Last episode here we had Jean Toomer’s poem of alienation from labor. In Toomer’s “Beehive” the poem’s voice is portrayed as just another drone bee, only able to fantasize of escaping work or receiving any benefit from it. Today’s piece is by Emily Dickinson, and while there can often be a touch of irony in Dickinson, I think we can take the voice in her poem “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today” as earnestly engaged in their farm work.
One doesn’t have to go too far into differences in biography to account for the contrast between the two poems. As I mentioned last time, Toomer was the child of an enslaved person, and the book in which his poem appeared was his literary account of an early 20th century southern American feudal society associated with a racial caste system. Dickinson was an upper middle-class daughter of a successful lawyer and politician — and well, let’s just say it — even if the rights and social assessments of women in mid-19th century America were constrained, she’s got that White Privilege and a different economic vantage point.
Dickinson’s poem, the one we perform today, looks to a specific farm labor event: the harvesting and storage of hay, likely for the animals including the horses used for transportation by her family. One thing I learned when I visited the Dickinson Homestead a few years ago was that the area right across the highway that still runs in front of her family’s house, was a field used to raise grain; and that at least in her youth, Dickinson had as one of her chores, taking food and water to the workers in that field. I don’t know the details of the ownership of that field. Was it shared between more than one family? A village green sort of resource for the town? The harvest depicted here seems to involve more than one family. That doesn’t make certain that it’s a shared field. For haying time, particularly when one has a smaller family lacking muscle power headcount, there may be an exchange of services between farmers, either for hire or in a cooperative barter agreement.
It’s a temptation, one that some American thinkers of Dickinson’s time easily fell into, to romanticize that kind of work, so different from the arrangement of slave labor plantations or share-cropping vassals. Indeed, some of the Northern and border state opposition to American chattel slavery was based less on belief in the full humanity of the enslaved and the crime of denying that, than on the idea that “free soil” labor was ennobling in and of itself and a benefit to a republican citizenship.
So, when Emily Dickinson, northern state’s daughter of a Whig representative, speaks of how engaged and happy the hearty labor of the hay harvesters is, she may be participating in a political sentiment of her time. Now how much the ironic Emily wants to undercut this I can’t tell for sure. The poem’s general argument is that this bustle of life and colleagueship for those with human rights, who are not scrounging for subsistence, is such that the sleep of death is not welcome. Is she making a subtle point in some undercurrent, that death will find this work only vanity? Is there a winking case for the repose of the grave verses labor’s toil? Intended or not, you might find a bit of that there, but it doesn’t seem so to me.
Dead simple chords today. When I present these songs-sheets I’m hoping for better singers and players than I to take up these pieces.
Did you find this discussion of what surrounds this poem tiresome or detracting from the pleasure of Dickinson’s verse as a piece of art? If so, you may not even get to this paragraph. I read a remark by writer Caitlin Moran this week that a woman spends less than 1% of her lifetime making love — yet sex and desire, and woman’s role in that, seems to take up a much greater portion of what is written about them. Poetry too has that disproportionateness — and I’m not here to knock love poems, particularly honest ones — but I feel the world of work is too unrepresented in poetry. Maybe I’ll find a poem of acute love, or a transfixed descent into the book of nature next time? We’ll see.
You can hear my musical performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today” with a player gadget, if you see that. No gadget? I supply this backup highlighted link. Thanks for reading, listening, and putting up with my varieties here!
Here’s a short post presenting a short poem,performed now here as a short song. The poem is “Beehive” from Jean Toomer. If you meet the poem, as I did, first as a series of words on a screen, you might be drawn into it as a pretty lyric poem which leans into a poetic tactic: repetition. Three words get refrained heavily: silver, moon, and bees.
Of those, moon is the least surprising, for if one was to take all the poems ever written the moon would likely take a top spot in the category of celestial objects. Sure, the sun would give it a contest, stars indeterminate would be in the running too, but the added changeableness of the moon, and in English the longing of its doubled vowel sound, gives that word a poetic familiarity. Silver then comes along for the ride with moon, though it’s not the only color that is used to describe the moon in other poems. The final highly repeated word, bees, is more clearly a choice, not a convention.
Here’s Toomer’s poem as a chord-sheet for my musical performance.
I had fun during this year’s marathon Emily Dickinson reading typing a chat notice every time a bee appeared in a Dickinson poem, and my opportunities there were plenty — but Dickinson’s leitmotif choice can be easily explained: she had a great interest in plants and gardening, and so the busy pollinator could be like Blake or Rilke’s angels to her, an important object in her understanding of how things are signaled and accomplished. That’s how I understand Dickinson’s bee,* but Toomer’s choice to use bees six times (not counting associated words hive, comb, buzzing, drone, and swarm) in this 80-word poem is my task today.
If one wants to think about this poem in addition to enjoying its word-music and flow of images with their surface lushness, the bee here seems a clear image for labor. Toomer published this in his book Cane, which gives his impressions of southern American agricultural labor. Toomer himself was the child of an enslaved man. The laborers in his book from the Last Decade to be Called the Twenties, are part of a feudal arrangement that barely rises to the level of Capitalism, and that scheme is enmeshed with a blunt racial caste system. Because the book is set in the past it may be easier to see the sharp edges and crushing weight of such things for some of us — however much the haze of the present day occludes our present vision. The moon is silver, the color of coinage, this work is part of an economic system, the beehive. The speaker is a drone, a worker. The bees are portrayed as agricultural workers not poets (the pollination is of a “farmyard flower” not artistic flower-show candidates.) They appear alienated to the degree they’re thinking at all, yet our poem’s bee is unable to separate themselves from the hive, the swarm.
Does that reading damage the poem for you? I can imagine it might for some. “It was a pretty poem” might be a response to the above. And of course I could be wrong — poets themselves have told me I misread their poems. I’m not an expert on Toomer, I’m merely here exploring with you.
You can hear my musical performance of Jean Toomer’s “Beehive” with the player many will see below. Those who don’t see the player can use this backup highlighted link.
*Dickinson’s bee is most often singular from my casual memory. Toomer’s here in this poem is always plural, though the quiet quitter dreaming of lying on their back drunk with “lipping honey” seems a single drone’s desire.
Our Halloween series continues with the voice, music, and words of Dave Moore today as I present his piece “Sam and the Ghosts.” And as bonus autumn content, this one takes place in a garden just past harvest time.
I haven’t kept a garden in decades, but Dave and long-time friend of this blog Paul Deaton do. They remind me that at about this latitude north, October is the time to have removed the final products and to prepare the bed for the interval until spring planting time returns.
I may not have done this for decades, but this process goes back — way back. Folks were planting crops in the Midwest long before colonization. The mound builders here, like the earthworks and standing-stone raisers in the British Isles, fed themselves on the invention of agriculture. So in that way, every garden — that small geographical gesture — is a memorial. William Blake said the rebellious angels of art must need to drive their plows over the bones of the dead. I don’t think he was speaking of colonization or commerce when making that point, but his maxim is true reportage anyway. Whether we are speaking of poetry or music or tomatoes, were we plant has likely been tilled before by dead people. Isn’t it proper then that we should honor them before we make our gestures in the soil?
The song sheet Dave handed me the day we recorded this song a few years back.
In Dave’s poem which he made song, Sam* has forgotten this. Some ghosts remind him. In his poem they are ghosts of settlers. Outside of the poem, they are people created by Bob Dylan.** Those definite levels in history are not the beginning, not the end. Who knows who ran the land from where the settlers’ family left to come to America? Then we do know who lived the land, and were so harshly displaced before the settlers’ opportunity. Who knows, maybe Hollis Brown’s farm is no longer farmland now after some other money has changed hands. How many songwriters are tilling Bob Dylan’s land?
Every seed you plant came from somewhere before you plant it. Every land has ancestors. Every garden is, or should be, a memorial. Winter will bury our gardens, turn our blank pages to blank pages again, and we wait and expect for spring.
The ancestors expect for spring too. We are that spring. The gaps of expecting are where the ghosts live.
Today let’s examine the place of hands and humor in poetry and music. Let’s start with hands, before we turn to the subject of humor and a poem about farming.*
You just heard alternate Parlando Project voice Dave Moore last time here, but besides letting you get a break from my vocals, Dave has played keyboards with me since the late 1970s as the core of The LYL Band. That’s a long piece of work, particularly in that I’ve needed him more than he’s needed me with this. Here are the basics of that: I’m a poor rhythm guitarist. I like to add color and decoration whether the song is fast and loud or quiet and moody. Groove, beat, a solid march of chords to carry you along? Not in my wheelhouse. The LYL Band has had other guitarists over the years to handle some of that, but most of the time it’s been down to Dave for the chords and groove. Back in the earliest days of recording us, when four tracks were a fresh luxury, I’d put Dave’s keys on the same track as a drum machine, sure that he’d be solid as the machine.
Now we’ve both got some mileage on our hands, and Dave has encountered some issues with both of his arms and hands. He tells me that the fingers just won’t do what he asks them to do some of the time. He’s become more like me now as a musician: able to do some things, some days, within limits. My own hands have had problems too, which currently are no worse, and many days a little better. Oddly, writing and composing can let my hands weaken. To wrangle a guitar as I often like to takes not just flexibility but also finger strength which is best approached by regular use with a gentle uptake, not a two-hour live session where I need them to work right off after weeks of musing on poetry and tapping out a sonnet. I’ve been trying to carve out more time to “just play” in order to keep my digits loose and strong.
So, when Dave and I got together this month to honor our friends who’ve recently died, I assessed that my hands were ready to rumble by current standards; but Dave, while game, wasn’t sure. During the session, he did all right, even if he wasn’t nearly as strong as he was in our little band for years.
Now on to humor. Kevin FitzPatrick was a poet we got together to honor. We both knew him for decades, and Kevin even played a little blues harmonica with us a few times in the early days. One thing that Kevin’s poetry often used was his dry sense of humor. If his poems “had other people in them” the interaction between those characters was often humorous. Humor is like that, isn’t it? With poetry one can easily fill a chapbook with solitary musings, singing philosophies, and hermit’s prayers, but humor generally requires other people, our rubs, our missed and kissed connections.
Kevin’s final collection Still Living in Town has several characters, but the central ones were his own persona, a city-living office employee and his life partner, Tina, a woman who had decided she wanted the rural life — and not a Walden cabin in the woods, but a farm growing a variety of produce and sheep.** Kevin was in his 60s, but he was a big fit guy (he boxed and taught martial arts in his youth) and however urban his life had been, his character pitched in with the farm labor.
Kevin’s farm poems are and aren’t like Robert Frost’s to compare them to a famous example. That Kevin could approach a blank verse feel in some poems would connect them — but Frost, urban-born and professionally an itinerant teacher, liked to cast his persona in his farming poems as knowledgeable and in place with farming, while Kevin portrayed himself with beginner’s mind on the farm. Given that fewer living readers have any connection with farm work, Still Living in Town invites us into that milieu wonderfully.
The poem of Kevin’s I used for today’s piece is looser metrically, but while it’s set in like weather to this current March (wheeling rain and snow and thaw) it most wants us to hear a little story about the two characters, the labor of farming, and yes, the humor in hands and their stubbornness.
Jazzmasters! From the upper left: Jimi Hendrix without a Strat; Pete Townsend about to decrease the supply of used guitars; some guy named Jimmy James (wonder what became of him?); Frank Zappa, who didn’t say “The Jazzmaster isn’t dead, it just smells funny;” my Jazzmaster painted the homeopathic color Sonic Blue; Tom Verlaine, vanguard of the alternative nation which latched onto the bargain unwanted Jazzmaster in the 1970s.
A few notes on the music. I sometimes create the drum tracks for my compositions before the live session begins. And since I’m usually needed in the guitarist role, I sometimes lay down the bass parts with those tracks ahead of time too. That’s how this piece was. On the day of the session, I sang and played the wailing lead guitar*** and recorded the reading of Kevin’s words live with Dave playing a baaing/buzzing synth part live. Dave’s part, subject to his current hands, didn’t fulfill all the groove chop I thought the piece needed. So I added a second guitar part doing my best at rhythm guitar on my Telecaster, but a lot of the final groove you hear is an electric piano part that I laid down trying to imitate my friend and partner Dave’s playing as I recall it from the past.
*I have to repeat this one, which I read in a comment thread this month regarding the upcoming Hollywood Oscar awards event: “The only Oscars I care about are Peterson and Wilde.” In the context of Dave Moore, even the young Dave wasn’t likely to stand toe to toe (finger to finger?) with Oscar Peterson on piano. On the other hand, I’ll hop on top of Oscar Wilde’s tea table in my slush-muddy Minnesota shoes and declare Dave’s poetic wit with Wilde’s.
**Other reoccurring characters weave in and out in the farm poems too — and while four-legged, the couple’s farm dog, the incongruous poodle named Katie, makes a cameo appearance in this one and others.
***The lead guitar part is played on a Jazzmaster, a famous failure in Fender’s otherwise wildly successful line of mid-century electric guitars. A couple of decades into its Edsel-hood of “what were they thinking” failure, unwanted used Jazzmasters became an affordable choice pragmatically chosen by some punk and alternative musicians. Even so, few think of a Jazzmaster for this kind of wailing lead guitar with a bit of funk flavor. As long as one is able to address the Jazzmaster’s bridge design issues, it can do that sort of thing.
Around America people are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a sort of remembered harvest festival, now a family get-together mostly celebrated by eating as most Americans are separated from farm work by some distance and decades. However, back in 1914, American poet Robert Frost was close enough to that work to write a masterful and closely observed poem about harvest time that I’m going to present for today: “After Apple Picking.” While I hope you’ll listen to my audio performance with my original music below, here’s a link to the poem in case you’d like to follow along with the text.
This poem is full of sensuous detail. Encountering it — even if you don’t do farm work — you should feel the completion and weariness of the poem’s speaker who is falling asleep at the end of his harvest season. The poem’s farmer has been working in an orchard, and that place is full of the scent of apples. In a fall orchard such as this, much of this scent may be from fallen apples which, even as they start to rot, give off a sweet musk. And it’s frost time, not just the poet’s name on the poem, but the livestock water-trough has a frozen sheet on top, so the picker has been racing against a loss of the crop. In a piece of rural surrealism, the farmer has, that morning, picked up a plate of this surface ice —which would be thin, wavy, and fragile — and looks through it as if they are magic spectacles at the morning frost on the grass. This lasts but a moment, the magic glass will disintegrate in his hands, but that’s of no matter, there’s work to complete.
While falling asleep his body is still weary, his feet are sore from standing on the round ladder rungs, but as dreams approach his mind once more magnifies and intensifies reality like the view through the wavy ice sheet, and he’s haunted by apples, by his job of picking and inspecting, his rush against the end of season frost.
As the poem moves to its conclusion the farmer seems to imply that his work to gather the crop before it’s lost is like unto the work of salvation. We might remember and notice that the poem started with a ladder pointing “toward heaven.” And those apples that touch the earth are held by it and not offered heavenly worth.
Frost ends his poem whimsically, not with an angel or a prayer, but with a small rodent, the woodchuck, which hibernates (“his long sleep”) in the winter. As the farmer falls off to sleep, he wonders how long a rest he has earned.
How big a slice of apple pie do you want? Stand back, I’ll cut you a piece.
When Frost wrote this poem about a third of Americans were farmers and farm workers. Now, most of us have other labors. Our harvests may not be food, we may not be tied to the cycle of seasons as exactly. My wife will be getting time off from working in a medical clinic, where she works to gather as many as she can, and Thursday she’ll be making a meal for us and her mother with dementia. I’m working past midnight to bring you a presentation of this poem. Our labors are many, they may make us weary, but perhaps, yet, we can be thankful for them.
My audio performance of Robert Frost’s harvest poem “After Apple Picking” can be heard with the player gadget below, or with this highlighted hyperlink. My music today is percussion, piano, cello, two violins, horn, and harp.
It’s taken me a few days to write this post after learning of the death of Minnesota poet Kevin FitzPatrick. After someone dies, someone you know at some level, there’s an emptiness. While it’s impossible to feel emptiness, it may be the first obligation of grief to hold that sense for a little while. Was for me.
I didn’t know Kevin well. We were different sorts, and I myself am quite bad at friendship. But I knew him somewhat, and over time quite a bit as a poet. With some interruptions on my part for over 40 years I’d see him every month in a meeting that sometimes had as many as ten or so writers and sometimes was just Kevin, alternative Parlando voice Dave Moore, and myself. We’d meet in one of our places and those present would break out new work for comment and feedback.
I said we were different sorts. Back in the 1970s I was chiefly influenced by some hermetic and oppositional poetries: French Surrealists and para-Surrealists and those Americans who had read or influenced them. These poets tended to be ecstatic in mood and unafraid to puzzle or offend. Kevin had a different vision — he wanted his poetry to be comprehended and welcomed by ordinary folks, including working people of our parent’s generation. Is that the first or fifth thing I learned from Kevin? No, I’m still learning that one.
Let me speak ill of the dead. In our common youth I thought Kevin was prissy and way too afraid to offend. But we were young men then, and by now my younger self has passed from life to a degree near to what Kevin’s entire non-written life did this week. The way I see it now is that we were both half-right — but his half produced better poetry more often. So, I doubt he learned much from me, but I learned several things from him. You might want to learn some of these things now or later, so I’ll offer four things I learned from Kevin FitzPatrick’s writing today.
“You can’t tell a book by looking at it’s cover.” Kevin FitzPatrick edited the urban working-class Lake Street Review, but today’s piece has some farm boots in it.
Here’s the first and primary one, a lesson that I often told Kevin I would try to remember. Around the time of his first collection, Midwestern writer Meridel Le Sueur said that Kevin’s poems were poems with other people in them. Given Le Sueur’s life twining activism with writing, this was a fitting observation for her to make about Kevin’s writing. But stop and think for a moment of the poems you write, or even the poems you read or rate highly. How many of them have actual, flesh and blood characters in them? A great many poems, and to wildly generalize, many poems by male poets, have nothing but the poet’s own consciousness reflecting on itself. If something external intrudes on this, it may be nature or incorporeal spirits — or if human, they may appear as masses or classes in sociological case-folders. Kevin’s poems had a range of characters: friends and antagonists, folks that are richly neither, and people who you just run into in life. Kevin himself appeared in his poems, yes, but in many examples the poem was as much about Kevin as the novel The Great Gatsby is about Nick Carraway.
You may think that poetry, with its freedom of language and musical force can dispense with characters, that poetry may be particularly suited to delve into an individual’s own consciousness so otherwise unrepresented in human life. Good poems have been written from that conviction. But is that all it can be? What a lonely art making itself lonelier would result.
Kevin’s use of dialog goes along with the characters. If you’re going to allow them to appear in your poetry and have autonomy, then they need to seem to speak independently. Kevin’s characters were not kept silent, and a good many of his poems had the texture of a compressed short-story, including the effective use of dialog.
Again, I’d argue that we are too exclusive when we talk about the poet’s voice and poetry as self-expression to the exclusion of all else. Yes, the world may be enriched by 100 poets writing in their own voice, saying out-loud or on the page their own individual experience. But if some of those poets would allow other voices to speak in their verse, to join in the choral and antiphonal song that is human experience, we might have at least 200 voices, if not 500, speaking in our poetry. How we speak, how we express ourselves is important. How we listen, what we hear, that too is important. The poet’s ear shouldn’t be cocked for just iambs and trochees.
Yes, let us concede a dialectic. Many readers (and poets) go to poetry to escape that everyday grind, to celebrate the exceptions of romantic love, cosmic visions, rare events worthy of celebration. Fine. But why can’t poetry inform and illuminate what we are doing for a third or so of our lives?
Between the rural-urban divide is a great place for a poet to sit and write. I spoke of Kevin’s final collection from 2017, Still Living in Town above. In America, there’s an increasing division in outlook between those living in cities and those living in rural areas and small towns. Kevin’s poems in that collection, including characters, dialog, and those work-a-day issues, also allow us to see different locations and outlooks as he travels between his urban house, his capitol city office job, and a small farm.
OK, should there be my customary Parlando audio piece at the end of this post? With some trepidation I’ll offer this one, my performance based on an early version of a poem destined for Still Living in Town. It’s an old recording from 2013. Shortly after I recorded it, Kevin heard it and thought I misinterpreted the song. As I said, we were different sorts, though over the years I like to think we grew closer from our shared love of what poetry could do. Kevin said I missed the poem’s point; it was about the difference between the urban and rural cultures he was observing and writing about. He’s right, I undersold that element, seeking instead to stress how a customer service interaction went sideways from mistrust and was eventually resolved. I think he also might have reacted to my edgy, angsty delivery and music. Kevin was a calm, dry speaker in performance, and the speaker in this performance isn’t. It’s also important to know that “Returns” is just a piece of a greater work that took him several years to write. This isn’t the most singularly impactful poem Kevin ever wrote, just one in his series that I happened to perform one day because I liked the vignette, and that I had handy to put here today.
A few bits of scene-setting before you click on this performance: Kaplans* was a clothing store specializing in utilitarian work clothes and outerwear that was located then on Minneapolis’ famous working-class-to-under-class Lake Street. Wheeler Wisconsin where the scene shifts to in the conclusion is a town of 300. Tina, the deus ex machina of the poem’s story was Kevin’s partner who decided to buy an 80 acre farm which Kevin commuted to every weekend during the time of the book.
* The first winter I spent in Minneapolis, it was at Kaplans that I bought my first pair of Sorel boots, that genius Canadian design that has a waterproof leather and rubber outer boot with an inner insulating liner made of compressed wool. If you ever have to stand in -20 F cold and wait on a bus that might not run on-time, the un-frostbitten scansion of my poetic feet recommend them.
Just last month I was writing here about how alternate Parlando voice Dave Moore and I used to perform pieces live and unrehearsed. Infirmities, personal matters, and a little thing called the Covid-19 epidemic meant we haven’t been able to do that for 18 months — but today we did that again.
Rusty? Yes. We’ve always been rough and ready, which means we persevered today because we love our common attempts at spontaneous performance, even though your ears will be spared most of them. Personally, I’m overjoyed to hear Dave’s keyboards mixing in with my guitars again. Perfect or imperfect is another, subsidiary, matter.
Here’s the very first piece we performed today, using for a text one of the sonnets I’ve written this year about infirmities. My sonnet, “Until Memory is Only Forgotten,” tells about an older woman with Alzheimer’s disease which has removed, and is removing, many of the layers of her memory, and who is traveling from the Memory Care Unit where she is presently living to visit siblings back in the farming community where she grew up.
Pictures of the Gone World. The young woman who raised blue ribbon dairy cows.
Long time readers here will know this Project normally features us presenting and performing texts by other authors, but since summer tends to bring in a smaller audience, I may be using more of our own texts when I can find time to present work here this season.
I chose to tell this woman’s story without following a time-line, because as with memory (even a degraded one) the scenes aren’t linear. Dave and I repeat some motifs in our playing, just as the subject of the poem sees different crops in the fields and can only see corn and speak again to her daughter-driver of that crop; yet in unmarred memory she recalls her Jersey dairy cows like the other Memory Care Unit resident who can still tout his Holsteins. Structurally this is a free-verse sonnet, though I think the old patterns of iambic pentameter remain rustling distantly in the fields.
Here’s the sonnet used as the text for today’s audio piece.
The player gadget to hear The LYL Band performance of “Until Memory is Only Forgotten” will appear below for some of you. If you don’t see it, you haven’t forgotten, you’re just reading this in a mode or reader that won’t show such things. That’s OK, this highlighted hyperlink will also play the performance.
Today’s piece has an eerie history. It started as a poem by Robert Frost, but I think four years ago I turned it into a song. I had more or less forgotten about it, but this past week I found it in some past work that I had separated out to work on for this project.
Looking at it, I put it near the top of the pile. I thought it representative of the best of early Frost, when he was a supple lyric poet. “This’ll be great. So clean in language. So concise in his laying out of the story.”
The process of producing the performance and recording that you can hear below went well enough. So today I was getting ready to write about my experience of Frost’s poem after going through this project’s process. As usual, I wanted to find a location for the original text for those that want to read along. I found a good link to Frost’s poem. It’s here.
Surprise! Turns out I had modified Frost’s poem much more than realized. I had recalled only that I had repurposed a pair of Frost’s lines to create a chorus/refrain—but when looking at the original poem I hardly recognized the text I had been working on during the recording of the performance this month. It turns out, “Ghost House” (as he titled this piece) was an early poem of Frost’s, written in 1901 and included in A Boy’s Will, his first collection of poems published in England in 1913. Unlike most of the poems in that collection, “Ghost House” had been published, back in 1906 in a magazine. The reason A Boy’s Will was published in England was the Frost had made little headway as a poet in the United States. At that point he was nearing 40 years old, so it’s possible that if Frost hadn’t traveled to and succeeded in England, this greatly loved American poet would be nearly unknown.
I stress the actuality that I had no recollection of recasting the poem extensively when I say that I prefer “my version” to Frost’s original. The lack of any memory of the work I did means that this judgement is rather impersonal. Frost’s “Ghost House” isn’t bad, but it’s not as distinguished as other poems in his early work. It seems more 19th century for one thing. It also overdoes it, seeming to confuse more elaboration and details for more impact and substance.
Here’s Frost’s poem as revised for singing.
When I briefly try to reconstruct what I did to make the text for today’s piece, I see I used his lines for the most part, but I trimmed out much. My lyric is essentially 17 lines. Frost’s is 30. I dropped entire images, some inconcrete and a bit trite (“I dwell with a strangely aching heart”—you’ve shown us that mood Robert, telling us that is less vivid), and some redundant (we’ve got raspberries and grapevines, we don’t need the apple tree* too). Then too, I chopped the entire whippoorwill stanza, which some argue contains the key image in the poem.**
I also may have just been trying to make it more sing-able.
These two things are lessons. First, poetry often gains power by saying something in its most striking, sensual, and strong way—or even when it’s being less direct, by combining a few things (perhaps only two things) in an unexpected but powerful way. Everything beyond that may detract. The second-best or third-best image subtracts by its addition. Frame your best images, don’t embarrassingly hide them in clutter. And secondly, at least with lyric poetry, when it sings it means. Poetry works through the music of thought. Even something that clarifies the meaning or explains further a point may sometimes be dispensed with in order to make a poem a musical statement that will lodge in the reader/listener’s ear, and via that canal to their brain. In this case I don’t think I sacrificed clarity, but also I don’t think I could sing Frost’s version—and at least in my case, I didn’t remember his.
Did what I do mean I think I’m a better poet than Robert Frost? Nope. I also may not be a better poet than you. But on any one day, on a particular task, with a particular aim, I might be. Frost was a famously grumpy personality, but perhaps his ghost has mellowed with immortality. If so, I hope he might think I served the inspiration of his early poem by trimming it back. Or maybe I didn’t make these changes, since I don’t remember? Perhaps Frost’s ghost came by and made the revision?
To separate this version from the canonical Frost version I call it “Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree.” The player gadget for my performance is below. Oh, and do follow at least one of the links in the first footnote below. You’ll visit other ghost farmsteads in search of fruit still yielding outside fallen cellar walls.
**I didn’t know, but some readings of “Ghost House” say the whippoorwill is known as a bird foretelling death or other disasters. News to me. Even if I knew that, foretelling seems to blunt the impact of the poem as I cast it. In my mind the point is that the death/disaster has already occurred. Yes I know, some readings say that the poem’s speaker is either dead or gothically welcoming death for himself. I don’t disagree with that, but it doesn’t change my view. Even if the speaker is still alive but wants death, an omen bird’s warning is gilding the raven.
I woke up this morning to learn that it’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday—and I didn’t get her anything. Well, we do know how to do something here at the Parlando Project and that’s create musical presentations quickly, and it’s not like we’ve run out of Dickinson poems to use.
So today’s piece is a Dickinson poem about snowscapes. Having had the opportunity to visit the Dickinson family house in Amherst and hearing there that the area across the highway road was in Dickinson’s time a farm field helps me visualize Emily writing this. I can clearly sense her looking out the window from her bedroom writing table on that road and field that are this poem’s landscape.
This is Dickinson in her playful mode, but that doesn’t stop her mind from creating some exact and fanciful descriptions for the snowscape, starting right out with the snow fall being sifted like flour (do cooks still sift flour?) *
The least playful image in my mind is also the most striking in the poem, it’s a description of that farm field as “summer’s empty room”, not yet filled with snow (the furrows are still visible) and some now deserted plant stalks are jutting through picking up windy veils of snow. This is likely a poem written about an early winter, December, snow fall
In other work Dickinson can be harrowing or she might present us with some concise mysticism or philosophic equation, but that’s as close here to a darker note as we’ll get in this one. She seems content in her vision of a stilled winter and a smoothed and sparkling world—as I was today watching the white outdoors and below-zero temps just the other side of my glass as I wrangled a dense percussion track for this piece. It was afternoon before I moved on to a few keyboards. Then the final musical task was to add the 12-string electric guitar parts.
My electric 12-string, “recordless, but for them”
Long time readers here will know that the Twin Cities is something of a center for the 12-string guitar, an instrument I’ve used since shortly after I arrived here, but the electric 12-string remains a rare instrument here as it is elsewhere. Acoustic or electric, for each of the guitar’s conventional six strings the 12-string adds a paired string right next to it. Most of those additional paired-strings are conventionally tuned** an octave higher than the regular guitar strings, and the two strings when struck never quite vibrate in unison, adding a slight wobble that’s either charming or sea-sick depending on one’s taste and ear. I added to that with a whole load of echo, delay and reverb today, and all this called for the parts to be played sparsely and slowly. Even with an echo effect glitch*** that ruined the first couple of takes, I was able to lay down the parts quickly enough that you can hear it tonight with the player below. If you’d like to follow along with today’s poem (sometimes cataloged under its first line “It sifts from Leaden Sieves”)the full text is here.
*Emily would have sifted as the household’s baker. The flour in her time was less refined—and sifting also removes things like bugs or foreign matter that might be mixed in with the flour. And sifted flour is more suited for blending with other ingredients. Sifting seems metaphorical matter for creating art, doesn’t it?
**Conventionally the high B and high E strings are tuned in unison and the bottom 4 in octaves, but some players tune additional strings in unison rather than octaves (Steve Tibbetts and Huddie Ledbetter/Leadbelly for two unlike examples).
***User error on the part of the producer, engineer and musician, which is easier when they are all me. I also make the tea, so there’s no one else to blame.
Readers here know I have an affinity for the lesser-known, the forgotten, the underpraised participants in the Modernist movement. In any historical or literary period, there have to be some that are overlooked. Why? Geographic, gender, racial prejudice? Bad luck or spotty publishing history? Yes, all those can play a role.
But today’s case is a weird one. He’s a white guy and not obscure, his breakthrough masterpiece sold well the year it was published and then for decades afterward. The early American Modernists praised it, recognized it as a Modernist work. There’s circumstantial evidence that it could have even influenced them when they produced their now esteemed breakthrough masterpieces.
Yet, it’s largely left out of the cannon today, and as such it’s also left out of the short histories of the emergence of English language Modernist poetry. One way to focus that story is to point to the publication in 1922 of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as the moment in which everyone had to stop and take notice of this new poetry.
Let me roughly state some things that were remarkable about this landmark work.
It was episodic. A longer poem, it was made up of shorter poems, retaining the compression of short lyrics while telling a larger, multivalent story. Characters drifted in and out.
It was written in free verse. It didn’t rhyme, it didn’t use a strict and unvarying meter, while still making use of the other tactics of poetry. Since this was still somewhat novel, the sound and form could take off from and seem to readers like a non-rhyming translation of poetry from a foreign language, even an old language like Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.
It’s highly skeptical and iconoclastic about modern society. War and business was corrupt, humanity shortsighted. Dialog was often in deadpan with an emphasis on the first syllable, as if spoken by ghosts.
There’s an anachronistic, satiric element to some of the talk too. Everyday people of the current era may speak at times in the form of older literature, and we’re meant to note this as strangely halfway between a sense that time has not changed humankind and it’s eternal problems, and a sense that modern folk are not really as noble as the classical fore bearers.
Though written by a man, women’s voices and a woman’s viewpoint are prominently given a place in the work.
Love and sex was not a balm in this world. In fact, partners are invariably at odds, yet often still yoked together somewhere between torment and ennui. So degraded is the sexual politics and power in this account, that rape is a crucial trope, with references to Ovid’s mythic tale of Tereus rape of Philomela serving as a talisman.
Endurance is still celebrated; one must suffer but keep on, even if it be in vain. Music, yes even popular or folk tunes, may help make this more bearable.
Oh, I may have confused you! I’m not speaking about Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” I’m talking about this popular yet now misplaced Modernist breakthrough: The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. I’m going to talk more about it and present a few pieces from it in the Parlando Project manner, but before we end today with a piece from Spoon River, here’s something that never was impressed on me as I learned about American literature, and in particular Modernist English poetry: “The Spoon River Anthology” was largely written in 1913-1914 and published in 1915. Eliot was writing “Prufrock” then, but it had not been published. Pound was making his transition from poetry as we presented here in our “Before they were Modernists” series into Imagism, with the first publications his new style in the U.S. in 1913. My personal favorite, Carl Sandburg was starting to write in this new compressed style with a cache of poems published in Poetry magazine in 1914. Others, Alfred Kreymborg and William Carlos Williams’ East-Coast-based and more avant garde journal of new verse is yet to come, it began in the middle of 1915. Franz Ferdinand is an obscure central-European duke who has yet to lend a name to a successful Scottish post-punk band.
It’s been a quiet week in Spoon River, not so many rapes, murders, and early deaths as usual: Edgar Lee Masters
How much of this new verse style had Edgar Lee Masters read and how much of his style was he independently inventing and discovering from the 19th century’s Whitman (or Stephen Crane) and even older classical sources? Given that both Masters and Sandburg were present in Chicago and developing a similar sound for their free verse (while differing in sensibility) at the same time, it’s possible that there was a cross-influence there. One thing this timeline makes clear: The Spoon River Anthology was not some later attempt to popularize or adopt the revolution of Modernist English language poetry to tell a Midwestern story, it’s created roughly at year zero.
The Spoon River Anthology presents itself as a series of epitaphs for dead residents of Midwestern town like the one Masters grew up in, some short enough to be carved on a burial monument, others bending the form a bit into short monologs spoken by the dead. The lifetimes of the speaking dead vary and overlap but appear to be from two to three decades before the American Civil war until the early 20th century.
For an initial subject I’ll take one of the sons of the initial settlers,* who tells us he got 40 farm acres as his inheritance, and who sums his life and aims up in a few lines. His name was Cooney Potter.
The player to hear my performance of his Spoon River tale is below. For those of you that have waited for me to drop the synths, we’re back to acoustic instruments today: guitar, piano and tambura.
*Well, hmm, yes there were those other folks, the ones who lived there before. Even though the Black Hawk War of 1832 between some indigenous peoples and these settlers and their government was fought in the Midwest during the times of this settlement, I don’t recall it or the Native Americans being addressed in Spoon River, though the 1861-1865 American Civil war fought by two factions of the settler government is significantly mentioned.