One unusual thing I did this spring to celebrate National Poetry Month was to re-release 31 pieces from the early years of this project. This was a way, despite reduced time and opportunities to create new pieces, to still celebrate and demonstrate the various poems and music combinations of the Parlando Project.
As part of this April celebration, I spent more time that I thought I would creating “lyric videos.” I figured I would just put in a couple of pictures in a video file and place the words to the poems on the screen in time with their appearance in the music, but they got a little more elaborate.
How popular were they? It doesn’t look like YouTube counts as views any plays of those videos from the inside-the-blog-posts thumbnail images, but it does count those who found them on YouTube itself. Given that sub-set it does count, the most popular of the April Poetry Month videos was our Parlando version of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”No surprise there: William Butler Yeats’ poetry is welcome to so many ears around the English-speaking world. If I was to look at most viewed posts (a metric I don’t use in these Top Ten lists) four out of the top ten most viewed posts so far this year are concerning Yeats’ poems. Yeats is a Poetry’s Greatest Hits poet.
The most listened to and liked piece this past spring was an Irish poem, but it wasn’t by Yeats. It was one of the April Poetry Month re-releases though, “Night, and I Traveling” by too-little-known Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell (who also published under the name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil).
I’m partway through a biography of Campbell that was an Anniversary gift from my wife. From it I’m getting more of a sense of the young man who wrote this poem — a poem which is remarkable not just for its tightly compressed and effecting scene, but for being published in 1909 so that it might be counted not just as the work of the first Irish poet to use free verse, but also as one of the earliest published examples of Imagism. It wasn’t until 1913 that F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound published their “A few Don’ts by an Imagiste” and laid out the three famous Imagist suggestions/rules, but before that in London Flint, Pound, and T. E. Hulme had been working out how to radically strip back poetry to a fresh, precise, and direct essence in the months before Campbell published “Night, and I Traveling.”
The chord voicings I used for the 12-string guitar part here are bit unusual.
I now know that Campbell was in London and meeting with those incipit Imagists in that first decade of the 20th century. Alas I don’t know how junior a partner he was in their meetings, but “Night, And I Traveling” is to my judgement as fine an early Imagist poem as the more famous and anthologized ones, arguably a more worthy example because of its empathetic attention to the isolated rural woman in a still-colonialized Irish hut in place of Pound’s damp impressionistic leaf-faced Paris Metro riders published four years later.* The biography, Joseph Cambell Poet & Nationalist by Norah Saunders and A. A. Kelly, reminds us that Campbell liked country walks at night. Campbell wrote: “Night walking — all my best thoughts, I find, come to me that way. Poetry, like devilry, loves darkness.” Devilry? Campbell did write some of the supernatural, and would mix Christian and pagan mythologies —but in this one, this night, he stays in our earthly plane. Am I reading too much into the poem to note the poem’s only simile has the lone woman crooning “as if to child” when there is no child depicted? Is that child dead? Or perhaps emigrated to America?
Not as popular as Yeats on YouTube, but here’s the “lyric video” I did for this piece
You can hear my performance three ways. The “lyric video” is above, an audio player gadget should be below, and this highlighted link is a backup for those ways of viewing this blog that won’t show the player. Thanks again for reading about these encounters and listening to our combinations of music and words.
*Make of this connection what you will: Pound and Campbell would both eventually be imprisoned by their own countrymen for acts during wartime.
This is the weekend that ends in American Labor Day, and I’m going to see if I can put up at least a couple of pieces celebrating that.
The relationship between poetry and labor is complicated. On one hand, unlike entertainers, popular prose writers, or some other fields in the arts, almost no poet earns enough solely from poetry to escape a complete lifetime of some other everyday work. This could lead to the world of work and the concerns of those that do it being widely incorporated into poetry, but in my observation that’s not so. Why should that be? Well, as much or more than any other art, poetry, in self-image or in public image, sets itself apart from ordinary work.
Poets are seen as dallying with the muses, observing unsullied nature, being drawn to erotic passion, explaining the godhead and the nearly unreal, or engaging in an endless spree of derangement of the senses. None of this seems related to the world of work. Things like that may be a way to spend the weekend or a holiday, and so poetry may be attractive to those seeking to temporarily escape their workdays — but then not an art used to understand them, or to interrogate them.
American Modernist poet Carl Sandburg conspicuously didn’t avoid work and workers as a subject. Some elements of Modernism liked to write about the products of early 20th Century industry — odes to locomotives and airplanes could stand in for birdsong or daffodils just fine for the make-it-new crowd — but the systems that built them and the human effort involved were largely not viewed as fit subjects. Satires of the management classes could be undertaken, and by damning their mundane concerns, the world of work could be dismissed as a fallen human state.
In variety and extent of opportunities to observe work the poet Sandburg may have had an advantage, and he didn’t squander it. Itinerant laborer, municipal government functionary, labor-union agitator, journalist, small-time farmer — Sandburg certainly had his perch to observe work. He wrote about all of those trades from inside and beside. Today’s piece is taken from the very last section of the long title poem in his 1920 poetry collection “Smoke and Steel.” In the poem Sandburg concentrates on that backbone of American industry in his time, the smelting of iron ore into steel, and he does so by focusing on the laborers in that system. While he’s in a long-winded Whitmanesque mode, he brings to this task the miniatures of Imagism, and in this final section, if separated out as I did here, he presents an Imagist poem. Earlier in his poem we meet a lot of people and their tasks involved in the manual labor of steel making; and now in this Imagist ending we’re left with three or four objects. Once he violates the unity of the charged moment, but otherwise it follows Imagism’s rules. Here’s a link to “Smoke and Steel”, and the section I adapted and used today is at the end of the opening poem.
We first meet cobwebs, called “pearly” to indicate a beauty in them, and they’ve caught and held raindrops. Just a “flicker” of wind tears them away from the scene. Moonshine, golden and so also portrayed as beautiful, perhaps in a pool of rainwater, is likewise shivered and dispersed by the wind. Finally, a bar of steel is presented, and there’s contrast. It’s not so transient. Violating the unity of the moment, the poem says it’ll last a million years, even if nature will coat it with a “coat of rust, a “vest of moths” and “a shirt” of earth, images that seem to me to connotate the grave when we are also told the steel bar will “sleep.”
I’ll admit that while I could visualize the cobwebs with pearly rain drops and the moonshine rippling in short-lived puddles, just exactly what the steel bar was as an image to be visualized was puzzling to me. A railroad track? We don’t usually call rail tracks bars. A fence, or even a jail cell (“steel bars” as shorthand for jail)? Nothing earlier in the poem prepares us for that reading in this section. Some steel ingot stockpiled and stored outside? But destined to be forgotten and left for a million years? Other than that “million years” permanence we’re told only one other thing about the steel bar: that it looks “slant-eyed” on the cobwebs and pools of moonshine. I understood this as “side-eye” and that reading seems pretty solid to me. The steel bar knows it’s going to be there longer than the cobwebs and moonshine, so it can dismiss them as ephemeral.
Then looking to confirm if a slant-eye look would have been understood to Sandburg as side-eye, I could only run into the use of, and disparagement toward “slant-eye” as an ethnic slur. Though that slur wasn’t news to me, it hadn’t occurred to me as I don’t think it’s what Sandburg intends.* Realizing this after I’d completed recording today’s performance, I considered that it might harm the ability of some listeners to receive the poem’s intention, and if I was to perform the poem again, I might take my privilege with a work in the Public Domain and sing it as “side-eye.”
Coming as it does at the conclusion of Sandburg’s longer poem “Smoke and Steel” what do I think the cobwebs, steel and moonshine mean as they are met by the wind of time and change? We may abide by the convention that poetry and work are separate things, but as Sandburg has just written a long poem about work, we know he wants these things to be combined. The things we do everyday for pay, the work we do in arts like poetry — are the later the cobwebs and moonshine, beautiful, transitory, little noticed; and the former the steel, the solid, useful things that will last? Or is the steel the “real” that is buried, and the cobwebs and moonshine it distains the eternal now that returns fresh?
And then, can either be both?
The player gadget to hear my performance of an excerpt from Sandburg’s longer poem that I’ve titled “Cobwebs, Steel, and Moonshine” will appear below for many of you. Don’t see a player? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.
*Sandburg is too comfortable with ethnic slurs for many modern tastes in his poetry, and “Smoke and Steel” contains a handful of them earlier in the poem. The unabashed way he uses them in his way argues against this ethnic-Asian slur being a 1920’s dog-whistle.
There’s another repeat author in this segment of our spring 2021 countdown of the most listened to and liked pieces here over the past three months. More than that, the number 4 and 3 positions are held by two installments drawn from the same poem, parts of my long serial performance of “The Waste Land” that wound up this year. It makes sense then to deal with them together.
4 What the Thunder Said Part 1 and What the Thunder Said Part 2 by T. S. Eliot As much as I enjoyed the challenge of taking on the range of Eliot’s poem and making explicit its implicit musicality, “The Waste Land” is not what many of us go to for poetry comfort food. The last section of the great poem was by all accounts written while Eliot was hospitalized with what is now considered depression. Most of his poem is a horror story, still and all twice-baked crafted, written by a man whose meticulousness had him working in a bank — and then revised by Ezra Pound, as merciless an editor as ever existed. That part of the poem can seem a cold-case puzzle to be solved, the likely source material for a volume by Dan Brown. It’s not.
It’s a series of songs made up of the overheard and the remembered bits caught inside Eliot’s educated mind, half in Parnassus and half in a Hogarthian vision of early 20th century London — and then we get to the last part of the poem, “What the Thunder Said,” which is more Eliot’s own song, a long somewhat improvised song that was written, he later confessed to Virginia Woolf, in something of a trance, without even bothering to understand what he was writing. Up until then the poem, however despairing or dark, has been crowded: voices, characters, changes of scene. This last part is Eliot alone with himself. The waste land, the desert title-place that we only meet in this last section, isn’t the condition of post-WWI England or Europe, the waste land is Eliot alone with himself in only lightly-disguised self-pity, which eventually leads to a final expiation in its concluding portion.* The accelerating four sections of “What the Thunder Said” that I presented this past April are the journey of that mind.
So, what’s the next poem in our countdown after all that sturm und drang?
Seriously, singing poetry can be an even deeper inhalation of a poem. Here’ are my chords if you’d like to sing this poem of Dickinson’s.
2 How Many Flowers by Emily Dickinson Just Emily: gardener, avid botanist, Transcendentalist meditator, a legal mind filing a concise argument in the case of the universe, folding her words up. It takes me a minute and a half to sing it.
I had some fun in my original post on this imagining how close she came in her poetic diction to writing an early 20th century Imagist poem, but we may have little trouble translating on the fly from her 19th century-isms to the vivid moment she observes: the observed or unobserved flower, the present and presence — and the future, their scarlet freight. Like much great poetry, maybe like all great poetry it doesn’t need me to prattle on about it, it just needs you to sing it, to carry that scarlet freight.
*Unlike the other 3 parts, the 4th part of “What the Thunder Said” didn’t get the listens and likes to make this top 10, possibly because of its length or general disinterest or dismay from the audience in its rough, less-exactly recorded nature. Still the electric guitar playing that builds from about 3 minutes in and finally becomes the brief solo that starts at 4:45 is as pure a piece of musical-emotional expression as I’ve ever played.
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.
Here’s a piece celebrating our Spring springing forward that’s also appropriate for America’s celebration of Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. It consists of three short poems by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell.* I put them together as I think they somehow increase their individual power presented that way. I call the combination “Sail-Moon-Sheep.”
Campbell was also an artist. Here are his own illustrations for the three poems I used today: “Sail Answers Sail,” “The Moon,” and “Sheep.”
Campbell is one of the more fascinating discoveries I’ve made while doing this project. As far as I can tell he’s largely unknown in the United States, even though he spent some time here between the World Wars. And while it’s harder for me to assay his position in Irish arts and culture, he doesn’t seem to be highly esteemed and remembered there either.
What draws me to present him then? First, he seems to be an early Modernist poet, who writes in a mode those pioneers used — one that I think bares reconsidering today: short poems that present charged emotional states by physical description while eschewing both tired conventional metaphors or overly elaborate original imagery. A hundred years ago there was a name for this kind of writing. It was called Imagism. It rose as a force in opposition to established literary styles, flourished briefly attracting both writers we still celebrate and even some not-inconsiderable popular interest, and then was largely discarded for further evolutions of Modernism.
Campbell didn’t always write in this style, but he did so often enough for me to have work to present here. I’m not sure exactly where or when he picked up this mode of poetic expression. Today’s pieces are from a 1917 poetry collection of his called Earth of Cualann, a year when Imagism would have been in more common currency as a poetic style, but he seems to have used it occasionally before 1910 when he might well have been independently inventing it — or he could have had some as yet undiscovered connection to the small pre-WWI Anglo-American group in London that would give the Imagist style a name.
Chinese ideograms for sail (or rather, boat), moon, and sheep (though more at goat I gather). Some of Campbell’s poems seem to me to work very much like classical Chinese poetry too.
Secondly, he is like Yeats, intimately involved in the Irish cultural renaissance** that was an engine driving to Irish political independence. Indeed, in that second event he seems even more involved, perhaps to the detriment of his poetic career.*** My 20th century brought forward many anti-colonialist artists, but America has it’s own colonialism (both internal and external) and English language eloquence on these matters may be useful to us. Often when reading Campbell I think that aside from some simple translations of particulars I could be reading a poem by someone of American-Indigenous heritage and culture. Campbell’s connection to nature and his native landscape is deep and inescapable.
If one reads a book of Campbell’s poems, this repeated connection to the landscape and its history is so deep that it’s impossible to not think of it as an Imagist expression of a spiritual or religious feeling**** in the poems, even where that is not overtly mentioned. I know next-to-nothing of Campbell’s religious beliefs. Catholic Christianity is sometimes invoked, and at other times a Neo-Pagan-like stance seems to be displayed.
Well, it’s so like this project to say a whole lot about three very short poems from Campbell’s Earth of Cualann that I present in the expectation that they hang together as a portrait of Spring, and then a Spring in a nation in need of renewal. It’s an Irish man’s depiction, and let us celebrate that too, but perhaps I’ve opened you to some further ways to consider that.
*As I must always say when mentioning his name — no, not that Joseph Campbell — this is another man who also used a Gaelic name Seosamh MacCathmhaoil.
**It would not surprise me if the instigators of the Afro-American Harlem Renaissance featured here last month were not aware of the power of Irish elevation of Irish art, history, artists, and culture as a pre-requisite to self-determination as well as a significant argument for their value as citizens. And in other anti-colonialist cross-pollination: consider the mutual admiration of Rabindranath Tagore and William Butler Yeats, or Gandhi’s example to Martin Luther King.
***Imprisonment and exile, for two examples, were involved. Knowing a little now of some of the impassioned factions even among and between the Irish Nationalists, I fear finding out more of Campbell’s actual political beliefs, alliances, and possible revolutionary actions. It’s also plausible that it may have reduced his stature in Irish literature, as political opponents divided by violence often are unconcerned with merely literary merits.
****Remember, Imagism expects there to be few, if any, overt use of words naming emotions or reactions to what it is depicting. It expects — and when it works, it may even compel — the reader or listener to supply their own internal emotional reaction and impact from the poem’s description of a charged moment.
Maybe it’d be a good time to remind new readers what the Parlando Project does. We take various words, mostly poetry, and combine them with original music. Because seeking allowance for performance of words still under copyright is difficult,* we tend to use words in the public domain.
One common response to this capsule description is, “You mean songs?” And yes, sometimes there is singing of words. When I say I compose music for this, particularly when I use orchestral instruments, there’s an expectation of the general field of art song. And when I say a particular performance is me speaking the words in front of a, sometimes live, band, there are generational expectations from the beatnik to the hip hop.
The Parlando Project is not solely any of those things, and in the midst of the various combinations it comes up with, I’d say I’m still seeking, even now after hundreds of pieces and more than four years, for new ways to combine music and words. Song, art song, and the wide range of spoken word with music all seek this too. I just try to do it allowing for exploration of all three.
So, let’s get on to the continued countdown from 10 to 1 for the most liked and listened to Parlando Project pieces last summer.
7. Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Just like with music-music, word-music is a subjective thing. One person’s sublime poetry for sound and flow may not please another at all, and one person’s favorite recording or performance might be torture or boredom to the next listener.
I can sometimes be both persons above, one day liking the complex, the next the simple, in one mood seeking sweet consonance and another day a rich bitterness, or bursts of enormous energy sometimes and then expository slowness other times. It is a good thing that I have access to a range of musics.
But even if for sound alone, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins tends to please me. It may help that it’s not an overexposed sound. Most modern poetry has an easy conversational feel with underlying iambs, while Hopkins feel for stresses with varying valleys and rills between loosens the lockstep yet retains a home footfall.
A great many of you listened to and liked my performance of Hopkins’ “Inversnaid” this past summer. As I mentioned in the original post, this is not a poem that is easy to understand through and through for meaning, but the sound of it can carry one over the spillway of it’s wilderness waters.
A falls at Inversnaid. There’s a hotel right next door to these. Hopkins’ nature was to well, use nature to represent things. Sandburg often chose to use human-made things to explain humans.
6. Good Night by Carl Sandburg. I remain immensely comforted by the range of Sandburg’s poetry. His concern for the commonality of people echoes one of this project’s goals: “Other people’s stories.” His eye for injustice is clear. Modernism has a reputation for solitary individuality, but in his best short poems he harnesses the continued freshness of Imagism with these concerns.
In times like these I can find in Sandburg the things I need, the necessary skepticism, the necessary hope, the indispensable love that allows endurance and asks for change.
One thing I’ve encouraged during this project’s presentation of Sandburg is to assume that he, no less than other Imagists, deserves deep reading. Obviously, many current aesthetic theories say this is true of anything, but I think for whatever it’s worth that it’s likely part of Sandburg’s intent in his best early work too. If he wrote in a garret in Paris. If Sandburg never achieved any of the general renown he accumulated (renown the times and mores eventually spent down during the 20th century) scattered scholars might look for that.
Is there something below the surface of his “Goodnight?” I think he, the artist, chose the trains and steamboats as the leaving things of sleep and its longer analog rather than conventional poetic things from a palette of sur-human nature. Now technological progress has added a nostalgic note to his specifically steam-powered leaving. That may be an accident the author didn’t intend, giving this poem an extended feeling, extending out down the track, down the river, over the horizon.
5. The Workman’s Dream by Edgar Guest. Does deep reading of poetry tire you? It does me sometimes. Does the chance that you’re missing the “real” meaning of some piece embarrass you once, and once is enough? Are you brave enough to laugh at Dorothy Parker’s smart-set summation** of the coolness-factor of “The Workman’s Dream’s” author and still listen to him today?
Like Sandburg, Guest was a working journalist. Unlike the entire Sandburg, Guest’s poetry retains a certain work for hire desire to please over the coffee. Can we allow poetry to do that (sometimes) and not harm it? Well for Father’s Day I performed this one. The bold-face heading to each top ten listing will open in an new browser tab the original post I wrote, where in this case you can get the chords I used if you’d like to sing this one yourself.
*My estimation: mostly because the poetry rights holders don’t care to seek this—and even when asked. This indifference is also mixed with some concern that it could reduce their control over how the material is presented and any (improbable) revenue.
Before we get to this gorgeous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, let me talk a bit about what I believe regarding our experience of poetry. One of the reasons this project presents the (mostly) poems it uses as audio pieces is that I have a conviction that poetry has a word-music, a sound that is inherent and relevant to the form.
That doesn’t mean that poetry has to sound pretty in some immediate way, have regular meters, rhyme up, or even have some sense of “singing” imbedded in the authors intent. None of those things harm poetry in and of themselves, but all of them are just techniques of word-music, in the same way that the “rules” of music are discovered on a form that expresses itself in a variety of ways which may be successful with varied audiences.
Nor does it mean that poetry on the page isn’t a useful alternative way to experience poetry. Particularly complex poems, with subtle relationships, may more easily impress themselves when they can be comprehended in a non-linear way on the page where one may look up and down the stanzas and see relationships or indications of linkage. On the other hand, some complex and hermetic poems, or poems that use language in ways that are not in the form of ordinary literature, may be best experienced as we often experience songs or memorized verse (like nursery rhymes, folk sayings, or mnemonics) in a way where we encounter them more than once, in a portable form that we can hear in the background of other events and situations. Our memories as a playlist.
And now we return to Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem “Inversnaid” after that preface. Is there subtle thought in it? Yes, there may be. One could write an essay on deep ecology based on it. I suppose it could be a metaphor for Hopkins theology and philosophy, of which I know enough only to say that he was self-aware and concerned in those areas. Essays could be written, perhaps whole books inspired, though because it’s a short poem, it’s possible that one can carry “Inversnaid” in a way that neither and essay or book can be.
But I’m not there yet with “Inversnaid,” and I’m only the near-partway into my journey with Hopkins. No, what this poem is for me yet is: beautiful, sonorous, passionate, intense—it affects me. Frankly, I see only a bit of its matter, a little more each time. It shows the way that poetry, while it can contain ideas certainly, isn’t about ideas so much as it’s about the experience of ideas.
Another remarkable thing about Hopkins: like his near contemporary Emily Dickinson, he wrote his poems largely without thought of publication, and the extent of his work was unknown until a 1918 collection was published after his death.
Though Hopkins was a 19th century poet, a Victorian by calendar, and “Inversnaid” is end-rhymed and follows Hopkins own appreciation for how English poetic metrics can work (ideas inspired from older Anglo-Saxon poetry) this is in some ways another Imagist poem before it’s time. There’s almost not a single emotional word in the entire poem. “Despair” and “bereft” do occur, but this poem doesn’t seem to be about either of those emotions except in contrast to them. Instead, like a good Imagist poem it’s about the immediate experience of a moment before those emotional words have appeared to frame or fence the experience in.
That Imagist effect is somewhat masked by Hopkins’ obscure language. This is a 12-line poem, not even sonnet length, written by a man whose shortened lifetime overlapped human beings whose lifetimes overlapped mine—yet there are more words than I, something of a language maven, didn’t know than one might find in an 16th century poem or the deepest subculture patois of a rap performance. Only the last quatrain stanza is in what one would call standard contemporary English.
One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. “OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”* I’d be surprised if many American English speakers could define a third of these. Residents of the British Isles might do better, but would they get over half?
We’re in near “Jabberwocky” land here as readers. But we’re not quite as lost as listeners, because like Carroll’s nonsense poem, the sound makes us sense something of the intended meaning without dictionary. And the sound!
One could intimidate a reader or listener easily by giving them a definition pop-quiz after hearing this poem. ‘OK, so you liked this poem! Well then, tell me what these words mean: burn, rollrock, coop, flutes, twindles, fell, degged, groins (stop snickering, this will be part of your final grade!), braes, flitches, heathpacks, and beadbonny.”
This is really a proof-of-concept example of Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm” where unequal metrical feet are subsumed to attention to the set number of stressed syllables or words. And every one of those obscure words add to the sound so strongly as to be forgiven.
My performance of “Inversnaid” should be available with a player gadget below. Full text of the poem if you like to read along is here. Thanks for reading and listening!
*I say this because I think I’d have gotten four as an American English speaker, and only that many with help from my love for old English-Scottish border ballads. Perhaps I should be docked a point though, for in my performance I misread “degged” instead as “dregged,” a word which sort of made sense to me. Some have attempted a glossary for this poem, here’s the best one I’ve found in a quick search.
I said last time that the Midwestern American poet Carl Sandburg is not often thought of as an Imagist when we recount the Modernist revolution in poetry. Indeed, I get the impression that his work as a whole is summarized as folksy/clumsy by academia, the efforts of a low-fi Modernist with middlebrow pretensions to real artistic innovation.
I wonder if some of this is an unexamined hold-over from the High Modernists who made a cult of academic culture and credentials in the mid-20th century. Sandburg certainly intended to be a Modernist and wrote thoroughgoing Imagist poems. And yes, he can present himself in a friendly, non-pretentious way in some of his poetry. T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound rarely seem to welcome in the casual reader, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams may puzzle us on first encounter. Amy Lowell will let us know this is salon-worthy art. E. E. Cummings may charm us in a playful way while still remaining elusive. Marianne Moore likes the seemingly earnest statement, but when I try to absorb an entire poem I’m often at sixes and sevens.
Sandburg can seem a bit too straightforward. Which he’s not, or at least not always. Williams can have his red wheelbarrows and plums, Pound his wet petal Metro pedestrians, and we understand this is willful simplicity in the context of their more elaborated work. Poor Sandburg. He’s misunderstood for being thought understood. Understood too quickly perhaps.
Here’s an example of a poem that hardly seems like Sandburg at all. If I presented it, unattributed, as translated from the French it might seem Surrealist, but it was published in 1917 before Surrealism was a movement. Even at the time I was performing it, I had only been able to absorb it as a sensation, and I’m not sure yet if I could paraphrase it even now. Here’s the link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. It seems to be a poem about violence and strife, about suffering and infliction of suffering. Is the poem’s gargoyle war, Moloch, capitalism, the demonized exploited, or the demon exploiter?
Is it possible that Sandburg intended this ambiguity? The sensation of this poem is so strong, yet it doesn’t seem easy to solve into a one-to-one allegory. One could use Orwell’s famous decades-later statement as a gloss on this poem:
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Two things ground this poem, and Imagism wanted to be grounded, not intellectually abstract. First is the gargoyle, which was a commonplace building ornament in Sandburg’s Chicago, secondary to the beau arts style popularized by the 1893 Worlds Fair there and to the widespread availability of immigrant stone carvers in the city. Gargoyles are ugly and often open-mouthed,* as this poem’s gargoyle is.
But Sandburg’s poem subject is metal, which is not impossible—there are cast metal gargoyles. I’m no expert on metalwork trades, but the actions described in the poem sound like hot metal riveting. Is the “gargoyle” some metal construction which is having red hot molten rivets being pounded into holes one after another?
A riveting video? Maybe not for everyone, but a few minutes of watching will show how a four-person team works together in hot metal riveting
Or is this poem’s subject a child’s nightmare? After all, twice Sandburg wants us to know a child could visualize this.
So, an elusive work, but the horror certainly comes through. My performance is straightforward, just acoustic guitar and bass. Sort of a folk song, if the kind of folks you hang around with like Michael Hurley. The player is below.
*They are sometimes functional downspouts, designed not just as ornament, but as a way to direct roof rain water away from the building and it’s foundation. Gargoyle as a word is derived from the French for gullet, or throat.
Continuing on with lyric poetry, that short form of compressed immediacy, here’s a poem that seems to be better known in Britain that it is here: Frances Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train” first published in 1910.
I think it illustrates one of the things about good lyric poetry of the Imagist* type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true. Almost immediately this poem was recognized as “wrong” by many (most?) readers. It could, and was, easily seen as unfeeling, or an expression of cruelty to the extent it has implied feeling. How the hell does the poet on the train know anything about that fat white lady in gloves? Early responses seemed to dislike the compression they read as glibness; more current readers see haughty fat-shaming.
Good lyric poetry of the Imagist type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true.
I haven’t found anywhere where Cornford wrote about her intent with this poem. Given that she lived a long life and this poem became her best-known one, she must have said or written something, but lacking that I’m left to react to the text itself.
The objectionable is the poem’s third line. If the poem did not include it, I doubt any significant number of readers would dislike the poem. Let’s look again at that line: “O fat white woman whom nobody loves.”
If that was a social media post today, one can see the storm breaking rapidly. It sounds like it’s “kicking down” doesn’t it? Our graceless current President could easily tweet this line at someone who disapproved or challenged him, and regardless of one’s political stance, his demeaning meaning would be clear. But even in this short poem that stands alone with no testimony from its author, context may change how we read it.
What’s changed since 1910? “Fat” stands in a strange place in our culture currently. There are elements that regard it as somewhere between a sinful sign and a regrettable disease, but also strong elements that wish to make fat-shaming disreputable. Our general agreement, best as I can read it, is to allow “fat,” like curse words, as something we allow or forgive when we feel the subject it’s applied to has wronged us sufficiently, but not something we should throw around willy-nilly, particularly at strangers. But how damning and diminishing was “fat” in 1910?
Much less I think. First off, let’s look at the U.S. President in that year. A crude reading of the culture for sure, but William Howard Taft was, well, fat, and yet today few politicians are.** Female beauty standards too were curvier (though this was soon to change). Fat was, to the level of unexceptional cliché, associated then with wealth, and therefore wealth’s courtier, power. This once unquestioned association with wealth and power is partly responsible for how the fat person was treated comically, even later in the century. The lean, skinny person was the scrappy underdog, the fat person the one who ran things. Stan Laurel was put upon by the more officious Hardy. The Marxist critique of Margaret Dumont was to tear down the well-fed power structure of white women in gloves.
Moving on in Cornford’s problematic line: “white” is if anything more striking in its frank appearance in this short poem. Here I’m even more unsure of Cornford’s context and intent. “White” as a term for those not considered a person of color existed in 1910 certainly, and that’s how most of us will read Cornford’s line today. But a consciousness, without the context of other non-white people in the frame, of a white person calling out someone as “white” strikes me as so unusual in 1910*** that I wonder if we’re misreading her intent. Does she mean that she’s dressed in white? If she means, to us as we may experience the poem now, “a member of the favored and privileged racial caste,” we should take that into consideration regarding the effect of the poem more than most readers seem to. If she means “dressed in white,” which I think is more likely in the poem’s context, then she’s extending the “gloves” image as observing someone she imagines is not in touch with the earth. It’s probably taking too large a deterministic leap to think that she’s meaning to reference suffragettes with a singular woman in white. It’s a slightly lesser leap to consider dressed in white as a wedding gown undertone.****
And yes, let’s not miss the third word in this compound epithet: “woman.” Given that the author is a woman, and we presume the train-riding speaker of the poem looking out the window is a woman, we may have something like a peer to peer relationship between the observed subject and the observer.
In the few Frances Cornford poems I’ve read so far, there’s considerable female empathy exhibited. Why are we sure that the woman in the train is disgusted with or condemning the other woman? Does she feel superior or knowing in some way in the lyric moment (regardless if she’s right or wrong) that the white woman is missing something (love, an experience of nature)? Yes, I can see that. Is it a haughty superiority? I think that leans too much on the dismissive way we read “fat” and even “white.” As I read this poem over, I visualize looking out a train window, and the sense that comes to me is that one sees the woman outside through one’s own reflection in the glass we are looking through. I think, in the lyric moment, Cornford is imagining (and letting us know that it’s only that, imagining) a difference and a risk for herself, and for that other woman.
Dialectic: Frances Cornford at work. Frances Cornford without gloves.
There’s another mystery in the poem that I can’t decode completely: the gloves that refrain along with the absent loves. One reader jocularly suggested that the woman is hurrying on her way to a cricket match, and she’s wearing gloves because she’s a wicket keeper. Some, I think seriously, see gardening gloves. Others, formal-wear gloves. This is part of what I like about this poem: it’s plain-spoken, allusive, and elusive. That’s a hard combination to pull off. Along with its excellent musicality, that may be why it’s so well remembered in Britain—even by folks who are sure they dislike it.
Like Marlowe’s shepherd, this is a poem that calls out for an “answer record,” and humorist G. K. Chesterton’s retort “The Fat Lady Answers” is the most famous of several. I stand more with Cornford’s lyric than Chesterton’s busted triolet, but his point is worth remembering as we consider “other people’s stories.” And so I performed the two together today. At the time I recorded this performance I decided to read the female poet’s poem in a male voice and suggest a woman’s voice in the male Chesterton’s response. I was still buying into Chesterton’s objection more than I am now after living with the poem a bit longer.
Anyway, Cornford’s triolet is so damn catchy that I wanted to keep it to the hook today—mostly drums and bass for the music—but I added a little of my naïve electric piano working off an odd inverted-voicing CMaj13 chord. One of my shortest audio pieces gets this long post. Go figure.
*AFAIK, no one considers Cornford an Imagist, and this poem was written and published before other pioneering Imagist train poems like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” or Sandburg’s “Limited.” But in its straightforward immediate language, specific color imagery, compression, and avoidance of sentimental emotional language, it follows the intent of those later free-verse Imagist poems.
**King Edward the VII doesn’t look svelte either, nor Queen Victoria in her later years. Of course, “Who made you king of the Britons?” and all that, but this still speaks to how excess weight was viewed in 1910 as representative of wealth and power.
***I don’t know much about Cornford’s political and social beliefs. She had one son who was a dedicated Marxist of the Karl branch, but what she thought herself about racial questions, I don’t know.
****If it was explicitly a wedding gown, it’d be a different poem, but you can re-read or relisten to the poem and imagine that at your own option. Another possibility would be that the woman is white because she’s a ghost. Again, overdetermining the poem. I’d still like to know what Cornford’s intent was, but even if it was a bit of light verse that got away from her, one of the joys of lyric poetry is that undercurrents can be waiting for the next time you read, hear, speak, or perform it.
Here’s a follow-up note on another alternative reading of this poem. In the time since I wrote this post I sometimes wonder if the woman in white we ostensibly see through the train window is actually the poet, Cornford, looking at her own reflection in the glass which would then seem to be sweeping through the countryside. In photos I’ve seen, Cornford appears quite thin, and even given cultural differences in body image that I talk about above, I wonder (with no evidence) if Cornford may have suffered from anorexia.
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.