There’s a story that a poet once read a poem to a small group. There were a few murmurs in that small audience, that kind of appreciation — the kind that a not-uncommon everyday poet might expect at a public reading. It’s a sound that says “That certainly sounded like something. Might be good, but can I trust myself? That was poetry, and poets can be clearly beautiful without being, well, clear.”
Yes, there are poems that can cause amen shouts. Yes, there are poems where audiences will applaud. Some of those poems are useful, and isn’t that a kind of beauty? Yes it is — but I said this was one of those poems one more commonly hears when a poet reads.
This time, one listener in the small audience spoke up. “What does that poem mean?” they asked.
The poet looked at the honest questioner for a moment. Looked down at the podium. Paused a moment more. And then they simply read the poem again.
Note, the poet didn’t chastise the listener. It’s good when readers and listeners want to know what they can take in from a set of words and sounds. The issue here is that many poems are written by sincere poets who wrote and crafted a poem without being able to express what they labored to put in the poem nearly as well otherwise. The object of such a poem isn’t a summary, an allegory, or single thread of argument or narrative, rather it may be something designed not to be vague, but to exactly reflect differently as one stands around it.
Are we to comfort and remember the ghosts or be frightened of them? Yes.
I wrote the text for today’s performance. I accumulated a few lines in my head during a day — and then when I should have been going to sleep, they asked to be written down. Three revisions later and it’s at the version I performed today. I think this is a fairly plainspoken poem, but I know from experience when I’ve presented my work to other people they often find poems in this style baffling and ineffective, this even though they too are poets. I could write here about what they’ve suggested, and what I’ve resisted in those suggestions, but let’s defer that for now. I could also write about what engendered this poem, what the lines seemed to mean when I looked at them from a variety of directions, but tonight I feel the poem at this level of revision says what it should say as well as I can say it in its resonances and refractions. You can hear me perform “Ghosts” with the player gadget below. Don’t see any such player? Use this highlighted link and it will open a new tab with an alternative player so that you can hear it.
Because they usually deal with brief moments in time, we sometimes think of lyric poetry as making do with simple thoughts, singular emotions felt distinctly. Today’s piece, English poet Thomas Hardy’s “The Shadow on the Stone” shows us it can be otherwise.
I suppose one can say it’s a poem about grief, or you could say it’s another ghost story. If it’s a ghost story, it’s poised entirely between belief and disbelief in such afterlife visitations. If it’s a grief poem, and it is that I think, it points out that grief doesn’t mean simple, singular, feelings.
Let me summarize a few things that are biographically behind this poem, even though I think some of its ambiguity can be sensed, felt, and to a degree understood without them.
The poem’s author, Hardy, was married in his thirties* to another woman of the same age. There was something of a romance in their courtship story. She was beautiful, looked younger than her suitor, and loved to ride around the English countryside on horseback. She was a doted-on daughter from a well-borne family that had had some financial setbacks. Hardy was from a tradesman’s family and was not established successfully in a trade or as the controversial author of novels he would become. Not long into the marriage, the wife began to think of this as what would have been called then “a misalliance.” He was beneath her standing after all — and Hardy’s eventual emergence as a novelist of note if anything made her more estranged. She considered herself a writer, while others dismissed her work as all the while Hardy’s began to succeed.
Eventually she moved to the attic of their house, and their emotional separation was an open secret among their acquaintances. In 1912, after more than 35 years of marriage, most spent in estrangement from her husband, she died.** In going through her attic quarters they was found a manuscript she had been writing. Some accounts give its name as Why I Hate My Husband and others What I Think of My Husband.***
For Emma, Forever Ago. Thomas Hardy and pre-ghost-wife wife Emma back in the 19th Century.
So, what happens in the moment of this poem, after her death, and after that life-history? Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. The poem’s speaker (I’ll just say “Hardy,” as Thomas Hardy was forthright about the subject of his grief poems) is working during the autumn in his garden and sees cast across a “Druid stone”**** a shadow shape which he says in his imagination brings to mind the shadow of his dead spouse when she would garden there. While he says this was “imagining” he’s not completely sure. Those aware of Hardy’s marriage history will hear a particular salience in the statement that the ghost of his dead wife is one “I long had learned to lack.” But this phenomenon, of intimates appearing in the imagination of the grieving is commonplace, and I can say in the experience of myself and my dead spouse, it’s not a simple wistful visitation. If one’s world has been turned upside down, you may not want it to spin some more, even backwards.
In the second stanza this “Is she really here, or my imagining” state is interrogated. Hardy speaks to whatever is behind him casting shadows, and says (perhaps just in case it’s a real, and maybe even a vengeful, ghost) “I’m sure you are standing behind me.” As if he’s conjured up a spirit and he’s letting them know he knows who/what they are, knows their name, and can query it.
The spirit doesn’t respond. I love the ambiguous skeptic’s final two lines here: “I would not turn my head to discover/That there was nothing in my belief.” Hardy wants to not face it if the spirit is real, not an imagining, and we don’t even know if from fear or love.
Continuing in ambivalence, Hardy says next that he wanted to look and disprove, a statement that he in action doesn’t do.***** Instead he leaves the garden without seeking to disprove or confront the spirit or imagining he believes is representing his dead wife. Best as I can tell, the idiomatic expression “throwing shade” is of Afro-American origin. This Merriam Webster note says it was popularized on Ru Paul’s Drag Race circa 2010, though I’m pretty sure I heard and used it before then. In my performance, I speak it in that meaning, even if Hardy didn’t mean it that way in his time. As in life, Hardy seems to say he must endure and miss his spouse, and so this ambivalence with a possible ghost resonates with his grief.
I mentioned performance above. I started composing here thinking about the Afro-American musical influences on the Velvet Underground, both in rhythm guitar figures and in Moe Tucker’s spare drum kit and approach. If I would have written the drums in this as a jazz-influenced piece, the high-hat would have marked the beat, but there’s no high-hat in this piece’s drum kit, though the tambourine playing does stand in for it somewhat. This didn’t turn out to be a Moe Tucker style drum part after all, but that’s where I started.
My original take had things ending on Hardy’s poem’s final word: “fade” — but overnight I decided it needed a reprise after that hung resolution, and while playing that I decided to riff on some other famous lyrical uses of the word “fade” as a trope of death and persistence. A player gadget is below for some to hear my performance, but if not, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.
*This is fairly late for a first marriage in the mid-19th century.
**She and Hardy were 72 in 1912. This is not one of those stories of the stricken young bride who died long before her time.
***We may wonder just what the real deal was with their relationship, who was meaner or more dismissive to who — and well, the patriarchy and all that may have colored within the lines, as most accounts by men and women seem to paint Thomas Hardy as the aggrieved party in the marriage. Interesting matters — but for the purposes of presenting this poem, beside the point. Flip a few gendered words in the poem, and imagine it being written by a widow who thinks of her abusive or belittling husband after his death.
****I wondered about this peculiar detail. Was this a characteristic English garden decoration, like a birdbath or garden gnome statue? No. A large flattened top stone was found during construction which Hardy thought was an actual Druid stone, perhaps used as an ancient altar. More evidence that while Hardy was a skeptic, the realness of a supernatural “apparition” is meant to be in question — and this may also allude to some metaphoric bone and ash sacrifices the marriage brought to their lives.
*****In a short essay on this poem, Jeremy Axelrod sees an allusion to the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the underworld. Hardy doesn’t usually use classical Greek allusions in the poems I’ve read, but even if unintended, well, “death of the author” and “archetypes.”
Today’s piece has an eerie history. It started as a poem by Robert Frost, but I think four years ago I turned it into a song. I had more or less forgotten about it, but this past week I found it in some past work that I had separated out to work on for this project.
Looking at it, I put it near the top of the pile. I thought it representative of the best of early Frost, when he was a supple lyric poet. “This’ll be great. So clean in language. So concise in his laying out of the story.”
The process of producing the performance and recording that you can hear below went well enough. So today I was getting ready to write about my experience of Frost’s poem after going through this project’s process. As usual, I wanted to find a location for the original text for those that want to read along. I found a good link to Frost’s poem. It’s here.
Surprise! Turns out I had modified Frost’s poem much more than realized. I had recalled only that I had repurposed a pair of Frost’s lines to create a chorus/refrain—but when looking at the original poem I hardly recognized the text I had been working on during the recording of the performance this month. It turns out, “Ghost House” (as he titled this piece) was an early poem of Frost’s, written in 1901 and included in A Boy’s Will, his first collection of poems published in England in 1913. Unlike most of the poems in that collection, “Ghost House” had been published, back in 1906 in a magazine. The reason A Boy’s Will was published in England was the Frost had made little headway as a poet in the United States. At that point he was nearing 40 years old, so it’s possible that if Frost hadn’t traveled to and succeeded in England, this greatly loved American poet would be nearly unknown.
I stress the actuality that I had no recollection of recasting the poem extensively when I say that I prefer “my version” to Frost’s original. The lack of any memory of the work I did means that this judgement is rather impersonal. Frost’s “Ghost House” isn’t bad, but it’s not as distinguished as other poems in his early work. It seems more 19th century for one thing. It also overdoes it, seeming to confuse more elaboration and details for more impact and substance.
Here’s Frost’s poem as revised for singing.
When I briefly try to reconstruct what I did to make the text for today’s piece, I see I used his lines for the most part, but I trimmed out much. My lyric is essentially 17 lines. Frost’s is 30. I dropped entire images, some inconcrete and a bit trite (“I dwell with a strangely aching heart”—you’ve shown us that mood Robert, telling us that is less vivid), and some redundant (we’ve got raspberries and grapevines, we don’t need the apple tree* too). Then too, I chopped the entire whippoorwill stanza, which some argue contains the key image in the poem.**
I also may have just been trying to make it more sing-able.
These two things are lessons. First, poetry often gains power by saying something in its most striking, sensual, and strong way—or even when it’s being less direct, by combining a few things (perhaps only two things) in an unexpected but powerful way. Everything beyond that may detract. The second-best or third-best image subtracts by its addition. Frame your best images, don’t embarrassingly hide them in clutter. And secondly, at least with lyric poetry, when it sings it means. Poetry works through the music of thought. Even something that clarifies the meaning or explains further a point may sometimes be dispensed with in order to make a poem a musical statement that will lodge in the reader/listener’s ear, and via that canal to their brain. In this case I don’t think I sacrificed clarity, but also I don’t think I could sing Frost’s version—and at least in my case, I didn’t remember his.
Did what I do mean I think I’m a better poet than Robert Frost? Nope. I also may not be a better poet than you. But on any one day, on a particular task, with a particular aim, I might be. Frost was a famously grumpy personality, but perhaps his ghost has mellowed with immortality. If so, I hope he might think I served the inspiration of his early poem by trimming it back. Or maybe I didn’t make these changes, since I don’t remember? Perhaps Frost’s ghost came by and made the revision?
To separate this version from the canonical Frost version I call it “Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree.” The player gadget for my performance is below. Oh, and do follow at least one of the links in the first footnote below. You’ll visit other ghost farmsteads in search of fruit still yielding outside fallen cellar walls.
**I didn’t know, but some readings of “Ghost House” say the whippoorwill is known as a bird foretelling death or other disasters. News to me. Even if I knew that, foretelling seems to blunt the impact of the poem as I cast it. In my mind the point is that the death/disaster has already occurred. Yes I know, some readings say that the poem’s speaker is either dead or gothically welcoming death for himself. I don’t disagree with that, but it doesn’t change my view. Even if the speaker is still alive but wants death, an omen bird’s warning is gilding the raven.
I’ve been planning on presenting this eerie ghost story by English poet Frances Cornford for awhile now, but I wanted to take care with the musical setting while working on our recently completed countdown of the most popular pieces here from this past winter.
Heidi Randen was interested in doing this as a guest reader, and it’s her voice you’ll get to hear today. She’s also the guest blogger for this piece, so before I say our customary few words about the music let me turn it over to Heidi.
From Our Breasts, Frances Cornford’s The Old Nurse
By Heidi Randen, guest writer for Parlando (and Frank’s wife)
Like the subject of this poem, I am an old nurse. When my husband shared these sad, sweet, ghostly, gothic verses, they resonated with my experience of nursing in the biological and professional sense. I breastfed our kid and have worked as a Registered Nurse in hospital and clinical settings with very old and very young people.
Against my breast I felt a small and blunt-nosed head.
To breastfeed is to be reduced to a mammal, a one-person dairy operation. To share your milk with an infant in need who is not your own is an extravagant act of human kindness, yet it carries great stigma. In my family’s American immigration story, relatives on my mother’s side repeat the line: Our family was so poor that your great-great grandmother had to work as a wet nurse in the Netherlands.
The circle of life: the woman who breastfed me and who suffers from Alzheimer’s, being helped long by the person I breastfed, my kid who talks about going into nursing when they grow up.
In my experience talking with fellow nurses, neonatology, pediatrics, oncology and hospice are considered extra special callings. It takes greater emotional mettle to get close to babies and children in pain, to help people with serious or life-limiting illness and their families. Put any of those specialties together: neonatal hospice or pediatric oncology and you are exponentially special, perhaps super-human.
But nurses are very human. We see things that are unbearably sad. And there is nothing sadder than a dead baby. It seems like the worst violation of the order of things. But it is not. To me, the worst thing in the world is when people are left alone in sadness and fear. Like the woman in the poem, the nurses of the world—in all senses of the word—hear crying over the sound of storms, seek out those in distress and provide comfort. The satisfaction of this experience is expressed tangibly by the poet:
And a sob-quivering body slowly growing calm
And toes like round cold buds that warmed inside my palm.
Like the subject of this poem, I too see dead people and they don’t frighten me. The longer you watch human beings move through all their stages, you see that the end of life has much in common with the beginning of life. This became most apparent to me in the space of one day when I visited a friend in the hospital with a newborn and a friend dying in hospice. The mystery of where that baby came from was the same as the mystery of where my friend was going. To nurse is to help for a little while on another’s journey, then—like the old nurse at the end of the poem—to be alone again with this mystery after they leave.
The page from Cornford’s “Autumn Midnight” collection where the poem was published in 1923. Woodcut by Gwen Raverat
Heidi didn’t mention this when she wrote this earlier this year, but of course now we are asking nurses and others to put their bodies on the line with our current Covid-19 crisis.
Here’s those few words on the music. My original starting idea was to use singing bowls as part of the arrangement, but I have only one available, and while I could manipulate the single pitch after recording, I wanted them to play intervals and triads and decided to go another route. I used some gongs and bell for the piece’s intro, but much of what sounds like the singing bowls is an electric guitar being sustained to feedback levels and then being fed through a modulated reverb. I also made use of one of my favorites, the Mellotron cello sound, because that instrument’s uncanny aural valley always sounds spookier than the real thing to me.
The player gadget to hear Heidi’s performance of Frances Cornford’s “The Old Nurse” is below. If Cornford intrigues you, I’ve presented two of her poems with original music earlier this month.
Back now to our recounting of the pieces that you, our readers and listeners, most liked and listened to this past winter. Let’s jump back in as we count them down.
7. “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. This one is remarkable in that it was released on February 24th, very late in the winter season, yet it still racked up a lot of listens to go with the number of likes here on the blog, outstripping the other well-known Dunbar poem I performed and released three days earlier: “Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.)”
These two poems are the best known works of this early 20th century Afro-American poet directly addressing racial issues, and given the seriousness of racism and the quality of “We Wear the Mask” as word-music, it’s well earned its current position as a much anthologized poem.
Why did it edge out “Sympathy?” Who can really say? I liked both performances I did of the Dunbar poems myself. “Sympathy” has the more complex arrangement, but simplicity that works has its appeal. Or was it something random—did Dunbar’s title put it in search queues connected to world-wide Covid-19 concerns?
6. “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is” by Kenneth Patchen. I was completely enraptured by this poem of Patchen’s because of its complicated paralleled half-conversations. In the previous Top Ten post this week I remarked about how Marianne Moore’s poetic expression seemed to echo the actual syntactic twists of transcribed common speech, even at the cost of being harder to follow on the silent page. In Patchen’s poem, we have the more common “naturalistic dialog” where syntax is complete, where sentence structure is plausible, not the fractured and disagreeing actuality of literal transcribed speech. But Patchen has two speakers totally focused on non-answering halves of a conversation: the old guy at the bar who wants to tell the poem’s persona of a second-hand encounter with the God-head, and the poem’s persona, a quasi-homeless swain in conversation with an unheard and somewhat mysterious woman* at the same bar.
The chemical reaction of these two side-by-side half-conversations builds until one phrase appears to link the two—two loves linked somewhere between desperation and desire.
And all our count-downs are happening over and over. Patchen as painter.
5. “The Little Ghost” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. So, a comforting God-head appears off-stage in Patchen’s poem. Hugo Ball’s ghost in our last Top Ten post seemed of the malevolent poltergeist type. Now here Millay’s is a much more benign spirit who seems to signify being there after being there.
Regarding the music for this one: like a number of my generation, I encountered Ravi Shankar LP records and performances in the Sixties. For a moment some borrowed sense of South Asian music permeated the culture of popular music groups and their audience. Why did that happen? Has anyone asked, much less answered, that question? Yes, I assume the drug and social stress induced search for mysticism was a factor. Maybe George Harrison and his access to the culture through The Beatles alone was enough. But I can speak for myself: some musical qualities easily discerned in this music grabbed me then as they still do now. The musical structures related to steps in various orders away from and returning to a home drone pitch. The opulence of microtones beyond the conventional 12 notes. The singing rhythms.
In the Seventies, that decade that everyone forgets, I spent nights working in a busy Emergency Room, often with an Indian-born surgeon, who as the evening would wear us on, would suture while hum-singing tunes of his homeland. Every so often, even these decades later, I sometimes find myself singing unremembered vaguely South-Asian melodies when working late on some task.
Evidence of some ghost? I doubt it myself. Not reincarnation—resonance.
We’re more than halfway down the countdown. The next three coming up here soon.
*Is she a down-and-outer like the poem’s persona just looking for some kind of human connection? A prostitute seeking money? An analog to the God-head, or is the poem’s persona that? By not clearly defining this, the poem gains mysterious power I think.
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.