Mark Twain takes on Poetry: Stephen Dowling Bots

I’m of an age when thoughts of death could be excused as more a present issue than a youthful goth affectation. Covid-19, that hit dirge of the summer that would play at every party were there every parties, amplifies that. But the gothic was similarly close at hand in the 19th century when untreatable disease and violence were more common. We still associate poetry with funerals—though I worry too that we can compartmentalize it there—but in the 19th century this was even more so. Real and imagined elegies were all the rage for poets at any level of talent and fame. From extensive demographic research I believe it may be true that just as high a percentage of 19th century people died as nowadays;* but it did seem the opportunistic occasion for poetic mourning was more extensive then.

Now Mark Twain, a satirist, loved subverting the expected, and so in the course of his novel Huckleberry Finn’s catalog of expected human behavior and good taste overwhelming a more rational ethic, he stopped to parody such memorial verse with this tale of romantic death that failed to be, well, romantic enough. In the novel this poem is written by Emmeline Grangerford, who is described as a young poet who rapidly cranked out memorial verse faster than any undertaker or supple lyric muse could keep up.

In today’s audio piece I give some of the story of Emmeline’s poetic endeavor from the novel, and then sing as a folk song of the sadful death of Mr. Bots using for lyrics the example poem of Grangerford’s Twain has given us. The full text of the poem is here.

What is said to be Mark Twain’s guitar still exists and has been acquired by a collector. Small size guitars like this were normal for the 19th century guitar market in America. (photo by Bianca Soros)

 

Today’s music is just acoustic guitar. Although I originally intended a more elaborate arrangement, I think just guitar suits it well. As I came to the decision for practical and aesthetic reasons, I was reminded that Mark Twain himself was a guitarist.** Just before leaving for the West Coast where he would make a name for himself as a writer, he bought himself a used Martin guitar.*** He says he played it for men and women in the newly founded boom towns, and on shipboard as he sailed hither and yon. Twain’s account says he sang along with the guitar, but I haven’t found any accounts of what his repertoire was. It could well have been a songster’s mix of popular tunes of the day and what we now call “folk music” and I could purpose he just might have slipped in a few originals. Since one can’t tell how Twain would have performed “Stephen Dowling Bots”  as a mournful song, I claim my attempt as “close enough for folk music.”

You can hear my reading of how Emmeline Grangerford’s poetry is introduced by Twain and the song made from her memorial poem with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*I can present the statistical charts and tables for this startling claim when it’s ready for peer-review. A counterclaim is based on the data that many people in our 21st century are not, in fact, dead at this time. (emphasis mine)

**One of Twain’s sisters was a music teacher who taught piano and guitar. Both instruments were often thought of as women’s instruments in that era, to be played in middle-class home parlors for do-it-yourself culture and entertainment. The supposition that Twain’s sister taught Twain how to shred on his axe follows that tidbit.

***The famous American guitar making company was founded by a German immigrant Charles Frederick Martin in 1833 (a year that’s still featured on a Martin guitar’s label.)  The Twain guitar pictured here is said to be from 1835, which would make it a “birth year guitar” for Mark Twain. Some collectors today seek out vintage guitars that are coincidental with their birth year, but I doubt that was a thing in Twain’s time. Further clouding the picture, the design of this guitar (particularly the headstock) looks more like the guitars Martin made later in the 19th century, and not those made just after the company’s American start.

Fear No More

I’ve already talked here about doing translations from other languages into English and how it can be a strikingly intimate way to get next to another poet’s creative choices. Performance, or even attentive reading, can also bring on this effect.

Let’s take Shakespeare as a mere lyricist today. Of course, he’s a big deal for our English language, a writer from the days when it was beginning to resemble the one we speak today. For many he’s the writer of plays, with characters of which generations of actors measure themselves by the facets they cut from them. For others he’s the writer of sonnets, many of which work by complex arguments and compressed thought, making them memorable from line to line, even if it’s hard to grasp the entirety of even one of them. But occasionally* within the plays he becomes a lyric poet in one or both of the senses of the word: a writer giving us a complex emotional matrix of someone’s experience in a moment of time, and as a writer who expects his words to be sung to music.

Songs meant to be performed inside other, larger works can be problematic. They may refer to particular characters and situations, which when the song is presented separately, become unfootnoted puzzlements. This song doesn’t have much of a problem there. “Fear No More”  is  sung as a funeral song in the play Cymbeline,  but it’s self-evidently that—a situation that is universal, just as the song admits.

So, as I do my task with this project, figuring out what sort of music to write and effect to try to present in performance, I need to read attentively. Though I have done this hundreds of times during the Parlando Project, I often find that no number of silent readings finds what route to take. This may be me, my wandering attention and self-centeredness, but for this one (as with many others I’ve presented here) the subtilties started to emerge as I come to grips with performing it.

On the surface one could say this song is making an argument: they’re dead—but you know life is suffering, so they are no longer suffering. It doesn’t take long to notice that surface is transparent and there are other things to see through this.

First off, many things here are bittersweet. The opening line, for a Minnesotan** “…the heat of the sun” isn’t something we fear or are even displeased by, even during an extraordinary hot spell. “Golden lads and girls” also, not exactly earthly suffering, and we’re given their end with the joke that they’ll come to dust like the occupationally dusty chimney-sweep. Yes, wages, clothing, eating, learning, loving (all referenced here) can have their struggles, their bad as well as good days, but on the whole we don’t wish to dispense with them.

As the lyric proceeds, Shakespeare slides into darker and darker territory though. Those that assume to be our social superiors are going to have opinions on us, and in some cases our rulers will be tyrants. We may be slandered and censured (apparently this could be done before Twitter). And given some storms in the upper Midwest this August, I’m reminded that summer lightning and thunder are not mere theatrical sturm and drang, but can be the light and sound tech-crew of destructive forces.

And the final stanza moves darker yet. Exorcists, vampires, zombies, and vengeful ghosts—but wait: these are all dangers to/from the dead. So, the whole argument of “At least they are now resting” is completely undercut. And it’s here that I started to notice that the singer who’s tasked with merging with the poet’s work is outlining an inconsistent but vivid life that’s not without agency. This vividness argues against its inconsequentiality.

Imortal Poems of the English LanguageMaster Poems of the English Language Cover

Oscar Williams’ poetry anthologies surprised the mid-century publishing world selling quite well. These two thick yet inexpensive books were part the paperback library of my youth. Maybe it was the titles: “Master” and “Immortal” would be catnip words to an inconsequential young writer. Williams was an ad-man besides being a poet and editor, so this may have been no accident.

 

Shakespeare’s songs attract composers, and this one has been made into lovely art song, but I like to roughen them up a bit, and do so here with this acoustic guitar and voice setting. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. But before I go, I want to tip the hat to the Stuff Jeff Reads blog which recently reminded me of this beautiful and enigmatic lyric. And it turns out he and I both read it first thanks to the same anthologist, Oscar Williams, who issued some surprisingly great-selling mid-20th century paperback poetry anthologies.

 

 

*Besides being a dramatist, he’s also an entrepreneurial content provider for a new form that needs to please nobles who might get their heads chopped off—and then too, folks who couldn’t get good seats for the bear baiting and so had to make do with a play. Given that Elizabethan song had many clever lyricists, it’s not sure if Shakespeare wrote all the songs in his plays. We also don’t know the music composers, or their tunes for the most part. This particular lyric seems “Shakespearean” however.

**And likely too for an Englishperson, with a temperate-climate, but one that’s not too-often sunny. Winter’s “rages” aren’t without joy in Shakespeare either, like this song from another play.

A poem about grief for American Memorial Day: June, 1915

This Monday is American Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those that died in my country’s warfare. At its onset it was a solemn day for decorating graves, but over time it has lost some of that focus, with celebrations touching on generalized patriotism or military service. It’s also the calendar marker for the beginning of summer. In my youth it was celebrated on May 30th every year, but it’s now a Monday holiday that floats around a bit—but the reason it’s placed at the end of spring still goes back to the original purpose: it was set for a time of year when fresh flowers were in season across the United States, flowers for decorating those graves.

And so it is that this ambiguity makes it odd to wish someone rotely “Happy Memorial Day.”

The Parlando Project has marked Memorial Day with performances of poems over the years, but just as the reason for the holiday is somewhat problematic for mere celebration, it’s not easy to figure what poetry to mark it. Long time readers here will know that there is plenty of poetry that speaks honestly about the experience of warfare, and that WWI produced a great deal of it. But in its specific way, Memorial Day isn’t really about that. It’s about the mourners and their duty.

So, I cast about this week for a poem that spoke to that, and I found this poem by someone that this project has presented before: British poet Charlotte Mew. She was an unusual person when living, and the case of her poetic legacy is unusual too. Her poetry received some small amount of interest in the London scene around the time of WWI. Thomas Hardy, Walter de LaMare, Virginia Woolf, and even the American Ezra Pound recognized her work’s value, but this those-that-know praise never developed into any appreciable readership in her lifetime. Culture was still a bit of a boy’s club, and with the explosion of Modernism going on, you either planted the make-it-new bombs or faced being obliterated by them. Mew didn’t fit in any movement, and after her death, forgotten happened with efficiency.

Today a handful of scholars seek to make the case that she’s greatly underestimated and that her work needs to be reevaluated. They have a case which can be made with considered reading of her poetry. It doesn’t sound or work like anyone else’s.

young Charlotte Mew

Mew wasn’t just strikingly original in her poetry. Most pictures show her presenting androgynously.

 

So, here is one of her poems about the experience of mourning during wartime, written, just as it says on the tin, in June 1915 as the massive extent of the casualties and stalemate in World War I was becoming inescapably apparent in Britain. Here’s a link to the text of this short poem.

Recent readers have seen that I’ve been writing recently on how poets who write short lyrics sometimes get underestimated. We readers might flow through the poems like we would paragraphs of prose, appreciating perhaps a bit of the poetic rudiments of rhyme or meter. This can go by so fast that there’s no time for more than surfaces, but great lyric poems can have depths that ask us not only to read them, or even to say them or sing them once, but to consider them for longer than the minute it may take to get through them a single time. A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

Many Modernists sought to slow us down deliberately to oppose this one-and-done tendency. Obscure imagery, typographical variations, or syntactical sabotage are deployed for this. Mew goes in only for a light touch of the last here, with complex sentences that seem to end up somewhere else from where they begin. Her language here is quite plainspoken. There’s some interesting choices being made in the music of thought, with simple words being repeated to depict the stuck-ness of grief. I like the powerful simplicity of the repeated word “broken” here. Also notice the concise depiction of grief is externalized, depicted to a large degree by the seeming opposite in the child and the spring scene. Though not a recognized, full-fledged member of the 20th century Modernist flock, Mew’s poem of mourning and grief is not done in the Victorian manner. Even when she uses explicit emotional words, something done but twice, they are “the face of grief” and “the face  of dread.” She may have rightfully believed that a contemporary British reader would understand the wartime context of this poem, but in the Imagist manner, “June, 1915”  doesn’t say “war,” instead choosing to drill down into the charged immediate moments.

There’s no showy “stop and see how clever” imagery here either, though do not rush through consideration of the line contrasting the springtime child whose sunny lane is “as far away as are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.” This line worked powerfully for me early in my appreciation of this poem, yanking the alienation between the child’s state and the mourners state a distance of light-years apart. I’ll note that a specific of Mew’s London times in the spring of 1915 has become obscure to us, but the “veiled lamps” aren’t just misty eyes, for on May 31st of that year nighttime Zeppelin bombing raids on London had commenced and blackout precautions were being practiced.

Mew could have chosen to make this poem itself as specific as its title. She didn’t. While I find it very appropriate for Memorial Day, the complex moment of this poem, so starkly told, is not even limited to the wartime dread and sorrow that engendered it.

How about the ending? I sensed an undercurrent, even an intent, the first time I read this that the child’s small eager hand isn’t just thinking of the first June rose, but is about to pick it, to turn if from a living, pollinating plant to decoration—that he innocently is aping the harvesting of souls in The Great War. If I may own the poem, I still want that there; but upon further review I don’t currently believe that was Mew’s intent.

Mourning. Grief. Dread. Part of the borderless human condition. Timeless because of its forever, returning briefness. To know this is a bare consolation, as memory is.

You can hear my performance of Charlotte Mew’s “June, 1915”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

I Have Loved Hours at Sea

I don’t plan ahead with this project much, which has it’s benefits and costs. Often one piece sort of kicks off the idea for the next one and so on. That was the case with doing my roll up of last year’s section of “The Waste Land”  for National Poetry Month, and then following it up with a very short poem by Sara Teasdale, T. S. Eliot’s contemporary in growing up in St. Louis Missouri.

But I had looked at doing another Sara Teasdale poem other than her “Morning.”   I even went so far as to write a sketch of the music I would use. I liked what I had there, but “Morning’s”  striking compression made it more of a contrast to Eliot.

This project has a lot of inefficiencies like that, poet’s collections I read or skim and then find nothing that inspires me to go further. Ideas for musical combinations that don’t quite bear fruit. Poems that jump out at me as compelling, only to find that they aren’t in the public domain and therefore free to use. Ideas that seem sound but get pushed aside by other ideas that step in front of them.

Given the extraordinary work that I put into this project: selecting my own texts, researching what to say about them, and then composing, playing and recording multiple musical parts, these inefficiencies could trouble me. I certainly don’t want to increase them, but I’m somewhat comfortable in them. Like a meditative walking maze, there’s something in the time and indirectness that lets other thoughts in.

Pink Moon

The Official Moon of Shelter in Place. None of you stand so tall. Pink Moon is going to get you all.

 

I’m continuing this project in a time of a global pandemic, which doesn’t aid efficiency either. Luckily so far, I haven’t had to deal with any family members or friends suffering from the Covid-19 virus. In their place, there’s the toll of artists who have succumbed to it. It’s been a tough week for that. Bill Withers, who in his too brief time singing through the music industry, produced songs and performances of them that could carry this troubled workman through his clocked-in days. Adam Schlesinger, a songwriter after my own heart who liked to jump and mix genres. Hal Willner, that most underappreciated functionary in the arts, the impresario, who melded other artists into projects many and wide, projects often aimed (as this one does) to celebrate other artists. And then John Prine, the singing mailman from the outskirts of Chicago, who came from nowhere quickly into the Seventies age of the singer-songwriter, and then stayed like a little public park that you knew was always there, visited by yourself, some others, some pigeons, but nothing elaborate and scenic enough to celebrate.

Prine had some interesting things to say about his job. He said that he considered his mail route as “a library with no books.” As it turns out, he didn’t fill it with books—though he returned more than he checked out—but with that portable, walking art: songs. Actor Viola Davis once said that graveyards contain the stuff of her art while urging you to make it part of yours too.

They are the only profession the celebrates what it is to live a life

“Become an artist. They are the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.” – Viola Davis

 

When something, someone, goes away it’s a good time to notice what a sum total of things are. Some people are heroes for one thing they once did. Some have career highlights, a dozen or half-dozen models of importance. Others do things for decades, just doing what they do. Prine’s like that. Here’s a guy that in the decade that got called “The Me Decade” wrote songs that had other people in them.  He kept writing, forging his trademark take on the human condition into song after song. No big thing. That’s what he does. Or did, because now he’s dead and you notice something: there aren’t a lot who did that, and we have songwriters and songwriters still who will do something other than that.

Anyway, these thoughts in a pandemic brought me back to this other Teasdale poem, the one I didn’t use, “I Have Loved Hours at Sea.”

It’s a premature, self-elegy. That’s a hard form to pull off, but I think Teasdale does. It’s bitter-sweet, but that’s what we should expect from Teasdale, poem after poem. It can be read as a poem with a moral, a lesson, that we should live our lives fully so that our container of time is fulfilled—but also as Teasdale often does, there’s a gothic undertone to it all: many the blessing she recounts is qualified or undercut and stated by this young poet in a past tense. Here’s the full text of her poem.

So, as you can see with the player gadget below, I decided to go through with performing this second Teasdale poem in a row. I even decided to write and perform a short piece for strings as an introductory lament. In the delay of inefficiencies and skimpy planning, “I Have Loved Hours at Sea”  now seems to have a reason to be performed, and perhaps for you to listen to.

 

from Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln: the Prairie Years

I neglected to plan ahead enough for today’s U. S. Presidents’ Day holiday. It’s an odd holiday anyway, of no great interest to the large number of readers/listeners this project has overseas. And for Americans, the title and avowed purpose of the holiday may be especially fraught in our present day.

Back when I was young, it was two holidays, celebrating two specific Presidents: George Washington’s Birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. The first President, a leader of the American Revolution, had a cardinal virtue: he could have become the dictator of the newly independent country. That after all, is the result of many revolutions. He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the new country, full-fledged in the 1% for certain. Yes, part of his wealth consisted of enslaved men and women he owned, but these facts strangely testify to this one important fact in his character: he could have been that dictator. He could have run our country as a personal plantation. He would not.

Abraham Lincoln is another case entirely. I’m not au fait with the demographics of the early 19th century United States, but Lincoln’s family was undistinguished in wealth and fame then, and the circumstances of a rural frontier farming family in his time and place would rank his conditions with those of the world’s poorer regions today.

American poet Carl Sandburg was born less than 70 years after Lincoln, the son of a wealth-less immigrant in a rural America that was different from Lincoln’s, but much closer to Lincoln’s country life than we are today. When, in the last previous decade to be called “The Twenties,” Sandburg chose to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he could see those differences, smaller though they were to his eyes. And his eyes were an Imagist poet’s eyes.

This led to an unusual book,* one that was once central to Sandburg’s contemporary renown, but now is generally less well-regarded. Sandburg chose to tell the Lincoln story, as he might portray a scene in one of his poems, with a great deal of humble detail that at any moment could slip into a wider context unexpectedly. His palpable reverence for those humble details is unmistakable.

When Lincoln wrote and spoke the great American civic poem called “The Gettysburg Address”  he famously began by noting our “fathers brought forth upon this continent.” Sandburg though, in telling Lincoln’s story was not exclusively beholden to the patriarchy. And so, however late for Presidents’ Day, here’s a piece more directly about the holiday’s forerunner: Lincoln’s Birthday, as portrayed in Sandburg’s book.

I could see Sandburg, being a poet, choosing poetic methods of refrain as he tells the story of Abe’s birth, and then but a few pages later the death of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Each event is set in humble rural isolation, with a central image of a bed of poles and animal hides, cleated to the wall in the corner of a hand-built, dirt-floor hut. This is where Nancy Hanks first presented us Lincoln’s birth day, and also where she died nine years later.

Abe Lincoln's Birth Day

When Dell books got the paperback rights to Sandburg’s condensed version of his Lincoln book, they also made a 1956 comic book from it. The unknown artist didn’t follow Sandburg’s text accurately for the interior scenes however. The cabin drawing is based on a later reconstruction and the interior panel could be a 20th century home familiar to the 1950s reader.

 

Can we believe that’s an American story, much less the story of the birth of a President? It seems like a tale from somewhere else, particularly today. Oh, so much, particularly today. Like a grim fairy tale passed down from some old country. That the Lincolns’ nearest neighbors have the name “Sparrow” only adds to this effect. I decided that Sandburg’s Lincoln tale needed an invocation, a striking way to set us in readiness. My choice for that was to begin with a quote from Patti Smith’s “Birdland,”  another place where music met words to tell the tale of a child who had lost a parent. In the little section I chose here Smith—like Sandburg will at times in his tale—steps outward from the particular in her poem to the promise of an ecstatic future.

The player to hear this performance should appear below. Because I was so late in getting this piece together, the main section retains a “scratch” rhythm section track I used while constructing the piece that I’d normally replace, but I doubt it detracts much from Sandburg’s story.

 

 

 

*The first book, published in two volumes,  Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years  was followed up several years later with Abraham Lincoln: the War Years  published in four volumes. These books were in their time a success, and helped form the American cultural understanding of Lincoln in the 20th century. After another interval of years Sandburg created his own one volume condensation of these books, greatly shortening the original text. With my short deadline, it was from that later edition, the one I could get quick access to, that today’s text it extracted.

The Phones in our Hands (are so Magical)

This week I met with a small group of poets that have been sharing their work with each other for a few decades. At the end of the night one of us said that, despite the date, that love poems had been rare.

I said that I do try to look for love poems to present here as part of this project, but when I do I’m often waylaid by something gloomier—“But then, love poems can be as complicated as any other, and there’s always Lorca where the poem is ‘I love and desire you even while we’re between one foot and our whole body and soul in the grave.”

Did I mention the group is all old poets? Young poets can choose to be poète maudit types, and to mine the tropes of love, separation from all, and death—but past a certain age, us old poets have an organic attachment to that role that we’d have to actively deny to escape.

So, for Valentine’s Day, here’s a free-verse sonnet of mine that speaks about a kind of love that old partners may have. I think some readers could miss that aspect in “These Phones in our Hands (are so Magical),”  working as the poem does to contrast the little glowing palm-shrines that are now common to most of us with other kinds of connection.

These Phone in our Hands

Long time readers here know that we’ll be back soon with performances of poems I didn’t write.

The magical incident it describes, of a phone that can display a picture of a couple seven years in the future is not entirely fantasy. As the poem jokes, there are processes that can age a photo to show how a person might look at an older age. For someone older, the assurance that one might see proof that one will be around for seven more years is magical in a more above and below-ground earthy sense. Young lovers can wonder if their partner will stay partnered with them. Old lovers know  that they will part.

The final couplet may be tricky. The empty hands are not just empty of their magical smart phones.

I almost presented this with just the drums, but in the past week or two I’ve spent composing time blowing on the guitar because my fingers have been up to it, and maybe I can recover a little of the few chops I once had. Yet, in the back of my mind I’ve reminded myself that it’s been awhile since I composed an orchestra piece for this project, and that led to the strings today. The player to hear it should be below. If you’re reading this in the WordPress reader on an iPad or iPhone the player gadget may be missing. Why? I don’t know, as the player shows up fine in Safari—but you can subscribe to the audio pieces by themselves in the Apple Podcast app or find us as the Parlando Project on Spotify.

Winter Sleep

What age are we when we write poetry? What age should we be?

Poet Donald Hall while writing memoir in essay form after age 80 said that part of why he turned to prose was that after a certain age he no longer felt he had the urge to, or could, write poetry. I’m not that old yet, but after so many decades of writing poems I’m more likely to ask myself why this poem needs to exist.

This never occurred to me as a younger writer. It was enough that the urge was there, that the work of shaping it was rewarding, that the existence of some new set of words in some novel order representing a moment of experience had occurred. There are times when we may suppose this always is—at least approximately. We’re all our own first reader. For some of us, some of the time, our only readers. Even if we believe we’re writing a poem for someone else, that first audience is still inevitably connected with the poem’s creator.

I don’t know that there’s any pattern in that first audience disliking its own poem at times. Does one get better at crafting poems or observing experience with time? Does one get better at staying out of the way of the poem when that’s necessary? Does one get more preceptive at the ways the poem fails to meet, or cannot meet, some more perfect state? Does one just realize that some days you eat the bear, and other days the bear eats you?

A couple of years back I had some fun looking at a compiled list of the 20 most anthologized American poems of the modern era. Now of course such a list reflects any number of factors, some of which are extra-literary, such as prejudices, impact, and probably even some ivy-tower log-rolling. But still, these poems can safely be considered as successful with an experienced audience early in our century.

One thing surprised me. About half of these poems, the ones that are presumed to reflect the author’s masterpieces, were written in the author’s 40s. Six more were written in the author’s 30s. Just one was written by a writer past 50 (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” published when the writer was 65). Only two were written by writer’s in their 20s (the list’s youngster was T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”,  completed when the author was 27.)

But how old were these poets in their souls of experience, the place from where they wrote these poems? It’s not unusual for younger poets to take on the air of more experienced people in their poems. This past fall we presented a couple of well-known and liked poems considered to be about old age: Rilke’s “Autumn Day”  and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.”  Rilke wrote his autumn of one’s years poem in his 20s, Shakespeare’s was penned in his 30s.

Yet neither sounds false to this older reader.

Similarly, there are times when I’m writing that I feel younger than my years. It’s a commonplace that there’s a sense of play in the arts, something that past a certain age is increasingly rare to find in off-hand physical activity.

So perhaps you, like I, may feel unstuck in time when writing. Our writing may not be objectively timeless, but our mental flight seems so.

While thinking about these things this winter, I came upon this poem* that seemed to me to be a fine expression of the experience of old age experiencing the unsettledness of sense of age.

Edith M Thomas engraving

Edith Matilda Thomas. One thing I’ve found out: Emily Dickinson classmate Helen Hunt Jackson helped launch Thomas’ writing career.

 

There’s not much here today about the author, American Edith M. Thomas, who published “Winter Sleep”  in 1896, when she was just in her 40s. I don’t know that much about her yet. It’s strictly metrical and all rhymed up, but once or twice it seems to strain natural speech to make its rhyme and meter.

What’s impressive about it is that it strikingly presents not just old age, but the approach of death as an unstable state, the dream of life. This isn’t an “autumn of my years” poem—it’s a “winter of my years poem.” I immediately sought to set it to music for performance. To hear what I came up with, use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*”Winter Sleep”  is another poem and poet I was introduced to by Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. Here’s a link to the text of the poem and you can sign up for Poem-A-Day there too.

Endless Circle

Here’s another poem by the lesser-known American poet Genevieve Taggard. Taggard was sometimes classed with a group of woman poets of the first part of the 20th century, all of whom suffered from the rise in the 1920s of “High Modernism” that held that longer poems with elevated metaphors referencing prior literature and art were the mark of seriousness in poetry.

Robert Frost* was able to hold out against this to some degree, but most female poets had a harder time of it. Three poets I’ve presented here multiple times: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and Elinor Wylie all suffered from this change in the culture. Before this change in our last century’s Twenties, they were all prize-winning American poets, and all had achieved a reasonable degree of readership and fame. Somewhere nearing 100 years ago, all of these figures started to be classed as writers of unserious work: merely pretty verse. By the second half of the century when I went to school none were taught in my classes. Not part of the canon.

The poet, professor, and blogger I’ve referenced here earlier this year, Lesley Wheeler, recalls the term “The Songbird Poets,” which exclusive of it’s dismissiveness seems apt to me. The whole idea of poetry as song rather than an impressive castle of elaborate and complex images was in retreat—but all of them could write the kind of short poem that sings off the silent page. I can’t resist turning up the volume on them for this project.

Was their gender part of the downward reassessment? No need to make too fine a point about it: yes. To the degree that the critics and canon formers had an objective criteria, it was to see an excess of emotional content in their work, and they wished for a poetry where rote sentimentality was reduced or eliminated entirely and where overt emotional language was replaced by states revealed in those complex and often academic images.

But one can’t take emotional content out of art, whose whole Unique Selling Proposition is to transfer the experience of experience between one mind and another.  Those who’ve followed our yearly April dive into that High Modernist checkpoint T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  know that it has a harrowing emotional core, so harrowing that Eliot himself seemed embarrassed by it later in his career. By the time I was introduced to it in the second half of the 20th century this aspect of that medley of lyric poems was absent in the syllabus.

I maintain that song, the word-music of a poem, its structure, order, and how it rhymes its observations, can (just as much as some cool classical image formulating an objective correlative) powerfully contain and convey emotion. “The Songbird poets” were vastly underappreciated for the complexity of their examination of emotion and the human condition. Let us judge these means again as we look at Taggard’s poem. We may be able to look at these works and see what the previous generations couldn’t appreciate: The form her verse takes here is integral to the impact of this poem.

Endless Circle Text

 

This is a poem that holds itself in a mysterious balance, a Mobius loop of a story fulfilling its title. My reading of it is that it’s a love and death poem that portrays neither as final by its spare and graceful text. As I understand it, it opens with lovers under a tree, who by the second stanza have aged and edged into a death, a transition they mark “laughing and leaping” as if rebirth into youth.

The first verse is then repeated, and I’m feeling it ambiguously. Are they a new generation of young lovers under a tree, fated to love and weep, or has the poem’s singer moved on to a new love, a new desire fated to end in weeping—or are our lovers buried under the tree now, their spirits recalling life?

I don’t always know where the musical accompaniment ideas come from for this project. Sometimes I realize after the fact that I’ve been channeling some musical idea subconsciously. After I finished the mix on my performance of Genevieve Taggard’s “Endless Circle”  I suddenly realized that I may be musically recalling The Incredible String Band, a Scottish group from the weirder fringes of “The Sixties.” I admired their asymmetrical and unafraid to wander song structures and their wide-ranging combinations of various instruments, but I’m always hesitant to recommend them to others because their vocals are (like mine often are) more than a little pitchy.

If that part of my music here bothers you, today’s piece will then. This piece called out to be sung, even if mine is the only voice I have available to sing it today. The player to hear “Endless Circle”  is below.

 

 

 

*William Carlos Williams also fought against this, but he seemed to have felt this academic turn hurt his work’s standing. Marianne Moore is a conspicuous example of a woman who was able to buck the trend by writing every bit as cool and hermetic as any of the Modernist men. Frost himself seemed to write fewer of the short lyrics that his early books featured and turned to longer blank-verse narratives. And another Parlando Project favorite, Carl Sandburg, mixed in longer, more Whitmanesque epics, and turned to his Lincoln biography.

Over in the British Isles I don’t think things worked out quite the same. Why this might be is too long a subject for this post, much less a footnote.

**If you want to read a long impression of what it’s like to listen to an Incredible String Band Sixties album with an open mind and an ambiguous conclusion you could click here: “Makes Syd Barrett sound like Neil f’ing Diamond” it says. Or if you’re too young for that writer’s simile to hit home, think of the weirdest chronic-infused hip-hop mix tape you could imagine, only it’s played by two white guys and their girlfriends on a shed-load of acoustic instruments instead of samples and loops, and autotune clearly hasn’t been invented yet. Or if you’re brave, you could take the adventure and listen to one of their records yourself. Yes, an excess of “canyons of your mind” hippie naivete in the lyrics too, something that Taggard’s form and concision here contrasts with, but there may still be some charm in their work since there’s little danger of it taking over the world these days.

Three More Cinquains

Once more, let’s travel back to 1914.

For several months, as summer 1913 turns to ’14 through autumn and winter, a 35-year-old woman is creating the manuscript for her first book-length collection of poetry. Creating a book-length manuscript is always a challenging task, and regardless of whatever realistic expectations the author might have for its reception, hope is normally the fuel for this. First collections are like that, as a poet figures out how to introduce themselves to strangers.

But this woman, Adelaide Crapsey, is also producing her final collection of poetry, and she likely knows that. She’s not working in her study or at some granted writer’s retreat, but at a sanitarium* where she’s suffering through the last stages of tuberculosis which has spread to her brain. If 1914 is The Year that Imagism Broke, it’s also the year that she will die.

Saranac Lake Cottage Sanitarium circa 1918

There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them?” Du Fu

 

The book that she is working on will be published in 1915, and it will be the place where she’ll introduce her own poetic form, the cinquain. The cinquain is a short five-line verse form, primarily iambic, that uses an increasing series of syllables: two in the first line, four in the second, six in the third, eight in the fourth, and then back to two in the final line. Some have noted that the increase creates an expectation of growth or expanding sense, only to have the ending come up short and terse. I’m not the first to see this as a symbol of Crapsey’s life and art itself.

Still it’s remarkable that Crapsey chose such a small, tight form into which to pour her thoughts on illness and approaching death. Some might choose a short but loose form to conserve energy; others might turn rangey trying to get all their last expressions in. Crapsey seems to find in the form’s limits the borders within to hold her place.

Three More Cinquains from Crapsey

Here are the three cinquains I used today. Illness and the eventual passage of dying is something we all share. Crapsey used tiny poems to bear vivid witness.

 

In the early 20th century world of Modernist American poetry, her tragic story lent a degree of publicity to the posthumously published book, but it was a small fire which soon burnt out. As I mentioned last time, extremely short poems and the direct lyric impulse is not where Modernism headed after the 1920s—but in the long run, we can still access these poems the only way that poetry can be reached: by directly taking them inside us. These cinquains don’t ask for a large place.

For my performance of three more of Crapsey’s cinquains of 1913-1914 I composed music for strings which sounds acoustic even though there is some spare, bell-like Rhodes electric piano and a cello line that is treated with a strong resonant echo that I think adds some poignance. I don’t know where this melody and counterpoint came from, but as I tried and played some string lines on my MIDI guitar it came to me quickly, as if out of the air. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Looking to see what I could find about a Saranac Lake sanitarium I found a fascinating story about a small upstate N. Y. town that welcomed tuberculosis patients for palliative therapy in the early 20th century. Other literary residents after Crapsey included novelists Allan Seager and Walter Percy. On first reading “sanitarium” I had visualized a large dreary hospital building, but the setting appears to be surprisingly humane. Coincidentally, the remaining buildings were sold a few weeks ago.

A Misplaced Landmark in Modernist Poetry Part 3

Were you surprised or puzzled when I introduced this series on the Spoon River Anthology  by comparing it to the later bleak Modernist landmark “The Waste Land?”  I would have been. Not only is it often (usually?) left out of recent timelines of significant events in Modernist poetry’s emergence, the single epitaphs I recalled from it, the book’s “greatest hits,” were more similar to the ones I’ve presented so far here than to the bulk of Spoon River.  My first two Spoon River  posts: “Cooney Potter”  and “Fiddler Jones”  are ostensibly wistful, and while Cooney’s notice of the driving of his family and himself to increase his wealth and holdings has darker undertones, he’s telling this in the context of regret and guilt. He might even be exaggerating his faults.

Other unrepresentative Spoon River  “greatest hits” include the glowing and mildly tragic elegy for the putative love of the young Abe Lincoln’s life “Anne Rutledge,”  and “Lucinda Matlock*”  the stoic toting up of a full life by a pioneering settler who tells us she outlived (in a dual sense of the word) her troubles. The book’s opening introductory poem, “The Hill”  in its death-comes-to-us all catalog of outcomes remains elegiac. We might expect bittersweet with a strong flavor of nostalgia in the whole book. That’s how I’d cataloged Spoon River  informally in my mind.

SpoonRiverAnthology_cover

File under horror, not reminiscence

 

Reading the Spoon River Anthology this month has changed my understanding of it. Overall, the view of life and values in it is far more bitter than sweet. Many epitaphs are accounts of cruelty or unmitigated evil. Most relationships can be summed up (and are) as a grudge of one sort or another. It’s a harrowing read in its entirety if you are paying attention all the way through. With only a hint of the supernatural in it, it’s a horror story,  the mitigating moments and elements only relief before another crime or creep comes around the corner.

Today’s piece is perhaps the most chilling one in the entire book, as cold as a lynching poem—** and with gender replacing race, that’s approximately what it is. As I said when introducing last April’s sections of “The Waste Land”   this is not material for everyone.  It’s not poetry that soothes, reassures, or delights its attentive reader.  Masters is going to tell the story in first person, a somewhat unusual choice, and the narrator is going to fiercely understate in but 12 lines. Here’s a link to the text of “Minerva Jones” to follow along with.

As I said when introducing last April’s sections of “The Waste Land”   this is not material for everyone.  It’s not poetry that soothes, reassures, or delights its attentive reader.

We learn that Minerva Jones*** thinks of herself as the village poetess, and that some part of the village loves to taunt her, perhaps for her pretension, perhaps for lack of conventional femininity, perhaps just because she stands out as not conforming. Her father in his separate epitaph says he’s taunted for being Welsh and poor, so add that to her “crimes.”

And then she’s attacked by a village ne’re-do-well “Butch” Weldy, motivated by and/or knowing he’ll be excused by the village because of the above supposed transgressions of Minerva’s. We are given absolutely no details of the attack, another authorial choice. Many, and I, read this attack as rape. I think Masters intends that assumption. The choice to include no details of the attack itself could be discussed at length. It could be revealing of the speaker’s shame or decorum. It could be mental shock transcending even death. It could even be a level of what could be published at that time. Does that choice add or detract from the power of the poem? I suspect that varies from reader to reader. Think here of one of the core practices of Imagism:**** that one leaves out the core ineffable thing so that it may still be invoked by what is included.

Minerva tells us her attacker “left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers.” Here the story-telling gets more fractured and confusing, as this telling alone indicates that she sought medical treatment after the attack ends. However, in the context of other Spoon River poems that touch on this incident, the most likely reading is that a pregnancy resulted from this rape and her visit to Dr. Meyers was weeks later and for the purpose of seeking an illegal abortion.

At this point I’m more willing to say that Masters has made a narrative error, or at least disassociated one of the most powerful images in the entire book from its vivid context. Only by reading the other epitaphs dealing with this episode would it be clear to the reader that when Minerva Jones says in her sparse account: “And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up/Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice” that Masters has her acutely describing the feelings of a body undergoing hemorrhagic shock as she bleeds out in Dr. Meyers office. If one can distance oneself from the empathetic horror we may feel of the incident Masters is describing, these two lines are also Imagist: immediate, not mere decoration:

Anything that follows such a cruel situation and powerful lines must trail away. The next two lines have the power of pathos, posed as a question, not a command, and then the final two lines break with Imagist rules by stating emotions directly. After all the elision of the poem, many will forgive Masters for the value of these lines’ contrast with the cold account.

What happens next? Does Masters resolve this story? As they used to say in the days before binge referred to media consumption: stay tuned.

I too made a curious choice in performing “Minerva Jones.”  I could have gone with a big orchestral sound, something I’ve been exploring this summer. Then I’ve been thinking I’m missing the element here of loud “rawk” with guitars and band. And synthesizer/electronic sounds are almost a stereotypical way to express horror. Even solo acoustic guitar would be a conventional choice—many traditional ballads are as cold and bleak in their description of violence.

Totally out of the blue, and perhaps not correctly, I chose to instead use something out of my not-quite-jazz side. Dampened drums in a solid backbeat, always a good signifier of fate, a fretless bass line in a rolling walk, a chord progression sketched on piano that subtly violates expected cadences and harmonies, and then the guitar top line emphasizes the G-flat that adds stress to the harmonic structure. Like Masters, I fiercely understated. Did it work? The player is below.

 

 

 

 

*Rutledge is one of a handful of real people with real names included in the Anthology, but a great many others are thinly disguised real people from Masters hometowns or Chicago (some of whom weren’t dead, and recognized themselves), Matlock for example is his paternal grandmother at whose farm Masters spent time at in his childhood.

**Several times here I’ve considered poems about American lynchings for presentation. I’ve so far pulled back, and the why of that is complex. Dealing with the emotions brought forward in the Minerva Jones story walloped me, and I had to step away unable to continue work on this for a while.

***Is she related to Fiddler Jones I asked last time? Possibly, but I can’t recall that being established in the book, while Minerva’s connection to other epitaphs is made explicit. If she is, then there’s possibly a comment on how poetry is treated by the town (and presented by Masters) and music. Music is a recognized good, poetry something between an oddity or a fault. Two professions are probably overrepresented in the small town of Spoon River, mirroring Masters’ own life: poets (there are at least three) and lawyers and judges (I lost track, but there are many).

****While writing the Spoon River  poems, Masters once called his work “Imagiste” indicating that he thought the term fitting. Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”  along with F. S. Flint’s short report on “Imagisme  was published in Chicago-based Poetry in the spring of 1913 as Masters was thinking about how to shape his Illinois material; and though this has been less remembered later on, Chicago colleague Carl Sandburg was committed to using Imagist principles.

I’m indebted for some of this detail about Masters’ process to the only full-length Edgar Lee Masters biography extant: Herbert K. Russell’s 2005 book.