Here’s a mysterious poem by Carl Sandburg that makes its mystery in an unusual way. I think it may have been written for a child or for children, but by accident or design the matter of the poem makes a different sense as I read it now.
What makes me think it was written with children in mind? There’s the repetition of the idea of spelling these two short, common words in the title, neither of which are “spelling demons” that are difficult for adults to spell. And then further repetition in saying the two words “Good Night.” It seems something between a lullaby or a book like Goodnight Moon, beloved of parents seeking to ease their child to sleep. The middle of the poem has three episodes of things gloriously becoming gone and away, as if being left for sleep and dreams.
This is where the poem now seems to take on a layer that I’m unsure was part of Sandburg’s intent in 1920 as I read it in 2020. He starts with fireworks—which are firing all about me on this Independence Day night as I write this post. Besides the noise—and noise normally has a note-length and measure—a visual aspect which a fireworks display is notable for is its short duration. Those colors and light against a night sky may be stunning, but they are short. They are memories almost from the moment they burst.
And then comes two other short episodes: a steam train and a steam boat. The steam train on a moonlit night is moving of course, but its spume of exhaust is also leaving skyward. Likewise, the river steamboat is moving past a geography leaving the sound of their steam powered horns carrying across the fields they are not as stationary as.
Carl Sandburg. From the size of it, that microphone looks like it could be steam-powered too.
Sandburg the boy would have known those two steam-powered things. A child in 1920 could know them too. They were the ordinary things of freight and travel. In a few decades these steamers would be obsolete and all but extinct. 1920 is a little too early for Sandburg to know that. When he wrote his poem they were moving and gone. Now they are gone and gone. Carl Sandburg is gone too of course. And if he told this poem to his children? They grew up, aged, and are gone too. Many ways to say good night. Many ways to spell good night. Many ways, all leaving. Oh! the boom! The red and yellow, the blue and gold spreading and tailing! Ah! Many ways, all leaving.
*Unless you’re reading this on the WordPress Reader app on an Apple phone or tablet, which for some reason can’t show the player. If you switch to viewing frankhudson.org in the Apple Safari browser, you’ll be able to hear the music. Alternatively, the audio pieces are available as a podcast in Apple podcasts. Thanks for reading and listening!
Claude McKay led an outsiders’ life, Allen Ginsberg became a near celebrity bohemian whose outsider status changed over his life. The author of today’s poem in our Independence Day series was more well-known than Ginsberg in his day, and he was as far from being an outsider as any American poet could be. At one time, as many knew and read his poems as Edgar Guest’s, and he was a much better versifier.
So, do you know today’s poem from the above title, or from the name of the longer work from which it’s excerpted, “The Building of the Ship?” It’s highly unlikely that you would. The American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went from being the stuffy square’s square, the kind of writer that Modernists didn’t want to be, to a forgotten man, the writer that no one remembers even to reject. He was a civic poet, a poet’s role that no longer exists in white America. Along with a handful of other men, most of whom he knew, he sought to create an American poetry in the first half of the 19th century when the American experiment was still new. After all, when he was born in 1817, many who celebrated July 4th were around for the July 4th! And for much of his life Longfellow lived in a house that George Washington had lived in while commanding the American Revolutionary War troops.
George Washington lived here, and later so did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And a child named Darby Vassall. Haven’t heard of that last one? Read on.
In 1855, an elderly man visited that house where he had been born in 1769, meeting with Longfellow there. The man’s name was Darby Vassall, and this was the nature of his birth: he was born to enslaved Afro-Americans owned by the owners of that big house, which made him a slave by law from birth. When the Revolution came, his masters sided with the British, and so after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the owners skedaddled off to safer British-controlled territory. This left the house available for the new Revolutionary Army’s commander, General Washington, as spoils of war. Washington left his short-term smaller quarters and went to the big house to move in.
And here’s the story Darby Vassall liked to tell about meeting The Father of Our Country. There he was, six years old, and the revolution had by accident empirically freed him. He was swinging on the gate of the very house Longfellow now lived in, a time-honored childhood pastime then and now (see also sutures and Colles’ fracture.) General Washington, impressively tall for his time, and like the house’s absent owners, a rich slaveholder who traveled with an enslaved manservant, asked the boy if he would like to work for the new occupant, this man who’d become so honored and famous that people even now buy his portrait for something between 25 cents and a dollar.
Darby kept swinging, sizing up the tall white man, and then asked “How much are you paying?” Darby says Washington kind of lost interest in the conversation at that point—because, you know, slavery. He looked like a gentleman Darby later recounted, but “He was no gentleman.” Now that’s an Independence Day story!
We don’t know all Vassall told Longfellow about the house Longfellow now lived in, but the stories must have been interesting. The best-selling author blew off a meeting with his publisher to hear them all.
Have I forgotten to talk about Longfellow’s poem? No, this is another poem for our July 4th series. It comes at the end of a much longer poem Longfellow published in 1850, one that less than nobody reads today. The entire “The Building of the Ship” is an allegorical story of a venerable ship builder* who with the help of a crew including a younger apprentice builds a ship for a merchant, more magnificent than any the builder has ever built. While building the ship, the apprentice and the master ship builder’s daughter fall in love, and the old master promises that on the day the ship launches his daughter and the apprentice will be wed. After many supple verse lines detailing the construction of this ship,** it’s complete and it launches with a epithalamium in which the new and lovely ship is embraced as a bride by the timeless, older, gray sea.
If the poem ended there it’d remain a curio of interest to scholars today, a romance in a European style adapted with distinctive American details and accomplished in English verse with a difficult rhyming scheme that never grates or seems fake, the sort of thing that is easier to do in French or Italian.*** But Longfellow had an envoi of sorts. The ship, as all man-made things do, would eventually wear out and come to a wrecked end. A downbeat, look-at-oneself-through-the-grave warning that would also not be out of place in romanticism.
This whole poem, along with that ending was sent to the publishers.
Then Longfellow called it back. He had a revision, with an entirely new ending. You can read the old ending and the story of the last-minute revision here. Not only is the new ending upbeat, it seemed to retroactively change the poem that proceeded it. That boat-like-a-bride thing was still there, but the ship was named “The Union,” and in those manifests of the things that made the ship, the entire young country seems to be the source. The Union becomes not just a marital union, it becomes the United States.
Here’s where that civic poet role comes into play. In the dozen years leading up to the Civil War, the delicate balance of slavery’s evil in a democratic country was becoming harder and harder to keep from spilling, the compromises seeking to keep the country in existence more and more difficult to negotiate. Longfellow’s new envoi, the one that I perform today, may seem anodyne if considered as an abstract statement of patriotism, but in 1850 it was a considered second-draft meant to say that ideals of the American experiment should continue, needed to continue, because those ideals, those plans, however imperfectly applied are contagious (in a good non-Covid-19 way). Enough for a small 6-year-old to stand up to Washington for example.
Now if we are to consider inspirational Afro-American patriotism, the best story that is likely not true is that Winston Churchill once quoted in a public speech Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,”a Black man’s valiant ode to self-defense written after the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919, but then applied during the darkest days of Great Britain standing against Nazi-occupied Europe. No one has such a transcript or recording. But there is a recording of Churchill reading a section of the abolitionist**** Longfellow’s envoi during that time in a speech of endurance in 1940.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State” is below. I’ll note that my performance has some flaws that I’m accepting for now in order to get this out in a timely manner, but the spirit is there. Happy 4th of July though it be just one date. May freedom and independence come to all of us. The revolution is plural.
*Though Longfellow lived and wrote much of his work in Cambridge Massachusetts, he was born and educated in Maine, and even at this late hour he probably vies with Stephen King and Edna St. Vincent Millay for the title of most well-known writer from Maine. Maine was a shipbuilding center in the 19th century and so the poems extended allegory of shipmaking was local color to Longfellow.
**I’m no expert here, but those who know about early 19th century American shipbuilding seem to feel that Longfellow got the details of ship design choices and construction right.
***Many prosody theorists think that rhyming English poetry is a mistake, as we have many fewer rhyming word-endings than other European languages. Longfellow’s poetry may not be to modern tastes, but one thing he did have was a non-forced and impressive “flow” in the hip-hop/rap sense.
****Among the favorable reviews from abolitionists: Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of “The Building of the Ship” “The most complete and artistic which he ever wrote.” Lincoln was said to have quoted the envoi lines in private to his secretary as the Civil War broke out—and broke down in tears before he could finish them.
It’s been awhile since I last presented one of my fresh translations of a poem from another language here. Today I’m going to sing a version of a poem by classical Chinese poet Wang Wei, but first a few words about translation.
I’ve grown to love doing translations from other languages here. I view it as an extension of the Parlando Project where we combine various words, usually poetry, almost always by other people, with music we compose and play. That means that most everything here is a translation of a kind, as the author probably didn’t intend for their words to be combined with music, nor are they available to tell Dave or I how to read and present their words.
Translation from another language to English is an additional layer of the author’s work being filtered through what I see and react to in it. Sometimes the Dadaist in me comes around, and I supply music that isn’t conventionally appropriate for the text. This doesn’t bother me.* But in translating their text, the words someone else wrote, I do worry about being accurate, being a good steward of their cultural contribution. And I should worry. I speak no foreign languages. I had High School French. A grandmother and my mother spoke German as a child, but not as an adult with us. I live in a neighborhood with many Spanish speakers. None of this adds up to any fluency. That makes translation a difficult process and my efforts are no guarantee against misunderstanding of the author’s work in their native language. Now add to this the time and cultural gap to Wang Wei, the 8th century Chinese poet—a greater degree of distance than Rimbaud, Rilke, or Neruda.
There is some help in the shortness of this poem. It leaves you fewer lines to recode. Wang Wei was not as slight as his poem is though. Indeed, he was quite the hyphenate. He was a painter, a musician, a poet, and a functionary in various positions in a Chinese government which was facing a serious rebellion in his time, which led to a period in which he was a political prisoner. He was said to be a Buddhist. I know little about the background of this individual poem of his. I first came upon it in another English translation by poet Robert Okaji, who long-time readers here have already been introduced to. Here’s a link to his translation. Okaji has a good tactic for dealing with the extraordinary difficulties in translating a poet so far from us as Wang Wei. His translations are taken, as my Chinese translations are, from a supplied literal transliteration into English. He titles his as “After….,” an indication that he only claims to be sending forth his impression and inspiration from the original author’s poem. Good idea. I chose to do the same today.
Here’s the literal transcription he and I used as our entry into this poem:
Fly bird go no limit
Join mountain again autumn colour
Up down Huazi Ridge
Melancholy feeling what extreme
My guess is that Okaji was struck by the visual imagery in Wang Wei’s poem, and more than I eventually did, Okaji well-portrayed that aspect. As an accomplished painter, Wang Wei was unsurprisingly known for the corresponding strength in his concise portrayal of natural scenes in his poetry. Though I didn’t go that way with “Huazi Ridge,” I often chose this route in translations: finding a way to make vivid the imagery the poet presented in my modern English.
I instead chose to go with two other aspects. The first that struck me was a strongly implied parallelism in this tiny poem: the birds who “go no limit” in the first line and the “Melancholy…what extreme” in the final line. The birds can fly, their possible course seems infinite. Even a mountain is no barrier to them. Sadness, suffering, dissatisfaction, and humanity’s attachment to that, is at the core of Buddha’s teachings. So, in trying to get at the meaningful linkage between those two lines I chose to see the birds as choosing to return to this mountain, this massively material earthly obstacle (perhaps as a migration or habitat) even though they could fly seemingly anywhere.
Here’s what I came up with in English:
Look these birds can fly without limits
Yet they return to this mountain in red autumn
All up and down Huazi Ridge
What then are the limits of sadness
A central fact in this poem remained unsettled as I worked on my translation. Where is Huazi Ridge and the associated mountain?** What is the landscape, why would Wang Wei choose it in particular? There some extra degrees of difficulty in a web search on Huazi. The western alphabet I’d search on is an approximation, and place names everywhere change with regionalism and time.
Web searches on Huazi often led to a Chinese Mount Hua. Here’s a somewhat irreverent but illustrative video of what it’s like to climb up and down it.
Turns out there are easily a dozen videos out there of what it’s like to climb the path up Mount Hua, but I still like this one.
The translation I came up with—my impression, however mistaken, yet (I hope) worthwhile—of Wang Wei’s poem sought to portray an earthbound, flightless human noting the birds who could easily fly over the mountain and anywhere else they would choose, but instead they return, captured perhaps by the autumn beauty or the immense thereness of the mountain. Ah, notices the poem’s speaker—“Look!” he urges, see this too: even the flight-blessed birds who do not need to trudge up and down at great peril and effort choose not to step off the wheel of return. What then are the limits of suffering, sadness, unsatisfaction? You climb the mountain once, twice, how many times? The noble truths of the Buddha’s teachings says that you will return, as the birds do, until you can choose to see all that is not the mountain.
What’s the other thing I sought to put in my English impression? I rendered it in metrical verse. And since it is said that Wang Wei played and composed for the pipa, the Chinese lute, my music today uses my attempt to portray a little of that instrument using the MIDI interface on my guitar along with a more Western drums, bass, and electric guitar ensemble. The player to hear my performance of “Huazi Ridge” is below.
*Bother me? Hell no, it’s great fun—and unusual juxtapositions sometimes demonstrate something that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed in a work we perform. Since we use material in the public domain, there are no rights issues with authors preferences.
**I couldn’t even find a pronunciation for “Huazi,” and my fear is that this performance’s guess could be risibly bad by Chinese standards. I know I have some Chinese readers. Is Huazi mountain and/or ridge a well-known place that would be meaningful to a Chinese reader?
Not every record had those lyric sheets. Some artists opposed them on principle—Bob Dylan was one—though to a large degree the reason we got them was due to that hold-out, Mr. Dylan. Dylan revolutionized song lyrics. Before Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs with lyrics like he did.* After Dylan, a lot of everyones tried their hand at it. In the 21st century when we hear or see lyrics that use an accretion of rapidly changing metaphors and a kaleidoscope of dark-cylinder mental outlooks, we no longer notice that they are Dylanesque. It’s just a mode that songwriters can draw from the common.
Would that have happened if Dylan hadn’t happened? Possibly. And plausibly, only similarly, but distinctly different. Would Richard Farina (sans motorcycle accident) or Leonard Cohen have won a Nobel prize for reshaping a word form?
One argument that it would have still happened was the psychedelic phase of pop music that followed Dylan’s revolution. There, later in The Sixties, opaque and strange lyrics got another push, one that was largely ascribed to intoxicating chemicals which produced visual sequalae and baroque mental turns. Now of course the intoxicated or drug altered poet was already a thing in literary poetry, and the sober cold-water-army songwriter was likely a minority long before “The Sixties.” But Dylan had punctured the membrane that separated those two crowds, and so we got the Canyons of Your Mind school of songwriting too.
19th century straight-edge punks on dihydrogen monoxide, usually also anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights too. Comes with a lyric sheet!
Some of it was good, some of it bad—but then we might see lyric sheets to the wind like these:
Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone
You promised the stone
From your heart….
Brandish her wand
With a feathery tongue
A mien to move a queen
Half child—half heroine
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor
If you were a bird and lived very high
You leaned on the wind as the breeze came by
Say to the wind as it took you away
“That’s where I wanted to go today”
Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples, the unending
Subtleties of river power
The chorus sings: “OK Boomer,” and you can ascribe all of these to chemical traces, wonder about their authors consequent mental damage, or coldly appreciate them as word music, but I’ll come at you from a minority report: the trip’s in your head, not in the drug. I gave up stuff you can smoke (mostly nicotine) around the time I passed the trustworthy border age of 30. I never spun the pill roulette wheel. Needles are for records or loose buttons.
Next stop for the psychedelic bus is some credit for those lyrics above. The first is from Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd song “Dark Globe.” The second is the beginning of an arresting if mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson. The third is by children’s writer, humorist, and WWI vet A. A. Milne quoted by songwriter Paul Kantner to begin the Jefferson Airplane’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.” And the fourth is the start of “Slip Inside this House” from the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson.
A little day glo paint or patchouli and Emily Dickinson fits right in when she writes in this mode I think, even if she’s a century too soon, “The Eighteen-The-Sixties.” When I ran into that first stanza of her 1861 poem known by it’s first line “A Mien to Move a Queen” earlier this month, I was immediately captured by its strange mystery, so much so that I worked out the music you hear today without even knowing that the poem was longer than that one stanza, and I was so entranced by it that the piece you hear today uses only the first and last parts of her poem because I think the middle parts break the mood that first stanza gave me. Want to see the entire poem? The link is here.
The omitted middle section seems playful to me—even as the British would say, twee, but I am of course editing a genius here. I still like my selection as I hope it adds some weight to the whimsey. What was Dickinson on about in this poem? Even living with it for a few days, I’m not entirely sure. The opening stanza is often read as connecting to Joan of Arc. Some read the poem as Emily reflecting on herself and constructing her own persona, and the middle section I omitted gives some evidence of that. Beside it’s general mysteriousness, there are to my mind two pieces of particular heightened sensitivity or even hallucinogenic imagery: the “Orleans in the Eye” line and the sensuous and heard quiet of the “Like Let of Snow” image.
So, we started with musty cardboard squares and moved through two steps of an era of wilder and wilder metaphors sung to music, and finished with Emily Dickinson, sewing 1861 fascicles by whale oil light while listening to Syd Barrett or A. A. Milne feedback on her record player long into the night. In between songs, the needle stops shimmying and she can hear the sound of snow moving across snow outside, filling, and not, summer’s empty room.
The player to hear my musical performance of a selection from Emily Dickinson’s “A Mien to Move a Queen” is below. Thanks for reading and listening!
*Yes there are examples that made it into popular or semi-popular music pre-Dylan. Modernist poetry had already done all of these things earlier in the century, and in addition, a big part of what Dylan used in creating his work were the un-acknowledged Modernists who created the Afro-American blues. None of that disproves the point that Bob Dylan showed that you could do that sort of thing in a proximate way that led to a revolution in the possibilities of song lyrics.
Are there people today still falling in love, or not falling in love together, or remembering love and almost love? Seems like a silly or rhetorical question doesn’t it.
So, yes, I suspect there are, as there have been before.
People fall in love on marches, at the barricades. Policemen fall in love. People fall in love in the time of plagues. Old people fall in love. Young people remember love or almost love. Oppressed people fall in love. People fall in love, but their partner doesn’t, and sometimes that partner is the wiser of the two.
So, is this the time for a poem of romantic love to be the most popular piece this past season? This is a time of new dangers and old evils. This is a time that predicts greater uncertainties and promises change if we act, and despair if we don’t. Can poetry put its “Queer shoulder to the wheel” as Ginsberg wrote? Should it?
I’ll be honest, I think about that a lot this spring. It’s a large part of why it’s hard for me to get around to creating new work here as this spring unfurled. Honestly I have little right to present short pieces here on Emily Dickinson, Du Fu or Arthur Rimbaud, but I may have even less authority to write briefly on politics, economics, sociology, or epidemiology—much less American racial dichotomy and all it’s injuries.
My observation that many who do write of these things have no more authority than I do is not helpful. Another observation is that all us artists have is that: our observation. We must strive to be careful seers and more exact sayers of what we see, though we tend to be flat seers. Heaven and wildflowers: that’s leveling. Romantic love, that often-brief thing; and disaster, that sometimes-brief thing that harms long and painfully, we see them both, we write about them as if they’re equal.
The player gadget to hear Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” this love poem written by a 20-something about old age, is below. Thank you very much for reading and listening, and an extra thank you to those who’ve helped spread the word about the Parlando Project. There’s a lot of stuff here from the four years of this project to listen to, and I’ll still attempt to have new pieces here soon.
Continuing on with our countdown of the most popular pieces here this past spring, I find a few things that break the usual patterns. So let’s get on with it and see what we find that were the most liked and listened to since March 1st. The bold-face titles are links to the original post presenting the poem, so you can easily visit those to read more about it and what I said back then.
4. To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train by Frances Cornford. This short poem in the tricky triolet form is as catchy as a nursery rhyme and is fairly well known in Cornford’s native Great Britain. Besides that earworm quality, the poem is weird in it’s shocking and concise frankness of observation, even more so when one considers it was published in 1910, pre-“Prufrock” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” It seems to have raised a little ruckus in its time too, as A. E. Housman and G. K. Chesterton both wrote parodies of it, and so by way of equal time I performed Chesterton’s parody as well in my presentation of Cornford’s poem.
Pattern breaking? This is a second poem by the same poet to appear in this Spring Top Ten, and it’s quite different from the charming Walter de la Mare-like narrative of “The Old Nurse.”
3. We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Pattern breaking? This isn’t a piece that was presented this spring, but back in February. Most of our pieces get a third or more of their listens in the first week, and in this one’s example, those listens were counted last winter—but listens continued this spring at a high enough level that here it is at number 3.
Dunbar is America’s first successful Afro-American poet, and this poem is often read as an eloquent statement of the burdens of bearing up under racial oppression. And that it is, and so it retains a still unavoidable relevance. If you follow the bolded link, the original post includes the guitar chords for my conversion of Dunbar’s poem into a broadside to sing.
Here’s the wisest thing I know about protest songs. Does singing a protest song change the world? Not necessarily. But for the moment you sing the song, perhaps together with others, it likely changes you, for as long as the song continues. Therefore, it’s good that we continue to remember Dunbar’s poem in voice and song.
Not to trivialize the immensity of the struggle against the evil of racial oppression, but as I write this in June 2020, I’m struck by the marchers and mourners here and elsewhere during our Covid-19 pandemic wearing their masks, a gesture to help protect others from the spreading of that virus. “We Wear the Mask” indeed.
“We wear the mask” photo from Minnesota protests on the killing of George Floyd. photo by Derek Montgomery for MPR News.
2. The Stare’s Nest at My Window by William Butler Yeats. Odd how this poem snuck up on me. I noted a Yeats book it was in had moved into the public domain, and I read the entire poetic series it was part of with an initial shrug. The esoteric mysticism of Yeats is not what attracts me to him, and these poems seemed overdependent on that aspect.
So, what about Yeats attracts me? Well, the beauty of his language certainly, but also his quests to see poetry as something again suitable for performance and to revivify the cultural heritage of his nation which had been much damaged by colonialism.
Somehow I wanted to know the context of the poems, and to find that this poem was written in the midst of a civil war made it more pointed, more charged. Then, later this spring I sat in my room, flames and smoke within my own tower’s view. “A man is killed” and “We had fed the heart on fantasies” are phrases in a poem. Nice words, they scan well, just phrases in a poem?
I’ll be completing the countdown soon with the most listened to and liked piece from last spring. Hit follow or check back to find out what piece that’ll be.
Each quarter I like to look at the pieces here that have received the most listens and likes. It’s time to look back at this year’s spring, and so I’ll be doing that this week. However, I once more need to report that it’s become increasingly hard for me to desire to create new pieces for this project. I say that partly as an apology to those who do enjoy the weird mix of the known and unknown writers whose work I present here, and partly as a statement of the cold facts of our time and how it impacts this artist. Perhaps I’ll write a post about this at greater length soon, but I don’t want to stand in the way of those of you who enjoy what the Parlando Project does. I appreciate you too much.
And too, part of these Top Tens is not just to point out what you liked, but also to help new readers and listeners understand this project beyond the one piece they find here from a web search or something you found linked-to on your social media feed or another blog. We have 460 audio pieces posted here in a range of musical styles and authors.
So on to our countdown, starting today with the 10th through 8th most liked and listened to piece. The bold title is also a link to the original post where the piece was first presented if you missed that earlier.
10. The Old Nurse by Frances Cornford. One of the constraints of this project is that so much of it requires my own voice, which has its limits of which I’m aware. From the beginning Dave Moore has been a great boon as an alternate contributor here, but age and Covid-19 is making that difficult. This spring my wife Heidi Randen has been good enough to take time to contribute her voice a couple of times, and this piece received enough response to just make it onto the Spring Top 10.
“The Old Nurse” is by little-known British poet Frances Cornford. I’ll write more about her soon, but this ghost story requires no introduction or framing to be effective I think.
9. Morning by Sara Teasdale. This project loves the subject of poets whose work needs to be better known (or known in a different way.) Teasdale’s a good example of this. She’s a contemporary of T. S. Eliot (and grew up in the same town and neighborhood, though there’s no record they ever met that I’ve found) and for a time, just as Modernism was arising as a poetic movement in English around the years of WWI, she was recognized as a substantial writer.
And then she fell off the barrel of the canon while others got launched into the circus catch-net of remembered poetic artists. Was this because she was a woman, or that she wrote rhymed metrical verse? The former reason is important, the later not completely unimportant, but I’ve come to think a large part of this is that she wrote short, lyric poems. “Lyric” in this sense does not mean she wrote words to be set to music (though her poetry is extraordinarily amendable to that.) Lyric means that her poems tend to be short and present “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” That phrase, one of the definitions of pioneering Modernism in English, soon became honored more in the breach than the observance. Big subjects, tackled by big poems, often anchored once more in allusions to substantial cultural markers beyond our eternal instant became the ideal in the 20th century. Teasdale didn’t do that, it wasn’t in her range.
Our complex instants in time became a forgotten subject.
So, this project asks you to pay attention to the complexity of Teasdale’s spring moment.
Carl Sandburg and coven with a satanic familiar at his shoulder strike a chord for lyric poetry. Let’s sing along: “See the U.S.A. with your Chèvre, hey….” And guitarists: an interesting voicing for C minor 6 with a 9th in the bass if you sound the open D string.
8. Monotone by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg isn’t exactly a case like Teasdale, though like her, he also is less honored now than during his lifetime. He was able to write long poems on big subjects, eventually becoming known for a multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln that retained portions of his long-form poetic style. Where he became less rated as an important poet, it was due to his apartness from a later high-culture and academic-oriented school of poetry that viewed his work as insufficiently formed and shaped, as too unsophisticatedly straightforward in expression. The prose-poem looseness of his free verse became just as out of style as Teasdale’s verse.
All of which obscured the Imagist Sandburg, just as dedicated to the “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” as Teasdale. Like Teasdale, I feel that these now less-remembered shorter poems of Sandburg deserve more attention and consideration of their complexity.
Here’s the other pole of Carl Sandburg, a prose-poem about the nature of government. It seems so far from the tight compressed Imagism of “Gargoyle” that one might wonder how it could be from the same poet. I may have a clue there, so read on, I’ll return to that thought.
But first let me note that Carl Sandburg had some unique experience to bring to this subject. This poem comes from his landmark Chicago Poems published in 1916, a collection that both established his bonafides as a Modernist poet and as a foundational writer of American proletarian poetry. But before that he’d been a first generation immigrant,* a Spanish-American War soldier, a college dropout from a no-where college, and an itinerant worker. In the first decade of the century, as he turned 30, he was working as a daily paper journalist as he began a period of political activism in Wisconsin as a Socialist party organizer. In 1910, the city of Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor, and Carl Sandburg took a position in his city administration. He was a self-proclaimed idealist as well as an aspiring poet. In his new job in government he was ready to—well, let me quote how he remembered itin an interview in 1953:
We were to build in Milwaukee the kind of planned city which existed in some places in Germany and in other European cities where socialism had taken hold….Then came the jarred awakening. Hordes of job-seeking Socialists descended on our office wanting the crumbs of victory. They behaved just like the Republicans and the Democrats on that day when they swept into power. This was not idealism; it was the old spoils game.”
In another account he said that his first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway.
After two years in government, Sandburg kept with poetry but went back to Chicago and to getting his paycheck from the Fourth Estate. Thanks to Ben Hecht, a fellow Chicago newspaperman, we can sense what being a newspaper reporter in Sandburg’s Chicago era might have been like. Hecht’s play The Front Page has been made into a movie three times, with most favoring the middle version, His Girl Friday, as cinema, but the original 1931 version is most faithful to the original play and era.**
Sandburg’s “Government” may not be one of his greatest poems, but I’ve maintained that poetry (like other arts) can serve us even when it’s not some sublime act. You’ve heard me maintain that Sandburg has poems that deserve to be considered in that sublime class, but this one shows us something too.
So now that we’ve detoured in the non-aesthetic realm of politics, let me come back to that thought, however unformed, that I have about the compressed Imagist Sandburg, the one we forget or underestimate, the poet who has poems that can stand with the other Modernists in concrete and incised compression. In “Government” Sandburg, though in a prose-y and less concise manner than the Imagist Sandburg, shows government in its evil and corruption is us, human us. It seems an institution as we speak of it in tired language that poets must avoid and repair, an external thing, like a building or statue put up long before our time—or if living, a monster from the other. However impure, however damaged, our republic is; however unclean our language is; however dull, ignorant, insufficient our thoughts are; we are the blunt weapon that damaged it, we are the only tool to repair it. Blunt tools break, sharp tools repair.
Here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Government” available with a player gadget below.
*I grew up in a small Iowa farm town with substantial Swedish heritage. In my half of the 20th century I believe I may have underestimated the impact that Sandburg’s parents were immigrants, or that parts of WASP culture may have noticed this about Sandburg more than you or I might think. Last year when reading more about another under-considered Midwestern Modernist Edgar Lee Masters who crossed paths with Sandburg in Chicago, I was struck at how often Masters referred to Sandburg as a Swede/poet in a context that I believe was meant to be read as a natural incongruity, that such a coarse background could be associated with the athenaeum of poetry.
**Footnote fans, be prepared for a wild mouse of a ride in this one. In The Front Page remember how the corrupt mayor is indebted to “the black vote.” In 1915, the black vote was largely Republican, and the Chicago mayor that year was William Hale Thompson, a character that could give our 21st century President a run for his money. He survived WWI politically despite being pro-German and reflexively anti-English, and with a drain-the-swamp campaign that was working to make sure the money sump-pump went toward his pockets. He was finally voted out of office by the campaign of Anton Cermak, the most important mayor in the history of Chicago. In that campaign, Wikipedia quotes Thompson as Tweeting (well, I guess not, it’s 1931 after all—but the flavor sure sounds reminiscent of our contemporary) “I won’t take a back seat to that bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack, or whatever his name is. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”
So, what’d Cermak do that was so important? In 1933 Cermak took a fatal assassin’s bullet that could have hit the U. S. President-elect Franklin Roosevelt standing next to him. Regardless of who took what bribe from who, or who did a better job of expired canine disposal, or even weighed against the epic odyssey of the Afro-American migration to urban centers, the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 would have likely changed America and the world’s history immensely.
By way of footnote dénouement, I’ll note that Cermak’s son-in-law Otto Kerner chaired the commission that was charged with evaluating the urban riots of The Sixties. Read this linked article for a sense of what was said then, and then consider Sandburg’s words in his great poem “I Am the People, the Mob:” “When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.”
I said last time that the Midwestern American poet Carl Sandburg is not often thought of as an Imagist when we recount the Modernist revolution in poetry. Indeed, I get the impression that his work as a whole is summarized as folksy/clumsy by academia, the efforts of a low-fi Modernist with middlebrow pretensions to real artistic innovation.
I wonder if some of this is an unexamined hold-over from the High Modernists who made a cult of academic culture and credentials in the mid-20th century. Sandburg certainly intended to be a Modernist and wrote thoroughgoing Imagist poems. And yes, he can present himself in a friendly, non-pretentious way in some of his poetry. T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound rarely seem to welcome in the casual reader, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams may puzzle us on first encounter. Amy Lowell will let us know this is salon-worthy art. E. E. Cummings may charm us in a playful way while still remaining elusive. Marianne Moore likes the seemingly earnest statement, but when I try to absorb an entire poem I’m often at sixes and sevens.
Sandburg can seem a bit too straightforward. Which he’s not, or at least not always. Williams can have his red wheelbarrows and plums, Pound his wet petal Metro pedestrians, and we understand this is willful simplicity in the context of their more elaborated work. Poor Sandburg. He’s misunderstood for being thought understood. Understood too quickly perhaps.
Here’s an example of a poem that hardly seems like Sandburg at all. If I presented it, unattributed, as translated from the French it might seem Surrealist, but it was published in 1917 before Surrealism was a movement. Even at the time I was performing it, I had only been able to absorb it as a sensation, and I’m not sure yet if I could paraphrase it even now. Here’s the link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. It seems to be a poem about violence and strife, about suffering and infliction of suffering. Is the poem’s gargoyle war, Moloch, capitalism, the demonized exploited, or the demon exploiter?
Is it possible that Sandburg intended this ambiguity? The sensation of this poem is so strong, yet it doesn’t seem easy to solve into a one-to-one allegory. One could use Orwell’s famous decades-later statement as a gloss on this poem:
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Two things ground this poem, and Imagism wanted to be grounded, not intellectually abstract. First is the gargoyle, which was a commonplace building ornament in Sandburg’s Chicago, secondary to the beau arts style popularized by the 1893 Worlds Fair there and to the widespread availability of immigrant stone carvers in the city. Gargoyles are ugly and often open-mouthed,* as this poem’s gargoyle is.
But Sandburg’s poem subject is metal, which is not impossible—there are cast metal gargoyles. I’m no expert on metalwork trades, but the actions described in the poem sound like hot metal riveting. Is the “gargoyle” some metal construction which is having red hot molten rivets being pounded into holes one after another?
A riveting video? Maybe not for everyone, but a few minutes of watching will show how a four-person team works together in hot metal riveting
Or is this poem’s subject a child’s nightmare? After all, twice Sandburg wants us to know a child could visualize this.
So, an elusive work, but the horror certainly comes through. My performance is straightforward, just acoustic guitar and bass. Sort of a folk song, if the kind of folks you hang around with like Michael Hurley. The player is below.
*They are sometimes functional downspouts, designed not just as ornament, but as a way to direct roof rain water away from the building and it’s foundation. Gargoyle as a word is derived from the French for gullet, or throat.
Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.
This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows” and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.
Dickenson can do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.
I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of “Forever..” and to “Crumbling…”
First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.
The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.
Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.
In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.
The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.
Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not
The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act” as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.
If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.
It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.
Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme.” Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.
In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.
Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.
*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.