Here’s a well-worn trope you’ll see somewhere as the year 2022 ends. Someone will write or say:
“2022 — would it ever end? Glad to see that sorry year done.”
Troubling and bad things happened this past year. I know. I’m a grateful and privileged person, but still this year has had stressful and even frightening things in my family. And if we are to look fully at our nations and the world? Distress might seem a slighting word there.
Here’s another trope, one portrayed in many a cartoon around the New Years, one old enough to be old when I was a child: an aged man with a 2022 sash around his stooped body, and a young smiling toddler just able to stand and show the New Year 2023 banner arrayed across its torso. When I was a child, even a younger adult, I always looked fondly at that baby with the New Year’s sash. What wonders, what new things will the upcoming year bring? What burdens will be set down with the expiration of the old year? Even if I didn’t know how the balance of the forthcoming year would settle with the debts of the passing one, I was looking forward, closer in age to that toddler than to that geriatric December 31st.
Now that I’m an old man, that expiring year is closer to me than that tiny child — and it’s not just years that expire or stoop with age. Since last winter, long time alternative Parlando Project voice and LYL Band-mate Dave Moore and I did our part to say goodbye to some colleagues in poetry, and we both have had some family deaths. No wonder that there’s been a good number of elegies presented by this Project lately.
I’ve had the rough tracks of today’s elegy since last spring, the best of which was a vocal track that Dave laid down as part of a session we did in memory of poet Kevin FitzPatrick. It was only this December as the year was coming to a close that I found an idea of what to do with Dave’s song. His words in “Don’t Have To” are all about the routine troubles, tasks, and stresses of life mixed with the aspirations we poets dream to grasp. Kevin, who wrote about work and labor, and who labored and worked at his writing, had all of that.
This was Dave Moore’s own corrected manuscript I worked from to complete today’s piece.
It struck me that this is a great life-lot of things, a glorious jumble — Kevin’s poetry that I was privileged to experience, the care and responsibility that his family, friends, colleagues, and clients were sheltered by. If the First Noble Truth of the Buddha is that life is dukkha sacca,* then noticing a cessation of dukkha is apprehending the punching out of the timeclock of a lifetime too. Might it be worthwhile for us on New Year’s Eve to notice, or even thank, the aged 2022 of our families, friends, colleagues, and ourselves for their labors however strained and imperfect they were? When we, like the year 2022, are gone, others will take up that imperfect and sometimes thwarted work.
That thought arose as I took Dave’s vocals from last spring and using the modern tools of audio editing, I sped up their tempo to increase urgency. For music I started with a rollicking piano part which I triggered on my little plastic keyboard but made sound impossibly knuckle-busting by invoking an arpeggiator that kept the sixteenth notes flying. After establishing that tempo, I had to give my fingers a workout on the bass to lay down a bass track, and frankly I was running to catch up the whole length of the song. I added a little vibraphone and guitar to add some visiting outside timbres to the dominant piano and that completed the unusual elegy “Don’t Have To (Now You’re Done)” you can hear with the player below. Don’t see any player? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.
*A complicated term to translate, though the simple translation of “life is suffering” is common. Properly, it includes the sense of stress, unease, and dissatisfaction as well.
Elegies are a funny business. Your job is to say something about the missing person — the missing and the person — in some combination. I’m personally committed to the short lyric poem, which asks furthermore that one finds short, immediate, and melodious things to stand for a life and loss. Proportions like that risk absurdity. I decided with this piece to run into that risk.
Absurd proportions in elegies can work. I think of Frank O’Hara’s pair of marvelously effective elegies “A Step Away from Them” and “The Day Lady Died,” which spend nearly their entire compressed length talking about the persona and the living activities of the mourner.
Do we expect Bunny Lang or Billie Holiday to rise up and slap O’Hara’s face or utter a sharp remark? “Who cares about your malted or gift shopping, your cracks about Puerto Ricans or African poets. I just died!”
Buy and large, we don’t object. Mundane specifics and little noticings go on after loss for the living. One wonders if the dead (if they have consciousness) miss them as much as the most luminous moments of their lives. And in the end, don’t those little tarrying things mock death most thoroughly?
The performance you can hear below is from last March, live in my studio space with the Dave Moore that’s also in the poem. I continue to tinker with the poem, a few lines or phrases may not be done yet. Go ahead and listen now at the bottom of the post if you’d like to experience the poem and the performance without further discussion from me. The rest of this post is unnecessary to that.
This poem is an American Sonnet, which means we hold the truths self-evident that we can change elements of the sonnet form. I wanted to set the opening, as many of Kevin’s poems did, firmly in working-class lives with old cars that work if you know what to do.
There are small differences in the above version that post-dates the live performance you can hear below.
Stanza two introduces elements of the typewriter in the title obscurely. Even though the title will prepare the most alert readers to what the object is, my expectation is that most readers are not oriented to the world of the poem yet. The typewriter serves as a generalized symbol here, though with a specific in-joke. In Real Life Kevin used a typewriter to present his poems well into this century. We’d gather to discuss work and exchange drafts each month and Kevin would hand us not some variety of computer printed high-resolution pages, but copies made with carbon-paper on his typewriter. I’d sometimes joke: “Kevin, mine’s from down in the stack. Could I have a darker one closer to the top?” All that’s missing from the poem today — except to Kevin’s family and friends who might hear or read it. Kevin’s place was always quite neat, nothing left out and un-put-away, so I don’t think I ever saw his typewriter, but I think it was a later generation electric typewriter. Yet, the one I present in the poem is more OG, one with an open keyboard with exposed metacarpal levers beneath the lettered key tips. Back when I took a typing class we called them “manual typewriters” (as opposed to the electric models that we had just one seat-row of in the classroom) and they metaphorically are our skeletal writing hands within the poem’s second stanza.
Kevin wrote an elegy, included in his final collection “Still Living in Town” for Katie, the incongruous farm-dog poodle that appeared in several poems in that collection. In it, Kevin struggles to bury the dog in frozen farm ground. Kevin’s poem is an Old Yeller-sized tear-jerker in reader effect, but he undercuts it with humor and anger that intensifies that effect. Here too the proportions are absurd, and that poem of Kevin’s has mechanics that are strange if one stops to look at them. I start the third stanza tipping my hat to that poem of his. I do worry that that connection is lost on the casual reader of this single poem of mine, but it may be enough in the self-contained world of the poem that it indicates that if we are burying Kevin’s typewriter we would choose a meaningful place. I’m trying to adjust the balance here between the missing person and the persons doing the missing.
My feeling/judgement/plan is that last line in that stanza works by strange underlayment of associations with several typewriter brands. Even now in the 21st century I fear this may already be footnote material as typewriters recede into history. These brand-names reeled off say this is a “royal” burial, “underwood,” of the mythical messenger Hermes, and finally the Mount of Olives significant to the Abrahamic religions.
Maybe this is a poem for folks my age — or the very diminished audience of those even older. Perhaps they are the only ones who have the shared experience to “Do not ask for whom the return bell tolls…”
Now why did I go through these other few paragraphs here? The planning and intent and selection I talk about is immaterial to the poem as an object. The reader or listener either gets what I put there and left out, or they don’t. I did this partly out of my nearsighted pride in my craft. More than one reader of this has commented “It seems like a dream.” Well, yes, there was imagination involved. Work at writing or any art long enough and your imagination may become trained, and your appreciation of imagination’s useful moments sharpened. But in the end the poem succeeds as an object based on craft. I’m unsure of my level of craft, but I continue to try to use it.
You can hear the LYL Band’s performance of “Burying the Writer’s Typewriter” with a player below. Don’t see a player? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Just so that there be no mistake, I admire Frank O’Hara and these two poems. And if you’ve got a moment, follow the hyperlink for “A Step Away from Them” as it leads to a nice short appreciation of that poem by Rod Padgett.
I started this inconstant month calling it “Unrequited March” — and I had this desire: to pay a more complete tribute to a recently departed poet I knew: Kevin FitzPatrick. In that task I wanted to see if I could rejoin with another voice and poet you’ve heard here: my friend Dave Moore.
Dave’s had some reduction in his ability to play keyboards, and he wasn’t sure how well his voice would hold up, but he was able to join me late last week as we took our usual “live in the studio” approach to doing some new pieces together, including a number of ones using FitzPatrick’s words. This requitement was doubly appropriate because Dave knew Kevin even longer than I did. Dave and I managed fine, and had a good time.
In the normal course of things those pieces would get worked on in the following week, but life has interrupted our singing back at death.
We are all racing forward and melting.
How? Even if one of this Project’s mottos is “Other People’s Stories,” I have qualms about telling other living persons’ events, so I don’t feel right discussing more details here today, but there have been hospitals involved, and some pretty long hours in the last two days in those places.
The outlook, best as I can predict it now, is that beyond my concerns with these other matters, my ability to work on audio pieces will be restricted for a while. If time allows, you might still hear some of the Kevin FitzPatrick related stuff yet this week.
Does it seem odd to work on art and our experience of it, even when other things must take precedence? That occurred to me too. Well, when I visited our newly hospitalized patient, they had two needs: music and Jacques Derrida. Go figure.
I’m working on some new pieces this week, and after all the loud and sometimes abrasive sounds I’ve been exploring this fall, I think some of then verge on pretty — well, pretty as anything can be with my voice. But before we leave abrasive….
I’m looking forward to Todd Haynes film about the beginnings of the Velvet Underground band that is released tomorrow, so I thought I’d put a couple of links to things I’ve done directly referencing that pioneering experimental rock band. Not everyone will be as looking forward to that as I am. I fully understand that. But in case anyone else out there is, here’s my “awaiting” post tonight.
The first piece is one of the earliest pieces I presented here, first posted almost exactly five years ago, called “The Day Lou Reed Died.” It’s my own elegy to one of the Velvet Underground principals and it’s principles too. I wrote it after attending a wedding reception filled with kids and Halloween costumes, celebrating the marriage of two brides, held just as the title says, on the day of Reed’s death.
And while it’s still autumn, let’s prepare for winter with a cover I did of a Nico song written by another member of the Velvet Underground, John Cale. To paraphrase Tina Turner (who was not a member of the VU), “we’re going to take the beginning of this song and do it nice’n’easy, but then we are going to finish it nice’n’rough.”
The LYL Band’s cover of “Winter Song” from Nico’s Chelsea Girl LP
Perhaps I should have included a note that no guitars were harmed in the creation of this piece at the end of the video.
Back with new stuff here soon. Acoustic guitars. Quieter.
Here’s another elegy, but this time by modern American poet Kevin FitzPatrick. Dave and I are keeping Kevin in our memory, which is one place to store someone one knew who has died. Writers like Kevin get another keeping location, one that can be accessed by those that didn’t run into Kevin while he was alive, and that’s in their work.
I won’t sugar-coat this, even in this grief time. I’ve talked here before about what I call “Donald Hall’s Law.” It’s a cold assertion, made by poet Hall in one of his late-life essays, that the majority of poets who receive prizes, notice and ample publication in their time, will be unread 20 years after their death. Is this judgement of time clarifying and correct?
Well, we mere readers of poetry too will generally be forgotten. Forgotten is time’s henchman. Perhaps having only a few “immortals” allows us to focus on those whose work remains in front of us — the heroes who survive the cannonades to become included in the canon. Utility is one part of the argument here. How many poets can one teach in one survey course? How many pages of poets can an anthology’s binding hold? How many names can we contain in our own personal “poetry contacts” memory storage as we pause at a bookshelf? It may seem cruel that this is a rough process taken so casually by time.
So, let me pause here and ask myself, a person who knew the poet Kevin FitzPatrick to some degree, what did Kevin think of this process, this fate?
I never asked him. He never spoke of this matter in my presence. I did get to observe how he carried himself in life, the way he honored poetry and the people in it when he had the direct, living way to do so. That was perhaps his primary concern more than the matters to be observed by a ghost. And there is a scholarship fund to express some concern for legacy, a fine idea. Here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to Kevin’s obituary in our local newspaper published today.
A more recent photo of Kevin FitzPatrick. All grief connects, so I’ll use Kevin’s elegy for his father today to elegize Kevin.
But then I recalled that Dave and I had another performance of one of Kevin’s poems stored away somewhere. I found and listened again to this elegy written by Kevin about his father. “Timepiece” is about something Kevin felt about the work of a parent and the work of time’s henchman, but now too I think it says something about Kevin’s work.
It’s a good poem to remember of Kevin’s. You can help me remember it by listening to the LYL Band performing it over a decade ago with this highlighted hyperlink, or if your way of reading this blog displays it, with a player gadget below.
Earlier in the history of this blog I did a series called “The Roots of Emily Dickinson” talking about some influences that helped shape her poetic originality, but in that series I missed running into this ecstatic poem known by its first line “I think I was enchanted.” Scholars are fairly certain it’s the American poet’s elegy for British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Actually, it’s one of three Elizabeth Barrett Browning elegies Dickinson wrote, evidence that she truly wanted to record her appreciation for this poet. In my casting about for interesting material to perform and present here I came upon today’s piece only after finding another of the three, “I went to thank Her.” I had gone so far as to start writing music for the Parlando presentation of that poem, when, in looking for information, I came upon this other one via Susan Kornfeld’s fine blog on experiencing Dickinson’s poetry. You can use this link to read that post and today’s poem as she presented it. Kornfeld says “I went to thank Her” pales in comparison to “I think I was enchanted.” It’s certainly more intense — intense to the point I began to question my initial readings of the poem, as I often do with Dickinson.
One of the challenges with Dickinson’s poetry is that I have little sense of exactly what the author intended. We have no readings of her performing her own poetry written in the 1860s of course, and despite some saved correspondence, those letters seem to me to show a person who presents different personas in what for others would be casual prose.
I said this poem is often considered as an elegy, a poem of praise written after the death of the subject, but while “I went to thank Her” speaks of EBB’s grave, there’s no direct mention of her death in this one. Furthermore, “I think I was enchanted” has moments I read as humor, even satire, mixed with what could be read/heard as outlandish but sincerely intended Blakean visionary experiences.
Dickinson opens her poem with a distancing frame: she tells us this is how she responded to EBB’s poetry as a “somber girl” — and in one of her alternative notes in manuscript she considered “little girl.” Here’s she’s recounting how the younger goth-girl Dickinson encountered EBB, and I love Dickinson’s concise entry into that gothic outlook: “The Dark — felt beautiful.”
What follows is the Blakean part, an outright visionary state: time has no meaning, logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead*, butterflies have become as large as swans. Dickinson has other poems that portray such states, and in some of them here I’ve mused that she had either/and visual disturbances like migraine/epileptic auras or full-fledged mystical transport where ordinary reality dropped away. But then observe how this vision recounted from childhood trails away. In our somber young girl’s vision, the older Dickinson says the sounds of bees and butterfly wings are audible but that they were little tunes “Nature murmured to herself to keep herself in Cheer — I took for Giants — practicing Titanic Opera.” I think the older Dickinson (she probably wrote this poem in her mid-30s) is allowing she was a little over the top in her feelings then. That she calls the sounds in her vision “opera**” is easily read as being over-dramatic in feeling by moderns, but I’m not certain how Dickinson would have viewed opera from her mid-19th century seat.
Emily Dickinson performs her tribute to Elizabeth Barrett Browning — wait that can’t be right! Well, it’s analogous, or psychedelic, or something.
The second half of the poem becomes more abstract, though opening with the metaphoric claim that ordinary days, even the “Homeliest” of them, are now transformed after reading EBB into a fancy-dress “Jubilee.” Another unusual word choice there, not prompted by rhyme. Did Dickinson mean something exact with “Jubilee?” Would she have been familiar with the Hebrew tradition*** from which the word derives? Possibly from Old-Testament sources.
The poem’s 6th stanza seems satiric to me. One of the most well-known examples of Emily Dickinson’s stubborn individualist character was her steadfast refusal to declare herself as “saved” by being reborn in the Protestant religious revival tradition of her time and place. That issue was part of what ended her formal education, and it set her apart from friends and family members. This stanza says, in my reading, that “What happened to my mind back then, I can’t really define and explain — but it’s not some simple declaration or decision, you have to live/experience it.” Thus sticking it once again to the just publicly accept Christ’s grace and be saved crowd. She continues the satire in the following stanza, in effect saying “You think I was out there, what with my butterfly bees beating opera tunes — well, your sanity without that luscious visionary intensity is dangerous to me! And if I ever get poisoned by that, well I have the antidote…” and she launches into a final stanza.
That stanza says EBB’s books of poems are “Tomes of Solid Witchcraft” — a phrase which slots right into a pagan-feminist bookshelf doesn’t it! And then a lovely fade to end: “Magicians are asleep” (the only possible reference to EBB’s death in this putative elegy) but she will remember the magic of that “somber girls” experience of EBB’s poetry, and the possibility of its creation by a woman, like as the religiously faithful remember the godhead/universe-creator.
In that reading I’ve outlined, I enjoyed this poem’s passionate mix of possible reflected youthful visions and the more mature satiric comparisons to a certain kind of religiosity. I did find it somewhat difficult to perform, as the syntactical jumps are hard to fit to breath and natural expression.
One thing still leaves me puzzled: Yes, I understand that Dickinson could easily feel that EBB was groundbreaking in her expression of woman’s ability to write and think and desire — and while that’s no settled notion even in our current age, it must have been even more striking in 1860. But even allowing for the framing device that Dickinson uses, the visionary experience engendered by encountering the poems as a young girl, I never have received that kind of jolt of new perception from reading any Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Maybe I haven’t come across the right poem? Maybe I can’t quite read them as Dickinson did from her situation?
Which is another reason to be grateful for Emily Dickinson, because in poems like this and others, this mid-20th century guy living in the 21st century can get that jolt from Dickinson.
To hear my performance of “I think I was enchanted” you can use a player gadget below if you see it, and this highlighted hyperlink if you don’t. Today’s music resulted from me specifically wanting to combine a variety of non-obtrusive percussion sounds (percussion being those pure “you hit it and sound comes out” instruments) with swelling synthesizer sounds that have no struck attack in them at all.
*Grace Slick riffed on a number of authors, not just Lewis Carroll, but I can’t think of an instance when she quoted Dickinson. Maybe she (like I) grew up in a time when Dickinson’s poems were thought and taught as simpler homely oddities. Grace, if you’re reading this blog, let me know what Dickinson meant to you.
**Like Dickinson I’m attracted to close, near, and slant rhymes, and when reading and performing this piece I was surprised that she missed the near-rhyme that “Titanic Overtures” would be in place of “Titanic Opera” with “To keep herself in Cheer.” “Opera” is a more strained rhyme, so maybe that exact word was important to her intent?
***Every 7 times 7 years farmland was to lay fallow and slaves were to be set free. This relationship to slavery led the term to be adopted by Afro-Americans in connection with the ending of slavery, a process that began in the United States around the time this poem was written. I have not solved to myself the mystery of Emily Dickinson’s opinions on American chattel slavery and Afro-Americans. Her father’s known political opinions on slavery (a huge issue when Dickinson was writing her poems) was as a “moderate.” But her Massachusetts had significant and militant abolitionists (including the Dickinson associate Thomas W. Higginson). Abolitionist positions are not synonymous with belief in the full and equal humanity of Black Americans; and it would not surprise me if Emily Dickinson, like Whitman, could hold racist opinions about Blacks while intellectually being whole-heartedly committed to freedom.
It’s also possible that Dickinson may have known of Roman Catholic Jubilee years; and in the context of a poem about a poet who lived in Italy and was connected with the turmoil there (which cancelled the 1850 Catholic Jubilee Year) this term could have been brought to mind.
Some people live so long as to make time and its boundaried eras seem a foggy measure. Such a man was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American poet, painter, and bookstore owner who predates and post-dates the Beat poetry scene — or for that matter the Hippie scene, and our century’s activist eras and its search for peace and justice. If you are a fan of generational short-hand (I’m not) you will notice that every one of those eras was widely denounceable as impractical, delusional, and in most ways inferior to those that came before that.
“Thank you for your service” is the reflex response nowadays. Surely due, but I think also of his post-war service, helping promote a new more vernacular American poetry via his work, encouragement, bookstore and small press. His own 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind was immensely popular,* and seeing it or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (which Ferlinghetti published**) in their paperback black and white form was once a common marker in smoky apartments during my youth.
Around the time this Project was beginning I performed a couple of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems live with The LYL Band. I’d actually hoped to get permission to post those performances someday, but emails to City Lights garnered no replies. Hearing today of his death, and thinking of his life that well-lived, I thought inescapably of this poem of his from A Coney Island of the Mind entitled “The world is a beautiful place.” I’ve decided to post our performance here in the spirit of gratitude and in memoriam. If any rights owner objects, let me know, and I will remove. The player gadget for our performance is often below, but this highlighted hyperlink will also work if you don’t have the gadget on your screen. If you want to read silently, or read along, here’s a link to the text of Ferlinghetti’s poem.
Want to hear another version of “The world is a beautiful place?”
*Some accounts say Coney Island is the most popular poetry collection ever published in English. I’m not sure of that.
**Was Howl a big “get” that he was lucky to land for City Lights? Not exactly. He was put on trial for publishing it, and Ferlinghetti figured he’d go to jail. The Fifties judge, to some surprise, ruled it not obscene.
A new month, and I hope to have some new pieces here with a focus on February and Black History Month. It’s also a new year, and there are now some new books and works available in the public domain that I can freely adapt for use here.
I found today’s piece “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young” while reading one of those newly PD books, Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro, An Interpretation published in 1925. This book was something of the premier book-length publication of what became known as The Harlem Renaissance. Unlike James Weldon Johnson’s anthology of just three years prior, The Book of American Negro Poetry, Locke’s book was a collection containing only the work of living writers, and with a particular focus on younger Afro-Americans who were just then coming to the fore. And so it is that after an introductory essay on “Negro Youth Speaks*” by Locke that I began to read his selection of youth of his day with the first poet in the alphabetical section: Countee Cullen.
Locke’s The New Negro is a beautiful book too, with striking woodcuts and illustrations of the authors.
Let me once more demonstrate the gaps in my scholarly education. I knew Cullen’s name and little else about him. The various short literary assessments I’ve since read to get some quick handle on him concentrate on his eventual estrangement from the development of Afro-American literature and poetic Modernism in general because his verse used 19th century Romantic poets as its models, and as his career progressed there was a feeling that his youthful promise didn’t sufficiently develop. After the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance passed by, Cullen in the 1940s was teaching middle school. One of the young teenagers he taught? A kid named James Baldwin.
So, what stood out as I came upon “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young” in Locke’s anthology? Well, there’s a mystery there for one thing. The poem read alone on the page seems to evoke something, but I suspect few readers will grasp what it means. Here’s a link to the text of Cullen’s poem. For me, and probably for you, that mystery starts right-off with the title. You may well ask: who the hell is Colonel Charles Young? Why would this young Afro-American be writing a poem about him? I need to tell you a story.
It starts in 1865. The American Civil War is raging. An enslaved Black man in Kentucky, Gabriel Young, escapes to Ohio leaving his wife and one-year-old son in order to join the Union army. After the end of the war, Gabriel uses his veterans’ pension to buy some land and a house for his young family. That toddler grows up to be a very sharp student, graduating first in his class in his high school. Perhaps thinking of the way his father had used military service to advance himself, that young man, Charles Young, decides to enter the U. S. Army military academy at West Point in 1884.
To say the least this was not an established path for an Afro-American in 1884. Indeed, Charles Young was only the second Afro-American to attend, and the first had entered only the year before and would become Young’s roommate at the school. The Academy had a well-established culture of hazing and a peer-discipline system based on fellow students issuing demerits on their own initiative. These pioneering Black students where therefore subject to every racist and discriminatory action the white student body could generate, and it was all so-easily cloakable as “tradition.”
Young persevered through all that, graduated, and was given his commission as a second lieutenant. He began his career in the still segregated U. S. Army in Nebraska and Utah with an Afro-American cavalry regiment. In 1894 he was assigned to Wilberforce College back in Ohio where he established the military services department at that historically Black college. He left there to serve during the Spanish American War of 1898, commanding a Black regiment in that conflict. After that war his military career took him to various assignments, including a time as the Superintendent of Sequoia National Park, various overseas assignments with Military Intelligence working at American embassies, and even a gun battle during the Pancho Villa expedition into Mexico in 1916. By this point he had risen to become the Colonel Charles Young of Cullen’s poem’s title.
And this brought upon the most remarkable event of his career as the United States entered WWI the following year. As the U.S. mobilized rapidly to enter the war, a veteran officer with war and foreign experience like Young should have been a prime resource. A white officer with a similar resume would have been rapidly promoted to general and put in charge of one of the regiments of the newly created expeditionary force. But this situation pointed out a problem with a segregated Army: there was no way to do that without making an Afro-American the out-ranking commander of some white soldiers. If there’s one thing white supremacists can’t account for it’s that, just maybe, there might be some Black folks with every demonstrated reason to out-rank them. Drives them nuts.
The Army decided to “solve” this problem by pulling Young from active duty, declaring him unfit for the war due to high blood pressure. Young attempted to refute that claim by riding on horseback from Wilberforce college in Ohio to Washington D. C., but less than a week after he arrived, the Armistice was signed to end WWI.
Young was returned to active duty however, and he died in 1921 while serving overseas with Military Intelligence in Nigeria. He was buried with military honors at Arlington cemetery, and thus we have the grave that Cullen would use as the scene for his poem.
So now that you know this as you read the text of this poem, or hear Cullen’s references to Young’s career in my performance, you should have a sense of its full import, one that should inform you as we celebrate Black History Month. Charles Young gave his full measure of service to America even if America gave him back something less than that. This is an example of what history is about. You may feel anger, puzzlement, gratitude, regret, or admiration at Young’s life. It might be most appropriate to feel all of those things. One task for poets and singers, from Homer to Countee Cullen, and onto you or me, is to be the trees with tongues to tell that Cullen ends his poem with.
*There’s nothing untoward about that categorization. Odd as it seems to think of these men and women who I think of as of my grandparents’ generation as ‘youth,” Countee Cullen was just 22 in 1925, the exact same age as our recent Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman is today.
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.
Long-time readers here will know that the Parlando Project has been performing a section of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” each year to celebrate National Poetry Month.* It’s been a major task, and if one were to listen to all those past sections, you’d get a fair sample of the variety of original music we create for these performances. Similarly, the amount of work that goes into all of the Parlando Project has been huge (we’re rapidly approaching our 450th piece), but this year’s section of “The Waste Land” is small—the smallest section of Eliot’s Modernist landmark.
I recall when I first encountered “The Waste Land” as a teenager how puzzling the whole thing was. Right from the start it was confusing, with allusions and foreign language phrases that I had no way of decoding. It was said to be important, and it certainly seemed to be quite the accumulation of something, but its hard to grasp nature didn’t make it easy to like. I could understand only a little about what Keats was saying in a poem like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” back then too, but the essence of that poem’s longing and attractive mystery was there from my first reading. Eliot’s poem? It just seemed complex, even in an off-putting way.
But when my past-times teenager got to his year’s section, “Death by Water,” I found poetry I could take in immediately had slipped into the much larger corpus of this poem. “Death by Water” is a small elegy, and what allusions it had (like Keats’) were alluring. “Phoenician,” even at that age, had the right kind of mystery, what with the seafaring and alphabet. That feint echo of Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five” sea-change coral-bones. The straightforward sense of mourning.
For all its shortness, I doubt I was alone in finding it one of the most impactful parts of “The Waste Land.” If you’d like to read this short, 10-line section by itself here’s a link to it.
The teenaged T. S. Eliot before he adopted the Harry Potter eyewear.
In 1952, decades after “The Waste Land” was written, this section took an important part in a literary controversy. A Canadian critic, John Peter, published an article that year claiming that the key to understanding “The Waste Land” was that it was almost entirely a disguised elegy to a French medical student who Eliot knew in Paris before the war: Jean Verdenal. The strong inference in this theory was that Verdenal and Eliot were gay lovers. In 1952 this was not only sensational to the degree it might still be today, it was outright dangerous. To be homosexual was more than a notional criminal offence—and furthermore by this point T. S. Eliot was the living model of a religiously conservative Modernist and a Tory in his politics.
Eliot was furious at this article. Lean solicitors were called in. Retractions were demanded. In the end, Peters not only apologized, the magazine that had published the article tried to round up all extant copies and destroy them.
A couple of decades later, after Eliot had died, this reading was raised again, and this concept of the poem is still being explored in our century.
On one hand, Eliot made no secret that he admired the young Verdenal. They shared a love for the poetry of LaForgue and Mallarmé and acknowledged times together as college students in Paris. Eliot opened his first published poetry collection Prufrock and Other Observations with a fond dedication to Verdenal.
“Death by Water” was a key exhibit in this reading of “The Waste Land.” In late April of 1915, Verdenal was serving as a medical officer in the doomed WWI Gallipoli** campaign with the French army fighting along with British and ANZAC forces. Accounts written afterward said Verdenal was heroic in trying to deal with the mass carnage on the Allied side as they tried to gain a beachhead at the edges of the Middle East. He was killed, and there was little ability to bury the dead on the beaches as the invasion failed. They were left to the tides or thrown in the water. A cruel month indeed.
Now to press levity next to death: I used to mispronounce Phlebas as if it had three syllables. Apparently it’s pronounced with two, phoenicianally/phonetically, close to “Flea Bass”—though I think with a short, not long A sound. The next time you see RHCP, you’ll enter the whirlpool and think of T. S. Eliot.
Knowing this, it’s easy to see Phlebas as Verdenal. But I knew nothing of this when I first read “Death by Water.” And you don’t have to know it either to have the words work for you in some way. Eliot had a theory for that, a well-respected theory back in mid-century: “Objective Correlative.” Eliot, by his own theory then, would hold that it makes no difference what the relationship was for him to this other young man in pre-WWI Paris. Subconscious? Sublimation? Closeted? Self-protection? Platonic, or Dionysius denied? No matter. You consider Phlebas or you don’t. Their bones are picked in whispers now anyway.
So, here’s my new addition to the Parlando Project’s ongoing serial performance of “The Waste Land” available with the player gadget below. Perhaps another one where a legitimate singer might better serve my composition, but I like the current of the acoustic guitar music enough to submerge you in it.
*You know: “April is the cruelest month….” That one. No one has said as much, but between the opening line to “The Waste Land,” the prologue to Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,”and Shakespeare’s birthday, April seems like a logical choice for National Poetry Month.