The Trees are Down

I indicated when I first presented a poem by Charlotte Mew this month that I’d talk more about her life, but what I know is so limited and sad that I’ll try to condense things.

She was born into a family that had more than its share of illness and mortality. Three siblings died in childhood, two were institutionalized for insanity. Her father died “without making adequate provision for his family” according to the Wikipedia article, leaving her mother and surviving sister to try to scrape by in late 19th Century London. She appears to have been socially awkward and eccentric. Eventually her mother died, and then her sister, with Mew ending up being the final caretaker for both. After the death of that final sister, Mew herself was unable to care for herself. She was institutionalized and committed suicide by the decidedly unromantic method of drinking Lysol.

There is so much unanswered detail in her story. For example, the two surviving sisters are said to have vowed not to marry for fear that the insanity might be hereditary. My now largely forgotten medical knowledge/experience wonders what the exact elements were of these early deaths and the cluster of undifferentiated mental illness. Quick, idle thoughts fall to something like Huntington’s Disease.

Anyway, during her life Mew was something of a writer’s writer. Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf both championed her and apparently got her a government stipend for support. She was not prolific, and she didn’t write grand poetic epics or found a new school of poetry or critical theory. Still from the first time I read her poems this year I was easily struck by how different they often were. In her era there were a lot of Modernist poets who were shockingly different then—and who often still retain easily seen uniqueness today. Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, H. D., and William Carlos Williams made individual showy breaks away from fusty tradition in the time Mew was writing her poetry.

But Mew wasn’t really a Modernist as they were, not in any card-carrying sense. Her breaks from poetic orthodoxy were sometimes subtle and sometimes seem artless in both the good and bad senses of that term.*

Today’s piece “The Trees are Down”  is a good example. Although I didn’t include it in the reading, it starts with a biblical epigraph from Revelation:  “—and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees—” What follows starts off as if it’s miscategorized prose, as casual as a diary entry, a letter, or blog post. But it soon adopts a subtle rhythm, something like F. S. Flint’s “unrhymed cadences,” with a little symphony of sound verbs and some mixed in background sound from the workmen felling trees.

A Plane Tree in London

A London plane tree. Poetic enough…

 

But Mew will turn from this abruptly, rather than developing that sound and theme, almost literalizing the cliché “red herring.” She recalls finding a dead rat—not at the site of the tree work, not recently—just a rat’s carcass once encountered some “long past spring.” And she remembers thinking that even this “god-forsaken thing” should be alive in spring.

rat carcass

…not quite as romantic as a majestic tree.

 

Then she leaves this odd aside and begins a passage of irregular rhyme and near rhyme, once more looping in a sample of the workmen’s cries (“Down now!”). Nearly every phrase has end-rhyme, but we are made to wait seven phrases for a rhyme between “fine grey rain” and her return to that seemingly unconnected dead rat with a remark that except for this strange connection with the rat carcass and the death of the trees “I might never have thought of him again.”**

And then she changes once more, back to the unrhymed cadences mode as she begins to introduce her final theme. Her cadence strengthens in her last stanza, and she closes with the introduction again of a series of end-rhymes. She makes her closing case so clearly that I feel no need to make any paraphrase. That case borders on the sentimental I suppose, and I’d guess that any of the few reading “The Trees are Down”  in Mew’s own time would see it as that in their context.

Today, when we encounter those same words Mew wrote, we might contextualize them differently. First, we may not be expecting Mew to sound like a fine regular poet with even meters and regular rhymes. Nor are some of us requiring she make it new in some bold way that makes a revolutionary show of novel ways of speaking and writing. We’re are more likely than readers in Mew’s time to be comfortable with poets speaking in unique and personal but merely human terms about events up unto death. The strange anecdote of the dead rat controls the sentimentality of the death of the great and stalwart trees. We may even see a subtext here, one we’ve come to increasingly realize: that of men callously controlling and seeking to reign over and reign in nature.

In the same way that we now read what had once been seen as inconsequential “relationship issues” in the poetry of Millay or Teasdale and see important social dynamics, we might read “The Trees are Down”  now a hundred years later and see an ecological perspective.

To hear the LYL Band perform Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down”  use the player below.

 

 

 

*Harold Monro, who published Mew’s first book of poetry in 1916, tried to describe this difficulty in Mew’s je ne sais quoi “No argument, or quotation, can prove that the poetry of Charlotte Mew is above the average of our day. She writes with the naturalness of one whom real passion has excited; her diction is free from artificial conceits, is inspired by the force of its subject, and creates its own direct intellectual contact with the reader. Her phraseology is hard and concentrated.” For a modern appreciation of Mew’s style see Molly Peacock here.

**I wonder if Mew, an upright human towering over the dead rat is being compared with the those-who-are-about-to-die trees towering over the humans beneath them.

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The Poplar

We’ve already met most of the small circle of poetic Modernists that assembled itself in London before World War I. From the United States, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and her one-time fiancé Ezra Pound; and from England, the combative and influential T. E. Hulme, and the risen from poverty F. S. Flint. Other poets, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost, touched them tangent in England, but were still bent with the gravity of what Flint called, and Pound promoted, as Imagism. If you’re new here, you can check our archives (now almost 200 audio pieces) and you’ll find all of them represented.

Today we use the words of the man we’ve left out, Richard Aldington. Another Englishman, he married the American H. D. in 1913. He worked with Pound to promote T. S. Eliot. Unlike T. E. Hulme, he survived WWI, but many said his combat experience changed Aldington, and retroactively the diagnosis of PTSD has been associated with him.

His long career had more than a few bridge-burning episodes, all disputes which I know not enough to have an opinion on. Partially because of this, Aldington is not well-remembered as a poet, even though at the start of the Imagist movement he was universally considered a principal.

Richard Aldington in sweater

Aldington, wearing an example of regrettable fashions of the early 20th Century

 

Like his partner H. D., Aldington looked to, and translated, classical Greek poetry; and like Pound he was fascinated by Chinese and Japanese compressed poetic forms, and produced work connected with these traditions. Today’s piece, “The Poplar”  isn’t one of those poems. In some ways “The Poplar”  reminds me of F. S. Flint (that other too often forgotten early English Modernist), as it’s free verse in Flint’s “unrhymed cadences” mode. It’s blissfully easy to read. It’s homey and unfussy images remind me of T. E. Hulme. It’s odd now that we think of Modernist poetry as requiring obtuse and learned images, when it’s founders like Hulme and Aldington in this poem have no images that wouldn’t be clear to a grade-school student.

Musically, today’s piece has a core guitar part that I played on a small acoustic guitar I’ve owned for 35 years now, but instead of “real strings” (which in my case would be “virtual instruments” where various notes and articulations of actual acoustic string instruments are sampled and then played by a keyboard or a guitar MIDI controller) I used a virtual instrument which sampled a 1970’s vintage keyboard “strings” instrument. I feel the dual falsity of this instrument, a simulation of a simulation, produces something that has its own validity. I also wanted to use a harmonium, but I don’t have that available as a real instrument or a sampled one. The closest I could come was a slightly modified “toy organ” patch which had some of the wheezy reed timbre I wanted.

Enjoy “The Poplar”  by using the player below. Even though it’s from the dawn of modern English poetry, it remains fresh because it’s not that well-known; and it doesn’t ask you to enter some dimly-lit labyrinth of images you cannot decipher. Yes, elusive images can have their pleasures, but so do these.

 

Love Song for a Woman I Do Not Love

One joy of this project’s exploration has been coming upon poets I know nothing about and acquiring their words in my bloodless version of that conqueror on the “peak in Darien.” Writing about Frost, Pound, HD and Eliot in England early in the 20th Century lead me to T. E. Hulme, an Englishman of pugnacious artistic pronouncements and surprisingly modest and moving poetry. And T. E. Hulme led me to F. S. Flint, another British writer and literary theorist in this circle in the years just before WWI.

Last month I introduced readers here to Flint’s amazing rise from Victorian poverty. In the interim I’ve been reading more of his work, including his 1920 collection of poems (he called them “cadences”) titled “Otherworld.”  Since Flint is not commonly studied or anthologized, each poem as I encountered in the collection was a fresh experience, no different than reading a new poet’s chapbook published this year. I could start a poem of his in “Otherworld”  about a confused midnight awakening, and come to find it’s a first-hand account of a deadly London air-raid by a German Zeppelin.

Today’s piece, in the same collection, held another surprise. It tells you it’s a Love Song, but contradicts that before the end of the title. What it is instead is an unstinting examination of the corrosion class and gender inflict on the grail of love. The singer of this song lays bare a combination of disgust at how he’s judged as a poor man, with an undisguised desire to own the things he does not have, including this other human being, the woman of the title.

Bright Coloured Cretonnes!

“Bright-coloured cretonnes…” What is the erotic despair of draperies and upholstery?

I can think of dozens of popular songs that deal in some variation of this, but it’s harder to come up with 100-year-old poems, much less ones as good as this one, that talk of this. Ignore a handful of references to the interior decorating trends of Flint’s time, and this poem could have been written yesterday, except few writers of any time would be as acute as Flint is in observing this.

What new poets of the Modernist movement do I get to discover and share with you in the upcoming year? I can’t be sure, but I noted that Flint’s “Otherworld”  is dedicated to Herbert Read, and from what few poems of his I can find online, Read seems just as fresh and fascinating.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Musically I’ve been telling myself I want to utilize some of the methods of hip-hop records, and yet each time I set out to do this, I get side-tracked by my own idiosyncratic musical muse. The melodic top line is my appreciation of early 1960s hard-bop organ playing. The bass part is a combination of a left-hand organ part with electric bass. Two bass lines shouldn’t work, but I think it does here. That’s not the only duality in this: the drum machine beat is augmented by some percussion which keeps the drum machine from ruling the groove “correctly.” The hip-hop rhythm flow eludes me again, though maybe I recall some predecessors like Dr. John the Night Tripper?

To hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “Love Song to a Woman I Do Not Love,”  use the player below.

Zeppelins

For reasons of copyrights, I’ve been focusing a fair amount here on using words from the most recent poems whose rights are in the public domain (pre-1924). One side-effect of that: during the run of this project we’ve presented a good number of poems about World War I, which I recently called “The last war covered by poets.”

So, we’ve had a poem from a man waiting to enter his battle: Rupert Brooke writing on the troopship carrying him overseas; and poems written from first-hand views in the trenches by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and T. E. Hulme. We’ve had reactions to the war and its losses from Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara and Carl Sandburg. William Butler Yeats, even in refusal, is writing a war poem of a sort, one I suspect has a hidden barb at the politicians’ war propaganda.

For the most part, the poems I’ve used so far would not pass as journalism. Owen and Sassoon use fantasy to illustrate the war’s folly. Pound, Tzara, and Sandburg tell of the subjective emotional impact of the war’s losses. But Brooke’s fragment has the power of a closely observed diary entry, and T. E. Hulme comes closest so far to a straightforward war dispatch with his compressed account of the front at St. Eloi.

Today’s piece, using words by F. S. Flint, comes closer yet. Flint, the man who urged the “School of Images” in pre-war London to hew to a cadenced free verse, felt that verse and prose existed on a smooth and unbroken continuum, that good writing was good writing, regardless of the label on the tin.

Besides being present at the birth of Modernist English poetry, Flint also was in the right place to witness another Modernist invention: aerial bombardment of cities. It’s little remembered now, but nighttime terror bombing of London was not an invention of Hitler’s air force in WWII—it was, instead, first carried out by Zeppelin airships in World War I.

Flint’s report, though artfully framed with its first-person account of being awakened from sleep in medias res, and ending with a surprising and telling conclusion, includes enough exact detail to say that it describes the first of these London raids on May 31st, 1915.

Zeppelin Raid

1915 reactions to the London Zeppelin raids of World War I

It’s a gripping account, no less than if it had been filed this year in Syria or somewhere else were bombs fall on civilians in our time.

Does the element in Flint’s work of mere journalism detract from its “poetic” qualities? The romantic element would say yes perhaps, there is no other “realer, now revealed” world invoked, no intense yoking of disparate images or modes of perception (although I would maintain it does just that  in a subtler way). More elaborate language, more elaborate metaphors could decorate this. Picasso’s Guernica”  is the same subject, painted decades later, but it’s also more worked out as a cubist statement.

In a sense this question is like a question I wrestle with here as I contemplate the Parlando Project which combines music with words. Does the addition of a substantial thing to something else: in the case of Flint’s “Zeppelins,”  documentary, journalistic facts to modernist poetic imagism; or in the case of my Parlando Project pieces, music and performance’s addition to what is often canonical page-poetry—are those things additive, making a greater sum—or do they, paradoxically, detract, diffusing or de-fusing the impact of the uncombined thing.

Or are these questions of art a sideline here? Do Henry and Caroline Good, dead of flames and smoke in their bedroom in that night in 1915, or Leah Lehrman, age 16 killed by a Zeppelin-dropped bomb explosion care? Do we appreciate that we live now and ponder these questions?

Synsonic Drums

Later that same 20th century, my first drum machine.

In writing and performing the music for Flint’s “Zeppelins,”  I wanted to lean toward Techno a bit. I avoid drum machines these days and work hard to humanize my beats on most pieces. Back in the 20th Century I used machine beats, they were all I could afford, and now in the 21st, no matter how skillfully deployed, they remind me of those crudely resolved sounds, a make-do.  My 12 year old son however enjoys them, the blippiest tracker pieces or a SID chip 8-bit beats please him with their antique charm. Then listening to Weekes new single this weekend reminded me of that charm (and made me wish I could sing better).  So I gave it a go.

You hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “Zeppelins”  right here with the embedded player below. Something about those later 20th Century sounds just seemed right for an early 20th Century piece to me. 

Poems In Unrhymed Cadence

In 1899, as the 19th Century was leaving in Victorian London, a 13-year-old boy from a large poor family left school and went to work at whatever jobs that could be found. An unremarkable story.

After several years, and some job security as a civil service typist, he could enroll at a workingman’s night school. This story too, unremarkable.

Men and women with stories like this often go on to form families, start small businesses; or slip into slightly better jobs, finding what opportunities are left unguarded or unattended by those who started further up the economic ladder (or wall). Working diligently, they sometimes become the mothers and grandfathers of poets and scholars, preachers and social reformers. That’s not the way this story goes however.

This teenager moved quick, and found out he had a talent for language, not only his own native English, but German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, and French too—they all came under his control. He accelerated himself beyond the speed of night school, and in a matter of a couple of years, our young man became a poet and a leading proponent in his time for avant-garde French poetry. And then he began meeting with some other poets in the cafes of London.

This man was F. S. Flint. It would be easy to pair him with one of those artists he was making talk and friendship with: T. E. Hulme. Neither had privileged backgrounds, and both are too little known, read, and studied today. In 1909, ten years after this boy had left school at 13, the meetings in these cafes included not only Flint and Hulme, but Ezra Pound, H. D., Florence Farr, William Butler Yeats, and Robert Frost. What they were plotting was a poetic revolution—one that would succeed, and become the dominant strain of English poetry for the rest of their century.

Although all of them had avowed influences, often ancient ones—English and Celtic bards and Latin, classical Chinese and Greek poets—they were resolved to “make it new” in Pound’s famous motto. They all wanted to change the language and the sound of English poetry, and since words and music are what make up poetry, they wanted to change everything about it.

In terms of language, the thoughts centered around removing decades, even centuries, of encrusted dead metaphors that no longer had any meaning. The imagery in the new poems would need to be fresh, different, vital and intrinsic to the poem, not mere decoration. Extensive, romantic effusions of feelings would be replaced with palpable images.

The “School of Images” was coalescing. By some accounts it was Flint who suggested tacking the suffix“-ist”, (in French “-iste”) to “image” to brand the movement.

In terms of poetry’s music, there was less agreement. Yeats and Farr were trying to invent a new kind of chanted poetry to music. Frost and Yeats would write some of the most accomplished metrical poetry ever written in English, but with a naturalness that made it disappear into unfussy verbal music. Pound remained interested in combining music as in the days of the medieval troubadours. Hulme talked of “chords” harmonically struck in the mind when an image was right. Flint, along with Hulme, thought French vers libre, “free verse” without rhyme and strict meter, was the mode to use. Flint called his verbal music “unrhymed cadences.”

And that’s where today’s piece comes in. In these three loosely-linked and lovely London-based poems, Flint demonstrates what he means, and this sort of breath-based line has echoed in much English poetry since.

The three poems or sections that make up Flint’s “Poems in Unrhymed Cadence”  seem connected to me, though the middle (swan) section had been published previously in a much more verbose version a few years before. I’ve only been a London visitor—Flint grew up there—but I personally associated the scenes throughout with Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens, with the silver birch trees, swans, lilies, and other flowers mentioned. However, the third section specifically mentions aspen trees, which I don’t believe are in Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens.

Hyde ParkKensington Gardens

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London—swans didn’t pose for me, no aspen trees in sight.

 

Following the three Imagist rules (which were first written down by Flint), the images are direct and exactly presented, the words are spare and free of unnecessary elaboration, and the “To compose in the sequence of the musical phrase” rule is something of a restatement of Flint’s “cadence.” Like most imagist poems—and even though these poems unmistakably reflect a mood—there is less spelling out of emotions by their abstract names that would have been customary before. It’s only at the end of the second (swan) section that the first of these, “sorrow,” is spoken, and when the third, final section unleashes “afraid,” “anguish” and “pain,” the images have set this emotional summary in a real physical, sensory place first.

F S Flint

The only picture I can find of F. S. Flint

 

Musically, once again I don’t know what to call the music I wrote and performed for F. S. Flint’s set of poems. There are several orchestral parts and percussion, but the lead instrument that eventually emerges is a sitar. Since in the 21st Century chicken tikka masala can be said to be the British National dish, my limited skills on this instrument of virtuosos can be forgiven.

To hear it, use the player below.