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.

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.

The Dark Interval Version 1

How faithful should a translation be? I can hear your first answer even over the silence of the Internet: “As faithful as it can be, of course.”

And there are many times when I wish it could be so. One has to accept the translation loses when the devices of one language can’t make it over to the new one. Then, often there is the decay of time and the distances of cultures, and this can make meaning murky and less vibrant—but even between two people, of the same time and culture, native speakers of the same language, misunderstanding and misinterpretations of poetry occurs, as you can see with some pieces here where I perform words written by alternative reader and LYL Band keyboardist Dave Moore, which I didn’t fully grasp.

In the next two episodes of the Parlando Project, I’m going to demonstrate two different paths I’ve taken with the same poem, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”  Today’s version is an attempt at a faithful translation.

rainer-maria-rilke

Looks like kind of the intense sort: Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Rilke, like Tristan Tzara or Apollinaire is another one of those WWI area European artists who exact nationality is hard to pin down. Is he Czech, Bohemian, Austrian, German, Swiss? It’s doesn’t help that the maps of Europe were being redrawn during his lifetime by the outcome of the WWI.

Nor does it help our translation task that he wrote “The Dark Interval”  in German, the language that one set of my grandparents spoke in their youth, and that even my mother was somewhat fluent in as a child, because I know even less German than French.

And Rilke is philosophically dense. His poems are full of compressed thoughts about the inexplicable, and he has a strong spiritualist bent. The former makes it hard for anyone to marshal his thoughts into another language while impressing on you the need to do so; the later makes it harder for me in particular, as I have come to believe that a philosophical spirituality is (at least for me) an impediment to approaching the mysteries.

It may help that I first encountered Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  in a way deeply integrated into life. I, along with my friend John, was watching a band, The New Standards, perform in 2006, and during an interval in their show a man (who name I should remember, but can’t) read this poem. He did a good job of it, transmitting something of Rilke and himself in his reading. The translation he read was somewhat like the one I made later, and perform for today’s piece.

Just to give you a flavor of that concert, here’s the first piece they played. They did not pre-announce the song they were covering, leaving us in the audience to recognize it as their very different version unfolded:

 

I heard the Rilke poem immediately then as a meditation on the hurried mid-lives that John, I, and perhaps many of the audience were living at that time. Perhaps he—or the band performers, largely composed of veterans of locally famous indie rock bands of the 1980s and ‘90s—selected it for just that reason.

That’s not the version I perform here today. I did not change the words of this first translation, which sought to be faithful as I could understand it to be to the original German words, but circumstances changed how I hear it. John died, unexpectedly, way too young, a short time after we attended that concert. I learned later that Rilke composed it as he began to suffer from his final fatal illness. I can now see this not as a work about the busyness of middle age, but a work about the busyness of living nearer to dying. Different poem.

Here’s my performance of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” Just use the player that appears below to hear it. Tomorrow, my second translation of the same poem, with a different performance.

 

Her Final Summer Was It

I got to see the Emily Dickenson biopic A Quiet Passion”  this month. I can recommend it with a warning: this is not a work that intends to be friendly or easy to digest. It does present a reasonable estimation of what may have made up Dickinson’s life experience, showing it with enough detail to be (for me) very moving. However, it also tries to show the intellectual ferment of Dickinson’s time in a very strange way, by spending a fair amount of the movie’s running time having people converse with each other in an extended series of Oscar Wildean epigrams.

A-Quiet-Passion

This movie has no car chases or flying magician CGI battles

 
Of course, I have no way of knowing how people spoke in 1860 Amherst Massachusetts, but I doubt they spoke like this: epigram after epigram, back and forth like a free-style 19th-Century rap battle. What I guess the director/screenwriter is trying to do is give us some sense of Dickinson’s mind and the minds of others she paid attention to—Dickinson’s poetry is full of epigrams and busted epigrams after all. What he does is artificial, but then having folks read Emerson or other Transcendentalists out loud would be artificial too.
 
Another part that is harrowing is the time spent on the routines of death and dying in her time. Given Dickinson’s own gothic tendencies, this is not only defensible, it may be indispensable in conveying her outlook. And Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Dickinson is very very good.

So go see “A Quiet Passion”  if you would be interested in a portrayal of a what Dickinson may have been like as a person and what drove her as an artist. But do not go to see it if you want a friendly, straightforward introductory film biography that would introduce you a writer you have not yet committed your interest to.
 
For once I’m happy that this is a long preamble to today’s piece, Emily Dickinson’s “Her Final Summer Was It,”  because I do not really want to talk much about the work itself, as I don’t think I can speak a well as Dickinson’s own sparse words. I found in it great resonance to my own experience, particularly a summer 16 years ago—but as with all things we present here, the intent is not to dwell on my own life, but to connect to and impact yours. I hope I do the work justice.

Her Final Summer was it MS

Dickinson’s own hand-written manuscript of “Her final Summer was it”

You can hear my performance of “Her Final Summer Was It”  by using the player below. If you’d like to hear other Emily Dickinson pieces interpreted by the Parlando Project, we have done four other Dickinson poems with music here.