The Poetry of a Root Crop

I’ll often choose a piece to present here from an instant impression. I’ll be reading another blog, looking at a writer connected with something else I’m looking for, or paging through an anthology and there’ll be this poem that strikes me as more interesting than the one before or the next one after.

Somewhere last month that happened with this piece. You can find the full text of Charles Kingsley’s “The Poetry of a Root Crop” here. It starts off as a garden poem (I may have been looking for one of those) but it soon gets a bit strange. “Swede” is the British term for what I (and Swedish-American Carl Sandburg) would call a rutabaga. “Golden globe” is a turnip. The “Feathered carrot” is a nice image, I see the root tendrils—but by the second stanza we’re getting weirder: “angel’s alchemy” is somehow involved and “blood and bone.” I think of the orthopedic snap of crisp root vegetables and what, beet juice? Sure, it is rhymed couplets, but this is very modern imagery. I knew nothing of its author: I thought late Victorian or maybe one of the “Georgian poets” from around the time of WWI who often use modern imagery inside of traditional forms.

And then the poem starts to take on visionary or prophetic imagery. There are also elements in here, pace the “angels’ alchemy” phrase that call to mind esoteric terms of alchemy.*  Where is this going? As the poem closes it becomes clear. This is a graveyard—and/or a garden. Which is it? I think it’s to be both.

By the time I’d finished reading the poem for the first time I’d decided I wanted to write some music and perform this. Those who consume the Parlando Project as a podcast hear only the short audio pieces, and I already knew this would be arresting there if my music worked out. But here, for my blog readers, I’d need to find out something about the author. Who was Charles Kingsley? I’d never heard of him, and it’s likely you haven’t either.

Charles_Kingsley._Photograph_by_Charles_Watkins

Charles Kingsley. If the British royal family is related to Odin, is there a part for Queen Elizabeth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

 

The weirdness didn’t end. First off, this poem was older than I figured it was. It was written in 1845. On first reading I would have guessed a contemporary of Yeats, but instead William Wordsworth was still alive. And Kingsley was strange. He was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He knew the British royal family and Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. He was an early proponent of Christian Socialism, and he was an advocate for increased worker’s rights.

But he believed in a historic basis for the old Norse gods, and thought the British monarchy was descended from them. He attacked Catholicism and thought Emerson and the American Transcendentalists were poppycock. He was a defender of the brutal suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.**  If one wonders if that last was some technical or procedural objection, Kingsley’s Wikipedia page quotes what has to be the trifecta of a racist statement written in a letter to his wife after a visit to the County Sligo*** in 1860: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country [Ireland] … to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”

So there you go: if you are a person of color, Irish, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, Catholic, an atheist libertarian, or I would suppose, a sentient chimpanzee, Kingsley is despicable.

Yes, these ideas caused, and cause, suffering and death, but his little-known poem brought me some pleasurable surprise. Big and little things.

Maybe I’m a bit glad that this poem is older than I thought. The vegetative minerals of Charles Kingsley are long absorbed into the earth, and I’ve performed Ezra Pound poems, so I guess you can put me down in the group that says the art can exist—at least eventually—separate from the artist.

Is the opposite so? The better, the more evolved, just, and righteous that a reader is, the smaller the number of poets they will be able to read?

The player gadget to hear a performance of “The Poetry of a Root Crop”  is below. My music for this is acoustic guitar and electric bass today.

 

 

 

*If you’d like to go off on a strange tangent into esoterica, consider Isaac Newton’s alchemical and occult studies.

**Wikipedia says Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson also served on a committee with Kingsley defending the actions of the British colonial governor of Jamaica.

***I’m moved to mention that within a decade, a certain young boy named William Butler Yeats was in that same County Sligo a lot during his childhood. Some chimpanzee, Kingsley. See Yeats moving poem in his primitive tongue: “Me Tarzan, You Maude Gonne.”

Winter 2020 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 4-2

As we continue our countdown toward the most popular piece of this ending winter, we come to a section coincidentally that’s all poets known by three names. You can’t plan something like that, but your listens and likes counted up that way.

4. “The Stare’s Nest at My Window”  by William Butler Yeats. This poem grew on me after I selected it from a short collection of poems Yeats wrote on the Irish Civil War that followed Irish independence. Just after I read the series for the first time this winter, I mentioned to my wife that Yeats seemed to be too far into his mystical side for me to find something I could attach to in them. “The Stare’s Nest”  seemed only the least bad for my use after that first reading, largely because I could grasp its word-music as promising.

I often work on the music and performance before I work on the research about the text and its background. I did so here, though one may think it perverse to do that—my setting and performance will then come from me working without a context, and without the best information about an author’s intent. Still, the setting I came up with accumulated considerable power for me, and even though it’s me playing all the parts I composed and reading Yeats’ words, my impression of “The Stare’s Nest”  was transformed as I experienced what came from that combination. Though I made these components, the whole presented something I was unaware of.

What did I become aware of in the process of creating the piece? This poem I feel is perched somewhere between a prayer and a magical spell for his country.

 

 

 

3. “The Times are Nightfall”  by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Speaking of word-music that pulls me into places I might not otherwise choose to go, Hopkins is an example. He seems to be a full-on Christian mystic with more than a touch of hair-shirt depressive in his soul that he doesn’t fight so much a seek to feel more fully.

But his metrical conception, his use of repeated sounds, I’ve liked from the first time I read him. He believed his ideas there (borrowed from the more Saxon ancestral branches of English poetry) worked better than the musical structures adopted from the Romance languages or from poetry in Latin.

One can test his theories by seeing how his hymn to dark winter works with music as I do here.

Yeat and Hopkins

Yeats the great Irish poet and nationalist spent a good deal of time in England. Hopkins, the English poet with a distinctly English prosody was a priest unhappily sent to a post in the still colonized Ireland. Despite our world-wide virus crisis, St. Patrick’s Day will be celebrated by an Irish diaspora here in the United States this week.

 

2. from “Dirge”  by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is better known as an inspirational force via his essays and influence on Transcendentalism than as a poet, but his influence was felt by poets and in poetry. The distinctly American poetry that emerged in the 19th century is almost completely made up of poets touched by him.

When I have dipped into Emerson’s own poetry it’s produced some of the most popular pieces during the run of this project, but I wasn’t looking to find another Emerson poem this winter. “Dirge”  came forward in a round-about way from watching the Apple TV+ Dickinson,  a streaming series presenting a youthful, passionate Emily Dickinson. That series fully intends to use our present culture as a lens and overlay to espie into Dickinson’s times, something that I think worked for its released first season, though it works most completely if one looks also with a more sober eye at this genius. The creators seem to have done their homework. Lot’s of little details and obscure Dickinson trivia are referred to. And speaking of Transcendentalists, they manage to have some wicked fun with those other three-names Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott—who are both skewered with lesser-known biographic facts that aren’t full pictures of those two by far, but make for some good scenes.

In one scene, Dickinson and a young man Dickinson is crushing on bond over their mutual love of Emerson’s “Dirge”  for its gothic lines about a field of ghosts. I had to check out the poem. I worried that is might be a too long and how well the 19th century sentimentalism in the text would work for modern audiences, but trimmed a bit for length, the listeners here sure liked it this winter.

 

 

So, what’ll be the most popular piece here from the past few months? Will the author go by three names? Obscure author or well-known? American? British Isles? Translation from another language? Stay tuned.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Last time we had a young man, an American walking in Paris in 1913 who came upon his poem leaving the Metro. Today, another young man, an Irishman in London in 1890, is walking too. He comes to a shop window, drawn by the sound there of water splashing. Looking in, he saw a fountain on display, its upward spray buoying up a ball.

The sound of water instantly brought memories of his childhood home on the coast of Ireland—and as he had been reading Thoreau’s account of his stay at Walden Pond, a small personal fantasy occurred to him of building and living in a self-sufficient cabin on a tiny island back home. Because that Irishman was William Butler Yeats, a poem came from that shop-street window, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

william-butler-yeats-irish-poet-and-dramatist-in-his-study-at-woburn-buildings-london

If one can’t have a solitary wattled cabin, at least one can have books

 
That poem is now one of those beloved “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.” A few years back it topped a survey by an Irish newspaper as its readers’ favorite poem, and though I can’t find a picture of this, I’ve read that it’s been printed on a page of Ireland’s passports since 2013.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

Ireland’s favorite Irish poem was written in a foreign country

 

Of course, like most any Yeats poem it sounds lovely. Its language is straightforward, and there’s not much that needs explication. For a sound medium, it’s not always that a poem’s strongest images are sounds, but here the sounds of lapping water, bees’ hum-resonance, crickets, and a bird’s wings in flight carry the story.

Pound too, with his “In a Station of the Metro”  chose to use nature images in his Paris subway poem; but Yeats makes it plain that he’s stuck in the city, walking the grey pavement, not some country path. Thoreau had presented himself as the practical man in his book, making empirical living experiments. Yeats presents himself as the Romantic, helping imagine an Ireland—then viewed conventionally as a poverty-blighted colony—as an Eden, another locus amoenus. Another unusual choice Yeats makes is switching around the way we might describe night and day: night “a glimmer” and noon “purple glow.” Even though this was written before the dawn of urban lights dimming the night starfield, that’s the glimmering I sense, and if Irish coasts are foggy, noon could have a diffused glow. 1890 London might have fog and coal-fired air pollution too, maybe London fog didn’t glow, and maybe something beyond “light pollution” dimmed the stars.

This weekend’s St. Patrick’s day has become an occasion for the Irish diaspora to look toward its former homeland; and this poem, which speaks with Yeats’ humble yet beautiful specifics, invokes generally the homesickness of travelers, exiles, and immigrants. The specific in poetry often does that, the personal history that’s included standing for us all. This morning, as I filled my mouth with the word “peace” that Yeats wrote down twice in his poem, I could think of the island of New Zealand, and other travelers, exiles, and immigrants.

To hear my performance of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”  use the player gadget below.

 

To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing

Given that poetry contributes the great majority of the words to the half of the  Parlando Project “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s reasonable to suspect, if you are reading this, that you like poetry. That’s too bad. Even during the National Poetry Month and #npm17 that were are talking about this April.

You see, poetry is often a frustrating thing. That high-flown language may be artful, but it’s an earful too. If you were seeking directions to escape some emergency, would you want your rescuer to choose the most precise and beautiful words, words that say more about what a clever speaker your rescuer is than about which way you must turn and where the dangers are?

Do you love the dense allusions and surprising metaphors of poetry? Do you admire the narrative fracturing and careful examination of the shattered facets that expose the common lie of ordered stories? The next time you are searching for how to work some complex gadget or system, do you want your tutorial or manual to scatter its tale in novel ways?

Speaking of too simple statements, here’s one: that there are people who simply like poetry. No, most people who like poetry sometimes, hate poetry sometimes; just as most people who like music, hate music sometimes. The intensity of the like times does not decrease the intensity of the hate times. I think it’s important that poetry tries to capture the allusiveness of things. I continue to admire some poems I don’t really understand—that’s what the music is for, both the poem’s own music and the external music we apply to the words here at the Parlando Project. But there are times when you just want a poet to come out and say what they’re getting at.

The words to today’s episode, by William Butler Yeats, are clear in their meaning. “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing”  is an example of “occasional verse,” a poem written in response to an event. In this case, almost everyone has forgotten the event, but the sentiments of the poem apply broadly anyway. Yeats has such a musical way of expressing himself, he could have flown off on some obscure path and we might have followed him anyway. As it turns out, the things he leaves out here, the particulars of the dispute, probably help the poem survive as a general piece of council.

Still, I’m a curious and literal sort. Who was the “Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing,” and what was the work? It was written about and perhaps to a man named Hugh Lane who wanted to donate his substantial modern art collection to a museum he proposed that Ireland should fund. And the man who would lie unashamed to oppose this? A newspaper publisher who opposed the gallery.

Hugh Lane

Yeats gave him good advice, but he didn’t tell him to not get on that boat.

 

What happened to Hugh Lane, whose work had come to nothing? About a year after Yeats wrote this poem, Lane went down when the Lusitania  was torpedoed during WWI. And his art collection? His will seemed to leave it to the British National Gallery after his proposal to fund the Irish museum failed, but Ireland disputed this will, and later in the 20th Century, after Lane’s and Yeats’ deaths, Lane’s collection was again on display in Dublin Ireland. So eventually, in prosaic history and after the work of some lean solicitors, Lane’s work succeeded.

Dublin City Gallery

The Dublin City Gallery where most of Hugh Lane’s collection ended up

 

Today’s audio piece is brief, so take a listen to the LYL Band performing “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing” by clicking on the player below.

 

Song of the Wondering Aengus

William Butler Yeats, when he spoke admiringly about the ubiquity that songwriters like Rabindranath Tagore could achieve, had already made his forays into setting his poems to music. As a sometime playwright, and a founder of the Abbey Theater in Ireland, he was already familiar with the dimensions performers can bring to words. Around the turn to the 20th Century he began to forthrightly seek to combine his poetry with music. Working in collaboration with musicologist and luthier Arnold Dolmetsch and performer Florence Farr he had a psaltery (a stringed instrument like a lyre or small harp) constructed, and Farr (a fascinating figure in her own right) then performed Yeats poems with it.

FarrPsaltry

Farr with the psaltery showing Joanna Newsom how to rock it

Yeats and Farr’s performance style was not a conventional art song setting of the poet’s words sung to a melody. Yeats explicitly rejected that (even though his words have often been set to melodies in the years since). Rather he thought the words were best chanted or intoned in a rhythmic and somewhat elongated speech.  Such performances are controversial then, and I would suppose they would be controversial now as well. George Bernard Shaw called Farr’s chanting “A nerve-destroying crooning,” but Ezra Pound and other early 20th century modernists took note, and they were influenced by these performances to add a more incantatory and musical element to their poetry.

Now let us break in our story for about half a century.

In the late 1950s an actor and folk singer Burl Ives recorded an album of Irish songs, and one of them was “The Wondering of Old Angus”, a Yeats poem sung to melody that Ives claimed he learned from Sara Allgood, another actor who had performed with the Abbey Theater group and would have likely known of the Farr performances. Around the same time, another folk singer, Will Holt began singing the Yeats poem to a very similar melody, using Yeats’ title “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.”  Then in 1962, Judy Collins, having learned the song from Holt, made it the title song of her album “Golden Apples of the Sun,”  which is where I first heard it.

No one seemed to know where the tune Ives, Holt, and Collins used came from. Those knowledgeable in traditional Irish tunes do not recognize it. Some credited Holt for it. However, early in the 21st Century a man named Bill Kennedy writing in the folk-song forum mudcat.org linked the tune to a transcription made by Dolmetsch accompanying a Yeats essay “Speaking to the Psaltery”  re-published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907. The tune there of course was not meant to be sung, as Yeats discussed in this essay, but it is recognizably the one used by Ives, Holt, and Collins in their singing renditions.

So the tune may well be Yeats’ own, or perhaps it was composed by Farr or even Dolmetsch. Since the words are Yeats’, I’m going to call it, and make him the composer; and if so, that makes Yeats yet another singer-songwriter (along with Tagore and Dylan) to have won the Nobel prize.

But he didn’t sing it, nor did he intend the words to be sung. Since we at the Parlando project are working in something like the same vein, here’s a version, using more or less that tune, but chanted not sung as Yeats suggested. Instead of the psaltery, I used fretless electric bass, some bowed strings and Mellotron to elaborate the tune. To hear it, use the player below, though neither Bernard Shaw nor I will be responsible for any nerve destruction.

 

NOTE: I just noticed that I miss-typed “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” into “The Song of the Wondering Aengus” here. Oh my. This could be nerve destruction, or my hurry to get ready for a recording session this afternoon. Well, he is wondering after all!