For not the first time here, I need to travel in a roundabout way in time and place to get to today’s piece. Last post, I discussed how little survives of the work of the ancient Greek poet Sappho: only a small handful of more-or-less complete poems, the rest fragments (some as small as a single word).
What caused us to then remember her at all, to collect and care about these fragments? I think it’s largely because the legends that grew up about her combined with the short verses that survive are intriguing. Yes, the ancient Greeks praised her formal poetic achievements highly, but what survives of her writing and biographic legends testify to a poet who lived and writes about love and desire. The compression of the lyric form mixes with the intensity of the erotic themes and the peak-a-boo of their historic fragmentation — the poems flirt with us.
And now for the time-jump. We move to the beginning of the 20th century, from an exotic 7th century BCE Aegean island dweller to a Canadian, a poet with the name of Bliss Carman.* In 1894, Carman and a college friend published a collection of poems extolling the romantic carefree life: Songs of Vagabondia. Not quite as ecstatic as Whitman or Jack Kerouac, it none-the-less found a public and launched two sequels. Carmen followed this series up in 1907 with what became his most highly praised poetry collection, the audacious Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. How’s that? We’ve established there’s only a handful of somewhat complete poems.
Bliss Carman audaciously invented his own extension of Sappho. Sappho is here depicted as being the first poet to chew on the cap of her pen while thinking.
Carman’s cousin, and fellow worker to establish a Canadian poetry, Charles G. D. Roberts, explained what Carmen did altogether briefly in an introduction to the book:
Mr. Carman’s method, apparently, has been to imagine each lost lyric as discovered, and then to translate it; for the indefinable flavour of the translation is maintained throughout, though accompanied by the fluidity and freedom of purely original work.”
One wishes for more explanation. Roberts’ account reads to me like one of those occultists who receive texts through spirit guides or translate ancient inscriptions by telepathic laying on of hands. However, in reading the entire book I get a sense of a different tactic with the same strategic goal that I’ve admitted in some of my translations and presentations with music: an attempt to make the old text in an old language uniquely accessible to some contemporary readers.
Yes, yes there are dangers in inauthenticity and willful anachronism. Um Actually historical scholarship illuminates things too, but last time I said I understand and find value in those current readers of Sappho who wish to encounter her as if she was a modern gay woman. Carmen wanted his readers back then to get some sense of Sappho’s expression of unboundaried love that the fragments hint at if assembled just so.
His re-animated Sappho is more of a circa 1900 Pre-Raphaelite to Pre-Modernist** one. He eschews rhyme and doesn’t go all out for florid poetic diction. Most of the lines are his, not Sappho’s by any actual sense of translation, and perhaps they are best appreciated in the same way that dialog is in a historical novel. In research this week I understand there were some notes where Carman at least connected a portion of the poems with the corresponding cataloged Sappho fragments, but nothing like this was contained in the published book.
At it’s best, like today’s piece, you get a poem that wears its intent of patinaed timelessness lightly. Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you want to read along. I particularly like the image of the coupled lovers watching from the bedroom window unknowable ships whose ventures are now safe in port.***
For music today, I’ve turned not to the ancient lyre and flutes of Sappho’s time, but perversely to try for that timeless illusion using synthesizers along with my fretless electric bass. The player gadget may appear below to hear my performance of Bliss Carman’s “LXXXII Over the roofs the honey-coloured moon” poem. Some blog viewers will not show the player gadget, but then this highlighted hyperlink will play the audio piece if you click on it.
*I’ll admit it: the moment I read this name, I smiled. I couldn’t tell what gender. To modern ears “Bliss Carman” sounds like a florid pen name on a romance novel, or even a drag queen’s persona, but some reading and research staunched my snickering. In Real Life, he helped establish Canadian literary poetry and his career stretched from the establishment of the Canadian Confederation to the Modernism of the 1920s.
***Reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” poem with lovers “Futile — the winds — To a Heart in port — Done with the Compass — Done with the Chart!” Dickinson’s poem would have been somewhat freshly published when Carmen was working, and I wonder if he knew it?
So how did the Spoon River Anthology get created and published in 1914, such an early date in the emergence of Modernist verse? Let me see if I can summarize what I know so far. In the early part of the 20th century Edgar Lee Masters was a busy lawyer practicing in Chicago. The most oft-remarked part of that career was that for a time Masters was partnered with the famed Clarence Darrow known for his progressive views and participation in numerous famous cases of the era.
I’ve quickly scoured a great deal of information this month on Masters, learning more each day, but it’s clear that for some time before 1914 Masters wanted dearly to become a writer of some kind, with a “trunk” of prose, plays and poetry, and a fair amount of rejection letters. It’s possible that, in his time, he might have been categorized by writers and cultural figures as a type that still exists, which for lack of a better name I’ll call a “wanna-be.”
Like all stereotypes, the wanna-be is unfair to some tagged with it, while seeming to be a useful short-hand among those who apply it. Authors from book tours only need to start a story with another about the businessman who buttonholes the author to say that they too have a novel, often partly written or even “just an idea, but…” and the fellow author will nod and immediately fill in the stereotypical details. Modern authors maybe divided into commercial, academic and bohemian enclaves, but all three can bemoan someone from outside those realms who thinks they are a writer, while giving signs that their real-life choices, risks, experience, and focus lie elsewhere.
Masters was certainly not the kind of wanna-be who claimed he had a novel in him, or “I once wrote poetry when I was young.” Despite what he described as a busy legal practice, he was writing—good bad or indifferent, he was taking his swings.
Here’s another stereotype label that could be applied to Masters in his time: “womanizer*” which is someone who engages in endless, usually short-term, love affairs: a cycle of attraction, infatuation, discovery of imperfection or the newness wears off, and then repeat. For a time prior to writing Spoon River, Masters was in a two-year extra-marital relationship with a Chicago woman Tennessee Mitchell.** Mitchell was a musician who taught piano, broke a glass ceiling for women as piano-tuners (lady brains can’t handle the complex tempering of all those notes you know), and who ran a salon where patrons, artists, and radicals mingled.
One question I had when I wondered how Masters could write a thoroughly Modernist work of poetry so early in the movement was did he cross paths with Chicago’s Poetry magazine and Carl Sandburg, then living and working in Chicago. In the case of the later, he certainly did. He struck up an acquaintance with his fellow Midwestern Modernist,*** and they took walks together and presumably talked about poetry as Masters was writing Spoon River. Masters referred to Sandburg in letters from this time as the “Swede Bard,” which even just between friends sounds dismissive and nativist, but this does point out something that shouldn’t be forgotten about Sandburg: he was the child of an immigrant. Masters didn’t have to “prove” his American legitimacy when he cast a critical eye on parts of its culture. Sandburg, though different in his politics from Masters, could be just as critical, but he was casting his critique from a different standing.
And Poetry magazine, a critical American organ in the dissemination of Modernism? Masters seems to have been stymied there. At one point he was having another of his affairs with a woman described in places as an editor at Poetry,*** but I so far haven’t seen that he was published in Poetry prior to Spoon River.
Instead the Spoon River Anthology owes its major inspiration and initial publication to a man down the Mississippi from south-western Illinois, William Reedy, the editor of Reedy’s Mirror in St. Louis, who like Harriet Monroe’s Poetry was ready and willing to publish American poets who were unabashedly American and willing to forge American verse in new modes, as Whitman and Dickinson had shown was possible in the previous century.
Inspiration? Well, for someone promoting American verse, Reedy’s prime move was to send Masters a copy of a recent translation by a British scholar from classical Greek late in 1912: Epigrams from the Greek Anthology.
A gift that helped start American Modernist poetry. Ironic, or Ionic?
Masters had an idea that stories from his southwest Illinois youth were good material, but he didn’t know how to present them. Even in 1913 he was thinking of shaping them into a play.**** As 1914 began, Masters, still being goaded by Reedy to drop his often florid and European-modeled verse and do something American, started writing the Spoon River epitaphs, accepting the incongruity of a classical Greek style of summing up a life being used for American Midwestern townfolk as having a certain satiric flavor. Masters sent a batch of them to Reedy, and as Masters himself recounted this, they were submitted in something of a mood of: you want American, well I’ll give you American and I’ll bet you won’t think it’s poetic.
Reedy published them, praised them. Throughout 1914 this process continued: Masters writing feverishly on the weekends while continuing a busy legal practice and sending off batches to Reedy and his Mirror of new Spoon River epitaphs to be published. Does Masters feel validated? Has he found his voice? There may be some ambivalence on his part at first. He has them published using a pen name Webster Ford. Some of that may be to protect his law career (lawyers who tell secrets about lives aren’t exactly sought out by clientele.) Part of it may be because he’s unsure. It’s even possible that “Webster Ford” may have been a way to escape his lawyer-who-thinks-he’s-a-poet issues with Chicago literary figures.
Ezra Pound, off in England, but considering himself the world-wide talent scout for all things Modernist, fires off a letter to Harriet Monroe. Pound is no stranger to urgency in speech, but he’s in full florid ALL CAPS shouting mode:
“GET SOME OF WEBSTER FORD’S STUFF FOR ‘POETRY’…Please observe above instruction as soon as possible.”
By the end of 1914, Masters drops the Webster Ford mask and puts his own name on the poems, and he’s looking to have Spoon River Anthology published in book-length form. He’s on his way, even if he’ll soon enough loose it.
For today’s Spoon River piece, here’s a companion to “Cooney Potter,” “Fiddler Jones,” showing the dialectical contrasts Masters likes to weave into his collection. With its invocation of music it was an immediate favorite with me. Besides the contrasts in values and outcomes that Masters uses, there are families’ and relationship stories throughout the book, but it’s unclear to me if Fiddler Jones is related to other Jones-surnamed characters in Spoon River.***** Jones is a common name, used as synonym for “anyone” idiomatically. But it’s also Welsh in origin, and there is a Jones family of specifically Welsh ancestry in Spoon River.
Reading “Fiddler Jones” I thought the character might be Afro-American. There’s one stated Afro-American character in Spoon River, and I wasn’t sure of the exact ethnic makeup of the region of Masters youth, but like finding out about the Afro-American community in Emily Dickinson’s region, assuming all-white is false default. As so often when I come to something like this, the Internet is my friend. It’s actually easy to search census demographic records for the two towns of Masters’ youth, and they were around 1% African American by those records. Of course, Masters’ book isn’t a documentary or demographic treatise, but that means there are 30-35 Afro-Americans living in Spoon River’s models in the later 19th century.
Strings link things: African styles mixed with Celtic styles in America.
From my musicological interests, the idea that that fiddler could have Celtic or Afro-American roots is apt, but in doing my music for today’s performance of “Fiddler Jones” I didn’t really follow traditional fiddle styles. I don’t play violin, and the solo violin line featured in today’s piece was played on guitar with a MIDI pickup using a lot of string vibrato and little of the short, rhythmic chops that might drive a field of dancers. Wondering what’s the dance tune they step off too mentioned in the poem? This blog has a good guess. The lyrics to that tune also end, as does Spoon River’s in the grave; and as Fiddler Jones does, with no regrets.
In composing the small orchestra accompaniment, I made sure to feature the bassoon and piccolos that bedevil Fiddler Jones in his mind as he tries to plow. I found myself rather enchanted as Fiddler Jones was, and as a result today’s piece is a bit longer than most here, but I hope you’ll find the spell as moving as I did. Player’s below.
*Particularly, but not exclusively, among arts and bohemians, even in Masters time there would also be women who were not called “mananizers” for some reason, and bisexuality and same-sex relationships too. The power relationships in such relationships would be too complex to discuss in a footnote: some exploitative, some less so, some respectful, some carnal, some duplicitous, some honest, and so on. So far, in my rapid overview of Masters he doesn’t seem particularly exploitative, and Spoon River shows he’s listening to women.
**Click this link and read about Tennessee Mitchell! After the end of her affair with Masters she eventually married another wanna-be-but-actually-could writer, an advertising man and entrepreneur Sherwood Anderson who went on to write Spoon River’s prose-in-law: Winesburg Ohio in 1919.
***At this point, do we need to broach the question of if Edgar Lee Masters was trying to sleep his way to the top of Modernist poetry?
****More irony, the brief poetic monologs in Spoon River so revealing of key details of entire lives in flat descriptive dialog became a staple of audition readings for actors since they so readily allow an actor to show keen presentation of character in a few lines.
*****We’ll meet one of those other Jones in Spoon River soon. You may think, small town, must be related, but in the 19th century Midwest residents are largely internal migrants from the previously settled regions of the U.S. and so, even later, it’s not certain. In my 20th century hometown, smaller than Spoon River, 20% of my class had the last name Johnson and were not related. As you might imagine, I thought the running joke in Blazing Saddles that every white townsperson is named “Johnson” was particularly funny.
New Year’s is a time to look at where one’s been and to look anew, to make resolutions and changes. So, let’s look anew at a 110-year-old work by Rainer Maria Rilke.
That’s appropriate, because Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is about looking at something old, something that many others have looked at. And Rilke’s poem too has been read and listened to by many, both in it’s original German and in several translations into English. Each translation differs from the others as there are several problems of understanding and reconstruction into a new language that each translator had to solve. So I started by doing my own English translation, working with Rilke’s German words and trying to understand what he’s getting at.
What’s the over-riding observation about the statue that is Rilke’s subject? That it’s broken and incomplete. This is past obvious, but because Rilke spends some time in this brief poem talking about how drawn he is to it, I think it’s possible to misunderstand this point. He says wonder-filled things about it, and this leads many translators and readers to believe that he’s making a case that it’s artistically perfect in some talismanic way.
Worst New Year’s party ever. Woke up without head, arms, legs…
My reading is that he’s making a contrasting case. This is a legless and headless statue. Rilke makes us see right off that the head is missing. Describing that missing head Rilke uses the German word “unerhörtes,” unheard—which we take in the sense of “unheard of.” Translators have translated it into “fabulous”, “legendary”, and so on. There are certainly good German words for those things, but Rilke chose otherwise. Does he want the double meaning that this statue of the Greek god of poetry and music is missing its ability to hear?
What do I make of the remarkable, surrealist-sounding image near the start of the poem that the missing head is surmised to have eyes ripened like apples? Everyone is struck by the audacity of it, but what does it mean? I don’t think Rilke means this in a René Magritte way, as even a small apple is too large for an eye socket. My wife had a suggestion: ripened apples eventually fall and rot, just as the head has been harvested or fallen from neglect.
Eyes ripened like apples, René Magritte’s way.
Another hard to translate line is the poems eighth, which dips down to the naked statue’s beltline and makes reference to genitals that should be there if we were to continue in the path of the gaze. I suspect the statue has been fractured above them. My translation breaks with most others on the following “beast’s pelt” reference. Some translate that fur as a wonderous quality of the entire remaining stone torso, which seems to make no sense imaginative or otherwise when referring to Greek statues of Apollo*. My translation reads the German as saying that the wild beast’s pelt is missing, that is to say that the statue ends above the pubic hair. So blind, deaf, headless, and also without his sex organs.**
What’s left after these amputations, this incompleteness? First, Rilke is drawn to this torso. He is a poet, and Apollo’s the god of poetry. He’s also spent a couple years working as a young assistant to the great French sculptor Rodin, so statuary is an interest. I think what he sees as still there is the soul, the heart, the essence, which he portrays as that mysterious flame-like glow in the marble and the remaining curves that smile at the damage.
Which brings us to the poem’s notable surprise ending, which I won’t spoil in my explanatory text if you don’t know it already. I think Rilke is drawn to this torso because he senses this soul, that which eternally remains, that which is without borders and broken places, can heal or transcend this: the lack of fulfilled desire, vision, mind, and music. Perhaps he is drawn to this broken statue so intensely because he feels he and his art are broken and incomplete too.
To hear my performance of a new translation of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with its conclusion that many readers/listeners find unexpected, use the player gadget below. And to all the brave readers and flexible listeners here: an exploring and improving New Year!
*Rilke may not have known it, but something else was missing on that statue. We have become accustomed to viewing classical Greek statues as glowing white marble, aesthetically we may have even absorbed the idea that this monochromatic paleness is the timeless ideal. However, the Greeks painted their statues, even the nudes got skin tones and hair color. Oh, and they were Southeast Mediterranean people with interchange with Africa and the Middle East, those skin tones weren’t pasty white, as examination of pigment remnants on classical Greek statues reveal.
**Of course, I must be modest. My knowledge of German (like my knowledge of French and classical Chinese which I’ve also translated here) is lacking, which can lead to translation errors. The only skill I can bring to this is that I read, perform and write poetry.
Here’s a piece to celebrate the announced discovery of the oldest intact shipwreck, a 2,400-year-old Greek ship discovered in the Black Sea with its mast, rudder, and even a rower’s bench still in place. This can’t be fully romanced into being Ulysses’ ship—it’s centuries newer—but it does give us an object, beyond the stories, to remind us of ancient sea voyages.
“Tales of brave Ulysses, how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing.” This vase depicts a ship like the one in the shipwreck.
Tennyson’s Ulysses is one of his best-known shorter works, and one I was a bit surprised to find still survives on the seabed of modern teaching syllabuses. I expect that many will read “Ulysses” as a complement to Tennyson’s American contemporary Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus”which we’ve featured here, as a pledge from one who is old and past their expected prime to continue to strive. After all, the most quoted section, the one I used, starts right off declaring “You and I are old.”
Well for someone my age or Dave’s—that is to say, old—this understanding might seem natural.* Indeed, as we recorded this last week, we too were not “that strength which in the old days.” But if one looks at Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” both biographically and mythologically, there are some surprises to be found.
Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that this was not some later work by a long-lived poet (as Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus” was), but instead the work of a 25-year-old? Odd that in our modern times, where we often expect authenticity in our poets, were the poem is expected to be biographically true to the author’s own experience. But of course, it isn’t rare for younger people to feel old and to feel an age is past. Tennyson chose to make his poem’s speaker aged because it did represent something he felt after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam (the same friend that his book-length epic elegy “In Memoriam A. H. H.” was dedicated to).
If one looks at the poem and sets aside preconceptions, you may find, even in its oft-quoted concluding exhortations I used, an undercurrent from this inspiration. Not only is this Ulysses a hero well-past the age of his greatest physical vigor, he’s demonstrating in his concluding speech two other characteristics. He’s looking backward to look forward. He recalls his Homeric feats, acts that in that story literally had heroes that “Strove with Gods.” He reminds his crew, in effect, “Look, we are the generation that knew Achilles personally, not the modern folk who only read about him.” Which brings us to the subject of his crew, the men he’s addressing in this exhortation. Homer’s Odyssey is clear on what happens to them, after deadly battle followed by deadly mistakes: they were all killed, long before this poem begins. Like Tennyson after the death of his friend, those who know, those who shared and could testify to Ulysses soul, are gone. So, when he asks to set sail in that boat, there will be no rowing soldiers on those benches sitting well in order, except in his soul.
So, he’s crazy? Deluded? After all, he’s plainly talking to those that aren’t there. Well this is a poem, a work of art. Ulysses might never have existed, or might not have existed in the way we know him if not for Homer, who also might not have existed. And Tennyson and his friend Hallam? We can pretty well know they existed, even if anyone who could say of the eventually long-lived Tennyson “who we knew” is now dead, and so closely equal to the imagined. This is a poem about the hereness of the not-here.
I was telling my son the other day, “Death is the leading cure for immortality,” but sometimes the cure doesn’t take. I can’t say that the LYL Band’s performance of this part of “Ulysses” is immortal, but we do strive to seek to find and not to yield. Hear it here:
With a poem, mystery and ambiguity can be often served best alongside brevity. H. D.’s “The Pool,” which supplies today’s words, is a fine example of this. It’s a condensed tale of an encounter that takes seconds to read, but longer to absorb.
We last met H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) here with her tiny but fierce poem “Oread.” In that case, the title let us start off the poem knowing the main character of the poem. “The Pool” offers us no such clue with it’s somewhat generic title, and it throws us in the deep end by beginning with a question: “Are you alive?” Five spare lines later it ends still listing questions: “What are you..?” It’s called “The Pool,” but the unnamed thing in the pool seems the subject.
Go ahead, listen to the musical performance of “The Pool” now (the player is below), because encountering it in mystery is important. The poem is so short and yet multi-faceted, I repeat some of its words, extending the listener’s experience of the words a bit longer, encouraging you to not let go of them too fast.
H. D. must have intended this to be mysterious. Various “solutions” have been suggested, though they would reduce the poem to a riddle. When I first read it, I assumed the object the poem’s speaker is questioning in the pool was a fish, taking the metaphor of it quivering “Like a sea-fish” literally—but would someone describe a fish as “like a fish?” Over at the always “Interesting Literature” blog a commenter suggested it could be H. D.’s unborn child, an ingenious solution, consistent with the quivering and the water and possibly with the “banded one” epithet for the object, if one thinks of the womb as a band. H.D. was pregnant for the first time in the year the poem was published, and if this is part of the poet’s intent, the opening question is achingly poignant, since that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. But if that is the largely intended experience to be drawn from the poem, H. D. has given us no internal clues in the words to lead us there without knowing now obscure biographical details regarding her life and the poem’s publishing date.
Is that meaning there unintentionally? That’s certainly possible. The New Criticism writers assumed intent, honoring the artist, but modern Deconstructionists would find this a moot point. It wouldn’t even matter to them if H. D. had written the poem a year or more before it was published, before her pregnancy, as a reader could choose to experience the poem as about pregnancy with no intent on the part of the author.
My second reading of the poem takes from another context, H. D.’s love for classical Greek lyric poetry. Any situation involving looking into a pool and becoming entranced with what one sees suggests strongly the myth of Narcissus. At the very least from H. D.’s other work, we can assume that H. D. would have recognized the likelihood of this reading. But if this was her intent, why not call the poem “Narcissus?”
In the tiny amount of words in this poem, the net and the “banded one” are all that lead us away from Narcissus. Is this poem in fact a representation of a modern experience stated directly with no excess words in the manner of the Imagist credo? If so, what could one see in a pool that is banded and is like a fish. Some crabs have banded leg markings, that possibility exists, and the “I touch you” line takes on a new context if one imagines the crustacean strangeness and pincher-claw danger of touching a crab in a tide pool to see if it is alive.
“I touch you”—or not. A banded hermit crab.
Or the modern, direct experience could be intended as an echo of Narcissus, a moment when the speaker of the poem sees their reflection in water and assumes, as Narcissus did in the myth, that this thing in the pool is an entrancing other. And the net then, an expression of the inability to capture our selves. Interesting Literature suggests that the “banded” could be the net interrupting the reflection with its strands. An echo then of a Narcissus’ reflection, and Echo is the name of the nymph who tricked Narcissus into the reflection lock.
That would explain why the poem isn’t called “Narcissus.” In this modern encounter, the speaker doesn’t lock forever in contemplation of the unknowable reflection, spending five lines there, aware of Narcissus’s plight. The net becomes the thing that, this time, breaks the spell. And what of the “banded one?” Is there a pun there? I didn’t see it reading the poem on the page, but my overlapping voices in the performance made the phrase sound like “abandoned one.” Narcissus wouldn’t abandon the entrancing reflection, and by extension, is bound by his attraction to his perception of himself.
Perhaps H. D.’s “The Pool” is all of these things, perhaps even something else as well. Mystery and ambiguity is sometimes best served by brevity. Go ahead and listen to my performance of “The Pool” again, it may reflect something else.