Sail on, Oh Ship of State!

Claude McKay led an outsiders’ life, Allen Ginsberg became a near celebrity bohemian whose outsider status changed over his life. The author of today’s poem in our Independence Day series was more well-known than Ginsberg in his day, and he was as far from being an outsider as any American poet could be. At one time, as many knew and read his poems as Edgar Guest’s, and he was a much better versifier.

So, do you know today’s poem from the above title, or from the name of the longer work from which it’s excerpted, “The Building of the Ship?”   It’s highly unlikely that you would. The American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went from being the stuffy square’s square, the kind of writer that Modernists didn’t want to be, to a forgotten man, the writer that no one remembers even to reject. He was a civic poet, a poet’s role that no longer exists in white America. Along with a handful of other men, most of whom he knew, he sought to create an American poetry in the first half of the 19th century when the American experiment was still new. After all, when he was born in 1817, many who celebrated July 4th were around for the July 4th!   And for much of his life Longfellow lived in a house that George Washington had lived in while commanding the American Revolutionary War troops.

Longfellow_National_Historic_Site,_Cambridge,_Massachusetts

George Washington lived here, and later so did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And a child named Darby Vassall. Haven’t heard of that last one? Read on.

 

In 1855, an elderly man visited that house where he had been born in 1769, meeting with Longfellow there. The man’s name was Darby Vassall, and this was the nature of his birth: he was born to enslaved Afro-Americans owned by the owners of that big house, which made him a slave by law from birth. When the Revolution came, his masters sided with the British, and so after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the owners skedaddled off to safer British-controlled territory. This left the house available for the new Revolutionary Army’s commander, General Washington, as spoils of war. Washington left his short-term smaller quarters and went to the big house to move in.

And here’s the story Darby Vassall liked to tell about meeting The Father of Our Country. There he was, six years old, and the revolution had by accident empirically freed him. He was swinging on the gate of the very house Longfellow now lived in, a time-honored childhood pastime then and now (see also sutures and Colles’ fracture.) General Washington, impressively tall for his time, and like the house’s absent owners, a rich slaveholder who traveled with an enslaved manservant, asked the boy if he would like to work for the new occupant, this man who’d become so honored and famous that people even now buy his portrait for something between 25 cents and a dollar.

Darby kept swinging, sizing up the tall white man, and then asked “How much are you paying?” Darby says Washington kind of lost interest in the conversation at that point—because, you know, slavery. He looked like a gentleman Darby later recounted, but “He was no gentleman.” Now that’s an Independence Day story!

We don’t know all Vassall told Longfellow about the house Longfellow now lived in, but the stories must have been interesting. The best-selling author blew off a meeting with his publisher to hear them all.

Have I forgotten to talk about Longfellow’s poem? No, this is another poem for our July 4th series. It comes at the end of a much longer poem Longfellow published in 1850, one that less than nobody reads today. The entire “The Building of the Ship”  is an allegorical story of a venerable ship builder* who with the help of a crew including a younger apprentice builds a ship for a merchant, more magnificent than any the builder has ever built. While building the ship, the apprentice and the master ship builder’s daughter fall in love, and the old master promises that on the day the ship launches his daughter and the apprentice will be wed. After many supple verse lines detailing the construction of this ship,** it’s complete and it launches with a epithalamium in which the new and lovely ship is embraced as a bride by the timeless, older, gray sea.

If the poem ended there it’d remain a curio of interest to scholars today, a romance in a European style adapted with distinctive American details and accomplished in English verse with a difficult rhyming scheme that never grates or seems fake, the sort of thing that is easier to do in French or Italian.***  But Longfellow had an envoi of sorts. The ship, as all man-made things do, would eventually wear out and come to a wrecked end. A downbeat, look-at-oneself-through-the-grave warning that would also not be out of place in romanticism.

This whole poem, along with that ending was sent to the publishers.

Then Longfellow called it back. He had a revision, with an entirely new ending. You can read the old ending and the story of the last-minute revision here. Not only is the new ending upbeat, it seemed to retroactively change the poem that proceeded it. That boat-like-a-bride thing was still there, but the ship was named “The Union,” and in those manifests of the things that made the ship, the entire young country seems to be the source. The Union becomes not just a marital union, it becomes the United States.

Here’s where that civic poet role comes into play. In the dozen years leading up to the Civil War, the delicate balance of slavery’s evil in a democratic country was becoming harder and harder to keep from spilling, the compromises seeking to keep the country in existence more and more difficult to negotiate. Longfellow’s new envoi, the one that I perform today, may seem anodyne if considered as an abstract statement of patriotism, but in 1850 it was a considered second-draft meant to say that ideals of the American experiment should continue, needed to continue, because those ideals, those plans, however imperfectly applied are contagious (in a good non-Covid-19 way). Enough for a small 6-year-old to stand up to Washington for example.

Now if we are to consider inspirational Afro-American patriotism, the best story that is likely not true is that Winston Churchill once quoted in a public speech Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,”  a Black man’s valiant ode to self-defense written after the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919, but then applied during the darkest days of Great Britain standing against Nazi-occupied Europe. No one has such a transcript or recording. But there is  a recording of Churchill reading a section of the abolitionist**** Longfellow’s envoi during that time in a speech of endurance in 1940.

 

 

Maybe the strangest thing about this ship and it’s sailing on, even as the maker of the poem has slipped away from public consciousness, was “Sail on, O Ship of State”  being quoted in Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy,”  his excellent ode to the need to continue the American experiment, however flawed, because it’s flawed.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State”  is below. I’ll note that my performance has some flaws that I’m accepting for now in order to get this out in a timely manner, but the spirit is there. Happy 4th of July though it be just one date. May freedom and independence come to all of us. The revolution is plural.

 

 

 

 

*Though Longfellow lived and wrote much of his work in Cambridge Massachusetts, he was born and educated in Maine, and even at this late hour he probably vies with Stephen King and Edna St. Vincent Millay for the title of most well-known writer from Maine. Maine was a shipbuilding center in the 19th century and so the poems extended allegory of shipmaking was local color to Longfellow.

**I’m no expert here, but those who know about early 19th century American shipbuilding seem to feel that Longfellow got the details of ship design choices and construction right.

***Many prosody theorists think that rhyming English poetry is a mistake, as we have many fewer rhyming word-endings than other European languages. Longfellow’s poetry may not be to modern tastes, but one thing he did have was a non-forced and impressive “flow” in the hip-hop/rap sense.

****Among the favorable reviews from abolitionists: Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of “The Building of the Ship”  “The most complete and artistic which he ever wrote.” Lincoln was said to have quoted the envoi lines in private to his secretary as the Civil War broke out—and broke down in tears before he could finish them.

The Workman’s Dream

Well, here’s an odd choice for a new Parlando Project audio piece: today’s song has lyrics from British-American poet Edgar Guest. It’s likely that you either know who Edgar Guest is, or you don’t. And if you do, you may be older than me, which is a rapidly declining Internet demographic, as most providers refuse to offer service across the river Lethe.*

Famous American wit Dorothy Parker wanted to help you remember—sort of—Wikipedia reminds us that she once poetically needled him: “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test than read a poem by Edgar Guest.” But now, folks may not remember Wasserman tests either. Wit has a short shelf-life I guess.

Edgar Guest was a public poet in a way that is unimaginable today. He had a newspaper column, a nationwide radio show; and ordinary, non-academic folks clipped and memorized his poetry in the first half of the 20th century. What did academic folks think of his poetry? Well, Parker nailed it.

Edgar Guest rocks the mic

Radio. It was a kind of wireless podcasting useful before YouTube.

 

His poetry is often folk-humor related, and his style isn’t always very elegant: doggerel. But unlike poets whose work is always with humorous intent, some Guest poems, like today’s, are meant to make a serious point, often in a sentimental way. While there’s no common objective criteria for “good poetry” it’s still safe to say that almost anyone who would have some criteria to evaluate poetry would agree that Guest wrote bad poetry—or at best, not very good poetry.

So, what am I doing, following up some posts featuring a poet like Yeats, who has both a popular audience and a rightful place as one of the most graceful lyric poets in the English language, with Edgar Guest?   Well, it’s my opinion that “bad poetry” or poetry that has intents and methods that are not in alignment with academic critical modes, may still have some value, some reason to exist. I don’t think this is a common belief, which is somewhat odd. While there are elements of theoretical snobbery in other arts, fans of serious novels may still like a quick plebian mystery series, cinephiles may enjoy an occasional piece of mass entertainment, jazz purists or avant garde composers may have surprisingly impure playlists—but serious poetry authorities tend to view not-great poetry as a Gresham’s law issue for their endangered art form.

I went looking for a Father’s Day text in the public domain and came upon this one. What struck me about it? Well, you and I may agree it’s sentimental, but it wears its working-class heart on its blue-color sleeve. Better Modernist poems have been written on this poem’s subject (Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”  for one)— but most of those are not available for my use today. And it’s not like poems about the world of work are all that common in Modernist lit. Instead, there are many poems about domestic life, lots about the human condition in general, erotic poems of love, visionary texts about the psychic borderlands, poems of scenic trips and museum pieces, poems about parenthood in its physical intimacy, and poems about economic and political injustice—but even the later are often absent the actual world and obligations of work.

Isn’t that odd? It’s as if poets are embarrassed to give evidence of their “day gigs.” Do we secretly expect that we are all still Lord Byron, with an inherited endowment? If we are any good should we be swinging from grant to grant, or have agents digging up the biggest returns as if we were rim protectors who can create our own shot while being a threat to sink the three from anywhere outside the arc? If we are serious, should we be beyond all that non-artistic, non-academic work?

Perhaps there are other reasons for this relative absence of the subject of ordinary work—and there are exceptions  in modern poetry—but even if we were to become one of those making a living with our pen or our mental flights alone, somewhere in our heritage we may have someone like the subject of Guest’s poem. I know I do. And from my age, from my era, I’ve even had the experience of being “the breadwinner” more than once in my life, the one working in a household and bringing in the outside income, while others do unpaid work.

This is no longer a gendered situation in our culture, but in my father’s generation this was the father’s prime job: the  job. Maybe for you this was another generation or even two generations back—we may have had forefathers. A lot of you had two parents doing “the job” (and yes, the unequal, unpaid woman’s work too) or one parent doing it all, or the most of the all.

That said, “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”**  This one goes out to those who didn’t get the service ribbons or the purple heart, who clocked in so we could write about time. In my case, they’re all gone now, but as Guest writes, I’ll sing “Out of this place of dirt and dust.”

The Workmans Dream

In the Broadside tradition, here are my chords for the song version I composed. I played it with a capo at the 1st fret, so the recording is in F minor. My piano, vibraphone and cello parts are simple: fifths, octaves and roots.

The player to hear my performance of the song is below.

 

 

*They say it has something to do with dog attacks on their installers, three-headed dogs at that.

**Leonard Cohen. For six minutes of REM performing “First We Take Manhattan”  see this link.

We Wear the Mask

Today I present the other widely anthologized Paul Laurence Dunbar poem: “We Wear the Mask.”  I was going to put a “now” qualifier in front of “widely” above, but that made for an awkward sentence. I think it’s worth burning at least another sentence to note that.

In looking for some more Dunbar information, I found this story told by Professor Joanne Braxton. Braxton recounts that as recently as the 1980s when she was looking to teach Dunbar poems at her university, that Dunbar’s work was out of print and difficult to find. That’s not unusual. As Donald Hall fatalistically stated in one of his late essays: the majority of poets who receive prizes and ample publication in their time will be unread 20 years after their death. Braxton, who knew Dunbar’s poems from family and Afro-American tradition, eventually saw to publishing of the first collection of all of Dunbar’s verse.

I’m sure I have readers here for whom the 1980s is “a long time ago.” It’s all relative I suppose, but this change in availability speaks to the dynamism of “The Canon,” and which poets we’re exposed to in school or the culture at large. Braxton teaches by her example that we, each of us, shape The Canon,* particularly with poetry, which is in suspended animation on the page and lives only when we read aloud, chant, and sing it. It’s up to all of us to find those poets who split our skulls, open our caged chest bones, and let us animate the slumbering dreams.

Young Negro Poet Dunbar poster

No date is known for this poster, but Dunbar looks quite young here

 

Braxton** and others have written eloquently on the meaning of this Dunbar poem and about Dunbar’s pioneering code-switching project to write in dialect as well as mainstream 19th century poetic forms, so once more I’ll defer to others today in those matters.

On the poem itself, let me praise its word-music. There were occasional words that were hard for me to sing or set to music, but that’s likely my fault as a composer and certainly my fault as a singer. “We Wear the Mask” is almost too pretty for its subject, but then there’s a tradition (I associate it with Celtic folk musics) of setting the saddest stories to the most beautiful tunes. Last time, for Dunbar’s “Sympathy,”  I followed that idea for my music and the fiddle melody. Now, for my explicit music today, I decided to go in a more martial cadence and ambience. Art song (that traditional method of setting poetry to music) usually avoids that mood; but one of my influences, the English language 20th century Folk Music Revival is perfectly fine with that.

We Wear the Mask

Here’s the guitar chords. The piano and bass mostly just play the roots of the chords in today’s performance. That’s a nice thing about music: sometimes simple works just fine.

 

In the Broadside tradition, I’ve included my guitar chords with Dunbar’s lyrics for this one. I played it with a capo on the second fret, so the chords sound a full step higher than the chord forms indicated above. My performance can be heard with the player gadget that should appear below.

 

 

*This leads to complaints that change in The Canon is “watering down,” or subject to special pleading which somehow is self-evidently inferior to one or another objective aesthetic criterion. If there are indeed multiple criteria (objectively, that must be agreed to be so) how else must we decide among ourselves what has worth, but by a dynamic of discussion, debate, disagreement? And will such actions by human minds and hearts ever lead to a static situation? How can it, if for no other reason that we continue to create poetry, music and art. Hall says, correctly on the face of it, that most will be forgotten. But like those that charge, armed or not, against the redoubts, we must move forward even if only a few will reach and cross the wall.

**One fascinating bit in the link has Braxton sharing an account from Dunbar’s widow about a possible specific inspiration for Dunbar’s famous “Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)”  poem.

Grace Before Song

Here’s the next in our occasional series “Before They Were Modernists,” a performance of “Grace Before Song”  by Ezra Pound. Like F. S. Flint’s poem from last time, Pound’s poem comes from the poet’s first book, in this case: A Lume Spento  created before Pound and a small group of London-based writers settled on the set of ideas they were to call Imagism, sparking off modern English poetry.

In the A Lume Spento  poems Pound appears to vacillate, at least in character, on the value of his poetry, and like Flint he’s showing the influence of William Butler Yeats and the Pre-Raphaelites who had influenced Yeats. The Pre-Raphaelite ideal was to look further back culturally than the 19th century for inspiration, so in A Lume Spento  the soon to be “Make It New” Pound is often referencing Dante and medieval Provencal troubadour poetry.

Even if A Lume Spento  as a collection was a retrospective statement of where Pound thought he was as the 20th century got underway, “Grace Before Song”  seems to have stuck with Pound. It led off  A Lume Spento  and it retained its position in his later 1920 selection of early works Personae.

A Lume Spento and young Pound

Choose your own adventure: Hipster wants you to see his book of poetry referencing Dante…

 

How does Pound present his task and the poet’s task in “Grace Before Song?”

First off, it’s a prayer, starting by addressing itself to a godhead. And there’s an element of modesty or at least fatalism/submission in it, beautifully so I think (even with the inverted/archaic syntax): “our days as rain drops in the sea surge fell.” That image is further developed by requesting that his song at least be fresh rain (“white drops upon a leaden sea”) and reflective, however briefly, of some higher reality (“Evan’scent mirrors every opal one”). The poem ends stressing that briefly part. In “Grace Before Song”  Pound is expressly no Shakespeare making claims for the immortality conveyed by art.

If we think of the later Modernist Pound as an iconoclast, this early Pound presents himself as either the pious poet, explaining the world of God to man, or as the aesthete who believes beautiful artistic creation justifies itself as an expression of higher orders. From what I understand Pound at this point was more the later using the mask, the personae, of the former—but either stance opens the poet up to disappointment when their work is ignored by the “grey folk” of those leaden seas.

And in 1908, Pound is largely ignored. American publishers aren’t interested, and A Lume Spento  was self-published in Venice in a tiny edition of 150 copies. The Wikipedia article on the book says Pound arrived in Italy with $80 to his name and spent $8 getting the book printed on some odd-lot paper in Venice. An inflation calculator says $80 is a bit over $2200 in current dollars, but the tithe to his art indicates the level of faith (self or otherwise) Pound had at this time. And then there is the account that Pound thought about chucking the page proofs in a Venice canal—now there’s a story that makes white drops into a leaden sea a concrete image!

My “studio B” (a 12’ x 12’ room where I write these posts and do much of the non-LYL Band recording) is now fully operational again, so I put it to work on this one. The cello part that sits in the arrangement over the low strings is from a new virtual instrument re-creation of the Mellotron that I obtained this month when it went on sale. Long time listeners here will know how much I love the Mellotron, which doesn’t sound like “real” strings, but does sound like a real Mellotron.

You can listen to my performance of “Grace Before Song”  using a player gadget* you should see below.

 

 

 

*I’ve just been made aware that the WordPress app for IOS doesn’t display the player, leaving those of you who read these posts on the iPhone WordPress app puzzled as to what I’ve referred to above. If you’d like to hear the audio pieces you can see them in the mobile version of Safari, but this is a good time to remind those who like to listen to the audio that the Parlando Project audio pieces by themselves are available as a podcast on most podcast apps including Apple podcasts or on Spotify in Spotify’s podcasts section. Just search for “Parlando Where Music and Words Meet” to find them.

Rosemary

It’s been awhile since a new post, what with holidays and family occasions, but here’s another piece, “Rosemary,”  using the words by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Millay was one of the most popular, most often read, poets of the first part of the 20th Century, but the later part of the century gave her less consideration. A contemporary of the Imagists and other poetic Modernists that we’ve featured a lot this year here, and while connected to their world, she didn’t sustain favor with the rise of the “New Criticism” that became the dominant academy in the English-speaking world after WWII.

Reasons? Well, there’s gender. One must assume that played a role. And popularity of the general-readership sort would not have been an asset either, as perhaps only Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson survived being read by a general readership in the mid-century without losing their high-art cred. Why couldn’t Millay have joined Frost and Dickinson in these critics’ esteem?

Millay with books

Millay at work. Other than the lack of guitars, just about the perfect décor.

I think it’s largely a case of her poetry not seeming to have the subject of their criticism: fresh, complex, allusive and illusive, imagery. Frost and Dickinson may have used homey sounding language, but in the end those funerals in the brain and snow, roads and woods added up to something to talk about in critical prose.

The New Critics were an inflection point. Before them, poetry was largely considered musical speech, a container that could hold a variety of subjects, after the New Critics, poetry was about the imagery, how you portrayed things with it. And unless one aimed for satire, such complex rhetorical structures must be in service to serious matters.

And so, there’s subject matter too. Millay’s great subject was love and affection, it’s presence, absence and all the shades in-between. In doing so, she addresses much of life and its condition, but did she receive enough credit for that? Is a heartbroken man a tragic philosopher of fate, and a woman merely a spurned lover? Narrow-mindedness can’t be ruled out.

“Rosemary”  allows us to examine these issues. This looks to be a poem about the death of a passionate love or the death of a dear one. I’m not sure which of those two possibilities is standing for the other, but for an audience, it does not matter as both events are common to our hearts.

I think there is an intent here to conjure a complex world of timeless folk magic. Though written in the 20th Century, it could have been written anywhere up to five centuries earlier. In the title we have rosemary, an herb associated with remembrance even in Shakespeare’s time (Ophelia’s mad speech in Hamlet for example), and in the first stanza we have rushes being scattered on a room’s floor, a custom from medieval times to hide the stink and mess of a less hygienic age, a strewing of reeds that may have included rosemary because it was thought to be something of an insecticide. Bergamot is another fragrant plant. Stink, rot and pestilence are all inferred subtly in this verse that on the face of it seems only a short catalog of flowers.

The second verse adds a rain barrel to catch rain, or is it tears? And what’s with that iron pot. Is it a cauldron? The poems last two lines are in quotes on the page. I was suspicious that the “An it please you, gentle sirs,” line was a quote, and finding out what it was from might be important, but I can’t place that line—if any reader knows, please clue me in.

And at the end of this timeless lament: “well-a-day,” which might sound to you or me like “have a nice day,” but is instead a word that harkens back to Old English, meaning woe-is-me.

What I think we have here is a poem, that read quickly, seems to be a trivial verse about some flowers with a bit of a kitchen scene, but it’s stated with deliberately archaic specifics so that the attentive modern reader might notice that time cannot heal this loss. And each thing in it is an image, though they don’t loudly announce themselves as such.

I’m reminded of my distant relative Susan Glaspell’s famous play “Trifles,”  where the domestic clues hide all the information the dense men seeking important information miss.

The Pentangle

The Pentangle. It’s not fair to compare. There’s 5 of them, and only 1 of me. Oh, and talent.

Musically, I went with bass, drums, two acoustic guitars and my voice for this. I was aiming for an impression of the sort of thing The Pentangle did many years ago. They were better at it, but it was good to try. Use the player below to hear my performance of Millay’s “Rosemary.”