Let’s hope I don’t overextend my love for American poet Kenneth Patchen with yet another example of his work today, which happens to be the opening day for baseball in my city. Patchen wasn’t quite the modern day spoken word poet, but even 80 years ago he was writing in a form that works in that presentation — though more here in a mode where the listener is immediately attracted by references to our common life and speaking idiom, and then finds the poem going off somewhere else between its lines before it ends.
Many poets are indifferent readers of their own work, but Patchen is usually quite good. I actually muffed one line in his text today, but Patchen has modified several lines, either from the variations of performance, or in the case of the lips of the “girls of heaven” he seems to choose a gentler metaphor here.
Baseball used to brand itself as “America’s Pastime,” and this poem makes something of that with its intimations that like love’s fancy and poetry it fills time and makes a joke of watches and schedules. I note too, that Patchen, the pacifist whose world was at war when he wrote this, knows that concerted effort is not always noble, and that the blessing of wasted time is better than time wasting from want or wasting one’s fellow humans.
Oh yes, the prophets among us can see clearly that professional baseball is a business enterprise, full of the commercial slight-of-hand that parodies patriotism and oh-so-righteous conflict. I myself remarked last year as I was reading the newspaper, that I had finished the section dealing with the businessmen who wear uniforms and was now moving on to the — why-is-it-separate? — sports section. But then, oh prophets, who really can find any remedial pleasure in cheering on a grocery chain or brokerage firm?
As I write this, over at the baseball field the home team has just answered the visitors’ one run with four runs in the bottom of the 3rd and now a light rain says we stop and wait for rainbows — or if the game is called, it will all go away as if it had never happened. Time knows it’s real. Everything else is illusions.
When I started this project a few years ago I didn’t realize that I’d have to largely work with poetry which is in the public domain. This can still disappoint me, but there’s been a welcome side-effect.
This limitation caused me to look deeply into the first couple decades of the 20th century for texts to use. I knew a little about the pioneers of Modernist poetry in English, or thought I did—but as things often go, the more you find out, the more you find out you don’t know.
I had carried the impression in my younger years that Modernist English poetry started out with “Prufrock” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and that it soon moved on to “The Waste Land” and Wallace Stevens with his multi-section poems set off by roman numerals. All stuff with moments of beauty and extravagant language, but also a bit heavy-lifting if one wanted to take it all in, much less wonder what the poet was on about.
But when you look for the actual beginnings, you find Imagism in the time before WWI—and the poems are much more modest: often short, sub-sonnet length, and they aren’t out to wow you with the elaborateness of their imagery, which is concrete and immediate.
Are these slight poems, ones lacking the impact that the weight of a few hundred lines and some quotes from Latin or Tudor poetry could bring? You can read them that way. Absorb them like a short paragraph in a novel that you are rushing through to get to a waypoint of a plot, and then they may seem so.
But the men and women that wrote these poems didn’t intend these poems to be slight. They intended revolution or rejuvenation of the poetry of their language. Compression. Concision. The leaving out all express sentiment to be replaced by a call for their readers to be involved, to see the certain things the poem described and to feel them as fresh experience, not as an allusion to ideas about the experience.
Well here’s a poet and poem I didn’t know about before this project, and one that isn’t classed as one of the pre-WWI Imagists as far as I know, even though this poem is—intentionally or not—exactly an Imagist poem. The poet’s got more names than Du Fu, for he didn’t always write or name himself in English: the Irish poet Joseph Campbell, AKA Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil, and Joseph McCahill.
No, not the “Power of Myth” guy, the other Joseph Campbell
Like many Irish poets of the turn of the 20th century he was involved in trying to end the colonial status of Ireland. He lived in Ireland the colony and the free state, England and the United States. He wrote lyrics to traditional Irish melodies, plays and other stuff (including a memoir of his imprisonment during the struggle for Irish Independence).
Like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Campbell’s “Night, and I Traveling” takes place in the old, unlit, rural night. And instead of a dark copse of trees, it’s a country house, perhaps more a hut, that the traveler pauses beside. What does Campbell see?
Light from a hearth burning peat, that not-quite-coal that served the country people of his time. There’s a dresser and some small array of porcelain dishes displayed on it. There’s an ambiguous line: he hears inside the hut “A woman’s voice crooning, as if to a child.”
Why did Campbell choose “as if” for two of his 46 words? Well, practically he might not have seen the woman, much less the child. It may be meant to suggest that the child is being lullabied to sleep and this may be the reason the traveler doesn’t even consider helloing to the home’s inhabitants. Or it could mean that the child is no longer home, grown and left for elsewhere, or even dead.
I don’t think I’m imagining that later implication, though it’s not explicit.
The last line is rich in ambiguity too, though it seems to suggest it’s resolving that spare line that preceded it. Is our traveler passing on into the darkness like the child who has left home or has left life? Or is he a traveler who has “miles to go before he sleeps” who cannot stop and rest or talk to those who live in the hut? Or is the traveler perhaps a person who knows or suspects he’ll never even have such a meagre but real home like the one he’s passing? I know too little of Campbell’s life as of this point to weigh that last possibility against his own biographical facts.
You’re free to hear the poem as saying any one, or all, of these things. It’s still a charged moment even without it being defined exactly—perhaps even more so for that. I’m not Irish, but it seems to me to be a concise emblem of Ireland at his centuries’ turn.
Musically, I used a 12-string acoustic guitar with tambura and sitar drone accompaniment today. I can’t say it’s authentic Irish music, but then Celtic music in the 20th century picked up a lot of things like alternative guitar tunings brought by a Scottish-Guyanese man traveling from Morocco and bouzoukis from Greece. To hear my music and performance for this poem, use the player below.
Today’s piece is our first proper piece by English poet Thomas Hardy. In America Hardy may be better known as a novelist, though he considered himself a poet first and last. When Hardy began writing poetry in the 19th Century, William Wordsworth was but a decade dead, and at the end of his career in 1928, T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was several years old. So, Hardy’s career starts at the tail-end of the English Romantic revolution, and proceeds through the Modernist Explosion of the early 20th Century.
In some particularities of locales and events, Hardy’s poetry can seem of the 19th Century; but his language, direct, colloquial, and unfusty, seems as modern as the 20th Century modernists. Indeed, modernists from Robert Frost to Phillip Larkin found much to admire in Hardy. Setting many of his poems in the rural areas of western England diffuses the placement of some Hardy poems on a timeline, as the more rapid pace of cosmopolitan change does not mark them as sharply.
“Strap yourself to a tree with roots”
Gravestones moved by Thomas Hardy when progress impinged on a country graveyard.
Today’s Thomas Hardy piece is “The Self-Unseeing,” published in 1901, right in the turning of those centuries that Hardy spans. This is another poem brought to my attention by the Interesting Literature blog, and I cannot improve on the excellent analysis of the poem there.
In “The Self-Unseeing” there’s a visit, in a mix of memory and reality, to a long-ago childhood house, a mental voyage many of us can do, assuming we can ride out the emotional waves. Given the fires, floods, earthquakes and winds of the past couple of months across our continent, some will be being taking this visit now wholly in memory.
Bury my heart in Stinsford.
So, that’s it for analysis of the poem this time, but we’ll offer some music to go along with it: strummed acoustic guitars and bass, and a vocal that’s a bit more to the “sing” side of our usual talk-singing. To hear it, use the player that should appear below. If you like the variety of what we’re doing here, combining various words with various music, please help us by sharing links to here, hitting the like button, or otherwise letting folks know. Thanks!
Today’s piece recounts a common Midwestern experience, returning on a holiday to the much smaller town where one grew up.
For my post WWII generation, these smaller towns retained in our youth much of the vibrancy they had gathered in the first half of the 20th Century. The American rural world was larger then. Car travel was still not universal. Small farming and small manufacturing and small schools hadn’t been efficiently improved to larger sizes. Mass media, which seemed so large and potentially dangerous then, amounted to radio, newspapers, magazines and eventually a trio of gray and silver TV stations as the little rounded screens hovered into homes like flying saucers. So these little autonomous towns continued, 1950 like 1920.
How many of us, old now, can still, in memory, walk down main streets of their towns and small cities of their youth, seeing the storefronts, and hail silently the adult walkers and lost peers who might be walking there too? As I meet and talk to people near my age whose childhood was in larger cities, I find that they too had similar memories of neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were in effect, villages inside their cities—but this piece is about small Iowa towns in particular.
When we grew up, went to college, or left for adventure, marriage, or other work, we left a town and a time. When we went back to these towns, to visit our parents, our parents and our towns are found changed, not into coral bones and pearls, but into places slowly emptier and less vital. The storefronts empty and the eyes less bright; the houses, faded with dead paint and backs swayed.
Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Eventually, it is as if the thread of memory has been unraveled from a large ball of yarn, and now the ball is no more.
In this way, our hometowns disappear, becoming gradually diluted of everything we could return to. Today’s piece “Homeopathic Hometown” is about this. Homeopathy is the theory that you can dilute a medicine until it, like our hometowns, retains nothing—or next to nothing—of the the medicine, and yet the solution will somehow “remember” the medicine and its effects.
That of course is how nostalgia works. We remember our personal version of the hometown, and find there is a hole between the molecules as we revisit our hometown. I suspect those without the specific gravity of our memories live now in a different appreciation for the place. It will take time for their own dilution to complete.
Iowa! What am I doing in Iowa instead of Berlin?
I wanted to see late 20th Century decay, but, hog lots?
Musically, I was trying to emulate here the sound and feel of the David Bowie/Brian Eno “Berlin Trilogy” when I wrote and recorded this in 2015, about a year before David Bowie would suffer his own sea-change. Much of what sounds like keyboard syths in the mix is instead “normal” guitar filtered and delayed. I think the mix works especially well with headphones or earbuds on this one.