Chains At Her Feet

Here’s a piece that I wrote* which is appropriate for July 4th, American Independence Day, since it talks about freedom and independence—but also because of its compositional back-story.

A few years back I got to travel to New York City with my wife and young son. An advantage of this trip is that I could see New York as a tourist. We stayed in Brooklyn, on the same block as a now unused building that was a waystation on the Underground Railroad, and we’d walk by it every day going to and from the subway station, that different underground railway. We visited the Tenement Museum (highly recommended) and my accompanying book for this trip was Rebels: Into Anarchy and Out Again, “Sweet Marie” Ganz’s** memoir of her life as a tenement-dwelling radical a hundred years before. We visited Ellis Island and my wife and son got to sit on one of the benches that immigrants sat on in the great hall awaiting decisions. We did what resident New Yorkers rarely do, we visited the Statue of Liberty, the giant statue that on Independence Day becomes the representational symbol for the American spirit.

Every American knows that statue as an image. For our large and diverse country, it’s the equivalent of ancient Athens’ civic sculpture of Athena. Still, here are two things that are lesser-known.

Two Civic Statues

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame..” The reconstruction of the Parthenon’s Athena sculpture is in Nashville Tennessee. Athena has a carving of Steve Earle in her right hand as stone-Earle proclaims Townes Van Zandt the greatest songwriter ever.

 

The pedestal of the monument rests on the repurposed ruins of an early 19th century fort which once guarded New York harbor. Visitors to Liberty Island can see a section of the fort’s lower structures left uncovered and accessible down a stairway: bricked-in doorways of a room that was once used as a military prison cell according to the placard. The author of the placard was likely not a poet, but the Statue of Liberty rests on top of the doors of a prison.

One part of the statue, otherwise so well known, is nearly impossible to see for visitors, but was intended as part of the work’s imagery by its creator: beneath the torch of “imprisoned lightning,” the halo of spiked rays,  the serene face, the tablet bearing the date July 4th 1776, and the copper-clad folds of its robe, the sandaled feet of this Lady Liberty stand on top of a broken shackle and chains.***  That would become the title image of “Chains At Her Feet.”

Statue of Liberty chains at her feet

“Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight”  some of the broken chains at her feet

 

It was sometime after that visit that I watched a young woman move out of a rooming house on my block. I could not discern all her story, but the small number of belongings, and the unable-to-tell relationship with a man who was assisting her with the move, but who left after helping with a couple of larger pieces of furniture, supplied the second set of images.

Why did I combine those two sets of images? Because it seemed emotionally right, though it may not be. A Dada principle, one beloved by composer/musician Frank Zappa, was “Anything, anytime, anyplace for no reason at all.” My understanding of Zappa’s artistic tactic is that combining things that don’t seem to go together, even things that seem outrageously incongruous, can create new and strong impressions. Chance, randomness, coincidence can be entryways to this.

I agree with that, though I’d caution you that my experience has been that most results of chance, incongruity and randomness will suffer from incomprehensibility and boredom, near and far misses. In practice, selection must occur, whether it happens before or after. Who selects? The artist and their audience. Zappa certainly chose, he was just happier choosing widely, and in some cases choosing things many people (and even I) will not like.

So, this combination in today’s piece “Chains At Her Feet,”  the Statue of Liberty and a young woman, leaving or going somewhere, sketched in clear lines, yet missing parts of the story, may not impress on readers/listeners what I intuited and felt in combining them. Would it be better if I filled in the missing parts, even with invented details? Some readers of it have thought so. The title/refrain “Chains at her feet,” a detail taken from our giant July 4th icon, puzzled people. Was that my intent? Yes and no. I wanted people to ask what that odd line meant. In singing it, I repeat it enough to make sure people know it’s not a mistake. Do I want listeners to think “Aha, that must be the Statue of Liberty?” No, but I wanted the effect Liberty’s sculptor wanted when he put those chains under his statue’s feet, the same sort of conjunction as the remains of the military fort and the jail doors under the pedestal on Liberty island.

Chains At Her Feet lyrics

When singing this, I add more refrains. When reading it you see words I want as punned/double-meaning: “steals” and “sole.” Even “chains at her feet” sounds a bit like “change…” when drawn out.

 

So, who’s right? The answer is I don’t know. Long-time readers here know one of my dictums: “All artists fail.” Even the canonical greats bore and puzzle and meet with disinterest of most people most of the time—so unestablished artists like me certainly don’t know if what we do is any good.

No artist does. We do it anyway.

I like it when something connects with readers/listeners, I’m often sad when it doesn’t. My stance on what disconnect I find with what audience I find is to interrogate it and myself. I haven’t let it stop me making. Indeed, it sometimes leads me to additional making, seeking ways to make something work some of the time.

As important as it is that we artists respect, are even grateful, for genuine audiences, it is also important that we choose widely, even fail widely.

To hear “Chains At Her Feet”  performed, use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Regulars here know that presenting pieces with my own words is an intentional rarity here. I often fall into doing it when I’m running behind in developing pieces with other writer’s words or researching around that goal.

**Ganz’s story was fascinating to me, an immigrant sweat-shop garment worker from age 13, who through chutzpah and conviction toward justice became a street agitator for reforms in early 20th century NYC. Speaking of a conjunction that may be accidental or designed, I’ve wondered if the Sweet Marie in Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie”  could have intentionally referenced her. Some of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort might have known of “Sweet Marie,” and her actions were less than 50 years old when Dylan hit town.

***Though Liberty’s tablet references the 4th of July, the proximal motivation for its creation was the ending of the American Civil War and American slavery. In statuary, having something beneath the feet of the figure or trodden on is not uncommon imagery, but chains and shackles aren’t just mythological images. In another juxtaposition, Juneteenth and July 4th sit close together on the calendar, if four score and seven years apart.

America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.

 

Frederick Douglass

Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.

Douglass and Hayden

Frederick Douglass used the power of the charismatic portrait as well as his  powerful words
Robert Hayden had to rely more on the words alone, but what words they are!

To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.

There’s a saying: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.

Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?

But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.

15 minutes from a Robert Hayden interview in 1975.

This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden all look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is.

Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.

Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.”   In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.

“Those Winter Sundays”  will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass”  for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.

When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”  this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.

Here’s my performance of Hayden’s words about Douglass. Use the player to hear it.

Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company