Poetry in Gray, Part 1

Continuing our exploration of National Poetry Month, let’s open another door. You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…

Yes, I’m speaking of mid-20th century TV, and specifically The Twilight Zone.  Once more there is a revival of this series, helmed this time by the talented Jordon Peele. I think there’s something difficult in his task, one that may not matter in terms of audience or financial success, but one that I notice when I look at the old gray-screen stuff from 60 years ago. It’s two of those qualities I look for in poetry: compressed expression and memorability.

If older people remember some of those shows like poems, it’s because they were much more like poetry than prestigious television is today. For one thing the 30 minute drama was a thing. Isn’t this odd? We talk today about ever-shorter attention spans incessantly, as if we ourselves have forgotten that we’ve already talked about that subject—but the predominant television format today is the video equivalent of the serialized novel. Even the basest form of “reality TV’ shows are season-long arcs of hour-long episodes, and most of the prestige shows intelligent critics like to write about unwind over multi-season plots. That’s a valid concept, but it isn’t the only possible one. Those old 30 minute shows had to express the experience and clash of ideas fast, they weren’t about long-form character dynamics, they were about epiphanies.

Do folks feel they remember 21st century television episodes, in a sense they possess them completely as recollections of sensations and apprehensions; in the way that one possesses a poem, even one not completely memorized, where one may hold and carry a key stanza or final couplet in our mind?

There are several Twilight Zone  episodes that seem to have the quality of memorability shared with poetry. For the literary sort, the 1959 first season episode “Time Enough at Last”  starring Burgess Meredith as a man who so loves to read books would be one. The gist of the story is so memorable I’m not going to summarize the plot, because you’ll remember it if you saw it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the 25 minutes of your time, and there will be no spoilers here. Only the final (spoilers!) scene is available on YouTube, so don’t go there, but I expect some streaming services will have it.

Instead I’m here to note two small things you may have forgotten, though I have no idea if Twilight Zone’s  creator, producer, and screenwriter of this episode Rod Serling intended these details.*

TS Eliot and Harold Bemis

T. S. Eliot and Harold Bemis played by Burgess Meredith. Two bank clerks who’d rather be reading.

 

First off, Burgess Meredith’s character, Harold Bemis, works in a bank and his marriage is spectacularly dysfunctional. I found it odd that I hadn’t remembered the key scene between the married couple, which is so intentionally cruel and specific as to equal or exceed the empty-hearted offhand cruelty between men and women in “The Waste Land.”  Even if the wife’s character is stereotypically shrewish, the ending of their scene is so heartbreaking that I can’t say why it isn’t more remembered. Of course, the whole sexual politics of this echt-’50s trope of the controlling female denying the freedom of the male should be bothersome, but did the TV show intend to reference the scholarly T. S. Eliot circa the writing of “The Waste Land”  then working in a bank, famously hamstrung by his own dysfunctional marriage?

Probable? I can’t go that far, but it’s more of an outside possibility than you might think. T. S. Eliot was never Tennyson or Longfellow famous, but in the 1950s he was as well-known as a poet could be then**, and poetry was still considered something of a co-equal branch of literature, a substantial part of culture.

And that was the other detail that stood out watching “Time Enough at Last”  again. The couple’s scene revolves around Harold Bemis wanting to sneak a read of a book. A classic novel? A bit of science fiction or fantasy? Hemingway on bullfights and fly fishing? The Second Sex  in French? A hard-boiled detective yarn? Philosophy? History? A collection of “Can This Marriage Be Saved”  columns?

No, it’s A Book of Modern Poetry.  Bemis’ character says of it “This has lovely things in it, really. There’s one or two from T. S Eliot. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Frost. Carl Sandburg.” My ears perked up. That’s the kind of stuff you find here!

Now Harold Bemis is also a stereotype, the nebbish, maybe the idea that the thing his domestic bank clerk life most wants is modern poetry is meant to underline that caricature—that he’s too bookish. It’s not like he wants to anachronistically read The Art of the Deal.  Despite the sadness of the scene, it cheered me, it could also mean to say, even a little, that that is what he needs.  And in any case, Serling at least thought that an audience in 1960 would know these poets in some way, even superficially. If Jordon Peele or someone would rewrite that scene today and his modern Bemis was to speak of Frank Bidart, Tychimba Jess, Peter Balakian, and Gregory Pardlo*** as the lovely things he most wished to read, would the audience read anything in those names?

Well those four poets could well have as much or more to say to us. Why wouldn’t they? On the other hand, I can perform the older poems I use here freely as I encounter them, and it would be a chore to try to get unencumbered use of current poets for my small project. So, here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “At A Window,”  available with the player below, and full text to read along here. All four of the poets he mentions in his scene would have difficult messages that still might console Bemis, all four could write a lovely line, even about harrowing things. But I’d choose this one from Sandburg for him to read aloud.

 

*Serling’s screenplay was based on a 1953 If magazine short story by Lynn Venable. Venable also has Harold Bemis as henpecked and working in a bank, but her story has Harold’s spouse so dead-set against him reading that it’s said he hasn’t ever been able to finish a book, and the only book author name-checked in the entire story is Spinoza. Her scene between Bemis and his wife is told in a much blander flashback.

**Before there was a national poetry month, on April 30th 1956 T. S. Eliot spoke in the Twin Cities, filling one of the largest capacity basketball arenas in the country (somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 capacity)—not for a mythic men’s Final Four between Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, but for a solo lecture sure to pack’em in today: “The Frontiers of Criticism.”

***Those are the last four winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Unfair! Bemis’ book was an anthology of modern poetry, those poets he longs for all had been publishing for 40 years. But just for contrast, here are the poets who won the Pulitzer in the ‘50s, “recent years” to the 1959 TV screenplay: Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren, and Stanley Kunitz. Of course, poets in your rear-view mirror may appear larger/greater than they are to contemporaries, and it does look like the Pulitzer committee was more likely to give “lifetime achievement” awards in the ‘50s than they have been in our century.

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Wrapping up Maila Nurmi and Vampira

Yesterday, the songs I made from Dave Moore’s cycle of poems about Vampira had taken us up to her short run as the first “horror host” in the early days of television. As recounted in that post, by the time her little more than a year of  broadcasting fame had wrapped up, the idea of a sardonic costumed character hosting late night showings of horror and SciFi films went nationwide, with dozens of local reflections of that concept. None of them were exactly like Vampira though, and oddly, all of them were male.

Vampira’s creator, Finish-American Maila Nurmi kept at a show business career following her TV host stint, including some Los Vegas work with Liberace, but as the 1950s started to conclude, she was getting farther and farther from the brass ring. Should there be any wonder that this would have been so? No, there were few models of self-defined female performers in the Fifties, and it was her character, Vampira, not herself, that held what fame remained. And that character, combining as it did fears of death with fears of female sexuality, both attracted and repelled where it was remembered.

It was in this context that Nurmi took a role in a micro-budgeted movie with an incoherent script and famously eccentric director: Plan 9 From Outer Space.”  When the movie was completed, if such a disaster could say to have completion, it hung around in obscurity even lower than Nurmi’s for more than a decade.

Plan 9

Like 80s video game packages, Plan 9’s poster has higher production values than the movie.
Vampira gestures, Tor Johnson arises from the grave, and Ed Wood’s chiropractor fakes it as Bela Lugosi

Nurmi pressed on with living, less and less known. There were a couple more bit parts, and her day gig sometimes was “handyman” work in the homes of the more affluent. Poet Kevin Fitzpatrick remarked after reading Dave Moore’s pieces on Nurmi’s resilience that she was showing “Sisu,” that untranslatable Finnish characteristic that says that determination will get you through any challenge.

And then something odd happened. The same generation of film scholars and fans that helped recognize the value in genre fare like pre-war horror movies, low-budget serials, or the foreign oddness of Japanese monster movies began to look around all the blind corners of obscure film. What made a film that met few of the criteria of good cinema still interesting? Could it be that watching a film fail to fulfill it’s duties had a fascination in itself? What would the worst possible movie be like?

In 1978 a couple of movie critics put together a book called “The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.”  Like many lists of superlatives, it generated plenty of response, but one response was to claim that they’d overlooked this now 20 year old film that was seen mostly on TV, late at night, when viewers just couldn’t believe the bad dream they were seeing. The authors, Michael and Harry Medved, figured there was another, better book about worser movies, and in 1980 they redid their lowerarchy with a follow up book that named “Plan 9 from Outer Space”  the worst movie of all time, and it’s director, Ed Wood, the worst director of all time. And since then, nothing has challenged that assessment, it’s become the “Citizen Kane”  of bad cinema, a movie seen by millions who are astounded by its, ah, quality.

Thus Vampira’s few minutes of (gratefully, given the script) silent footage in “Plan 9”  communicated Nurmi’s visual concept to a new generation looking to stand back from their times. The Misfits recorded a tribute song around this time, and now this year, The Haxans illuminate that song with an excellent cover. But of course, you want to hear how Dave Moore and I conveyed this part of Maila Nurmi’s story in the song-cycle. In case you’re in a hurry to get to your Halloween party, here are the three preceding songs from the Vampira song-cycle, along with the LYL Band telling the story of how Vampira would have been forgotten “If Not For Ed.”

Maila Nurmi arrives in L.A., and as she considers what persona to take on she considers celebrity evangelist Amiee Semple.

 

Why might someone like Nurmi choose a gothic character
in the midst of the supposedly peaceful and satisfied Fifties?

 

Maila Nurmi performs on TV as the first “Horror Host.”

 

The last part of the tale, how “Plan 9”  allowed Vampira to be seen by a new generation.

Prevailing Winds

Continuing our change of pace, temporarily stepping away from our usual spoken word and music combination, I’m going to dress-up once more for Halloween as a singer, which I fear is not a totally convincing costume. Today’s piece “Prevailing Winds”  is the second cut from the song-cycle about ‘50s goth/horror innovator Vampira. Dave Moore, whose voice and words you may have heard here before, wrote the words for this piece, and I wrote the music and performed it. The first part, “Helen Heaven”  was posted here Monday.

As I mentioned yesterday, the 1950s has, somewhat in retrospect, gained a reputation as a peaceful, relaxed, and satisfied time in the United States. When a political figure such as our current Presidential performer refers to “make America great again” it’s generally assumed that his clientele understands this as “like the 1950s” in hat-band shorthand.

But, as experienced, America in the 1950s was not so peaceful. The decade began with the Korean war, now commonly forgotten, but deadlier proportionately than the Vietnam war. Somewhat more so than the Vietnam war, and more like our current war on terror, the Korean War was viewed as only a small part of an open-ended global struggle against an evil multi-national enemy. And as the decade went on, there existed a widespread and increasing fear that the atomic weapons first unleashed just prior to the decade, and held in a rough but uncertain balance by the central powers of the enemies, would return again, but in multi-fold form threatening worldwide destruction, threatening human survival.

On either side of Los Angeles, where Maila Nurmi was formulating her Vampira persona, these human-survival threatening weapons were being tested in deserts and on Pacific islands, right in the open air. Radioactive isotopes were measured in milk as Nurmi fashioned the dropping white décolletage of her costume.

Vampira gives epitaphs not autographs

“I give epitaphs, not autographs” Maila Nurmi created the Vampira persona in 1953/54

 

As someone old enough to remember those times, I’m often puzzled at the ebb and flow of nuclear worry in American minds. There have been times when it almost disappears, and times when it is so omnipresent that the topic is nearly as unavoidable in social and party conversation as the weather or sports teams. As this is being written, Korea and nuclear worries are on an upswing, and I have no way of knowing if this level is proportionate to the threat or not—but I do believe it’s still less amplified now than it was in 1953-1954 when the Vampira persona was being created.

The human condition is mortality, this does not change. Poets have spoken of this since before the time they could write their songs down. But the human condition in that time, the 1950s, was the first to consider humanity itself as mortal.

To hear the Dave Moore/Frank Hudson song “Prevailing Winds”  from the song-cycle “Vampira”,  use the player below.

 

Helen Heaven

Let’s leave off those modernists of the era around WWI for a while, and move to a few songs about some midcentury mods. This is the time when popular culture mutated into something recognizable as ours, as it still is into this 21st Century.

Somewhere in this second decade of the 21st Century a new modernism is likely being born, but I do not know it yet. Back in the early 1950s people expected something new, perhaps as much or more than we expect change today in 2017. As it turns out, we may have not gotten all the change we thought we were due.

Today’s piece is the opening song in a song-cycle about one woman who had a moment in this moment of change in the early 1950s in Los Angeles/Hollywood. The woman was a second-generation Finnish-American, Malia Nurmi, who created a character that for a short time, just about a year, captivated TV audiences in Southern California with a strange take on sexuality and various horror tropes, blending in a beatnik/Dada critique of “normal” as a reaction to the unthinkable. The character was named “Vampira.”

Somewhere in the later 1960s it became a commonplace to view the 1950s as an era of calm, peace, satisfaction and complacency, and this characterization has only increased over time. But this was also the era just after a cataclysmic war ended with atom bombs, a horror that eventually moved from reality, to nightmares, to repressed acceptance, to forgetfulness and finally now again to present fears. This was the decade of a forgotten, brutal, war in Korea. This was an era when society tried to put back into the bottle the broadening social roles for women and Afro-Americans that WWII had allowed. This was the time that revealed the horrible efficiency of the extermination and slave labor camps, and the decade in which the utopian dream of Communism exposed its shames and shams. This was a deeply uneasy time when some feared everything “normal” was a dream and others saw clearly the waking hours outside the dream.

All of which makes this campy TV quipster host who created the makeup, costume and persona of Vampira seem inadequate to address this. Well, what is? As we move to celebrate Halloween, that strangest of holidays, where we make fun of our inability to escape fear, death, and too much candy, let’s reconsider her.

Helen Heaven - Aimee Semple and Maila Nurmi as Vampira

Media in black and white: Aimee Semple used religion, Maila Nurmi used Vampira

“Helen Heaven”  has words written by Dave Moore, the alternate voice and writer/musician here at the Parlando Project, along with music written and performed by myself. This piece is the first song in the Vampira song-cycle, contrasting the LA-based white-dressed pop-religious phenomenon Aimee Semple McPherson with Nurmi/Vampira’s dark negative.

To hear “Helen Heaven” use the player you should see just below this.