Endless Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless Circle Text

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Doubt Brings Autumn

Today’s post includes the 400th audio piece since this blog officially launched in August of 2016. For such round numbers it seems appropriate to use a representative selection, but then the Parlando Project’s aesthetic is to avoid formula. So, the text for today “Doubt Brings Autumn”  is from my own poem. Long-time readers/listeners here know that’s not my usual practice.

When I started the Parlando Project I hoped to create 100 to 120 of these combinations of various music with various words. The music would test my limits as a musician and composer, and the words would be focused on “Other Peoples’ Stories,” an emphasis on other writers and artists rather than my own life.*

I had no idea how enriching it would be to encounter the work I would turn to, looking not just at “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” but also at the lesser-known poems and poets. That choice made around four years ago largely by intuition and confoundedness still seems to be the right one.

I started with some pieces already done, and some already expected. Not nearly 100, but once this project ignited it was hard to put the fire out. Now at 400, the natural urge is to press on to 500.**

One key to keeping this process going and to avoid the formulaic is to introduce random or coincidental elements into the making of these things. One favorite toy of mine to play with is to intentionally seek out and explore misinterpretations of sentences. Syntax and context is a slippery thing after all, why not have some fun with it? Until last month I didn’t know what to call this kind of language play, when it suddenly occurred to me where I must have picked this concept up.

There was once a great comic duo called Burns and Allen, whose career spanned the later vaudeville stages to radio to early television. The act’s trick was for George Burns, the straight man, to report some mundane event or judgement and for the comic, his wife Gracie Allen, to then find some confounding misinterpretation of that statement. Hilarity ensued, as any attempt to put the Dada spring-snakes back into the can was met by more sproinging twisting of the otherwise obvious meaning.

Poetic license: I couldn’t find any short clips of the classic double act, but the concept extends to this scene

 

 

That realization led me to name this kind of language play a “Gracie.”

“Doubt Brings Autumn”  began with a Gracie. A blog I read regularly written by an Iowan, Paul Deaton, had in series discussed the seasonal cycle of his food garden and an orchard he works at over the past year. His posts, as well as alternative voice and keyboardist here Dave Moore’s garden probably led me to use more stuff related to gardens this past year. In one post this fall Deaton remarked that frost and even some snow had come and that “If there is any doubt, autumn has definitely arrived.”

We all know what Paul meant, but if one takes this as a Gracie, it could just as clearly mean that doubt, even in small doses, causes, brings on, autumn. That became the germ, the seed, of this poem.

It’s been through a number of versions and revisions, and I revised it yet again slightly this morning after the performance you’ll hear was recorded, but the idea, inherent in both Paul’s life (he’s contemplating retirement) and mine (I’m “retired” but working near-constantly on this project, my “garden”) was a rich one. Our doubts, our questions about how to continue and react to our own seasons, are they cause or effect?

Doubt Brings Autumn

This is the current version with a small change in the next to last line

 

The last line works not just from its sound but gains also from another accident of English. The words unraveling and raveling are not opposites, each form of the word means the same—but raveling is the rarer word and subconsciously adds a paradoxical element that winter could  intensify instead of relaxing and untangling our unanswered questions, our doubts.

Another note on this poem in process: when I read an earlier version an accomplished poet whose work I respect reacted to the pun for frost and Frost***  with dismay. All poems and poets work from their own sensibilities, but mine steadfastly believes that humor, even the coincidental humor of Gracies and puns is unavoidable in the human condition. That other poet’s reaction was likely right, in that many (who knows, maybe most) will find the mood broken by that move in my poem. I do wish I didn’t confound them, but I somehow must.

Musically, I’ve finally been able to play fiddle rather than violin on a piece using the MIDI interface on my guitar. The sound of largo bow work is lovely, but so too are many folk traditions which saw away more insistently. The player to hear “Doubt Brings Autumn”  is below, and thanks to all that read and listen here!

 

 

 

*This insight came from a review of a book of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poems, where the reviewer seemed surprised and delighted to find many poems there “with other people in them.” “Why should this be rare?” I asked myself. In a musical metaphor I’d remark that I love solo acoustic guitar—just one set of hands and six strings—but what if all music or even all guitar music was only that or even mostly that? So much we would be missing!

**If I’m able to reach that number, I think that would be a good time to reassess the effort and focus it takes to do this project. If you’d like to help encourage this effort, the best thing you can do is spread the word. I have (too?) little inclination to promote this project on social media or even face-to-face. But even if I had that useful skill, I wouldn’t have time to do it.

***In my awkward defense, I pointed out that Robert Frost likely intended to pun on his own name in his magnificent “October”  where the endangered garden grapes have already suffered a leaf-wide incursion of burning frost.

A Misplaced Landmark in Modernist Poetry Part 2

So how did the Spoon River Anthology  get created and published in 1914, such an early date in the emergence of Modernist verse? Let me see if I can summarize what I know so far. In the early part of the 20th century Edgar Lee Masters was a busy lawyer practicing in Chicago. The most oft-remarked part of that career was that for a time Masters was partnered with the famed Clarence Darrow known for his progressive views and participation in numerous famous cases of the era.

I’ve quickly scoured a great deal of information this month on Masters, learning more each day, but it’s clear that for some time before 1914 Masters wanted dearly to become a writer of some kind, with a “trunk” of prose, plays and poetry, and a fair amount of rejection letters. It’s possible that, in his time, he might have been categorized by writers and cultural figures as a type that still exists, which for lack of a better name I’ll call a “wanna-be.”

Like all stereotypes, the wanna-be is unfair to some tagged with it, while seeming to be a useful short-hand among those who apply it. Authors from book tours only need to start a story with another about the businessman who buttonholes the author to say that they too have a novel, often partly written or even “just an idea, but…” and the fellow author will nod and immediately fill in the stereotypical details. Modern authors maybe divided into commercial, academic and bohemian enclaves, but all three can bemoan someone from outside those realms who thinks they are a writer, while giving signs that their real-life choices, risks, experience, and focus lie elsewhere.

Masters was certainly not the kind of wanna-be who claimed he had a novel in him, or “I once wrote poetry when I was young.” Despite what he described as a busy legal practice, he was writing—good bad or indifferent, he was taking his swings.

Here’s another stereotype label that could be applied to Masters in his time: “womanizer*” which is someone who engages in endless, usually short-term, love affairs: a cycle of attraction, infatuation, discovery of imperfection or the newness wears off, and then repeat. For a time prior to writing Spoon River,  Masters was in a two-year extra-marital relationship with a Chicago woman Tennessee Mitchell.**  Mitchell was a musician who taught piano, broke a glass ceiling for women as piano-tuners (lady brains can’t handle the complex tempering of all those notes you know), and who ran a salon where patrons, artists, and radicals mingled.

One question I had when I wondered how Masters could write a thoroughly Modernist work of poetry so early in the movement was did he cross paths with Chicago’s Poetry magazine and Carl Sandburg, then living and working in Chicago. In the case of the later, he certainly did. He struck up an acquaintance with his fellow Midwestern Modernist,*** and they took walks together and presumably talked about poetry as Masters was writing Spoon River.  Masters referred to Sandburg in letters from this time as the “Swede Bard,” which even just between friends sounds dismissive and nativist, but this does point out something that shouldn’t be forgotten about Sandburg: he was the child of an immigrant. Masters didn’t have to “prove” his American legitimacy when he cast a critical eye on parts of its culture. Sandburg, though different in his politics from Masters, could be just as critical, but he was casting his critique from a different standing.

And Poetry magazine, a critical American organ in the dissemination of Modernism? Masters seems to have been stymied there. At one point he was having another of his affairs with a woman described in places as an editor at Poetry,***  but I so far haven’t seen that he was published in Poetry  prior to Spoon River.

Instead the Spoon River Anthology owes its major inspiration and initial publication to a man down the Mississippi from south-western Illinois, William Reedy, the editor of Reedy’s Mirror  in St. Louis, who like Harriet Monroe’s Poetry  was ready and willing to publish American poets who were unabashedly American and willing to forge American verse in new modes, as Whitman and Dickinson had shown was possible in the previous century.

Inspiration? Well, for someone promoting American verse, Reedy’s prime move was to send Masters a copy of a recent translation by a British scholar from classical Greek late in 1912: Epigrams from the Greek Anthology.

Epigrams from the Greek Anthology

A gift that helped start American Modernist poetry. Ironic, or Ionic?

 

Masters had an idea that stories from his southwest Illinois youth were good material, but he didn’t know how to present them. Even in 1913 he was thinking of shaping them into a play.**** As 1914 began, Masters, still being goaded by Reedy to drop his often florid and European-modeled verse and do something American, started writing the Spoon River  epitaphs, accepting the incongruity of a classical Greek style of summing up a life being used for American Midwestern townfolk as having a certain satiric flavor. Masters sent a batch of them to Reedy, and as Masters himself recounted this, they were submitted in something of a mood of: you want American, well I’ll give you American  and I’ll bet you won’t think it’s poetic.

Reedy published them, praised them. Throughout 1914 this process continued: Masters writing feverishly on the weekends while continuing a busy legal practice and sending off batches to Reedy and his Mirror of new Spoon River epitaphs to be published. Does Masters feel validated? Has he found his voice? There may be some ambivalence on his part at first. He has them published using a pen name Webster Ford. Some of that may be to protect his law career (lawyers who tell secrets about lives aren’t exactly sought out by clientele.) Part of it may be because he’s unsure. It’s even possible that “Webster Ford” may have been a way to escape his lawyer-who-thinks-he’s-a-poet issues with Chicago literary figures.

Ezra Pound, off in England, but considering himself the world-wide talent scout for all things Modernist, fires off a letter to Harriet Monroe. Pound is no stranger to urgency in speech, but he’s in full florid ALL CAPS shouting mode:

“GET SOME OF WEBSTER FORD’S STUFF FOR ‘POETRY’…Please observe above instruction as soon as possible.”

By the end of 1914, Masters drops the Webster Ford mask and puts his own name on the poems, and he’s looking to have Spoon River Anthology  published in book-length form. He’s on his way, even if he’ll soon enough loose it.

For today’s Spoon River  piece, here’s a companion to “Cooney Potter,” “Fiddler Jones,”  showing the dialectical contrasts Masters likes to weave into his collection. With its invocation of music it was an immediate favorite with me. Besides the contrasts in values and outcomes that Masters uses, there are families’ and relationship stories throughout the book, but it’s unclear to me if Fiddler Jones is related to other Jones-surnamed characters in Spoon River.*****  Jones is a common name, used as synonym for “anyone” idiomatically. But it’s also Welsh in origin, and there is a Jones family of specifically Welsh ancestry in Spoon River.

Reading “Fiddler Jones”  I thought the character might be Afro-American. There’s one stated Afro-American character in Spoon River, and I wasn’t sure of the exact ethnic makeup of the region of Masters youth, but like finding out about the Afro-American community in Emily Dickinson’s region, assuming all-white is false default. As so often when I come to something like this, the Internet is my friend. It’s actually easy to search census demographic records for the two towns of Masters’ youth, and they were around 1% African American by those records. Of course, Masters’ book isn’t a documentary or demographic treatise, but that means there are 30-35 Afro-Americans living in Spoon River’s models in the later 19th century.


Strings link things: African styles mixed with Celtic styles in America.

 

 

From my musicological interests, the idea that that fiddler could have Celtic or Afro-American roots is apt, but in doing my music for today’s performance of “Fiddler Jones”  I didn’t really follow traditional fiddle styles. I don’t play violin, and the solo violin line featured in today’s piece was played on guitar with a MIDI pickup using a lot of string vibrato and little of the short, rhythmic chops that might drive a field of dancers. Wondering what’s the dance tune they step off too mentioned in the poem? This blog has a good guess. The lyrics to that tune also end, as does Spoon River’s  in the grave; and as Fiddler Jones does, with no regrets.

In composing the small orchestra accompaniment, I made sure to feature the bassoon and piccolos that bedevil Fiddler Jones in his mind as he tries to plow. I found myself rather enchanted as Fiddler Jones was, and as a result today’s piece is a bit longer than most here, but I hope you’ll find the spell as moving as I did. Player’s below.

 

 

 

*Particularly, but not exclusively, among arts and bohemians, even in Masters time there would also be women who were not called “mananizers” for some reason, and bisexuality and same-sex relationships too. The power relationships in such relationships would be too complex to discuss in a footnote: some exploitative, some less so, some respectful, some carnal, some duplicitous, some honest, and so on. So far, in my rapid overview of Masters he doesn’t seem particularly exploitative, and Spoon River  shows he’s listening to women.

**Click this link and read about Tennessee Mitchell! After the end of her affair with Masters she eventually married another wanna-be-but-actually-could writer, an advertising man and entrepreneur Sherwood Anderson who went on to write Spoon River’s  prose-in-law: Winesburg Ohio  in 1919.

***At this point, do we need to broach the question of if Edgar Lee Masters was trying to sleep his way to the top of Modernist poetry?

***Yes, I should have included Masters along with a remarkable group of folks from the turn-of-the-century south-east Iowa, south-west Illinois area, some of whom were key figures in the emergence of American Modernism.

****More irony, the brief poetic monologs in Spoon River  so revealing of key details of entire lives in flat descriptive dialog became a staple of audition readings for actors since they so readily allow an actor to show keen presentation of character in a few lines.

*****We’ll meet one of those other Jones in Spoon River  soon. You may think, small town, must be related, but in the 19th century Midwest residents are largely internal migrants from the previously settled regions of the U.S. and so, even later, it’s not certain. In my 20th century hometown, smaller than Spoon River, 20% of my class had the last name Johnson and were not related. As you might imagine, I thought the running joke in Blazing Saddles  that every white townsperson is named “Johnson” was particularly funny.