Tom Rapp is a singer-songwriter whose work I love, and whose 1972 joint setting of a Shakespeare and a Sara Teasdale poem is one of the inspirations for this project. Rapp had a favorite story about the earliest days of his overlooked career: while still a child he entered a talent contest in Minnesota. The story varies. He may have performed an Elvis Presley song. He finished second or third. Another Minnesota singer, a similarly young Bobby Zimmerman,* finished fifth. The Zimmerman kid eventually went on to have a career that outpaced Rapp’s.
But then, Rapp would always add, it was a baton twirler who finished first.
American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is another poet who began writing and publishing early, sending poems to magazines when she was still a teenager. At age 20 she submitted one of her grander early poems to a literary magazine’s 1912 poetry contest, and that poem “Renascence” oddly created considerable publicity when it didn’t win but finished fourth. She was a young, poor, rural kid and some said she should have won on the merits of her poem—even including the guy who won the contest, Orrick Johns. As with Tom Rapp, you may have to be a reader of blogs like this one to have some sense of who Orrick Johns was.
If you ever loose a talent or poetry contest, consider that baton twirler.
Just kids. Whiten the background and Sinatra the jacket over one shoulder, and you’ve got that Robert Mapplethorpe/Patti Smith’s Horses cover a few decades early
After the contest and the brouhaha, a benefactor saw to it that Millay could attend college, and a few years later this other early poem of hers, “The Little Ghost,” was included in her first poetry collection. “The Little Ghost” isn’t the grandest or most incisive poem Millay would write, so even though I’ve done many Millay poems here, I had overlooked this one until I saw it this month over at the Fourteen Lines poetry blog.
My reaction is shared by most who encounter this poem: it’s charming and only a little bit chilling. Yes, there are a few mildly annoying inverted word order make-rhymes, but it’s the little details that make it work I think. That the ghost seems to enjoy the poet’s garden-work (gardening inherently partaking of the life-death-life cycle), that she enigmatically shows no sadness at being dead, that she (though immaterial) is gracefully careful of the poet’s favorite plant, that she walks away (though a ghost, and a ghost of a child) with the substantial while insubstantial bearing of a great lady.
There’s no redrum, no haunted charge to the living, no absolute-zero temperature of next to death. Millay doesn’t even make the revelation that the child is a ghost a held-off-for-the-big-surprise-reveal—that fact’s in the title and the first line. Still, in the moment the poem lets us experience, the poet doesn’t yet know what we know. That’s the little chill.
Some readers have said that Millay intentionally or otherwise put her own past childhood self in as an undercurrent of this little ghost, and that reading works too, though I don’t know that’s a secret meaning that one must get to fully enjoy the poem. What with the garden setting, and that annual reincarnation, I do get some sense of spiritual kinship between the poems living speaker and the ghost.
Did that inform the music choice? I am back in my South Asian mode today with hand percussion, tambura, and harmonium. The instrument in the right channel that sounds vaguely South Asian is an ordinary electric guitar, one with a vibrato arm that lets me get a bit of that characteristic pitch waver.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Little Ghost” is right below.
*Zimmerman changed his last name to Dillon and then to Dylan. My late mother-in-law used to tell the story of meeting Betty Zimmerman at a function decades ago, and as mothers in those olden days were prone to do, they got to talking about each other’s children.
“You may have heard of one of my sons. He’s Bob Dylan.” Betty proudly said.
My future MIL Maxine came back with: “Who’s Bob Dielan?”
When she told me the story some years later, she explained “I didn’t know! I didn’t have much time for music back then.”
We’re a couple of weeks past Halloween, but let’s finish out our series on American poet Adelaide Crapsey with a ghost story about two families. Perhaps you don’t believe in ghosts? That’s OK. In this story one family believes in ghosts and the other one doesn’t.
As we learned yesterday, a young scholar and writer of poetry, Adelaide Crapsey was struck down just days after she turned 36 in 1914 by tuberculosis. Though greatly weakened by her illness, she had worked on organizing a book-length collection of her poems in her final year, including a section introducing examples of a new poetic form she had created.
Alas, she didn’t seem to have a publisher when she died. It’s uncertain who knew about the poems she’d selected. Adelaide had a strong belief in self-reliance and not burdening her friends and family, and so for as long as possible she’d kept the news of her grave diagnosis from them, and some of the poems in her manuscript (such as the ones used in our last post) spoke frankly about her illness, pain, and thoughts on mortality.
A grave marker that doesn’t burden you either. She ended her collection of poems: “Wouldst thou find my ashes? Look/In the pages of my book”
There were some external reasons for this desire not to burden her family. Her father, Algernon Crapsey* had been a prominent Episcopal priest in Rochester New York, one who had practiced a ministry to the poor and other disadvantaged portions of the Gilded Age. Adelaide’s father came to believe that certain spiritual beliefs of his church were not only of doubtful accuracy, but that taken on faith they would hinder service to the poor. Once he decided he was right about this, he wouldn’t shut up about it either. He preached it, he wrote articles and books about this: if you believe in miracles and heavenly rewards you are all too likely to not feel the need to make your own miracles by action here and now, in this life, on this Earth.
This put his church in a bind. Here was a churchman who was known for manifest good works around the state of New York, a Christian hero of a sort—but who was also vocally opposed to church doctrine.
So it was that a few years before Adelaide Crapsey died that a committee of investigators from the Episcopal diocese came to the parsonage where Adelaide had grown up to question her father on these matters. Her father was out, doing those good works. Her mother was worn-out from dealing with this all. Adelaide, like any good PK,** stepped in as hostess. The story is told that she served them tea and kept them graciously talking as the tea went down.
Oh, and she had spiked the tea with rum. It was said the investigators inquisitorial rigor suffered a decline during their wait.
But Adelaide’s father would not keep quiet. He eventually met with a church trial for heresy.*** He claimed the heresy of the church not serving the poor as Jesus commanded was far greater than any they could charge him with over supernatural events, but the church’s hierarchy convicted him. Maybe he wasn’t a heretic who believed in different gods or another heavenly host, but it just wouldn’t do to be a priest of their church who didn’t profess the right beliefs.
No burning at the stake though, he was just written out of his job and the church. The family had to leave the parsonage where they had lived for decades for a house some supporters found for them elsewhere in town.
Adelaide, like her family, didn’t believe in heaven and hell. And now she was dead, and as her poem had put it, her mouth was now part of the quiet as with falling snow and the hour before dawn.
In another part of the same town, there was a successful architect, Claude Bragdon. What kind of architect? Do you know the names of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, or Buckminster Fuller? Claude Bragdon was that type, committed to artistic principles, in his case to a religious and mystical level. Indeed, he had a strong side-interest in Theosophy, a 19th century unified field theory of spiritualism and hermetic knowledge. He had known the Crapsey family and Adelaide at least somewhat. Adelaide had taken his mystical bent in stride, calling him “cube man” due to his fascination with the hypercube (which I think may be related to Buckminster Fuller’s theories about the geometric nature of the universe).
“The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone/Causes Galileo’s math book to be thrown” Claude Bragdon sings the Tombstone Blues.
Claude Bragdon had not been married long when Adelaide Crapsey died. His new wife, Eugénie had never met Adelaide. One day, in that silent time of the hour before the dawn, something happened. Here’s how he described it in his autobiography:
One morning in the summer of 1915 I was awakened by my wife Eugénie, who asked me if I knew anyone by the name of Adelaide. I told her that Mrs. Algernon Crapsey’s name was Adelaide, and it had also been that of her daughter, who had died a short time before. “Take me to see Mrs. Crapsey,’ said Eugénie, ‘because I was awakened by the sound of her name, repeated over and over: Adelaide! Adelaide!’ “
Now if a chill runs up and down your spine to hear this, the architect and his wife may have taken it more calmly. Not only were spirit voices and mediumship part and parcel of Theosophy, Eugénie was a “Delphic Woman” in her husband’s estimation, one who used automatic writing to take down sayings and messages from the ether.**** And so now Eugénie’s automatic writing sessions became peppered with messages from the late Adelaide Crapsey. With a little interpretation, the messages seemed to be referring to the poems, the book-length collection Adelaide had been working on.
Book negotiations have been known to get complicated, and I haven’t read all the source materials for this story***** but somehow the husband and wife mystic family convinced the social-gospel materialist family to go through the late Adelaide Crapsey’s effects, and retrieve the manuscript. I can see this scene written in Mulder and Scully dialog.
Claude came out of the Arts and Crafts movement, so buildings weren’t his only art. He also ran a small press for books on his theories and other Theosophical works. He became the book designer and publisher that introduced the world to Adelaide Crapsey the poet and determined ghost.
What became of Adelaide’s ghostly voice? It didn’t do a book tour or poetry readings—pity that, it would have pipped Tupac’s hologram by nearly a century and spiced up the valves of many a bookstore. The final automatic writing messages thanked the Bragdons for their efforts and assured everyone that the other side was a fine and happy place where she didn’t miss living at all. Just so much “Bread and butter notes” from the beyond.
Well, I did say that Claude Bragdon had many artistic interests. One of his friends was Alfred Stieglitz, the pioneering art photographer who was connected to another famous photographer Edward Steichen, a friend and brother-in-law of Carl Sandburg. Either through that connection, or Sandburg’s strong early interest in short poems created with concrete images rather than abstract words, or some Great Lakes leftist linkage between Adelaide’s social gospel preaching progressive father and the Milwaukee and Chicago based socialist Sandburg (maybe more than one of the above?) made Carl Sandburg aware of Adelaide Crapsey’s poetry and story, and he wrote a passionate elegy for her.
*I should have warned you: as elsewhere in this story, the 19th century names are full-flavored. If Lemony Snicket reads this, let it be known that I will defend my intellectual property to the upmost here!
**PK, “Preacher’s Kid.” As a class, they have an opportunity to grow up with an interest in philosophy, ethics and words, but also with a childhood were the expectation to be good and the desire to rebel have to be balanced from a too-early age. Alternative reader here Dave Moore and my wife are both PKs.
***The story of Adelaide’s father Algernon Crapsey sounds eerily similar to a tale from The Sixties and another Episcopal clergyman (a bishop no less!) James Pike. Pike was also committed to social change and questioning of religious dogma and was threatened with an ecclesiastical trial for heresy. Coincidentally, Pike eventually worked with a medium to try to contact his dead son.
****We now use Twitter. Much better. But are those odd messages we read from bots or….the other side!
Here is one more war poem from WWI, this one by another soldier poet, Wilfred Owen.
Beside living with the trauma of his war service, Owen was another poet caught in the revolution as English poetry moved from old modes to newer modernist verse. Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he was a decorated soldier who came to broadly distrust the case for war. Unlike Sassoon, Owen did not take the risky public stand against the war while it was being fought; but also unlike Sassoon, his fate was to die at the front of the war. Owen’s war poetry was largely published after his death, with Sassoon’s assistance and promotion.
Wilfred Owen: poet, soldier, witness to warfare
If WWI was billed as the war to end all wars, the anti-war poetry Owen and Sassoon wrote also spoke to universal themes. At least to what I’ve read, their poetry is not an argument against specific issues of their war, rather it’s an angry argument against war itself, and the associated patriotic justifications for sacrifice. Owen and Sassoon both wanted to rub their readers faces in the bloodied mud of the trenches.
It’s sometimes said that artists, if only they would happen to suffer the real struggles of non-artistic life, would see that art is only a trivial sideshow, inessential entertainment and decoration. Men like Owen are an example of how this is not necessarily so.
Wilfred Owen’s gravestone
Today’s episode, “Strange Meeting,” shows Owen’s anger, but because he’s a poet not yet fully in the 20th Century style, he expresses it sounding like a 19th Century poet, more like a Keats or early Yeats. As I came to grips with this piece, I felt the thought and subject matter was sometimes obscured by its march of rhymes and occasional poetic diction—and though a poem’s music is subjective, “Strange Meeting” doesn’t consistently sing to me like Yeats does, but then Yeats is a very high standard to meet, and Yeats never lived the brutal fighting the war poets like Owen went through.
Speaking of music, I’m finding myself repeating ideas (or finding a style?) with the settings lately. “Strange Meeting” starts with sustained piano chords, unsteady strings, and a plaintive wind instrument (in this case, an English horn). But I felt that carrying that all the way through would work against the grit and bitterness of the story here, just as Owen’s poetic diction does, so for much of the middle section I break it down to just drums and bass.
I hope I’m not overwhelming regular listeners with the war poetry from WWI this month. Perhaps I can find a change of pace soon, and some new variations in my musical arrangements too.
To hear my performance of Wilfred Owen’s WWI ghost story “Strange Meeting,” use the player below.