A Misplaced Landmark in Modernist Poetry Part 1

Readers here know I have an affinity for the lesser-known, the forgotten, the underpraised participants in the Modernist movement. In any historical or literary period, there have to be some that are overlooked. Why? Geographic, gender, racial prejudice? Bad luck or spotty publishing history? Yes, all those can play a role.

But today’s case is a weird one. He’s a white guy and not obscure, his breakthrough masterpiece sold well the year it was published and then for decades afterward. The early American Modernists praised it, recognized it as a Modernist work. There’s circumstantial evidence that it could have even influenced them when they produced their now esteemed breakthrough masterpieces.

Yet, it’s largely left out of the cannon today, and as such it’s also left out of the short histories of the emergence of English language Modernist poetry. One way to focus that story is to point to the publication in 1922 of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  as the moment in which everyone had to stop and take notice of this new poetry.

Let me roughly state some things that were remarkable about this landmark work.

It was episodic. A longer poem, it was made up of shorter poems, retaining the compression of short lyrics while telling a larger, multivalent story. Characters drifted in and out.

It was written in free verse. It didn’t rhyme, it didn’t use a strict and unvarying meter, while still making use of the other tactics of poetry. Since this was still somewhat novel, the sound and form could take off from and seem to readers like a non-rhyming translation of poetry from a foreign language, even an old language like Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.

It’s highly skeptical and iconoclastic about modern society. War and business was corrupt, humanity shortsighted. Dialog was often in deadpan with an emphasis on the first syllable, as if spoken by ghosts.

There’s an anachronistic, satiric element to some of the talk too. Everyday people of the current era may speak at times in the form of older literature, and we’re meant to note this as strangely halfway between a sense that time has not changed humankind and it’s eternal problems, and a sense that modern folk are not really as noble as the classical fore bearers.

Though written by a man, women’s voices and a woman’s viewpoint are prominently given a place in the work.

Love and sex was not a balm in this world. In fact, partners are invariably at odds, yet often still yoked together somewhere between torment and ennui. So degraded is the sexual politics and power in this account, that rape is a crucial trope, with references to Ovid’s mythic tale of Tereus rape of Philomela serving as a talisman.

Endurance is still celebrated; one must suffer but keep on, even if it be in vain. Music, yes even popular or folk tunes, may help make this more bearable.

Oh, I may have confused you! I’m not speaking about Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  I’m talking about this popular yet now misplaced Modernist breakthrough: The Spoon River Anthology  by Edgar Lee Masters. I’m going to talk more about it and present a few pieces from it in the Parlando Project manner, but before we end today with a piece from Spoon River,  here’s something that never was impressed on me as I learned about American literature, and in particular Modernist English poetry: “The Spoon River Anthology”  was largely written in 1913-1914 and published in 1915. Eliot was writing “Prufrock”  then, but it had not been published. Pound was making his transition from poetry as we presented here in our “Before they were Modernists” series into Imagism, with the first publications his new style in the U.S. in 1913. My personal favorite, Carl Sandburg was starting to write in this new compressed style with a cache of poems published in Poetry magazine in 1914.  Others,  Alfred Kreymborg and William Carlos Williams’ East-Coast-based and more avant garde journal of new verse is yet to come, it began in the middle of 1915. Franz Ferdinand is an obscure central-European duke who has yet to lend a name to a successful Scottish post-punk band.

Edgar Lee Masters

It’s been a quiet week in Spoon River, not so many rapes, murders, and early deaths as usual: Edgar Lee Masters

 

How much of this new verse style had Edgar Lee Masters read and how much of his style was he independently inventing and discovering from the 19th century’s Whitman (or Stephen Crane) and even older classical sources? Given that both Masters and Sandburg were present in Chicago and developing a similar sound for their free verse (while differing in sensibility) at the same time, it’s possible that there was a cross-influence there. One thing this timeline makes clear: The Spoon River Anthology  was not some later attempt to popularize or adopt the revolution of Modernist English language poetry to tell a Midwestern story, it’s created roughly at year zero.

The Spoon River Anthology  presents itself as a series of epitaphs for dead residents of Midwestern town like the one Masters grew up in, some short enough to be carved on a burial monument, others bending the form a bit into short monologs spoken by the dead. The lifetimes of the speaking dead vary and overlap but appear to be from two to three decades before the American Civil war until the early 20th century.

For an initial subject I’ll take one of the sons of the initial settlers,* who tells us he got 40 farm acres as his inheritance, and who sums his life and aims up in a few lines. His name was Cooney Potter.

The player to hear my performance of his Spoon River tale is below. For those of you that have waited for me to drop the synths, we’re back to acoustic instruments today: guitar, piano and tambura.

 

 

*Well, hmm, yes there were those other folks, the ones who lived there before.  Even though the Black Hawk War of 1832 between some indigenous peoples and these settlers and their government was fought in the Midwest during the times of this settlement, I don’t recall it or the Native Americans being addressed in Spoon River, though the 1861-1865 American Civil war fought by two factions of the settler government is significantly mentioned.

Following up on In Pursuit of Spring

I completed reading Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring  yesterday, the book about a bicycle tour across southern England published just before his transition from a self-described hack writer to a much loved English poet. I’ve already noted some surprises in a reply to a comment earlier, but now that I’ve finished I have more to say.

I at first thought the journey was more than a month long, as I read a quote from the book mentioning finding May at the end of his journey—but that was poetic license on Thomas’ part, his bicycle trip from London to the Bristol Channel took only a few days, it was only the vicissitudes of English climate that he was expressing. So, my supposition that the time on his bicycle on a country trip helped break the cycle of hack writing is likely wrong. And more than the time-span says this. The book internally shows evidence of work for hire. Parts of it are uninspired writing—prolix and tangled  writing at that—which is doubly surprising given that Thomas’ poems are usually so sharp and short, where every word tells. The book contains digressions which may or may not have been conventional in English travel books of the time, but they vary in quality and subject. At one point he simply begins to tell a folk tale about two sisters for no reason I can discern. Some of the digressions geek-out on detail. There’s a monolog on clay pipes that I quite enjoyed, which might still pass today as a post on a hipster blog. His shorter discussion of “waterproofs” (rain gear) for bicycling would gather likes in a post today too.

Edward Thomas 2

“I have discovered that sellers of waterproofs are among the worst of liars, and they communicate their vices with their goods.” Even today, many all-weather bicyclists would agree with Thomas.

 

Thomas’ hack work included literary reviews, and there are mini-essays on several English poets thrown in amidst the travelogue. The only living poet this 1913 book dealt with at any length is Hardy (Thomas approves of him) but the strange case he recounts of the 18th Century rural poet Stephen Duck lead me to look for more about him. Thomas was reviewing the contemporary early 20th Century Modernists at this time, and no doubt absorbing some of their tactics, but he does not speak of them in the book.

Over the course of the book he spends an inordinate amount of time in village churches and their graveyards, often cataloging the ordinary names of those buried there—not just the plaques enshrining local now-forgotten notables—and he recounts many epitaphs he finds. This seemed padded and tiresome to me at first, but as the book continued I just grew to accept it. Was this a conventional part of travel book writing then? Are the family names or ordinary people particularly redolent of a region in England? I don’t know. But as this practice continued at every town, I recalled again, this is less than two years before WWI changed England and four years before Thomas met his own Eastertide death in that war. Prophetically intended or not, the book’s catalog of graves does begin to tell.

Another Thomas tic, carried over somewhat into the poetry, is his naturalists-level knowledge of plants and birdsong. At one point early in the book he’s riding off in the morning and identifies a great number of the birds calling by their song, and he never seems to pass a plant without knowing it’s common name.  When I think of his much beloved “Adlestrop,”  a poem I much admire, written only a bit more than a year later.  I wonder if he had to restrain himself from cataloging for several stanzas the species that make up “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”

When Robert Frost saw the poetry in In Pursuit of Spring,  he performed a task of greater perception than I expected, even though there are lovely phrases, a keen intellect that pops in and out, and an odd charm to the whole thing.  Have you run across the current craze for creating poetry by redacting the greater part of large blocks of text so that found poetry emerges? Frost must have mentally done something like that.

How much of Thomas’ mode of prose expression was warped by the pay-by-the-word and deadlines/assigned topics of hack work I can’t say, but the poet Edward Thomas is all the more remarkable to me after reading this.

No new music today, but since I mentioned “Adlestrop,”  it would be good to remind newcomers that they can hear it. The player is below.

 

A Song in the Garden of Love

Today we offer a respite from my voice and the return of alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore. And since it’s been a few days since the last new audio piece, today’s piece combines a lyric written by William Blake with one by Christina Rossetti. Two great poets in one piece! Ladies and gentlemen, there is no greater value you can find today in the poetic words mixed with music marketplace!

Both pieces are stated by their authors to be songs, either in the name of Blake’s collection where “The Garden of Love”  first appeared, “Songs of Experience,”  or in the title itself for Rossetti’s piece, which she called just “Song.”

So of course, both pieces have been set to music and sung before this, but it was Dave Moore’s idea to combine the two pieces; and one can immediately see once he did this, how tightly they fit, with Blake sorrowfully reporting the graves in the garden, and Rossetti musing on the grave and its landscape.

Rossetti wrote her “Song”  while still a teenager. Unlike Blake who was born in a religious dissenter family and grew increasingly distrustful of the corruptions of organized religion, Rossetti would become one of the most graceful and modest of the poets of the Victorian Christian revival. Strange, isn’t it, that the two poems mesh together.

Christina Rossette on staircase

“If you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last”
Christina Rossetti listens for inspiration, or puzzles over her holiday gift list

 

Speaking from my poet/musician duality, the version of “The Garden of Love”  that I most recall is the one recorded by Allen Ginsberg in December of 1969. Ginsberg’s recording is played, followed by a 20-minute discussion of the poem and performance here. The four speakers in this discussion mull on the country music waltz feel Ginsberg performed the Blake too. If I were in that room, I could have replied from the musician side of that duality, that in 1969 there was a bloomlet of counter-cultural figures essaying country-music tropes to the puzzlement from the hippie audience as to what level of irony was intended. Two musical figures close to Allen Ginsberg had taken part in that move earlier that same year: Bob Dylan with “Nashville Skyline”  and Ed Sanders with “Sanders’ Truckstop.”

Wm Blake The Garden of Love

“A dominie in gray…led the flock away.” Blake’s self-illuminated song.

 

Our performance of this mixes Dave’s somewhat church-hymn organ (Ginsberg often used a hand-pumped harmonium organ in his live performances) with my country-ish Telecaster electric guitar, so perhaps Ginsberg’s country move was stuck in my memory as we performed this. Here’s what Dave Moore said about his performance:

“Wayback Machine time.

This song goes back to the early days of the Reagan years, which he ended up forgetting but we can’t.

Probably this is my first attempt to put music to classic poetry, I just thought they fit together so well & expressed both despair and hope so well. This one is my favorite vocal of all attempts at this piece. My introductory verses for each poet are new & I wish I’d separated them from the two little poems better, but that’s what you get with one-takes. Ah, sweet death, we can still sing.”

Dave points out a contrasting benefit of the pieces here performed as the LYL Band, which are not only “one-takes,” but are often pieces that only the composer-vocalist has any sense of the structure of, leaving the rest of us to follow and create parts on the fly. This leads to a certain roughness, and yes, at times, tentativeness too—but I believe there is a corresponding sense of the undiscovered and its discovery that may come across to the listener.

To listen to the LYL Band perform Dave Moore’s pairing of these two beautiful, yet sad, English lyrics, use the player below.