After all the storm and breadth of remarking on my several-year presentations of “The Waste Land,” the totality of which takes more than an hour to listen to, it’s time to return to a smaller Modernism. To start that off, let me present a tiny poem by Emily Dickinson.
How many Flowers fail in Wood — Or perish from the Hill — Without the privilege to know That they are beautiful —
How many cast a nameless Pod Upon the nearest Breeze — Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight — It bears to Other Eyes —
Indeed, with some editing/translation it could be a full-fledged, circa-1916 Imagist poem. Dickinson’s poem speaks of plural flowers, and that’s in tune with the point it’s making, but an Imagist might have simply changed it to a singular flower, or at least an instant of several flowers. The negative-pathetic fallacy of the flower’s ignorance of its beauty might have been excised. So, if William Carlos Williams or H.D. had written it in the 20th century it might have arisen like this:
The flowers fail in the wood And perish from the hill. Is there a privilege to know That they are beautiful?
There is a breeze, and in it Some nameless pods — Seeds of scarlet freight Bearing from eyes to eyes.
More or less the same thought and brevity, just a removal of the remaining 19th century Romanticism that Dickinson retained even as she would question it, and of course the word-music changes some. Today I chose to keep Emily Dickinson’s word music and original expression intact. But either poem is making a declaration about art: that it’s often created because it must be, out of an urge that is as omnipresent and mysterious as flowers, and that like flowers it’s part of a reproductive system that allows many seeds for few flowers and even fewer idle reflective eyes to see the flowers, this passing fecundity and unnecessary beauty.
All flowers, like all artists, fail, but “Unconscious of the scarlet freight…”
I present this piece today as I read two memoirs by little-remembered early-20th century Modernists — and from those little-noticed flowers I noticed some others, eyes carried in the wind to my eyes that I hope to present here soon for yours. But for today, we have my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “How Many Flowers.” with a player that will land and bloom for some of you, and this alternative for those who don’t see the player, a highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab to let you play my performance.
*In our 21st century — with grace of a scholarly culture once blind but now can see — the depth and subtlety of Dickinson’s vision and the thought that she’s able to stuff into tiny poems is now widely celebrated.
This little poem by Emily Dickinson seems at first so slight, little more than a tiny winter nature lyric using the risky literary trope of the pathetic fallacy* deftly enough that it doesn’t cloy. The language is almost entirely simple and plain-spoken, but in such a short poem the words that aren’t entirely clear may reward further attention.
Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript for today’s poem from the collection of Amherst College.
The Imagists that came decades after Dickinson’s work weren’t much for the pathetic fallacy, but if one ignores that element— something possible to do because it’s so swift and unpretentious about it — this poem does work like an Imagist poem or like one of the models Imagism sought to emulate, the classical Chinese short poem.
Let’s start right at the first line, and the first word that requires some figuring out. “The sky is low, the clouds are mean” sets our stage. A “low sky” and “clouds” would indicate that this poem’s day-moment is overcast, but what does “mean” mean? It would be easy to think it’s saying, pathetic-fallacy-wise, that the clouds seem angry and spiteful. I think many modern readers will hear this sense primarily, and I cannot eliminate that Dickinson intended that at least as an undercurrent, as it seems a pair with the complaining wind we meet in the second stanza. Yet, in the context of the sentence that makes up the first stanza, my best thought is that she is presenting the clouds as a secondary definition of “mean” (now somewhat obsolete) as shabby or stingy. The image she’s setting up is that it’s overcast, but it’s not a snowstorm, there’s only a modicum of that mentioned: a specifically singular “flake of snow,” so that may be all these clouds are producing.
Our snowflake does have feelings. From its actions, aflutter in the wind and singular enough for the eye to want to follow it as an individual, it seems indecisive about what route to take over the landscape. It might fly high (“across a barn”) or low “through a rut.” It’s frozen (sorry, can’t help myself) in a moment in the poem and we never find out. In its concise way, Dickinson’s snowflake is like Robert Frost’s chiding portrait of his friend Edward Thomas: two possible roads, and the snowflake thinks it’s important to choose one.
The pathetic fallacy gets stronger as the second stanza begins. A cool or cold gusty wind is presented as if it’s complaining for hours on end. For an old/weak bicyclist like myself who tires of headwinds that seem to always be in my face no matter that one has changed direction, this is an ascribing of malice and forethought that I can appreciate. If you look at Dickinson’s own manuscript, you can see that she considered using a legalistic term** “some parties,” but “some one” seems the broader and better choice. Here, in a different aspect from the snowflake who thinks it has at least a binary choice, it appears the wind is saying it’s been diverted or prevented from something.
In this small poem’s presentation, these two things are joined. The snowflake thinks it can decide, but we know the wind will send it where it directs, but the wind thinks it has been in someway enjoined. Pathetic fallacy aside, it cannot choose, meteorological forces and barometric lines will send it where they will.
In the last two lines, Dickinson doesn’t tell us how it comes out — she refuses to leave her poem’s lyric moment. Her final line brings one more uncommon word choice. It has it that “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught/Without her diadem.” A diadem is a ruler’s crown, worn to signify that the wearer, well, rules, decides. Once more, the pathetic fallacy is invoked: nature is the decider, but for the poem’s moment they have momentarily forgotten to put on the device that lets them take on that power — but in a tiny aside (“like us”) Emily Dickinson says we actual humans, who can actually think, feel, decide are sometimes also in this situation, we may blithely follow what seems like a free will choice or complain that we are forced into our directions. Which is it, really? Did you forget your diadem?
Read this poem, or many an early Imagist poem or classical Chinese poem, and it may seem a miniature painting of a mundane scene. We may be charmed briefly, or we may think, “Oh, that’s too slight to be a thoughtful poem.” Did Dickinson consciously or unconsciously intend what I see here? The number of times she was able to pull off effects like this poem can produce, and the subsidiary writings demonstrating how she thought*** indicate that even if she didn’t consciously work out the complexities underneath her simplicities in some grand and lengthy inner symposium, she put herself in the place where she could receive and express these charged moments.
*The pathetic fallacy is the tactic of ascribing human emotions and thought to inanimate objects or forces. Despite the literal words of this poem, it’s not debatable that snow does that, and the wind doesn’t really have some angry dispute.
**I’m not sure how many scholars have considered that Dickinson grew up in a family of lawyers, and even though as a woman that field was not open to her, it’s likely that some of that was picked up by her avid mind.
***Long footnote ahead! What can we gather from how Dickinson used this poem that might indicate how she considered it? This poem was “published” in a personal letter to the wife of a couple that were long-time friends of Emily. The husband in the couple was Josiah Holland, a medical doctor and lay preacher. By the time this poem was written in 1866, Josiah had become a well-known journalist, lecturer, poet, and author. He was a principal in the Springfield Republican newspaper which famously published seven of Dickinson’s poems during her lifetime. He had just published one of the first full-length biographies of Abe Lincoln, and would a few years later found and become the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly. His wife, to whom the letter with the poem was addressed, Elizabeth Holland, has no known literary work — but read the letter by following this link. Here one may get the sense of how another important literary personage who Emily Dickinson interacted with, the formidable Thomas Higginson, remarked about how Dickinson wore him out. The amount of philosophical legerdemain, reference, and zen parable in this short letter is striking to me. Did Dickinson expect Elizabeth Holland to understand that letter?
Emily Dickinson’s correspondence and friendship with the Holland couple seems to have been one of the most stable and ongoing in her life, equal to those who were Dickinson’s blood relatives. Whatever bonds were between them, this letter shows the expectation of considerable intellectual understanding, and for “The Sky is Low” to be enclosed indicates that Dickinson had goals beyond the simplistic for it.
How many poems celebrate the poet’s dream, or dreams? This one doesn’t.
It’s fair to say that American poet William Carlos Williams had a curmudgeonly streak. In this poem from his 1921 collection Sour Grapes he holds the line for the style that early Modernists had championed to break free from the poetic fancies that preceded them. By the 1920s the Modernists were moving on to new things, and it’s safe to say that many of them had developed new fancies. Indeed, in three-years-time the first Surrealist Manifesto would be published. The Surrealists went further than our usual sentiments about the value of an individual’s personal dream presented in the context of following one’s dream with the idea that it would integrate into our plans for work or a place in society. The Surrealists didn’t want to domesticate one’s dreams to society, they wanted to bring the full wildness of dreams to the fore and let society make whatever of it.
But, here’s Williams’ poem “Thursday,” which you can find by following this link. First off, I see that he uses very plain language here, and there’s little trickery or poetic obscurity in his manner of speech either. There are no references to ancient myths, no quotes from Latin or Greek, or even Elizabethan English. He starts by noting the ubiquity of dreams, and at least for the purposes of this poem, he doubts their worth. I like the choice of words he uses here for why he’s going to skip the value of his dreams aspirational or Surrealist: “carelessly.” In other words: I don’t care about that all, at least in this poem’s now. Instead, he spends the body of the poem inhabiting the body of the poet — as we the reader may too if we come along with Williams.
WCW at the wheel. “Yeah, but I’m driving and we’ll have some good ol’Imagism and none of that pretentious stuff.”
This is part of what I found intriguing when, as part of this project, I revisited the original English-language Modernists early work. I loved Surrealism as a young poet. I liked Dada referencing nothing and T. S. Eliot referencing whole libraries. But before those evolutions existed, what Modernism first used in English to break free and “make it new” was very concrete and radically simple: the presentation of the experience of brief charged moments that could include the revolutionary act of taking notice of the mundane and unexalted.
Like just a “Thursday” in Williams’ life, in your life, in mine.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Williams’ “Thursday” should be below, but if your blog reading software doesn’t show it, this highlighted hyperlink will do the job too. More work with piano this time and a return of an orchestra section. I keep hoping to return to more fierce electric guitar soon here. We’ll see.
It was those other Twenties, the last ones before ours. Some people are in the streets, angry and sad in every mixture, protesting lives that will taken away by force of law. Authors Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay* are among them. Mounted police are before this ragged line of protestors who are sagging back from the horses of disaster.
Here’s Porter’s account** of a moment in that night, resurrected from her notes 50 years later for a magazine article:
One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge!’ and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment’s pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were half-conscious.”
That’s a remarkable story, one often recounted about Lola Ridge in our newer century, and it was my first introduction to the poet whose text I’ll present today. What might one think from this testimony about Lola Ridge? Brave, foolhardy, self-less, self-harming, committed, able to throw it all away?
Perhaps as an aesthetic choice, Ridge never smiled in her photos.
Best as I can tell, she was all these things and more. Before this event she had been born in Dublin Ireland and her family had emigrated to New Zealand while she was a child. Eventually finding herself as a young woman in a bad marriage there she fled to Australia, took up poetry and visual art, emigrated once again to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, but proceeding to New York City and the Modernist and Anarchist ferment there around the time of WWI.
She was published by and was associated with the leading Modernist publications of her time, and her poetry was firmly in the free-verse and Imagist style, but with a significant commitment to portraying poverty and urban grit . Even among her co-revolutionaries in politics and the arts she stood out then by her austere commitment to these then somewhat intermingled causes.
It’s a complicated story about why you may not have heard of Ridge, but today you’ll get to hear one of her poems performed. Titled “The Dream,” it’s easy to see it as an Imagist poem. Like so many of the Modernist movement poems it’s a charged, compressed moment told with images without a single overt statement of emotion. The uneven lines and unusual line breaks and the use of colors for adjectives are hallmarks of Imagism. The full text of “The Dream” is linked here if you’d like to read along.
“The Dream” was published in Ridge’s second book-length collection Sun Up in 1920, but I don’t know when it was written. It’s possible that it, or some version of it, might date back to her days in Australia, since Sydney harbor is mentioned. Following from its title, it can be taken as a somewhat apocalyptic or fantastic vision. Or you can take it as expression of a rough morning’s awaking. It’s also a word painting of an urban scene, and in that guise it seems to focus in on pollution. Indeed, part of it could pass for poetic reportage on the strange Australian and American skies this year after the massive forest fires.
“Air heavy…Vapor of opium…Sulphurous mist…Its sun the junk of red iron” skies after massive forest fires in the Western US and earlier this year in Australia.
I made do with a simple demo recording of the main vocal and acoustic guitar track for my presentation of “The Dream” so that I’d have time to complete the string quartet part of two violas, a violin, and a ukulele bass faking a pizzicato cello part. Real string composers and players will note how simple my parts are for the quartet. I sometimes think of my string writing as “punk-rock orchestral,” in that I hope simplicity in my technique and conception brings a certain focus on the unfussy parts of music that might still have an impact on the listener. The player gadget to hear it should be below (unless you read this on the WordPress reader for the iPhone or iPad, in which case you’ll need to switch to a browser to hear the music, or subscribe to the audio pieces via Apple Podcasts).
Here’s the other pole of Carl Sandburg, a prose-poem about the nature of government. It seems so far from the tight compressed Imagism of “Gargoyle” that one might wonder how it could be from the same poet. I may have a clue there, so read on, I’ll return to that thought.
But first let me note that Carl Sandburg had some unique experience to bring to this subject. This poem comes from his landmark Chicago Poems published in 1916, a collection that both established his bonafides as a Modernist poet and as a foundational writer of American proletarian poetry. But before that he’d been a first generation immigrant,* a Spanish-American War soldier, a college dropout from a no-where college, and an itinerant worker. In the first decade of the century, as he turned 30, he was working as a daily paper journalist as he began a period of political activism in Wisconsin as a Socialist party organizer. In 1910, the city of Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor, and Carl Sandburg took a position in his city administration. He was a self-proclaimed idealist as well as an aspiring poet. In his new job in government he was ready to—well, let me quote how he remembered itin an interview in 1953:
We were to build in Milwaukee the kind of planned city which existed in some places in Germany and in other European cities where socialism had taken hold….Then came the jarred awakening. Hordes of job-seeking Socialists descended on our office wanting the crumbs of victory. They behaved just like the Republicans and the Democrats on that day when they swept into power. This was not idealism; it was the old spoils game.”
In another account he said that his first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway.
After two years in government, Sandburg kept with poetry but went back to Chicago and to getting his paycheck from the Fourth Estate. Thanks to Ben Hecht, a fellow Chicago newspaperman, we can sense what being a newspaper reporter in Sandburg’s Chicago era might have been like. Hecht’s play The Front Page has been made into a movie three times, with most favoring the middle version, His Girl Friday, as cinema, but the original 1931 version is most faithful to the original play and era.**
Sandburg’s “Government” may not be one of his greatest poems, but I’ve maintained that poetry (like other arts) can serve us even when it’s not some sublime act. You’ve heard me maintain that Sandburg has poems that deserve to be considered in that sublime class, but this one shows us something too.
So now that we’ve detoured in the non-aesthetic realm of politics, let me come back to that thought, however unformed, that I have about the compressed Imagist Sandburg, the one we forget or underestimate, the poet who has poems that can stand with the other Modernists in concrete and incised compression. In “Government” Sandburg, though in a prose-y and less concise manner than the Imagist Sandburg, shows government in its evil and corruption is us, human us. It seems an institution as we speak of it in tired language that poets must avoid and repair, an external thing, like a building or statue put up long before our time—or if living, a monster from the other. However impure, however damaged, our republic is; however unclean our language is; however dull, ignorant, insufficient our thoughts are; we are the blunt weapon that damaged it, we are the only tool to repair it. Blunt tools break, sharp tools repair.
Here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Government” available with a player gadget below.
*I grew up in a small Iowa farm town with substantial Swedish heritage. In my half of the 20th century I believe I may have underestimated the impact that Sandburg’s parents were immigrants, or that parts of WASP culture may have noticed this about Sandburg more than you or I might think. Last year when reading more about another under-considered Midwestern Modernist Edgar Lee Masters who crossed paths with Sandburg in Chicago, I was struck at how often Masters referred to Sandburg as a Swede/poet in a context that I believe was meant to be read as a natural incongruity, that such a coarse background could be associated with the athenaeum of poetry.
**Footnote fans, be prepared for a wild mouse of a ride in this one. In The Front Page remember how the corrupt mayor is indebted to “the black vote.” In 1915, the black vote was largely Republican, and the Chicago mayor that year was William Hale Thompson, a character that could give our 21st century President a run for his money. He survived WWI politically despite being pro-German and reflexively anti-English, and with a drain-the-swamp campaign that was working to make sure the money sump-pump went toward his pockets. He was finally voted out of office by the campaign of Anton Cermak, the most important mayor in the history of Chicago. In that campaign, Wikipedia quotes Thompson as Tweeting (well, I guess not, it’s 1931 after all—but the flavor sure sounds reminiscent of our contemporary) “I won’t take a back seat to that bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack, or whatever his name is. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”
So, what’d Cermak do that was so important? In 1933 Cermak took a fatal assassin’s bullet that could have hit the U. S. President-elect Franklin Roosevelt standing next to him. Regardless of who took what bribe from who, or who did a better job of expired canine disposal, or even weighed against the epic odyssey of the Afro-American migration to urban centers, the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 would have likely changed America and the world’s history immensely.
By way of footnote dénouement, I’ll note that Cermak’s son-in-law Otto Kerner chaired the commission that was charged with evaluating the urban riots of The Sixties. Read this linked article for a sense of what was said then, and then consider Sandburg’s words in his great poem “I Am the People, the Mob:” “When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.”
Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.
This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows” and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.
Dickenson can do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.
I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of “Forever..” and to “Crumbling…”
First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.
The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.
Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.
In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.
The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.
Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not
The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act” as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.
If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.
It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.
Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme.” Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.
In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.
Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.
*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.
This may have been one of the first poems I fell in love with: the richness of the language, some sense of strangeness, the exoticness of the depicted setting–all enough for a young teenager. I did not mind the often outdated language then—less then than I do now—as I expected poems then to be written in an old and alien adult literary language.
If you’d asked that teenager what it meant, I would have probably stumbled out something to defend my appreciation of it—but what I did know was that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just flat-out lovely word music.
One could go on about that, but no technical analysis will increase or decrease a listener’s appreciation for that element. Music has a structure, theorems and practices, but it remains subjective and it is not engineering. My performance of it today may not do it justice either, let your own ear or voice be the judge.
You don’t need biography to feel this element in the poem, but Keats wrote this in the spring of a year in which he had cared for his brother Tom as he died of tuberculosis that previous winter. In around a year, the medically trained John Keats would notice symptoms that he well knew were from his own infection. Another year from there he would be dead from the feared infectious respiratory disease of his time. So I read it differently today in our time of the pandemic Covid-19.
But “Ode to a Grecian Urn” isn’t poetry as memoir, a common genre in our time. Instead, despite its failure as an example of pared-back language avoiding words describing emotions, the concept of the poem is not unlike that of Imagists nearly a century later.* Keats looks at a thing, a decorated classical Greek vase,** and records that moment.
I’ve figured out why it’s hard to create this week—the muses are sheltering in place. And it ain’t mine.
I’ll resist the urge to go through this poem line by line, but as the poem’s speaker approaches the titular urn he wants to interrogate it. One could draw a cartoon where the vase is in a police station room and the poet-detective is trying to tease out the details of the caper, while we the audience look on. The vase ain’t talking. The detective says that you were seen with that couple at that musical party, would you like to tell us why she was running? OK, so who were the musicians at the gig? You don’t know! Whatd’ya mean?
But let’s return to that almostness, that never. The lover and the beloved are palpably close, yet they cannot touch. The musicians are playing, but it’s somewhere out of ear-reach. Are they all six-feet, a social distance apart? What’s avoided by this freeze, this lock-down? The sorrow with a “burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Keats seems to intend this as an illness metaphor.***
The poem tells us this vase includes another scene, a cow being led to a ritual slaughter. A vegan, Hindu, or animal-rights advocate may cringe, but the scene is one of an entire town wishing for this consummation, and we may conclude the scene is “You will die so that we may live or prosper”—which after all is the belief of all such rituals. I’m not supposing that Keats was Joaquin Phoenix, however we may view this sort of thing; and most readers have historically taken the poem’s characterization of this as pious at face value. But Keats could have imagined his urn with another religious scene, and chose this one.
If he doesn’t want an element of dread in the sacrifice scene, why does he choose to add the detail that the pious morn has left a town with eerie deserted streets?
At the poem’s end, Keats places the famous couplet “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As well-known as these lines are, they’re the source of some controversy. Some think them profound, some glib. They are meaningless babble or a concise summary of Keats’ aesthetic.
The urn, this mesmerizing object, has artistic impact, and that means it’s beautiful in an aesthetic sense. It doesn’t mean it’s clear in its message. It doesn’t mean it’s a simple comfort. Yes, Keats says near the end, the urn is “A friend to man.” But friends are friends partly because they will tell us things that mere sycophants or acquaintances won’t, and friends will be there when things are not all wonderful and happy. It’s true too in this sense: that it is not telling itself with ulterior motives or self-interest.
The experience of the two scenes that precede this summing up are not happy ones. Even the consolations of artistic immortality are slight: we know nothing about the end of the lover’s pursuit, the musician’s tune, the name of the village or if it prospered, or if the sacrificial cow had a soul that was reborn.
As I performed it I decided to downplay what that past teenager would have read as a ringing conclusion. After all, whatever Keats’ sweet unheard intent might have been, his object that we can see and puzzle over tells us that the urn is saying this to him, not some “deity or mortal, or both.” A piece of art says what it says in ways its creator cannot control, as the poem predicts it: “In midst of other woe than ours.”
So, I read it today as that weak voice that says, from when this poem was written, from this time when I performed it, in a time of contagious illness, in a time when caretakers were at risk, to a time when our streets are silent, at a time when some pious ready sacrifices instead of remedies, a time when music is silences and lovers parted—that there is somehow something beautiful to be discerned that is still as true as our living moments.
Speaking of musical engineering, I decided to keep the music silent or very minimal for the first part of this one, even though this project is all about combining music with words—the text’s “unheard music” was just to powerful to contradict. I also chose to keep everything in a major key/major chords, because that too is how I read the text: the urn’s subjects think they are in joy, though we see them, like re-viewing films and video of past happy social crowds today, in a different frame. To read the full text of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” go here. The player gadget to hear my performance of it awaits you clicking on the player gadget below. Stay well. Take care.
*The idea of poetry expressing the experience of another piece of art, particularly visual art, ekphrastic poetry, long predates Modernism and Imagism. By using this approach to the everyday encounter with the world, the Imagists extended this technique.
**There is wide agreement that there is no singular vase/subject to discover that Keats actually encountered in a moment. Britain had recently absconded with “The Elgin Marbles” from Athens, a series of marble sculptures that Keats viewed in London, and he had seen period vases, even making his own drawing of one.
***In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag spent a good deal of time on the historical ascribing of tuberculosis to a dissipated or too passionate life-style in pre-germ-theory times. Currently, lovers may be close but separated precisely by our knowledge of microbes.
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.
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.
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.
**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.
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.
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.
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.