Night, and I Traveling

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 toThe 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.

Joseph Campbell

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).

But here’s one of his poems, first published in 1909, and as Imagist as anything by Pound, H.D., Flint, T. E. Hulme, William Carlos Williams, or Sandburg were writing around then:

Night, and I travelling.

An open door by the wayside,

Throwing out a shaft of warm yellow light.

A whiff of peat-smoke;

A gleam of delf on the dresser within;

A woman’s voice crooning, as if to a child.

I pass on into the darkness.

 

Like Frost’sStopping 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.

 

Fire Dreams, or Carl Sandburg’s Come On, Pilgrim

Emily Dickinson isn’t the only one of this project’s favorite American poets to write a Thanksgiving poem. Carl Sandburg did so too.

Long time readers here will know how much I like Sandburg and how often I like to speak toward the canon-keepers to point out that early Sandburg was a devoted Modernist with a strong American democratic take on Imagism, one that kept to Imagism’s unfussy and concise mode of expression without dressing itself up with any unnecessary scholastic references. Of course, I’m no opinion-shaper, and even if William Carlos Williams has undergone a reassessment as a domestic Modernist of the same era, Sandburg doesn’t seem to have benefited from the same second look.

Sandburg and David Byrne seperated at birth

My title may reference the Pixies and Larry Norman, but I think this Edward Steichen image of Sandburg looks a little like David Byrne.

 

I think this is a great pity. A poem like Sandburg’s “Clark Street Bridge”  is as perfect an Imagist poem as any written in London or Paris, and Sandburg’s subject matter and life-experience is broader than most of his fellow Modernists, because he traveled across America with his Imagist eye and working-class soul.

That said, I have to say that today’s Sandburg text is a partial example of why this might be so. This is the kind of Sandburg poem that people think  he wrote. It’s somewhat sentimental, unquestioningly patriotic, and there are almost no strong, immediate Imagist images in it. Although it’s not that long-winded, it seems to me longer than it is—and if it had broken into a Whitmanesque catalog of a hundred things at least it would have the courage of its convictions.

So, it’s a Thanksgiving poem, but it’s not great Sandburg. Why bother?

Its central Pilgrim history myth may not be entirely accurate, but it is a good story—one that children were told in his time and mine, and perhaps even sometimes now: tempest-tossed dissenting religious immigrants undergoing tremendous trials. For good or bad, Sandburg leaves out the native Americans who helped them survive,* and who were rewarded with a few decades of peace before the wars of conquest ignited in the Pilgrims’ region.

Historians like to point out that the Pilgrim Thanksgiving didn’t include most of the foods that we’ve come to expect for the modern American holiday harvest meal. Sandburg reduces it to “soup and a little less than a hobo handout today,” which is also inaccurate but makes the connection he’s trying to make. America always has pilgrims like these somewhat mythologized Pilgrims. Sandburg, the child of working-class immigrants knew this completely, the ones who worship the God of broken hearts and empty hands.

And though he doesn’t show it here, Sandburg also fully knows the imperfection of America, and yet still wishes to say yes to gratitude, to thanks “if so be” for himself and his child.**  He wishes to say yes before perfection—and continue yes “Till the finish is come and gone.”

So, while this is not the poem to restore Sandburg’s rightful place in Modernism, I think it’s still worth hearing on this holiday. The full text of the poem is here, and the player to hear the LYL Band perform it live*** is below.

 

 

 

 

*In hearing the story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving as a child I never absorbed the full story of Squanto (Tisquantum,) which deserves to be better explored. There is a long and detailed Wikipedia entry on the context of this American.

**And before we leave that, let me point out that Sandburg is the rare Modernist who deals with children wholeheartedly.

***LYL principals Dave Moore and myself are both dealing with the inability for our hands to follow what musical precepts we hold, and this has reduced the appearance here of the more spontaneous LYL Band recordings. I’ve been missing that element and we’re trying to do what we can.

Three More Cinquains

Once more, let’s travel back to 1914.

For several months, as summer 1913 turns to ’14 through autumn and winter, a 35-year-old woman is creating the manuscript for her first book-length collection of poetry. Creating a book-length manuscript is always a challenging task, and regardless of whatever realistic expectations the author might have for its reception, hope is normally the fuel for this. First collections are like that, as a poet figures out how to introduce themselves to strangers.

But this woman, Adelaide Crapsey, is also producing her final collection of poetry, and she likely knows that. She’s not working in her study or at some granted writer’s retreat, but at a sanitarium* where she’s suffering through the last stages of tuberculosis which has spread to her brain. If 1914 is The Year that Imagism Broke, it’s also the year that she will die.

Saranac Lake Cottage Sanitarium circa 1918

There are many paths away from here. How long are any of them?” Du Fu

 

The book that she is working on will be published in 1915, and it will be the place where she’ll introduce her own poetic form, the cinquain. The cinquain is a short five-line verse form, primarily iambic, that uses an increasing series of syllables: two in the first line, four in the second, six in the third, eight in the fourth, and then back to two in the final line. Some have noted that the increase creates an expectation of growth or expanding sense, only to have the ending come up short and terse. I’m not the first to see this as a symbol of Crapsey’s life and art itself.

Still it’s remarkable that Crapsey chose such a small, tight form into which to pour her thoughts on illness and approaching death. Some might choose a short but loose form to conserve energy; others might turn rangey trying to get all their last expressions in. Crapsey seems to find in the form’s limits the borders within to hold her place.

Three More Cinquains from Crapsey

Here are the three cinquains I used today. Illness and the eventual passage of dying is something we all share. Crapsey used tiny poems to bear vivid witness.

 

In the early 20th century world of Modernist American poetry, her tragic story lent a degree of publicity to the posthumously published book, but it was a small fire which soon burnt out. As I mentioned last time, extremely short poems and the direct lyric impulse is not where Modernism headed after the 1920s—but in the long run, we can still access these poems the only way that poetry can be reached: by directly taking them inside us. These cinquains don’t ask for a large place.

For my performance of three more of Crapsey’s cinquains of 1913-1914 I composed music for strings which sounds acoustic even though there is some spare, bell-like Rhodes electric piano and a cello line that is treated with a strong resonant echo that I think adds some poignance. I don’t know where this melody and counterpoint came from, but as I tried and played some string lines on my MIDI guitar it came to me quickly, as if out of the air. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Looking to see what I could find about a Saranac Lake sanitarium I found a fascinating story about a small upstate N. Y. town that welcomed tuberculosis patients for palliative therapy in the early 20th century. Other literary residents after Crapsey included novelists Allan Seager and Walter Percy. On first reading “sanitarium” I had visualized a large dreary hospital building, but the setting appears to be surprisingly humane. Coincidentally, the remaining buildings were sold a few weeks ago.

Two Cinquains from Adelaide Crapsey

Let’s imagine that it’s 1914, and on both sides of the Atlantic curious short poems with precisely chosen and concrete imagery are appearing here and there. This is Imagism, the premier movement of Modernism in English. Long-time readers here will know* that these small and unpresupposing poems came from several sources: the away-with-19th-century-Romanticism ideas of T. E. Hulme, the promotional verve of Ezra Pound who also set out classical East Asian poetry as an ideal, things apprehended from French poetry by the slum-born F. S. Flint, and the fresh eyes and forms of Americans Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

This new poetry was quite unlike the Tennysons and Longfellows that preceded it, but also it is by and large not Modernist poetry as we’ve come to know it later in that century or in our current one. It seems altogether simpler, pared down. It partakes of poetry’s timeless lyric impulse: the thought that a poem need not be long to be complex if it keeps itself true to the goal that the poem isn’t about ideas but the instantaneous experience of ideas. Nor is it a marathon course of those feelings and experiences, rendered on kaleidoscopic canvases.

To some this new kind of poetry is cheating. Where are the grand themes? If the poem doesn’t develop itself like an essay or history where is the effort or the worth of the effort? The poems often don’t seem to use heightened poetic language, and they may at first seem to have no metaphors—rather, the poem is the metaphor.  That these poems often eschewed rhyme or conventional meter added to the “anybody can do this” sense many had.

As I imply above, this is not the Modernism that eventually emerged triumphant. Yes, a Red Wheelbarrow” and A Station of the Metro  will be constantly anthologized, but Williams and Pound will become known for their longer more esoteric poems. Even if some WWI poets could use these compressed poetic methods to express horror while the fighting was going on, the post-war world wanted it all expanded on, and the thought that expansive sur-rationality was the appropriate response to world-wide mechanized violence came to the forefront. Art needed to be as big or bigger than the things it was opposed to.

Adelaide_Crapsey

“Reading” pictures is risky, but this photo of Crapsey just seems to say determination.

 

All this ferment brings us to Adelaide Crapsey, a woman who has been forgotten in all the fuss. First, look at that name. It sounds like a character in a satiric novel. It’s so pre-20th century that you can’t imagine Modernist verse having it attached to it (perhaps Hilda Doolittle was savvy in immediately accepting Pound’s rebranding of her as H. D.). Also, if there was such a thing as Middle School in her youth, can you imagine the trauma of carrying her family name?

In The Year Imagism Broke, 1914, Crapsey was not only writing Modernist verse in the initial Imagist sense, she had made a study of English prosody and had created her own form to put her concise poems into: the cinquain. Just as many of the short Imagist poems owed some of their tactics to classical East Asian poems, the cinquain sought to create an English language equivalent to the understanding of forms like the haiku.

Just as with Amy Lowell from earlier this month, I think it may be worthwhile to not let these two poems of Crapsey’s that I use today wash over you quickly, as if they are essays or narrative personal memoir in verse. Each word was chosen carefully, precisely, to evoke a moment you might choose to share inside of her experience.

two Cinquains from Adelaide Crapsey

Ten lines and two of Crapsey’s cinquains that seem to tell the story of this year’s late fall

 

Am I setting this method of shaping poetry out as the best or only way to approach verse? No, though I’ve come to believe that we may have lost something when we abandoned it for the new more impressive edifices of post 1920s Modernism.

Musically I was thinking of one of my musical heroes and models, Steve Tibbetts, but alas my deadlines, and my musical and production skills this week produced only a rough approximation of what Tibbetts can do. I really tried to rip him off here: a down-tuned acoustic 12-string with paired unison (not-octave) strings. Lots of time-based effects (like reverb, phasing, echo, and delay). Hand percussion leading off to heavier stick drumming. Feedback-loud electric guitar arriving from off-screen into the landscape.

Yesterday, my disappointment in what I had down was fairly complete. My electric guitar solo could be better, and it’s been too long since I’ve played at that volume. The 12-string wasn’t naked and exposed enough. Where’s the space I keep telling myself to leave in? I had no idea of how to duplicate Tibbetts’ characteristic delay and echo effects. My percussion tracks had nothing like the splendid variety that Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Marc Anderson routinely achieves.

But my son reminds me that Kurt Cobain thought he was just ham-handedly ripping off the Pixies and still came up with something that was worthwhile, and the Steve Tibbetts’ thing is not something commonly heard—so 20% of Steve Tibbetts level might still be worth listening to for what it is, not what it wanted to be. So, here it is, available with the player below surrounding those two 1914 cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey describing our current November season.

 

 

 

 

*This is a reminder that since “poetry is the news that stays news” that the Parlando Project has nearly 400 examples of what we do that may be just as interesting to you as the current post. Using the search function or just diving in at random to the archives is worth considering.

Grace Before Song

Here’s the next in our occasional series “Before They Were Modernists,” a performance of “Grace Before Song”  by Ezra Pound. Like F. S. Flint’s poem from last time, Pound’s poem comes from the poet’s first book, in this case: A Lume Spento  created before Pound and a small group of London-based writers settled on the set of ideas they were to call Imagism, sparking off modern English poetry.

In the A Lume Spento  poems Pound appears to vacillate, at least in character, on the value of his poetry, and like Flint he’s showing the influence of William Butler Yeats and the Pre-Raphaelites who had influenced Yeats. The Pre-Raphaelite ideal was to look further back culturally than the 19th century for inspiration, so in A Lume Spento  the soon to be “Make It New” Pound is often referencing Dante and medieval Provencal troubadour poetry.

Even if A Lume Spento  as a collection was a retrospective statement of where Pound thought he was as the 20th century got underway, “Grace Before Song”  seems to have stuck with Pound. It led off  A Lume Spento  and it retained its position in his later 1920 selection of early works Personae.

A Lume Spento and young Pound

Choose your own adventure: Hipster wants you to see his book of poetry referencing Dante…

 

How does Pound present his task and the poet’s task in “Grace Before Song?”

First off, it’s a prayer, starting by addressing itself to a godhead. And there’s an element of modesty or at least fatalism/submission in it, beautifully so I think (even with the inverted/archaic syntax): “our days as rain drops in the sea surge fell.” That image is further developed by requesting that his song at least be fresh rain (“white drops upon a leaden sea”) and reflective, however briefly, of some higher reality (“Evan’scent mirrors every opal one”). The poem ends stressing that briefly part. In “Grace Before Song”  Pound is expressly no Shakespeare making claims for the immortality conveyed by art.

If we think of the later Modernist Pound as an iconoclast, this early Pound presents himself as either the pious poet, explaining the world of God to man, or as the aesthete who believes beautiful artistic creation justifies itself as an expression of higher orders. From what I understand Pound at this point was more the later using the mask, the personae, of the former—but either stance opens the poet up to disappointment when their work is ignored by the “grey folk” of those leaden seas.

And in 1908, Pound is largely ignored. American publishers aren’t interested, and A Lume Spento  was self-published in Venice in a tiny edition of 150 copies. The Wikipedia article on the book says Pound arrived in Italy with $80 to his name and spent $8 getting the book printed on some odd-lot paper in Venice. An inflation calculator says $80 is a bit over $2200 in current dollars, but the tithe to his art indicates the level of faith (self or otherwise) Pound had at this time. And then there is the account that Pound thought about chucking the page proofs in a Venice canal—now there’s a story that makes white drops into a leaden sea a concrete image!

My “studio B” (a 12’ x 12’ room where I write these posts and do much of the non-LYL Band recording) is now fully operational again, so I put it to work on this one. The cello part that sits in the arrangement over the low strings is from a new virtual instrument re-creation of the Mellotron that I obtained this month when it went on sale. Long time listeners here will know how much I love the Mellotron, which doesn’t sound like “real” strings, but does sound like a real Mellotron.

You can listen to my performance of “Grace Before Song”  using a player gadget* you should see below.

 

 

 

*I’ve just been made aware that the WordPress app for IOS doesn’t display the player, leaving those of you who read these posts on the iPhone WordPress app puzzled as to what I’ve referred to above. If you’d like to hear the audio pieces you can see them in the mobile version of Safari, but this is a good time to remind those who like to listen to the audio that the Parlando Project audio pieces by themselves are available as a podcast on most podcast apps including Apple podcasts or on Spotify in Spotify’s podcasts section. Just search for “Parlando Where Music and Words Meet” to find them.

A Song of Change

I’m going to return to an old favorite of this project, a poet who helped change modern English poetry and yet is largely forgotten: F. S. Flint.

Long-time readers (or those of you that have taken a stroll through the archives here) might remember the highlights. Born in 1885 a London slum kid for whom Dickensian would not be a literary adjective but a biographical point. Had to leave school to go to work at age 13. Found a trade as a typist—a male colleague to the bed-sit typist in Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  Went to night school. Found out he had a knack for languages. By the time he reached his 20s in the first decade of the 20th Century he had read and translated many of the then modern French poets and helped propagate their techniques in English.

By the same time he’d also teamed up with Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme, the two men who are now largely credited with inventing Imagism, the initial Modernist poetry movement of the 20th century. It’s hard for me to tell, but at the time Flint seemed to be more of an equal partner to those two, though Pound and Hulme had famously extravagant and promotional personalities which Flint may have lacked. I’m not enough of a scholar to be sure of this, but to the creation of “The School of Images” Pound seems to have brought his take on classical Chinese poetry, which he thought was particularly imagistic by typographic definition because it was written in ideograms. Hulme brought a philosophic conviction that existing poetic language and imagery was corrupted by worn out 19th century images and an over-wrought romantic outlook to reality. Flint brought forward the idea of “free verse” or vers libre as the French were calling it. He called his English take on this “unrhymed cadences.”

None of those ideas had to happen. Images in the poetry of the time usually didn’t tell the story, they at best illustrated it and worst decorated it all too conventionally. Reflecting concrete and immediate reality as opposed to a rarified and “elevated” expression of the sublime was not a recognized poetic value. And good poetry was supposed to march to strict meters, uniform stanzas, and generally rhyme.*   I’m not sure what alternate universe could be imagined if these poets hadn’t made their claims for these new ideas as being the way for their new century to go. Quite possibly it’d be a different poetic universe.

The Notorius School of Imagists

Change is Now: Flint, Pound and Hume replace Hillman, McGuinn and Clarke on the Byrds** album cover.

 

Pound gets his due on this, and has the poetic works to be included in anthologies to show his work. Hulme is largely forgotten save for footnotes, but then his entire poetic works could be printed on a postcard. Flint is even more left out than Hulme, but he wrote enough poems to be worth revisiting—so why aren’t they?

I don’t think most academic literary critics think Flint’s poems are very good. Even I, who feels a fondness for the man, is not immediately struck by some of them as I look through his published work. He’s not generally a lush and showy poet. Like Hulme many of his images can be so plainspoken that you don’t notice at first that they are images. And as befitting the man who seems to have brought the sense of a freer music to Imagism, many of his poems work better orally than on the page. That makes him a great candidate for the Parlando Project, even in this early pre-Imagist work of his.

And so Flint also fits in an occasional series I’d like to expand on this summer: “Before They Were Modernists.” My E. E. Cummings piece from last time was the first in that, a Spenserian stanza from the man who eventually spilled the entire font case over his free-verse pages, yet even in that wholly conventional looking stanza form of “Summer Silence”  one can see E. E. Cummings later exuberances in places.

Today’s piece, Flint’s “A Song of Change”  is from his first collection, 1908’s “In the Net of Stars” published while he was helping formulate the “Make it new!” Imagism—yet it’s a rhymed metrical piece. In another way it’s uncharacteristic of any later Modernist Flint I can recall reading: “A Song of Change”  had a very Yeats-like political-mysticism about it. Directness is the point of many Modernist Flint poems, and this one isn’t. One of the virtues of allusive and elusive poetry in the William Butler Yeats style is that we can relate it to various political and social situations, even current ones (and given Yeats’ sometimes troublesome political views that’s a double virtue).

A Song of Change as it appeared in Sept 2008 New Age

Here’s “A Song of Change” as it appeared in a Sept. 1908 issue of “The New Age.”  “German War Scare?” I’m sure that’ll blow over…

 

What was Flint addressing when he wrote this poem? Edwardian erasure of some of the old English countryside and shore? The passing of childhood? Some of the images seem more dire than that. A carpe diem poem about the briefness of life? Some lines can be read as if Flint had a vision of the rest of the 20th century, the two World Wars to come, or even our own 21st century concerns with planetary survival. So, does “A Song of Change”  deserve to be trotted out as often as Yeats’ “The Second Coming?”

That’s probably asking too much, to challenge Yeats outright on the field of lyrical political-mysticism. On the other hand, “A Song of Change”  does have its own beauty and a rich catalog of natural images to decorate it. I performed it with a folk-rock guitar-centered arrangement after spending some of this summer with synths and keyboards. The opening riff is fuzzed out guitar, not a buzzy synth, and two 12-string electric guitars weave through it. Though it reflects my own limitations (particularly as a vocalist) it has a sort of “Notorious Byrd Brothers”  vibe.

To hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “A Change Song”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*A scattered set of 19th century Americans had already explored deviation from this. Whitman of course, who while still living was translated into French by and influential French vers libre poet Jules Laforgue. Stephen Crane with his own free verse collection of short poems “Black Riders.”  Just-published posthumously Emily Dickinson had her extreme compression and homey images, but still could be read as sloppy with her meter and rhyme, though the first publications of Dickinson tried to regularize those “faults.”

**The unpictured David Crosby was all over the songs on this LP, but he’d just been fired from The Byrds. It’s been claimed that the horse in the 4th window was representing Crosby. One retort to that was if they’d wanted to represent the infamously cantankerous Crosby, they would have used a picture of the other end of the horse.

Back Yard

Just a couple of posts back I said that early Carl Sandburg poetry can be just as aligned with the ideals of the Imagist school as the Trans-Atlantic poets such as the then contemporary work of Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, H.D., Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and T. E. Hulme was. Yet he’s rarely mentioned as such.*  Why might that be?

My guess is that there’s an issue with Sandburg’s more expansive mode, present in some of his work, Whitmanesque in character and scope. The Pound and Eliot school of Imagism wasn’t much on Whitman, charging him with lack of craftsmanship and concision. And then there’s the issue of cultural affinity, which while outside the text, is important. Of the above, only Lowell was from a wealthy background** (and Flint’s childhood seems positively Dickensian) but they all saw themselves as culturally elite. Most were familiar with classical languages, some had Ivy League educations (though none were Oxbridge, save for Hulme who was thrown out after a bit more than a year for rowdy behavior), most had spent time in Europe , even Williams, the most American-focused of these.

Sandburg? Born working class to two immigrants in the Midwest***. Drops out of school at age 13 to go to work. The jobs he had in the first 40 years of his life were modest in prestige, but varied in location and nature. Coal-heaver, farm laborer, Army private, milk-truck driver, political organizer, bricklayer, “The Front Page” era urban journalist. What T. S. Eliot knew about the whole of literature, Sandburg knew about the whole of working-class work and life.

One could make one mistaken generalization from Sandburg’s biography, that like Whitman self-advertised himself, he’d be “one of the roughs,” a man whose art would be artless and as unconcerned with the niceties of aesthetics as the correct fork for which dinner course. But just like the lazy assumption that there’d be no poets in foxholes, the idea there are no aesthetes who punch a clock is bogus. Sandburg’s early work is as concerned with Modernist beauty and style as working-class dignity—and he is very concerned with working-class dignity!

Is today’s Sandburg piece, “Back Yard”  an Imagist poem following the three Imagist rules? Let me paraphrase them:

Direct treatment of the thing: that is, the focus in the poem is on the image itself which will be described, instead of the image being a decoration and figure of speech within the body of a poem more concerned with its moral or message for which the image is only a “like” illustration. Conciseness: no extra words, and though not stated, it’s corollary is no less-apt words used only to make the rhyme. And freer rhythms: word-music, like sound-music, is not required to limit itself to only extraordinarily regular and repetitive rhythms.

Direct treatment? The outdoor, summer night scene is just that. One is hardly aware here that it’s an image, it seems like simple reportage. Is it merely the “hardly news” that on a summer night if one is outside, perhaps sitting on an open porch, you’ll hear and see other people outside too?

Concise? Pretty much. It’s not In A Station of the Metro,  or The Pool,  or The Red Wheelbarrow,  there is some re-iteration in it, even a single line refrain, but even by the standards of lyric poetry, this is a short poem. The elements of the scene are evoked, but there’s little extravagant or showy description. One element that many Imagist poems share (though never a formal rule AFAIK) is that colors are used to simply describe objects, though since this is a moonlit night scene the colors are more monochromatic.

A follow up question: how minor and mundane is “Back Yard”  really? I can’t claim it’s a poem of great originality—but that’s not the job of every poem, and this is more a poem of the continuity of change, a moment of shared perception, not a striking new vision.

I think its intent, in it’s just over 100 words, is for us to see a chain of life in a Chicago night early in the 20th century; and in its everyday exactness, state those things that might link to a night tonight where we live today. The silver moonlight in the scene seems almost a preservative, everything is frozen in that direct moment. In my night tonight it may not be an Italian boy with an accordion, but Mexican music from the back yard at the end of the block. The couple Sandburg says will marry next month, are now-dead grandparents of people as old as I am. An old man has fallen asleep in the late and waiting moment, his back-yard cherry tree’s fruits held in a moonlit unmoving until his eyes close. He will likely pass on sooner than the marrying couple, and his dreams and those long-ago cherries will be returned to the place that dreams, fruit, and poems go and come from.

The poem closes with a perennial thought delivered in the scene’s description. The clocks, the poet relates, say he too must go. The clocks say that to all of the characters in his poem, and by extension to us, his audience. Sandburg, the artist, the poet, has the job like the moon to fix this moment in silver. Was he thinking here of the silver of his brother-in-law Edward Steichen’s art photographs? What does he mean by the poem’s closing line? What are the “silver changes?” My best understanding is they are the endless succession of such fixed moments. There will be more and more silver changes, a great richness, even as we are entirely not there.

Edward Steichen Nocturne-Orangery Staircase

Fancier than my back yard: “Nocturne-Orangery Staircase” (1908). Sandburg occasionally collaborated with his brother-in-law and pioneer in fine art photography Edward Steichen.

 

For the performance of “Back Yard”  I decided to intersperse some other night moments, sung as commentary on Sandburg’s poem. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Want to read along? Here’s the text of the poem.

 

 

 

 

*Yes, Imagism is only a label, a piece of sticky paper put on some writers and writing. But because Imagism was so vital to the formation of English poetic Modernism, excluding Sandburg, “The Forgotten Imagist” from its usual ranks was part of how he was diminished in the late 20th century. The artistically-chosen stark simplicity of Imagism was admired, but similar directness in Sandburg was seen as populist simple-mindedness. For an example, here’s a long review of a late 20th century  biography, where the dagger is that Sandburg’s poetry was “dumbed-down Whitman” and the charge seems to be that he was a pretentious yokel who was also a phony who pretended to be a yokel.

**I’m of the impression that Eliot and Pound’s family had at least upper-middle-class wealth too, but my informal memory is that some estrangement or streak of independence led them to live outside their families’ wealth.

***Sandburg’s home-town area, the Quad Cities and its surroundings in Iowa and down-state Illinois, was a surprising well-spring of writers in his time.