into real cranked-up amps and doing the two-guitar weave at the center of this song. The other featured element here is a Farfisa combo organ**** (well, a virtual instrument recreation of one) which is a tip of the hat to Dave Moore who played one with the LYL band back in the 80s.

To hear the results, use the player below. I’ll be back with more poetry and “other people’s stories” soon.

 

 

*It takes time to create shorter posts about complex subjects, but I feel the author owes it to their audience. I’ve subscribed to about two-dozen blogs that I read whenever I get a break from this project, and nothing pains me more than a talented and perceptive blog author with more words than content. Although elaborative words strung together have their pleasures, I’m often in the mood to spend more time thinking and doing than reading. This is probably why I’m drawn to the compressed lyric form in poetry.

**I rather like art song settings of poems, though they often seem to me to be one solution to the problem of setting complex texts to music while there are others less explored (what we do here.) And since I can’t sing them, there’s little incentive for me to write complicated melodic lines for singers, which means that even if I had singers to write for I’d probably find that skill undeveloped on my part.

***For example, the 8th chapter in the King James Christian version which renders things this way: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death….”

****It’s falling back into the mists of time, but a player of a small electronic organ shaped like an elongated suitcase and fitted with a folding or removable set of legs was once a common feature of rock’n’roll bands. They were often played through overtaxed guitar amplifiers with only one hand playing arpeggiated parts like I use here. This sort of thing is sometimes associated with “garage rock” combos of the early 60s styled like The Kingsmen, ? and the Mysterians, The Sir Douglas Quintet, or Paul Revere and the Raiders et al. But that trope survived into the “Rock” evolution later in the decade too: The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, early Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and so on.

The Farfisa was an Italian-made-and-designed brand used in this role. Later in my century Phillip Glass utilized Farfisa combo organs in creating his version of composed music built on repetitive and driving organ arpeggios. The timbre of those combo organs always had me listening to Glass’ early work anticipating that they would, at any moment, break into “96 Tears”  or “Light My Fire.”

Black Horizons

How did you like that last Carl Sandburg piece? It’s about as majestic as Sandburg goes, what with its extensive catalog of life in its fullness and emptiness. It seemed to me about right to mark the anniversary of this project’s launch, and my late wife, and my son, and my wife and family, and my country, and you. And I much enjoyed making the large-scale orchestra music for it.

But if it catches you in the wrong mood or with a different and certain analysis of life it can seem a bit too new-agey, suffused as it is with non-denominational spirituality.

Sandburg is best taken in large and varied portions. He has many moods and is open-hearted in a way that many poets are not.*  Before I reminded myself I should do an anniversary piece earlier this week, I had another Sandburg poem I wanted to present, but I put “Black Horizons”  on hold and completed “For You.”  These two selections this week can be taken together to form a better picture of Sandburg.**

Sandburg can offer you balm and clarifying anger, and today’s piece is much closer to the later pole. Published in 1922, there’s not much I can think needs updating or footnoting to explain. You can read it, hear it, speak it yourself this month in 2019 and feel it as freshly as when it was written.

Carl Sandburg Rocks Out

Brothers and Sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution! You must choose Brothers, you must choose! It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet! It takes five seconds to realize that it’s time to move, it’s time to get down with it! Brothers, it’s time to testify and I want to know, are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial: Carl Sandburg!” ****

 

Musically, no orchestra today, just drums and percussion, fretless electric bass, acoustic guitar and voice. I tried to add a little color to my I, iii, IV, vi repeating cadence by flatting the 7th in the bass line, after watching Rick Beato on YouTube analyzing some Nirvana songs’ harmonic complexities.***  In a more ideal performance I think the piece would work great with a choir or audience singing the refrain.

The player to hear my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Black Horizons”  is below (unless you’re reading this on an iPhone with the WordPress app—in which case, switch to a web browser to see the audio player, or you can subscribe to the audio pieces alone through most podcast services such as Apple Podcasts.)

 

 

 

 

*Why would that be? In literary circles by the middle of my century, poetry was the literary art devoted to complex, sometimes nearly unfathomable, emotional and perceptive states. A poet I heard read last night used a word “Apophasis,” which means describing something by what it is not, surrounding it with words that are not it. That term also describes a great deal of Modernist poetry. Poetry did this, at least in part, because so much tired verse of the preceding century or two repeated the same few emotional tropes until poets were tired of them. The great models of High Modernism made poetry a cult of misdirection, irony, personae, parody, and beautiful hermeticism. That poetry had power, if to a smaller audience, and one thing this project tries to do with music and performance is inject it with audible expression to illuminate the complex humanity in it.

**Yet they leave something out, the shorter, more purely Imagist Sandburg, a mode of his that I personally love and think deserves to be better remembered. That Sandburg has all the elusiveness and compression that Modernism propounded as a remedy to the overblown “listen to me play the cathedral organ stops of poetic sentiments” poetry it was rebelling against. For examples of the subtle Sandburg see this well-known poem and this deserves-to-be-better-known one.

Because of the more direct and Whitmanesque Sandburg, those Imagist poems are misread. They’re assumed to be slight, in a way that A Station in the Metro,” “The Red Wheelbarrow  or Oread  aren’t.

***My son has been learning Nirvana bass lines this year, which is stuff I can’t teach him because I only understand such things long enough to use them and because I lack the mimetic talent to transcribe existing pieces well. While recording this I discovered, to my horror, that I’d more or less forgotten how to play fretless bass while working on orchestration.

****Yes, it takes only seconds to decide. Revolution implies it takes only a little bit longer to implement that realization. We’re nearly 250 years into the American Revolution, and we’re still working on it. Sandburg’s poem is almost 100, and we’re still working on it. “The Sixties” are mostly 50 years old, and we’re still working on it. That’s your choice: still working on it, or giving up working on it.

For You

Here’s a poem by Carl Sandburg, whose poems can be returned to for their light illuminating justice and injustice, but also because he will give you endurance and compensating love.

Injustice is large, it is ancient. Love is short as life, but nearer to us, and like the palm of a nearby hand it can blot out an immense but distant mountain. If enough hands are raised together, the most foreboding mountain can not only be obscured, it can be leveled.

Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe raising books

How many in favor of more music and poetry?

 

Today marks the third year since the official launch of this project. My goal when I started was to create 100 to 120 audio pieces using various words, mostly other people’s words, and mostly poetry, combined with original music, music I planned to be as varied as I could make it. Today’s piece is the 360th of these.

That number amazes me, even though/because I have been there creating each of those music/words combinations. It means that nearly every day in the past three years I have been—or I have been avoiding—searching for and selecting words, composing music, playing and recording that music and then presenting some thoughts on that encounter with you.

I started as a guitar player, and in this time I’ve become nearly a functional bass player and found ways to allow my naïve keyboard skills to direct music making from that direction too. My abilities to integrate bowed strings and orchestral instruments into these pieces has grown, something that I’ve been indulging in a bit this month.

During this time my son has grown from a grade-schooler to the doors of high school. I think he still finds this activity a little odd, and as far as I know he never reads these posts, only hears the audio pieces in their halting steps of creation. He might recognize it later. Many of the posts here were written with him as the audience in mind.

My wife has been patient and forgiving of the time I spend on this, for which I am grateful. These few words are not thanks enough.

Dave Moore (you’ll hear from him again here soon) has of course been an important inspiration and help in the overall project.

And you, readers and listeners and fellow bloggers, are a large part of why this project has continued. This project has no revenue, no grants, no sponsoring institution. The reason it has continued past the first 120 pieces has been your response and assistance in spreading the word about it. You weren’t the reason I started this, but you’re the largest reason I continue with this project. Your likes, links and sharing help keep it going.

Renee at Powerderhorn

Renée Robbins. A memory too strong to forget and too heavy to carry. “Whisper, Oh beginners in the hills. Tumble, Oh cubs…”

 

So why did I start this project officially in August? I was thinking of my late wife, Renée Robbins, a caring person who helped and befriended many. I lack the personal skills to do what she did in that regard, but I can, in my idiosyncratic way assist the writers I present here. If poetry is a living art, it lives not just in the mind and memory, but in the moment and the ear. Thanks for your moments and your ears.

Earlier this year I presented part of the title poem from Sandburg’s Smoke and Steel  collection, the first poem in that book of his. Today’s piece is the concluding one in the same book. As I mentioned above I’ve been working on larger orchestral arrangements with woodwinds, horns, and string sections lately, and that’s what I’m using here. I’m kind of moving through different orchestral colors in this short piece to match the range of Sandburg’s catalog in his poem.

The player gadget to hear Carl Sandburg’s “For You”  is below. If you want to read the text of the poem, it’s available here.

 

More on that exchange published in the prologue to Kora in Hell

Did you find yourself agreeing more with H.D. or William Carlos Williams in Thursday’s audio piece taken from Williams’ Kora in Hell?  If I was to survey listeners, I’d be surprised if Williams wouldn’t win far more applause. Being that it’s his  book, and he controls what H.D. presents before he responds, it wasn’t really a neutral-site debate.

That sort of exchange could remind you of our modern political ads, where candidate A is quoted or shown in some excerpt that appears outlandish, and then candidate B is cut to saying that they think that’s just as outlandish as you think it is, and I’d never take that position, so vote for me. Except, it’s in reverse. It’s Williams, candidate B, who’s taking the more extreme position. Still I think Williams will largely win the audience.

It’s also easy to see this as a male/female dynamic. H.D. makes a suggestion, plausibly insightful, asking only for self-reflection on W.C.W’s part. Williams responds to her, in much more forceful rhetoric, defending his freedom, saying in effect when you say “sacred” I hear “heretic.” I think a great many observers of gender roles would see this as a stereotypical exchange. I agree*, but I could imagine this same exchange with the genders switched—less common, but possible. And it certainly occurs in a same gender situation too.

Something else that came to mind as I read this was a division that was made in an influential essay at mid-century, something that was still current when I was in school. This month I re-read that essay after Kora in Hell  and the telling exchange I took from its prologue. It’s by critic Philip Rahv, published in 1939, and its title “Paleface and Redskin”**  sets out the framework of its thesis, something that professors still thought relevant when I was being taught. The title is a distinctive dichotomy Rahv had observed in American literature. This paragraph from Rahv’s essay summarized the two types:

…the redskin glories in his Americanism, to the paleface it is a source of endless ambiguities. Sociologically they can be distinguished as patrician vs. plebeian, and in their aesthetic ideals one is drawn to allegory and to the distillations of symbolism, whereas the other inclines to a gross, riotous naturalism. The paleface is a ‘highbrow,’ though his mentality…is often of the kind that excludes and repels general ideas; he is at the same time both something more and something less than an intellectual in the European sense. And the redskin deserves the epithet ‘lowbrow’ not because he is badly educated—which he might or might not be—but because his reactions are primarily emotional, spontaneous, and lacking in personal culture. The paleface continually hankers after religious norms and tends toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations. At his highest level the paleface moves in an exquisite moral atmosphere; at his lowest he is genteel, snobbish, and pedantic. In giving expression to the vitality and to the aspirations of the people, the redskin is at his best; but at his worst he is a vulgar anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology.”

Rahv ostensibly doesn’t favor either side. His observation, made by a man who could claim to be an immigrant, outside observer, was that American Lit was binary and divided with authors on one side or the other and no synthesis, and that this was a bad thing. ***

Palefaces and Redskin Potatoes

Pale faces and redskins, or 3 artists and some spuds.

 

It’s easy to see that divide in the H.D. and William Carlos Williams exchange. H.D. in the moment captured in her letter to W.C.W. is paleface, and Williams is redskin. Rahv expends most of his examples on novelists, and Modernist novelists like Hemmingway and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson he feels all fail to a significant degree due to redman tendencies. But Modernist poets weren’t really in either camp as Rahv defines them. Ezra Pound could be claimed as either, and even in the two early pre-Modernist poems I’ve just presented here he tries on each personae: in “Grace Before Song”  a pious poet in service of art who will be personally forgotten and in “In Thus in Nineveh”  as an unheralded poet who will be remembered because the people value the lively if imperfect vitality of his verse.

Feel free to consider Rahv’s classification system as silly, outdated, or even distasteful. I myself consider it an amusing parlor game kind of thing, more subjective than Rahv thinks it is, and as subject to superficial oversimplifications as taking a “Which Disney Princess are you” quiz. ****

I wasn’t going to include any audio with today’s post, but after spending a day avoiding completing this post so that I could play with orchestra scoring, I figured I could read a couple more sentences also from Rahv’s 1939 essay backed by a short example of what I was coming up with. The player’s below.

 

 

*Even though Williams and English language Modernism in general coincided with the rise of women’s independence and citizenship, and even if women were participants in this cultural revolution, that doesn’t mean that Modernist men were invariably feminist—far from it. There are things to admire about W.C.W. for sure, but even in my limited reading of his work I keep getting this weird vibe from him where women are concerned.

**Yup, Rahv went there with the casual use of the racial slur. As literary culture goes in this era, totally non-remarkable and non-controversial. The first college I attended, where I heard of Rahv’s essay, had named its sports teams The Redmen, a just  more polite term. I had a tiny part in asking this name be changed. In Rahv’s defense I’ll say that he was a Jewish heritage immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. If life experience is knowledge, he likely “understood” ethnic slurs as deeply as any of us.

The kind of dichotomy Rahv lays out has analogues in modern discussions on just how street a rapper is, or debates on if performance poetry can be “real poetry.”

***From the luxurious wisdom of history, I found it fun reading the essay to see who of his contemporaries he thought was fatally damaged by this inability to join the strengths of both groups. He seems to give obvious paleface T. S. Eliot a passing grade, though noting that he had to leave America. Rahv says “Faulkner’s horror stories have long ago ceased to have any recognizable value.” History disputes Rahv there. Hemmingway is just a retread Natty Bumppo he says, an arguable case still today (even though I’ll take the other side on that one). Emily Dickinson gets an atta girl notice as a more or less successful paleface. No, additional reflection since 1939 has discovered that Dickinson is a redskin with paleface trappings.

****I’m Jasmine.

An exchange from the Prologue to Kora In Hell

William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell  is an unusual book. Its subtitle: Improvisations  promised me more than it delivered. Improvised or semi-improvised poetry, that true Jazz poetry where the author composes on the spot from themes or from spontaneous inspiration is something I admired and—to a degree—practiced in my youth. The improvisations of Williams’ book are usually classed as prose poems, but I don’t find much music in them nor a sense of surprise or discovery. They do reflect the influence of Dada and Cubism, and if I could hold my attention on them longer, they might still bring some pleasure and illumination to me—but so far I haven’t been able to do that. But nearly half the book as published is prologue and that was more rewarding to read.

One can get a real sense in the prologue to Kora in Hell  of where Williams found himself a century ago when it was written. There’s a lot of self-assertion, a lot of names dropped, a lot of debates on poetry and art where Williams as the author of the piece gets to be not just a debate participant, but the moderator, editor, and director of the debate. Poets Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, H. D. and Alfred Kreymborg make their appearance. In visual arts Duchamp, Man Ray, and Charles Demuth are referenced. Earlier this year I also noted that a forgotten Modernist poet and editor Orrick Johns has one of his poems quoted in the prologue without attribution.*

The point Williams seems to be making over and over again in the prologue is that he is just as important, connected, valid and artistically insightful as any of these. One can easily view this assertion in a multi-valent way. Williams could easily have felt isolated and left out, now resident in New Jersey and earning his living with a bourgeois job** as a physician. And however genteelly it’s couched, most artists must engage in self-promotion—it’s unlikely that any ego-less man or woman ever set out to write a poem or paint a picture. And the point he’s making, that he, Williams, has something worth considering has  since been validated by the canon-setters.

In the case of two poets, Pound and H.D., Williams has a personal history, having known them in his college years. And it’s an exchange of letters with H.D. excerpted by Williams in the prologue to Kora in Hell  that I used for today’s audio piece. In her letter H.D. is offering gentle advice regarding something Williams has written. She’s noticed some stuff that seems derivative and that she feels doesn’t represent Williams’ individual inspiration. She sets that observation in the context of a writer’s calling and the sacredness (in her view) of the artistic enterprise.

HD and WCW

Two initial American Modernist poets: H.D. and W.C.W.

 

Williams, the home team here, gets to respond in the bottom of the inning and he shrugs briefly before thundering. He doesn’t really address the substance of H. D.’s feedback so much as he jumps on the “sacred” sentiment it’s couched in. Sacred in Williams’ mind is associated with singular artistic criteria, the kind of thing that Eliot and the New Critics of High Modernism are starting to create in a revised standard version—and he’s again’ it. When Williams says “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other” it sounds as a ringing iconoclastic statement, but what does he mean? Is he saying “There’s so much crap around that folks think is great art, so who should care what little mistakes us Modernist innovators make.” Or is it something else? Is he perhaps saying something akin to a maxim I repeat here often, that “All artists fail.” Is Williams claiming that to attempt some impossible sacredness, forgetting that the artist will fail, will harm the work from that intention?

There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.

He then closes, in a sentence as musical as anything in the prose poems that follow, with a Dada litany. A half a century later, another Dada-influenced artist who influenced me, Frank Zappa, would phrase the same principles when he said his artistic rule was AAAFNRA, “Anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all.”

I’ll have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but this is long enough for one sitting and it’ll give me a little space to talk about the music in today’s piece. I got to use two new components in composing this. The opening section features a fine pipe organ virtual instrument from Garritan. In a vary real sense, the pipe organ was the first, wholly mechanical, embodiment of the synthesizer, and I personally can’t play or compose for it without thinking of Michael Barone and his long-running radio show “Pipe Dreams” featuring that instrument. The orchestra sounds are from Sonuscore’s The Orchestra which is a novel approach to orchestral virtual instruments. My initial encounter with using The Orchestra mirrors most other reviewers: it makes adding orchestra colors simpler than most while giving indications that it can be used deeply if one gets under the hood of the default ensembles.

This may be a good time to explain how I use virtual instruments here, and particularly orchestral instruments. I’m thinking that many of our casual listeners when they hear Dave or myself chanting or singing away with everything from a string trio to larger ensembles that I’m just dropping in some loops or samples from a recording. There’s a good deal of that done on the Internet with poetry and I won’t knock it.*** After all, I subscribe to the maxim of Duke Ellington’s that Peter Schickele sustained “If it sounds good, it is good.” However, because I consider myself, despite my limitations, a quasi-musician and an intentional composer, I choose not to do that. Those string and orchestra parts are played,  on little plastic keyboards or with a guitar MIDI interface. Sophisticated musicians probably already know that because even while using orchestral instruments my harmonic framework is either based on rock’n’roll/blues and their common “three-chord trick” or on older drone/modal folk music traditions.

So the opening H.D. section of today’s piece is a three-chord trick, something that any garage band or punk musician would understand. And the William Carlos Williams part that follows is simpler yet harmonically, based on just C to D major chords, though the color notes of the electric guitar solo extend that slightly. When someone asks what kind of music I write I’m at a loss for useful words. I’ve said extended folk music and I’ve said punk orchestral.

To hear me present the epistolary dialog between H. D. and W.C.W, use the player below.

 

 

 

*As I said when presenting John’s “Blue Undershirts,” it’s possible that Williams, who praised the lines he quoted and used a similar though extended expression in his anthology staple “The Red Wheelbarrow,” might have thought that Kreymborg wrote them, since he quotes them while praising Kreymborg.

**I have no idea of Williams’ intent in that “day job” choice—or even how good or bad he was as a physician—but given the latency and indirectness of writers and artists impact on their fellow human beings, such work may be a useful adjunct to the writing life. I myself spent nearly 20 years of my working life in the lower levels of nursing. As I told my wife recently in a moment of clarity, I figured that if I couldn’t help myself at least I could be some help to others. Young artists: consider this.

***I must also mention modern hip-hop production which has developed a class of composers who are very adept in using samples, bits of recordings, and timbral eclecticism in a way that if someone had described it in the mid-20th century it would have seemed the very essence of an elite and esoteric avant garde, and thanks to a blessed (as in The Beatitudes) audience, and a good dose of the ever-popular folk music elements: intoxicants, sex and violence, they’ve made widely-heard popular music with it. This strikes me, along with Bob Dylan completing the Modernist revolution in poetry, as the most significant and surprising artistic events of my cultural lifetime.