Obviously Five Believers (Thoreau, McClure, Whitman, Blake, Ginsberg)

Perhaps today’s audio piece and what I came to write about it has an interesting path. In words it’s a medium-length journey—so I beg your patience—but the places it goes are vast. Eventually, we’ll answer a question you may not have asking: who’s buried in William Blake’s tomb?

It started with an illustration drawn by Sergio García Sánchez which I saw on Kenne Turner’s blog this month. Turner’s blog has a great deal of manipulated and beautiful nature photography, mixed in with things he notices in his desert region location and occasional poetry, so it was unusual to see a drawing at first, but his post correctly located the words in the drawing and let me recognize the white haired old man whose beard is a star’s journeywork in this cartoon. The man in the drawing, the words, was Walt Whitman.*

Perhaps because Whitman’s words were embedded inside a drawing, they seemed Blakean to me as I read of that grain of sand, a hinge in the hand across the starry dynamo machinery of night. The main effect was to grab my attention and bring thoughts of doing it for this project.

And so I composed a small orchestra piece of music to accompany my reading of this piece, taken from the 31st part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,”  using the 1855 edition. I’d normally give you a link to the text, but the two links above to Turner’s blog or to Sánchez’s picture are the best way to see the 1855 text I used which includes a line that was dropped in later editions, the line with the farmer’s girl and her iron tea-kettle that reminds us back to earth and daily life. For many compositions I’d be done.

And then last week poet Michael McClure died. He’s a poet of many events,** he read at the “Human Be-In” in San Francisco at the beginning of 1967, he can be seen briefly in The Last Waltz  movie reading Chaucer to the rock glitterati—but he may be most famous for being an organizer of the famous Six Angels in the Same Performance  reading at the San Francisco Six Gallery in 1955***

I know McClure best from a record album he made with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and flautist Larry Kassen called The Piano Poems  in 2012. This was nowhere near my introduction to the Beat-associated “jazz behind poetry reading” style, but it’s a very good one. Listening to that helped build my own convictions for this project back then.

One of the poems performed on this set is McClure’s “Action Philosophy.” Though he didn’t on Piano Poems  as released, McClure would often introduce it by saying that his poem begins with words written by Henry David Thoreau. That led me to think about combining McClure’s incorporation of Thoreau with Whitman’s Blakean lines about the universe’s manifestation in everyday nature. After all, McClure extends Blake’s and Whitman’s vision, seeking to become the animals he sees, to inhabit them fully. That’s the animal meat of his poem, but it’s in a reality sandwich on this deli menu—those separated first and last lines present a vital dichotomy. Here’s the text of McClure’s “Action Philosophy.”

Five Believers Six Angels

Fifteen jugglers, five believers, six angels in the same performance! Tell your mama not to worry, ‘cause they’re just my friends. Yes, learn to play the triangle and visionary poetic figures will flock to you.

 

That first line: “That government is best which governs least” is taken from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,”  an essay that soon became important to certain liberation movements. Thoreau himself was speaking about the Mexican-American War and slavery in his essay, oppressive evils that he felt he had to take action against. Gandhi and Martin Luther King made explicit reference to this work of Thoreau in their movements against colonialism and American racial subjugation. Lines from it had vital currency during the anti-Vietnam War movements of The Sixties.

But that’s not what I associated this line with from my life in the later 20th century, or where you may most likely hear it today. Now if you see this line quoted, (perhaps misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, not Thoreau) it may be used to buttress some form of conservatism, particularly conservatism that has a claim to libertarianism. Libertarianism is a complex subject, too long to explore here today, but on the other hand, elements at the foundation of the Beat literary movement were anarchists, an alignment that would have fitted Thoreau.

Now we take another side-step. Back in the 1990s I worked with Gary, a white database programmer from South Carolina. He aligned strongly (as do some technology people today) with libertarianism and the political right that was ascendant in parts of America at that time. He was a great fan of Thoreau’s line, though I think he’d attribute it to his fellow Southerner Jefferson, rather than the Yankee Thoreau. From talking with him I felt that his philosophical libertarianism might have protected him somewhat from the racism, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that can be found in a lot of American conservatism. When he would talk about his political opinions, I’d say “Well, that’s not me, but you know a lot of the folks I read are anarchists, and they sort of have the same feelings about the dangers of governments.”

Gary replied with a question that might take a long time to answer. “What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?”

What an interesting question, and how long could that answer go on? I improvised my first thoughts, observational ones that day Gary asked it decades ago. “Well, some of it is just cultural associations. They dress differently, they listen to different music. And some of that is reflected from where they are moving from: Libertarians come largely from right-wing backgrounds and anarchists from left-wing ones, though each of them may be disenchanted with something from the Right or the Left respectively.”

McClure’s “Action Philosophy”  takes what might be a book-length examination and instead put a distinction into his poem’s first and last lines. The world of the Randian side of libertarianism is perfectly fine with hierarchies and a thought that the unfortunate are the unworthy, or if not that, the unavoidable. Most anarchists—and from McClure’s final line spoken here today, McClure himself—were not. So the first and last lines today are a meaningful combination.

That was my process, a path of liberties and syndication, from within which the piece emerged as the Whitman Blakean section enclosed in McClure’s poem which seemed so Whitmanesque. My performance and recording was done, and yet I went to bed last night with a question in my mind. “What did Whitman know of William Blake? Those lines seemed so Blakean to me.”

Those who read this blog know that when I’m reading a poem, performing, and experiencing it, there’s often one more question that comes from that process. I did a little research today, and found sources that say that at the time of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman probably didn’t know Blake’s work, but by later in the 19th century he certainly did; and that some of those reviving and extending attention on Blake also saw the strange connection between Blake and Whitman—I wasn’t the first. Here’s a link to a very fine summary written by Sarah Ferguson-Wagstaffe of what links are known and were noticed in the 19th century, and even a short bit from Whitman’s own private writings about how he felt he was different from Blake. Ferguson-Wagstaffe may be writing for a scholarly website, but she doesn’t bury the lede: Whitman designed his own burial tomb inspired by a drawing of Blake’s.

How did they come to similar forms of poetic expression? The translated Hebrew poetry of The Bible influenced both strongly. And the same political philosophies informed both men, Blake knew Thomas Paine, Whitman was reading Thoreau and Emerson. And maybe the muses, the angels, the wake-waves of ghosts from the last movements of the dead moving in our air pressed similar things into each poets’ ear. Right after Ginsberg read “Howl”  at the Gallery Six reading for the first time (and by some accounts it was the first public reading of any kind Ginsberg or McClure had ever given of any of their work), Lawrence Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg from out of the Gallery audience and said “I welcome you on the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti no doubt knew he was echoing what Emerson had written to Whitman in response to that 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

For those that note that I’ve borrowed a song-title from Bob Dylan, I point out one of my favorite investigations from this Project: my non-original, but still little-known, discovery that Bob Dylan was filmed doing the famous hand-drawn placard presentation of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with Ginsberg gesturing in the background in an alley at the very site that William Blake died. To warp the old joke: Who’s buried in Blake’s Tomb? Whitman. Who was illuminated at the site of Blake’s death? Bob Dylan. Is McClure, carrying his nesting twig of Thoreau, and angel or a condor now?

To hear a performance mixing in Thoreau, McClure, and Whitman with my music for a small orchestra, use the player below. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing these ghosts with me.

 

 

 

 

*Should I have used the more multitudinous verb “where” here?

**McClure didn’t even have to be there. In the summer of 1970, I was working frying hamburgers in Port Chester New York. Down the road was the Capitol Theater, one of those converted to rock concert venues of the age. At a bar in town Janis Joplin was drinking with Bob Neuwirth, and Joplin started riffing on a line from a McClure poem “Come on God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Neuwirth scribbled the night’s journeywork on a paper napkin. Later that day she performed the resulting song at the Capitol Theater. Me? I just kept frying those burgers.

***True to their anarchist-hearts, the reading seems to have been blessed with several “organizers” but happened anyway. Kenneth Rexroth MC’d, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg read. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Ann Charters, and Jack Kerouac where in the audience. Since it was at this reading the Ginsberg premiered his long poem “Howl,”  that seems to have become the summary of the event, but the edges of the blast broke more windows. The 22-year-old McClure read a poem about the death of whales, showing that his “Mammal Patriotism” was already forming.

Thoreau’s June

We’ve already heard from Claude McKay and Thomas Wentworth Higginson on the month of June, and now it’s time to turn to one of the foremost spirits of the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist movement, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is well-known for being in the activist, live-the-ideals, wing of Transcendentalism, though readers here have been introduced to Thoreau’s contemporary Thomas Wentworth Higginson—more than a footnote in the Emily Dickinson story—who also spent considerable time living those ideals.

Henry David Thoreau

Collect the series: Unfortunate Hair Stylings of Important Personages

 

Thoreau and Transcendentalism’s major domo Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the same town in Massachusetts, and one of the most striking things for me when I first visited that town, Concord, was to think that in a matter of a few blocks there lived Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott—all in this place not that much larger than the small farming community I grew up in. What a town that must have been in those years!

Transcendentalism is a little hard to put a finger on exactly as a movement because it was interested in and had change-convictions about so many things. Higginson in his 1899 collection of memoir pieces Cheerful Yesterdays  calls it “The Period of the Newness” and speaks of “The Sisterhood of Reforms.”

My current working-definition of Transcendentalism is it is the belief that there is a primary knowledge to be obtained from the deep study and meditation on the structures and methods of nature, as opposed to the accumulation of received and conventional truths about it. Thoreau the Transcendental activist helped to pioneer this, often writing about his direct experience of nature. His thought process also caused him to develop political ideals, including Civil Disobedience to unjust and violent government actions, famously inspiring Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Thoreau didn’t just inspire Gandhi and King with his writing. The first story I ever heard of Thoreau recounted the tale of Ralph Waldo Emerson visiting Thoreau who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican-American war and its support of slavery.

Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked across the jail door bars.

“Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau replied.

But here’s one lesser known thing about Thoreau, the deep naturalist, writer and political activist: he was also something of an engineer. Between writing and other activities, he was active in his father’s business, a small factory that made pencils. A chief problem at the time was the formulation of the graphite used in the “lead” for these indispensable writing instruments. Thoreau’s father’s pencils, like other American pencils at the time, used a too soft binder that led to a crumbling point and blurry line. Through study of European pencils (and one suspects a little lab time on his part) Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalist writer, philosopher, and activist figured out a clay formulation to mix with the powdery graphite to produce a much better American pencil. Profits from the sale of these pencils and the underlying technology* were largely what supported Thoreau’s writing career.

Not to make too fine a point of it—and King and Gandhi might have found other inspiration, and Thoreau other funding—but the 20th century Afro-American civil rights movement and the independence of the Indian sub-continent owe something to a thing as prosaic as a better pencil design—monumental things that literally come from a feet of clay.

Today’s piece is a short meditation taken from an entry in Thoreau’s Journals for June 6th 1857. Adding to the above connection, when Thoreau was writing his nature observations in the field, he most likely was doing so using a pencil of his own design. Note too that at one point engineer-Thoreau talks of the revolution of thought connected to the revolution of the natural cycle of seasons as if they are the meshing of a gear train.

Thoreau June 6 1857

Handwriting as bad as mine! The page from Thoreau’s journal containing today’s text.

 

Written as prose, it has a flow that I could find to recite and accompany it with music. The piece’s chordal part I played on an electric 12-string guitar recorded in the manner Roger McGuinn and the engineers on The Byrds recordings devised in the Sixties. Instead of the John Coltrane-inspired lead 12-string melodic line of something like “Eight Miles High”  I played an acoustic guitar with an E-Bow, a magnetic invention that drives a guitar string to vibrate and produce a flute-like sound. As I read a little about Thoreau this week, I came upon the information that he was also an avid flute player, so it seems appropriate.

The player gadget is below. My apologies for being away from this blog and blog activities so far in June—you know, life and things.

 

 

 

 

*Here’s more about Thoreau and his pencils. I first heard the story on the radio series “Engines of our Ingenuity”.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Last time we had a young man, an American walking in Paris in 1913 who came upon his poem leaving the Metro. Today, another young man, an Irishman in London in 1890, is walking too. He comes to a shop window, drawn by the sound there of water splashing. Looking in, he saw a fountain on display, its upward spray buoying up a ball.

The sound of water instantly brought memories of his childhood home on the coast of Ireland—and as he had been reading Thoreau’s account of his stay at Walden Pond, a small personal fantasy occurred to him of building and living in a self-sufficient cabin on a tiny island back home. Because that Irishman was William Butler Yeats, a poem came from that shop-street window, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

william-butler-yeats-irish-poet-and-dramatist-in-his-study-at-woburn-buildings-london

If one can’t have a solitary wattled cabin, at least one can have books

 
That poem is now one of those beloved “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.” A few years back it topped a survey by an Irish newspaper as its readers’ favorite poem, and though I can’t find a picture of this, I’ve read that it’s been printed on a page of Ireland’s passports since 2013.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

Ireland’s favorite Irish poem was written in a foreign country

 

Of course, like most any Yeats poem it sounds lovely. Its language is straightforward, and there’s not much that needs explication. For a sound medium, it’s not always that a poem’s strongest images are sounds, but here the sounds of lapping water, bees’ hum-resonance, crickets, and a bird’s wings in flight carry the story.

Pound too, with his “In a Station of the Metro”  chose to use nature images in his Paris subway poem; but Yeats makes it plain that he’s stuck in the city, walking the grey pavement, not some country path. Thoreau had presented himself as the practical man in his book, making empirical living experiments. Yeats presents himself as the Romantic, helping imagine an Ireland—then viewed conventionally as a poverty-blighted colony—as an Eden, another locus amoenus. Another unusual choice Yeats makes is switching around the way we might describe night and day: night “a glimmer” and noon “purple glow.” Even though this was written before the dawn of urban lights dimming the night starfield, that’s the glimmering I sense, and if Irish coasts are foggy, noon could have a diffused glow. 1890 London might have fog and coal-fired air pollution too, maybe London fog didn’t glow, and maybe something beyond “light pollution” dimmed the stars.

This weekend’s St. Patrick’s day has become an occasion for the Irish diaspora to look toward its former homeland; and this poem, which speaks with Yeats’ humble yet beautiful specifics, invokes generally the homesickness of travelers, exiles, and immigrants. The specific in poetry often does that, the personal history that’s included standing for us all. This morning, as I filled my mouth with the word “peace” that Yeats wrote down twice in his poem, I could think of the island of New Zealand, and other travelers, exiles, and immigrants.

To hear my performance of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”  use the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player (some blog readers won’t show it) then this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.