Eliot’s Oak

The river of history runs only in one direction.*  And so on our river journey, the Modernist poetic landmark “The Waste Land”  will arrive, and stopping and resting on the landing there will mark us as well past the headwaters, and our memories will diminish of the headwaters, even if the very water that carries our boats flows from there. T. S. Eliot wrote many letters and critical essays, he must have written somewhere about his American poetic forbearers — but if so, the spotty scholar writing this is so far unaware of what he said.

If one searches on that subject, one will see many mentions of Eliot’s Modernism supplanting the American 19th century New England worthies headed up by one Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And then something else might turn up, like this deserves-to-be-better-known sonnet of Longfellow’s titled “Eliot’s Oak.”   Here’s a link to the text if you’d like to follow along.

If we largely forget Longfellow these days, we tend to forget Longfellow the writer of short lyric poems to an even greater extent. If this sonnet had been attributed to Keats or Shelley, it would be no less antique in some of its usage, but I suspect it would be better remembered and rated for achievement. Besides the “speakest,” “days remote,” “eventide,” and “hath” language, its chief crust of old-fashionedness is its use of the pathetic fallacy, where a tree is addressed and converses in the poem. We’d forgive Keats and Shelly for this, where we likely won’t forgive Longfellow. If we allow that bald-faced metaphor to pass, we might notice that the imagery in the poem develops in an admirably subtle way. In the sound of the tree’s leaves the poem hears a variety of sounds whose meaning is just out of reach, and masterfully Longfellow transitions to say that different people will hear different nearly intelligible languages in this sound. Am I stretching this conceit’s move too much to say that this 1876 poem has just sought to impress upon us a key tenet of cultural Modernism?

As Longfellow’s sonnet reaches its turn for a final six lines, we are forced, as much as we might be in parts of “The Waste Land,”  to seek out what is being referred to. With “The Waste Land,”  it wouldn’t be extraordinary to believe that some of the readers of this blog would have some knowledge of Richard Wagner, Jacobean drama, Metaphysical poets, or Ovid; and it’s even more likely today that some here would have some understanding of Hindu religious thought and writings, which will get called out in the upcoming concluding sections. But, do any of you know of the “Apostle of the Indians, Eliot…” Longfellow speaks of, what this story means, and how dark it is? I didn’t.

Eliot Oak before 1936

The Eliot Oak still stood in Longfellow’s time, and long enough for a trolley line to run past it.

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In the 17th century, the Puritans who founded the European colonization of Massachusetts included this stalwart preacher John Eliot who came to believe that he was called to preach to the indigenous Algonquin tribes there. The Puritans had a strong streak of religious zealotry, and given that and the commercial interests of colonization, many regarded the natives of their new colony has the devil’s savage minions. John Eliot believed them to be merely unconverted fellow humans.**  As Longfellow’s poem indicates in his Biblical allusion in lines 10-11, Eliot views the indigenous as fellow members of the Abrahamic family, potential “people of the book.” At first, all this was only a philosophical/theological debate. Eliot was allowed to learn their language, preach Christianity to them, and form somewhat autonomous villages of “praying Indians.” In an act of superhuman intellectual and literary effort he managed to translate the entire Christian Bible into their native language. Just this massive translation alone would be remarkable, but these tribes had no written language, so he had to devise a way to use the western alphabet to depict it. Nor was it an easy job to then print the resulting Bible: the press had to be imported, and the work of setting the type and printing was not trivial either. Eliot headed this project, but it should also be noted that the first nations people who worked with him were indispensable.

The resulting book, in a first edition of 1000, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, wasn’t just the first time anyone had created a new written language to publish a Bible, it was the first  Bible to be printed in what would later become the United States.

Now of course the whole issue of evangelical Christianity and native cultures is a complex subject. Even those of you who do not know John Eliot’s particular story will include some who know some of the harmful incidents in such matters. Yes, this story gets dark, but there’s also a strange redeeming element in the end too.

In 1675 some of the Algonquins began a three-year uprising against the colonialists, leading to what was called King Phillips’ War. It makes no difference that Eliot’s converts are co-religionists of the colonialists or if they have any allegiance to the rebels. The very fact that many of them are now fluent in the native languages and English makes any of them prime suspects as spies and informants by both sides. Some of Eliot’s converts are killed, and the rest are shipped off to a concentration camp where many starve, despite Eliot’s efforts. Oh, and most copies of the Eliot bible are deliberately destroyed. Those theological debates have become warfare.

I promised there would be a ray of light in this. I’m not sure this had happened yet when Longfellow wrote his poem — and if so, he prophecies it in the poem’s last line — but in the ensuing colonial disaster inflicted on the native peoples, their language was wiped out. People still existed who were descendants of this Algonquin tribe, but they could not speak it’s Wampanoag language. Surviving copies of Eliot’s Bible become the Rosetta Stone that allows the language to be revived.

John Eliot Memorial Newton Mass

The same year Longfellow wrote his poem a memorial on a spot where Eliot preached to the Algonquin was built. I wondered through Google Streetview to find it still stands, though it looks ignored.

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In summary, as you listen to today’s audio piece, it may just seem like a facile little ditty about a talking tree and this, whatever Eliot,*** who isn’t even T. S. Eliot. Understand what its images and references point to, and it’s a memento of one of the least-known and most-impressive American literary achievements and a link to the complex tragedy of some who hoped to turn in some way from genocide. Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but consider some of the lost or just unheard stories of the land we live on during this #NationalPoetryMonth, the lips that spoke them, the hearts that heard them. The river of history may run in one direction — but go ahead, make a fool of yourself, and listen to the trees. Or listen first or second to my performance of Longfellow’s “Eliot’s Oak.”  You can use the player gadget if you see it below, or this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab or window to play it too.

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*Except in Chicago. See this.

**Here’s a short, two-page summary of John Eliot’s efforts in PDF format written for a local church that bears his name.

***So, is John Eliot related to T. S. Eliot? I don’t have a family tree or other such documentation, but it’s highly likely. Eliot’s family was known to descend from early Puritan colonists.

Twilight Fallen White and Cold

What do we see, what do we learn, what possibly do we gain here in the upper parts of the northern hemisphere from so much nighttime at the beginning of a cold and snowy winter?

Some might say we learn endurance, a sense of obligation besides the dark and ice to carry on. Or a concentration, winter solstice as the fasting of light. But night is a filter, a frame, offering another way of perceiving. So, I went looking for poems this month that might allow you or I to look at darkness and see differently. One of the strongest and strangest poems I found was this one by a little-known Irish poet named Joseph Campbell.*

I’m trying to gather more info on Campbell. He was born in colonial Ireland in 1879 and died 1944 in a now independent Ireland. Most of his available poetry was published before WWI. He was imprisoned in the events surrounding the Irish Civil War of the last Twenties** (he was aligned with the losing side) and afterward he lived for a couple of decades in the United States. Shortly before his death he returned to Ireland and died there. I’ve read one of his book-length collections of poetry and parts of two others, all of which predate Irish Independence and the Civil War. I find him a striking poet worthy of more interest. Most of his poetry is brief, rhymed lyrical poems, using short metrical lines, such as today’s selection. One collection, Irishry,  contains incisive small character sketches of Irish life at the turn of the 20th century. Another, The Gilly of Christ,  has elements of Christian mysticism. Inherent in many of the poems seems to be a speaker who has spent time hiking about the country, and in this regard, Campbell reminds me at times of Edward Thomas with his attention to the book of nature and the landscape. While he likes rural and sometimes peculiar words, his language is clean and modern without the taint of worn-out 19th century leftovers.

There are also a handful of poems I’ve read in the collections so far that are very much in the style of the early Imagists, and this is striking because they may date to around the same time as their initial ground-breaking experiments. I so far know of no direct connection between Campbell and the largely London-based pioneering Imagists, but like his Irish contemporaries Yeats*** and Joyce, Campbell seems to be an early Modernist voice regardless of his use of rhyme and meter for most of his poetry.

Twilight Fallen White and Cold

Here’s today’s piece with chords in case you want to make sounds in the winter night

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Today’s Winter Solstice relatable piece “Twilight Fallen White and Cold”  mixes his modes a bit to produce an interesting effect. It’s on one layer a jaunty nature poem, almost nursery rhyme simple. This seems an easy effect to achieve, but particular to moderns, it’s not. Subtly mixed in with the “child in cradle, lamb in fold” comfortable lines are misty undercurrents. Well, yes, those trees are a bit ghostly in fading light and cold mist. Yes, birds are on the wing, but also “Black-winged vampires.” What? No, there are no vampire bats in Ireland.****  And in the last line of the second stanza we meet “rath and burial mounds,” the former a word that has an Irish meaning that an modern American reader might slide over. No, the burial mounds aren’t explicitly angry, a “rath” is the remains of an earthen-walled stronghold dating back to Celtic chieftains. The poem final stanza intensifies that hold and call from the indigenous past. Though Campbell is depicting an Irish landscape, these rounded-over and landscape-worn earthworks bring to mind the areas of North America in my native Midwest where indigenous people built similar structures.

But the most mysterious part is repeated as a refrain to make sure we don’t miss it: “Wounds of Eloim/Weep on me!”

The darkness of coming night may be mysterious, but this is more so. I don’t know exactly what Campbell is getting at there, other than the effect of mystification assuredly delivered. Eloim, which I believe in a variation of “Elohim,” is word that will not become less mysterious if one researches it. It appears to be a Semetic language family word for gods. In the Bible the word appears to have taken on several meanings. The Abrahamic Semites are famously monotheists, and they will use the word to refer to the multiple gods of the other tribes—but even though the word is plural, they will use it to refer to their own, singular god, or to the ambiguous angels that are not human but are also not plural gods. At some point, I believe post-Biblical times, this association with angels has led the word to be used at times as synonym for heaven.

Does that help us understand what Campbell meant to ring out multiple times in his poem? Not exactly. I gather some sense of a lost past, of a suppressed culture, is being invoked, but the mysticism never reduces itself to a “this stands for that, it’s just a code to be broken” level. That may increase its power, and it certainly increases the strangeness of this poem.

Returning to my original question, what might the darkness, our winter-come overwhelming night portion teach us? The example of this poem says that I shouldn’t answer that question quickly and simply—but that I should ask it.

A player gadget to hear my performance of Joseph Campbell’s “Twilight Fallen White and Cold”  will often appear below. If you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.

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*As I have to say whenever I mention Campbell to anyone: no, not the American Hero With A Thousand Faces  and “Follow your bliss” Joseph Campbell. This is another guy. The Irish Joseph Campbell also used a Gaelic name, Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil which would have given him a more secure doing-business-as cultural brand, and near the end of his life a pen-name of Ultach.

**Until this year I was entirely ignorant of the events of the Irish Civil War and now only know the summary story as reflected in things like this Wikipedia entry. I am, so far, unacquainted with Campbell’s political beliefs and actions.

***Like Yeats, Campbell seems to have been a committed cultural nationalist, seeking to use the arts as a way to uplift his country’s prestige and as a foundation for independence from colonial status. Like Yeats he also seems to have been involved with theater and as a song lyricist. One tidbit I found, which may be related to the mysterious element in today’s poem, is that he may have been the source responsible for a broadside folk ballad “Reynardine,”  being performed in a version by several British Isle folk-revivalists later in the 20th century as a tale of a “were-fox” rather than in its original guise as tale of a bandit. Here’s two of my favorites versions, one by the incomparable Bert Jansch, and an unaccompanied one by the equally special Anne Briggs.

****Maybe St. Patrick and Van Helsing teamed up to take care of that?

The Vanishing Red

Do you think you know Robert Frost? You know: steadfast New England farmers, Currier and Ives snowfalls, happy roads less traveled by. We might think of Frost as the friendly Modernist, with good ol’rhymes and rhythms and narratives of American scenes of Americans bearing up to the burdens of life.

Robert-Frost on a wall

Robert Frost. Wry poet of the good old days—or maybe not?

 

Today’s piece is instead the hard-boiled Robert Frost. It’s blank verse, but the beat is implied, the sentence structures beat against it, and my performance choice was to not emphasize the meter. What “The Vanishing Red”  portrays is, straight up, a racially-motivated murder, and the way Frost tells the tale uses sly ways to frame this story.

He doesn’t get out of the first line before he starts this framing. One of our characters is called the “Red Man” by history. A term roughly equivalent to the N-word for indigenous Americans, but one that in Frost’s time was not considered socially unacceptable.*  Frost wasn’t going to shock or disgust his readers in 1916 with that epithet at the start of his poem, like he might some today, but he wants us to know from the start that the race and history of this man is material to what is going to happen—but we don’t meet him yet.

Instead we meet another man, the Miller, who’s talking in a way we might find familiar. He starts out by telling us he’s not guilty of something before he’s even been charged with it, claims too that he’s not one of that PC brigade who “talks round the barn” instead of straight talk, that he’s a get-it-done doer.

Frost adds just a tiny bit of narration after the Miller’s speech. Some may read this narration as excusing the man, but the narrator’s pointing us to think about two things as the story will continue. The narrator says, let’s not consider this as history (“too long a story”) or politics (“who began it”). As we’ll soon see, we’re going to consider this as an Imagist poet would consider it, as a presentation of what Ezra Pound called “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” History can be dulled by time. Politics says there are two sides.

Old Grist Mill

Nostalgic postcard or dark satanic mills?  Frost reports, you decide.

 

But first we have one more exchange of dialog. Our unnamed “Red Man” is at the Miller’s mill, and we hear nothing he says directly, but we do hear what the Miller puzzles about what the other man is communicating. The Miller portrays the other man as without English words, but he interprets some “guttural exclamation” anyway as surprise, and this is somewhat sketchy. Is the native American puzzled by the mill’s mechanism? Surprised at being seen by the Miller?

Is the Miller even reading the other man well? I think not. Afterall, the Miller has another reaction, stronger than his sense of what the other man may be feeling, and Frost’s narrator also doesn’t “talk around the barn:” it’s disgust. But that’s not what our Miller portrays in his next piece of dialog. He acts friendly, offers to show “John” his mill.**  Ah, the “Red Man” has a name, he’s not some reductionist cypher for an entire continent’s indigenous peoples, and since it’s an English name, we might surmise that he might even be one of the Massachusetts tribes that attempted to synthesize with the new rulers, taking to Christianity and living in “praying towns.”

And now the Imagist poem begins, ten lines. The Miller opens a trap door and shows John the water-power wheel, and a poem that has been entirely without imagery suddenly gets a vivid image. The wheel’s water forebodingly is like struggling, thrashing fish. The door closes, and the door’s handle (a metal ring) we are told makes enough noise with this shutting to be heard above the noise of the mill. And the Miller returns upstairs, alone. The wheel’s turned around to the beginning of the story where the Miller laughs, though it’s not quite a laugh. He meets a customer carrying more meal to be ground at the mill, who doesn’t understand what has just happened. We ourselves are just understanding what has happened.

What has happened? The racist Miller has thrown John, the “Red Man” into the mechanism and killed him. Frost wants you to feel that by showing you this moment in time, but he also wants you to vividly feel the lack of notice, the vanishing in the title, which isn’t some passive mystery, it’s an act of human cruelty.

Today’s music is two pianos, bass and drums. I’ve been suffering from a cold for the past few days which made completing today’s spoken word component a challenge, and I did miss one phrase in Frost’s text and didn’t get another one completely correct, but you didn’t get to hear any of the coughs and voice cracks from the bad tracks either. To hear “The Vanishing Red”  use the player below.

 

*For example, the college I went to over 50 years ago called its sports teams the Redmen then. I had a tiny part in the beginning of the process to change that.

**Acton Massachusetts had a grist mill and more. I can’t find any pictures of them, but the town still has a Grist Mill Road.

For the American Hendrix

Today’s piece uses my own words to present some images regarding American musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix. Just like William Carlos Williams meditation on a small plant last time, I pretty much follow the famous Imagist rules: direct treatment of the thing, no unnecessary words, and musical phrasing instead of mechanical metrical feet.

Each one of the images opens up what I hope is a rich question. It’s my hope that the resulting poem and audio piece assists you in remembering these questions that I see as posed in Hendrix’s life. Here is the poem I wrote and used with today’s music:

 

For the American Hendrix

 

And then he laid the guitar down, and set it afire

Which seems silly or sacred, depending on the art

He had only to keep himself alive, which would kill him.

 

He took every stop on the three 21 fret train tracks,

Slid between the rails, rode them underwater,

Understood the train-whistle called his ancestors

 

Living in the amplifiers, that he could not shake out,

That he could not know, that were here,

Before European words, that were here,

 

Brought in shackles, that were here,

Building in electricity, that were here

Now, for children who did not know they were children.

 

Voluntary orphans, immigrants discovering new worlds,

Walking on squatters’ land, not forgetting to bring their chains.

 

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix plays for hippies in 1967. Do you envy them or feel superior to them?

In the first stanza, I remind us that Jimi Hendrix was a consummate showman, and that he used showmanship to wrest attention for his art, specifically when he appeared at his first significant concert as a bandleader at the famous Monterey Pop Festival and burned a guitar at the conclusion of a flamboyant act. I present this performance as being consistent to Hendrix’s commitment to his art, as a rock’n’roll musician, an itinerant life with associated dangers, which in his case lead to short life and career. Worth it? Necessary for success?


Hendrix ends his first American show as a bandleader with a sacrifice to his art.

The next stanza acclaims Hendrix for expanding the vocabulary of the electric guitar, using an image of the six-string guitar fretboard, which he transcended with notes beyond the temperament of the frets and though the use of feedback where the notes from the amplifier speaker reflect back to the guitar in the musician’s hands producing sustaining overtones that can be difficult to control but produce extraordinary effects. The question here: these sounds can be harsh, discordant, even painful, but do they too have a necessity?

Next stanza: this feedback is presented as Hendrix’s ancestry: part indigenous, native-American; part Afro-American, a descendent of slaves. This makes Hendrix the point where two arcs of American heritage cross: those that were brought to American against their will, like as to livestock; and those that that were already here and were supplanted by brutal or conniving invaders. The questions here should ask themselves, don’t you think?

The final lines move from Hendrix, to his audience while he was alive and performing: largely white, largely young, many taking a hippie bohemian voyage I liken to America’s famous immigrants, choosing to leave the world of their homes for some promised new world that cannot, and will not, be exactly as promised.

Whatever generation you reside in, you cannot get on a boat or plane to visit another generation’s time; but when you look at a picture or video of a crowd watching Hendrix play, consider those faces. They may be distracted by the day, transfixed or stunned, ignorant and seeking, intoxicated but intent, pleased and puzzled—they may not look like Hendrix, many will seem by their faces to not share his heritage, and none can know the depth of that heritage—and yet, they are dealing with the experience of his art. I ask you not to feel superior or inferior to them from the position of your age or the accident of your generation, but to instead to look to your own heart and ask if there you find some blindness or power, and then to ask, as the concluding words of “For the American Hendrix”  does: when coming to your new land, did you carry with you chains?

47 years ago today, Jimi Hendrix died, perhaps alone, perhaps ignored by his companion of itinerant convenience, trying to continue his art, ignorant of the strength of European sleeping pills.  To hear my performance of “For the American Hendrix,”  use the player below.

I Have Fallen in Love with American Names

Anyone remember those sentry questions that would be used in to determine if some straggler in the soldier’s darkness was an American or foreign foe? “Who plays first base for the New York Yankees?” they’d ask.

Native Iowans have a similar method to catch those from out of state. They might start right off with asking about the state capital. “Dezz Moynens.” Wrong! Not an Iowan. “Day Moyne.” Native. Poweshiek, that fine county with a Brooklyn no one knows. “Poe’s He Eck.” Nope. “Powa Sheek.” How about that nice small town founded by lost Swedes in Boone County, Madrid. “Ma Drid?” Outsider, it’s “Mad Rid!”

While overseas in France in the early 1920’s Stephen Vincent Benet wrote his own catalog of place names that I have adapted for today’s piece “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names.”  In it, Benet contrasts American place names with European ones, perhaps to staunch a little homesickness on his part, but also as part of his claim to something he and Carl Sandburg helped to define in the first half of the 20th Century, something that’s now used to label a musical genre: “Americana.”
 
To briefly define Americana, it’s the featuring of things that are distinctive to our country, most often things that are in the past tense, things that we are asked to pay attention to as our heritage. If these things seem a little odd, old-fashioned or provincial to us, that’s the tang the artist wants us to taste.

I came upon Benet’s poem after reading a Phillip Roth memoir in the New Yorker last month, where Roth takes off from Benet’s poem to discuss how a literary sense of a greater America he did not yet know expanded his horizons westward from his childhood neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. Roth remembered how, in the 1940s, even though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world was a river and a marsh away from his town, New York City was a world away, perhaps as far away as America seemed to Benet in Paris.
 
Roth doesn’t mention it, but as I read Roth’s piece, I thought of Benet’s story “By the Rivers of Babylon,”  were a future neo-indigenous youth ventures across that same river into the ruins of New York on a vision quest.

The original title

This was “By the Waters of Babylon’s” original title

In the nearly 100 years since it was written, Benet’s “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names”  has not fallen to ruins, but it has gained some tarnish or patina. I’ve cut a stanza because the notables referenced are now obscure, and I modified another line in it, not out gentility, but because it frankly stuck in my craw. By chance, one of the obscure and colorfully named towns in Benet’s catalog, French Lick, now is slightly better known as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird—but that’s the not the greatest resonance the poem has picked up over the years.

As the poem builds to its ending, Benet uses something like the thought used by Rupert Brooke in his famous war poem “The Soldier”,  the idea where even if Brooke was to die and his body was buried overseas, that his Englishness would remain. Benet sets up a series of places he might be interred in England or Europe, and ends with a line that later became the title of a landmark book about the cruel and unjust treatment of indigenous Americans. Did Benet choose to end his poem with the evocative place name of Wounded Knee because of the massacre that occurred there a bit more than 30 years before he wrote his poem, or because of legends that Crazy Horse was secretly buried there, or was it only something that caught his eye on the page of an atlas? I don’t know enough about Benet to say. His litany of American places does include “a Salem tree” which sounds to me like a reference to the Massachusetts witch trials and executions. If we are to remind ourselves of the greatness in our heritage, we are likewise obligated to remind ourselves of the sins there too.

I Married A Witch Poster

Fall in love with a Salem tree? I have a tenuous connection to the story made into this film.

In my performance, I made the choice that, author’s intention or not, modern audiences will hear it as intentional, so I should perform it that way.  The American name of my home state, Iowa, comes somehow from it’s indigenous people, but over 400 years passing, we no longer know what it’s meaning is. How strange to say that I come from a place of no meaning, knowing the pass-word to tell the magic ghosts of native sentries, but knowing not what I’m saying.

To hear “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” use the player below.