A little contrast here in poetic fame from Shakespeare to a poet who’s equally unknown under each of his names: Joseph Campbell/Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. Most of his poetry was published under that first name, not the Gaelic version, and so I’ll use it today, even though I’m always obligated to say “No, not that Power of Myth guy.” Over the years this project has promoted the idea that Campbell deserves wider recognition. Here’s a brief version of that case.
Belfast born, Campbell was active in the Irish cultural revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and like Yeats, he seems to have crossed paths with the London-based Modernist poets circle of T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, and Ezra Pound in the years before WWI. His involvement with the militant wing of Irish revolutionaries also grew during this time.* After Irish independence he lived in America for more than a decade, while continuing to promote Irish culture; but he seems to have stopped publishing his poetry after the establishment of the Irish Republic. Late in his life he returned to Ireland and died there in 1944 where his ghost continues the task of becoming largely forgotten — at best a footnote, and often not even that.
Well, most poets are forgotten, even in a country like Ireland that does a better job of revering them than most, but here are some things that attracted me to Campbell: he worked effectively in the folk-song part of the Irish cultural revival, collecting, writing, and adapting song lyrics.** And his take on page poetry included both that folk song tradition — and uniquely among his Irish generation — a handful of very early poems in the pioneering English-language Modernist style that would be called Imagism.
In fact, I’ll put today’s piece up against any of the more famous short Imagist poems widely anthologized, I think it’s a masterpiece of the form.
Here’s the lyric video of the performance.
I find “Night, and I Traveling” a hugely affecting example of direct presentation of a thing and a charged moment in time. Like Imagist poetry in general it does expect the reader to pay attention, as the poet did, and to supply from within themselves the emotional charge the presentation represents.
Campbell was a country walker in Ireland, and the door he observes while walking in the night is likely of a small rural dwelling, plausibly little more than a hut. The door is open. Perhaps the peat fire inside has gathered smoke. Perhaps the occupant is expecting someone to return. Let us also remember, this is more-than-a-hundred-year-old rural night. The ambient light he’s sees in the dark has a landscape context of moonlight at best. There’s a gleam of some porcelain dinnerware inside, perhaps the most valued possession in the hut, perhaps a dowry or wedding item. The poet hears the only occupant, a woman, singing, in the ambiguous, but I think rich phrase, “as if to a child.” Note this single simile in the poem. He could have written “to a child.” He did not, leaving the implication that I take: that there is no child — the child is dead or gone. Campbell passes on “into the darkness” and the poem ends.
Seven lines, and this poem slays me. How much is packed in there to an attentive reader: the poverty of the colonized Irish, the depopulation of those who needed to leave to survive, their meager treasure (part of which is song), the closely-held personal losses.
Yes, poetry such as this requires your attention to work. I ask for your attention to this poem and to Joseph Cambell.
*This revolutionary involvement seems to have been the proximate cause of Campbell’s literary career stalling. In the aftermath of Irish Independence, the Irish Civil war broke out between factions of the new Irish state. Campbell ended up on the losing side and was imprisoned for a while. Despite my admiration for Campbell’s poetry, I’m not an expert on his life or the political issues of the Irish Civil war. But these events seemed to traumatize the writer, and it’s not hard to imagine that politics and associations from a sectarian war might have caused him to be written off by some in Ireland.
Continuing our National Poetry Month celebration, here’s another poet’s love poem, loved by other poets, William Butler Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” If Millay’s “Rosemary” portrays a relationship turned cold, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is more at the wooing stage.
The speaker in Yeats poem begins by saying that they’d offer their beloved heaven or the heavens — well, to be exact, a luxurious simulation as some kind of cloth — and then not care that the beloved might just use it like a rug and walk all over it. And then they say they don’t have those cloths of heaven, only a dream. Still, the beloved can walk on that, the poet’s dreams; but the poem finishes with a plea that they should walk softly on that treasure, the wooer’s dreams.
In this short eight-line poem, Yeats does some fine things. First — no surprise if it’s Yeats — it sounds beautifully, and he does this almost entirely with meter, supplely alternating two and three foot beats in my scansion of it, though you can force an iambic feel.* Unlike many poets and poems that pour on the consonance seeking musical sounds, he avoids this here other than “dim and dark.” Nor is end rhyme a factor, though there are 2.9 internal rhymes in the entire poem (“night” – “light,” “spread” – “tread,” and “cloths” – “enwrought.) Instead, Yeats leans on repetition of words, even though one can read or hear this poem without noticing just how heavily repetition is used. These words are repeated at least once: “cloths,” “light,” “feet,” “I,” “dreams,” “spread,” “under,” “my,” and “your” along with generally-repeatable articles like “and” and “the,” and with only 61 words in the entire poem, almost half the poem has another half echoing it.
It’s also subtle in it’s meaning. Yes, it has been used in “real life” as a wooing poem by others, but being subtle in a valentine is a risky business. Yeats himself originally published this as a persona poem in the voice of a character as “Adah Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” even though many identify this as an expression of his in-real-life love for Maude Gonne. But notice this: the poem’s speaker would be extravagant with something he doesn’t own (and maybe no one could own fabric as rich as heaven) — but he’s asking for some mercy with the actuality of his immaterial dreams.
So, there’s a lot here for other poets to admire, but there’s more: this poem restates the situation of most poets when they are writing too. We plan to create the closest we can with words and their weave to the heavens — and those plans, those wishes, are our dreams. And then — like Maude Gonne, the plausible love interest this poem may have been directed to — people walk, not on them, but around them. Don’t be dismayed, such is life. All Artists Fail. We are the wooers, and then when we read or perform poetry such as this one by Yeats, we become the lovers, the beloved.
Watch here for views of a statue depicting this poem created by Jackie McKenna that I much admire. One thing I just noticed when doing this video: the crouching figure of the wooer looks quietly satisfied viewed straight on, and then in the final profile shot, a little sad or resigned. Intended or trick of the light?
Three ways to hear my music and performance of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven:” there’s a player gadget for some, this highlighted link for others to use, and, at least for now, I’m continuing to create new lyric videos for this National Poetry Month series, and that is available above.
*That sort of repetition with variations, trod gently, gives a better musical effect in most cases.
Right there is a first potential problem. Some readers have an “Is that all there is?” response to many of Kevin’s poems. To the degree that I knew Kevin’s internal processes I don’t think he was troubled with that “problem.” He wanted his poetry to communicate to audiences not inured to modern poetry which might communicate in a non-linear way or with great reliance on esoteric imagery. But just because FitzPatrick doesn’t “come in hot” with arresting first lines, occult mysteries, and outlandish similes or settings, doesn’t mean it can’t have some other values. In the series this post initiates, I hope to show some of those strengths.
This is the picture that seems most “Like Kevin” to me.
Today’s piece uses the poem that led off FitzPatrick’s final collection, Still Living In Town. And for St. Patrick’s Day? Besides Kevin’s own Irish heritage, this one is about taking a fresh look at Ireland’s Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, FitzPatrick liked to take a sly look at his subjects.
There’s a player below to hear The LYL Band’s performance of this poem by our friend and fellow poet. In our celebration of Kevin earlier this month we performed all the pieces live, one after the other, without rehearsals or preliminary run-throughs. This leaves some rough spots, sure, but perhaps we can take them as evidence of life for us left to sing against the taking from us?
There’s a fairly long intro before the words begin today, which documents how our recording session began: with Dave coming from the stairs into the studio as I am already commencing my musical part. He then needs to start almost without thought.
I’m posting a bit late in the day, but it’s International Women’s Day, and so today’s audio piece uses as a text a poem by a very international woman, Lola Ridge. Ridge’s poetry is perhaps best known for a fierce commitment to social justice and the situation of the poor in early 20th century America; but she was born in Ireland, left with her parents for New Zealand as a child, emigrated from there to Australia to attend college, and then to America, eventually New York City, where she mixed with most of the political and artistic radicals of the early Modernist era, including on the arts side: Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams and the rest of the circle around the NYC Modernist magazine The Others. Over at the Midwestern anchor of Modernist American poetry, it’s editor/founder Harriet Monroe was said to have called Ridge a genius, and she won awards and some favorable reviews in the years between the two World Wars.
Late in the 1930’s she apparently fell from the scene politically and artistically, and when she died in 1941 she was as poor as the people she wrote about, and then seemingly the subject of a rapid and rather complete forgetting for the rest of the 20th century.
Luckily our 21st century has become interested in reassessing the women who were on the scene a century ago along with the male Modernists, and there’s now a revival in considering her work.
Unlike some of Ridge’s poetry, today’s piece is not formally Modernist. It’s not only a sonnet, it attempts to present a passionate if conventional poetic argument regarding the abstract ideal of artistic beauty. Taken by itself it’s more Percy Bysshe Shelley than William Carlos Williams, but if we look just a little beyond its surface we can be reminded that Shelley was a thoroughgoing political and social radical as well as a Romantic era poet. Here’s a link to the text of Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty,” from a blog that does a great job of presenting sonnets and similar shorter poems, FourteenLines.blog.
Ridge’s poem starts by worshiping beauty almost as an awed acolyte unable to face the godhead. But in the midst of the poem, something strange starts to manifest itself: a buzzard (an ugly, carrion-eating bird) appears gussied up by “The wizardry of light” to appear “All but lovely as the swan.” I read this as Ridge saying that artists and society can fail, can deceive, can fake beauty.
A musical metaphor follows this that says despite the diversity of artistic endeavor — including false beauties or injustice like unto our buzzard — that beyond the dissonance and the harmonic stress of this dialectic, that the chords can resolve. The poem ends avowing that true beauty can still chime through ugliness, falsehood, and strife.
Beyond sonnets, I will now make a turn in this post before giving you a chance to hear my performance of Ridge’s poem. Let me quickly summarize the event I attended this past Sunday remembering Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. There may be more than coincidence that Lola Ridge started this off.
Ethna McKiernan reading, with lipstick, and Lola Ridge, I’m not sure.
Minnesota weather and continued Covid-19 concerns might have conspired to reduce attendance, as the side streets were still full of sloppy snow from Saturday’s snowfall.* I arrived early and helped the bookstore staff setup chairs. They seemed to be expecting maybe a couple of dozen, which may be par for a Twin Cities local-writer poetry reading, but both the event organizer and myself the bystander suspected we’d need to maximize the amount of chairs the space could hold. I think we were able to get nearly 40 folding chairs into the designated space, but as the crowd started to assemble, extra chairs needed to be rounded up and put in the various aisles between the bookstore shelves to handle those that kept coming in, and we had a few standees who fit in where they could.
More than typical bookstore poetry readings, I suspect most of the crowd knew Ethna for a long time. And that may have given a boost to the eight poets who read poems of Ethna’s, a smattering of their own, and gave short thoughts about her as a writer and a person. So less a usual public reading where some poets might be nervously trying to consider how they would come off presenting their work to an audience which might not know it, and more like an experienced and informal poetry group of long-time colleagues.
Several of the readers were members of other periodically-meeting writer’s groups that included Ethna, like unto the Lake Street Writer’s group that Dave Moore, Kevin FitzPatrick, Ethna, and I were decades-long members of. I’m sure that if Kevin had lived, he would have been a valued part of this event, as Ethna often credited Kevin as an influence on her writing — but he died a few weeks ahead of Ethna. I tried to make myself useful by playing stagehand and raising and lowering the mic stand for the variety of readers.
Many of the readers spoke of Ethna’s work with homeless outreach, and read some of her poems that dealt with that work, something that echoes today’s poet Ridge. Though the audience was entirely masked, a few noted that Ethna was a stickler for always putting on lipstick when out in public. For all anyone knew, what with our Covid era masks, we all were wearing lipstick! Who could see — but I believe all of us were remembering Ethna.
Covid-era ambiguity: “Lipstick? We were supposed to wear lipstick?” A portion of the crowd at the “Remembering Ethna” event last Sunday.
So, as I speak of a woman who promoted culture, wrote beautiful poetry, and was committed to helping the economically desperate, I will now leave you with a piece using the words of another woman who a century before us did the same. You can hear Lola Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty” with a graphical player below if you see that, or if you don’t, with this highlighted link.
*My friend and participant here in the Parlando Project Dave Moore was unable to attend due to concerns with the street conditions. I’ve attended two other book-launch poetry readings given by Ethna herself, and this Sunday’s was the smallest crowd of the three. Consider though that most of those who knew Ethna are “senior citizens,” and some are frail as well.
I’m going to write here a bit, but if you’re in a hurry, I urge you to do two things. The first is to simply listen to today’s audio piece. I think that will reward you. You’ll find a way to play that near the bottom of this post along with my second suggestion.
To a large extent this project adapts other people’s poetry in the process of combining it with music I write and record. Occasionally when I mention this, or when the more general topic of a difference between poetry and song lyrics comes up, there will be objections or distinctions brought forward: those two things (poetry found on the page and words designed to be combined with music) aren’t the same, they’re different.
I’ve written about this here in the past. My conclusions in summary: the thing we call poetry includes a great deal of unlike expressions,* and many are comfortable with that. Why chop off “song lyrics” as an appendix of non-poetry or not-quite-good-enough poetry? Well, if we do that are we forgetting that poetry across multiple cultures began as an oral presentation almost certainly combined with music? Why would that precedent not mean that literary poetry, however prized and skilled, has failed to sing or express its music explicitly?
So, if I move past those differences between poetry meant for the page and poetry meant for performance with music, and seek to test literary poetry in that context, what do I find? Well, a number of things that seem like problems with musical performance of Modernist page poetry are often less difficult than they seem. Poem doesn’t rhyme? That doesn’t help one memorize for unaided performance, but it’s not really a big deal. Uneven meter or line lengths? Modern musical expression has long slipped the bonds of straight beats or fixed length of melodic lines. One can even up shorter lines with musical elements too.
What is challenging? There are auditory challenges. Texts designed for performance often take into account pronunciation obstacles and allow space for breath. At least for myself there is a general difference in attention between words heard and words read in terms of attention. If a word or image requires one to pause for consideration on the silent page, there is an automatic “pause button” in our consciousness, and this is not so in the ear. The richest literary poetry may overwhelm us when listened to, though performance itself may also illuminate things we would never hear on the page, even after multiple readings.
In the context of today’s piece, let me speak of another issue. Work for performance, such a song lyrics, thrives on repetition, or refrains. Rhyme itself is one of those matters of repetition, even if it’s not required. Refrain draws our attention as it combines with the rest of the performed text, allows us to more fully absorb one part of what is expressed, and combines naturally with musical motifs that also repeat.
When I look through a poetry collection looking for Parlando candidates, the poems that use repetition will often be the ones that seem most suitable for performance — but that said, many pieces I’ve performed here have no refrain, no repeating chorus. Particularly with shorter texts this can still work, but piece after piece of poetry performed without repeating elements seems too much of avoiding that useful thing.
More than 50 years ago, a pioneering rock critic Richard Goldstein, published a book, The Poetry of Rock, examining the possibility that rock lyrics of that era could be considered as poetry. Despite the title, the book did not wholesale advocate for the conclusion that they were simply poetry. Instead Goldstein noted, as I’ll admit, that these two ways of encountering words lend themselves to different experiences.** One tactic Goldstein decided on when dealing with song refrains in his printed examples to be experienced as literary poetry was to not completely transcribe the refrains in his versions of the lyrics. Instead he might just put them once at the end of the set of words. Making them the final statement on the page gave them emphasis, as repetition in a chorus would, without overwhelming the expression of the verses.
Working the other way, as I will do today, one can reverse this tactic. One can simply repeat a stanza, perhaps the first one, as a chorus, or at the end. Or one can take a line and make it a refrain, as I did with Sheng-Yu’s “Lament” this fall.
The Poetry of Rock? A Celtic representation of the ouroboros. This is a mystical symbol beloved by Jung and alchemists that is often used in graveyards. What does it mean? Thoughts differ, so may I offer one: Death can go kiss its own ass.
Did you skip to here? That’s fine.
OK, let’s get to the good stuff: this poem “Stones” appears in the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s Light Rolling Slowly Backwards. It’s a fine poem on the page, and I highly encourage you to experience more of McKiernan’s work there by buying her book or seeking it out via a library. Here’s the publisher’s link. That’s the other “ask” I have for you today. But “Stones” is also a poem of lyric experiences, it calls out to be performed with the context of its implied emotions shared in your ear.
And this I did. Besides presuming unilaterally to do that, I made one other adaptation in the piece for performance’s sake: I took a line in the final stanza and made it a refrain. Because that line is repeated now six extra times, I’m bringing it forward for you to make sure you notice it and its possible meanings.*** I could throw in some more paragraphs about what I considered those possible meanings to be as I performed this beautiful poem, but I’ll not do that today. May your ear link to your heart, and listen with the player gadget below —if your way of viewing this blog shows that — or this highlighted hyperlink otherwise.
*”Paradise Lost,” “Tyger,” “We grow accustomed to the dark,” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” are all worthy poems we might agree. Are they less different from each other than some random literary poem is from some song lyric?
**I may be repeating myself to say this here in a footnote — but that’s part of why I do the Parlando Project: because I expect you’ll experience the texts differently when you hear them performed with music.
Late last year I promised you’d get to hear some pieces based on the poetry of Ethna McKiernan. I thought about which one to start off with, and decided I’d perform this one for you first. Why? Because it may make you smile.
Regular readers here recently will have caught up with my connection with Ethna: how I heard her read work in progress in a small group of other writers who cycled through each other’s homes each month to do that. You’ll also know that the rest of the group was usually men in its later years.
When we met in Ethna’s our meeting would always start in her little kitchen. We’d stand near her sink and stove and brew up some tea and talk a bit about what happened since we last met, until our remaining writer’s group members accumulated. On one side of that room was the clipping and photo-decorated refrigerator door, a generalized cultural artifact, and on the other side a small table and chair. Her house was a modest South Minneapolis bungalow probably built in the last Twenties, a couple of blocks off of East Lake Street. Comfortable and reasonably roomy with the usual shelves of books in its main-floor rooms and a couple of wandering cats as one might find in a poet’s house. I never saw more than the main floor, but there was a second story up a wooden staircase, and as we shall shortly hear, a basement below. That all said, it seems Ethna wrote and revised mostly in that small kitchen.
Kitchens are a physical metaphor, the site of drudgery and giving, sustenance and routine. If I may gender a floorplan: the most female part of most houses.
Approximately how some of us feel on winter days. If only there was some help…
I remember hearing “The Men in the Basement” at one of those meetings. Everyone enjoyed it, got it, right off the bat, which was far from a universal reaction to the work we shared. I heard her read it at least once at a public reading, and since it was included in her New and Selected collection* published just before her death late last year, we can be sure that Ethna herself liked this poem and expected audiences to do so too.
Do women understand this poem more than men do? How the hell should I know, though I suppose some raise themselves to opinions on such matters. I myself found it easy enough for my anima to perform it, though maybe some listeners will find that strange. Again, how the hell should I know? Anyway, given that we all bruise, want, wonder, live together and alone — and sorry, buzzkill for this entertainingly arch poem, we all sicken and die — I don’t find it worthwhile to predict or expect right now.
Musically I made this one an assortment of sounds, and I even worried that I may have over-egged it with the variety, but I’ll limit my predictions to that you’ll enjoy meeting Ethna’s text today. There’s a player gadget below for many of you, but you can also use this highlighted hyperlink where the player isn’t shown to hear it.
I fear this is going to be one of those bad elegies, one where the writer goes on too much about themselves and not about the person who has died. I’ve already mentioned that I find myself unacceptable and self-absorbed when I talk about myself, and saying that again only digs the self-dug hole I’m going to speak from today deeper.
In the mid-1970s when I moved to Minnesota from New York I connected back up with Dave Moore who I knew from a year in my aborted attempt at college. Through Dave I fell in with a literary group that varied in size and was herd-of-cats led by Kevin FitzPatrick. The group had just started a little magazine they called the Lake Street Review, Lake Street being a long commercial and industrial street that ran east/west through the center of Minneapolis: bars, gendered barber and beauty shops, warehouses, grocery stores, used car lots, a high-towered Sears linked to a rail-freight line and distribution center behind it, neighborhood movie theaters and former such theaters now grinding porn, the recording studio where “Surfin’ Bird” was recorded, a small attempt at a non-suburban shopping mall built on the tract where tractors and tanks were once factory-built, a “hardly a foot we can’t fit” shoe store whose upstairs apartments housed Robert Pirsig when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Literary magazines generally preferred foreign words, or landscape landmarks like rivers, lakes, or mountains for their names. Yes, there were lakes at the west end of Lake Street, a self-improvement plan for nature dredged out from what had been swampy wetlands as part of a series of landscaped urban parks that circled Minneapolis — but let me be clear to those who aren’t from around here: calling an artistic enterprise The Lake Street Review was something of a provocation. This was a group of working-class writers with a non-academic outlook toward poetry.
The groups earliest meetings were held at a bar, and Dave noted to me that a large portion of the informal membership was made up of bartenders. Let me also set one other demographic fact: this was a group of men moving from their 20s to their 30s. Eventually the membership thinned out, and the remainder continued meeting in rotation in the members homes and apartments.
As the clan leader, Kevin was generally gentle and accepting. A high-school graduate, working in an urban ER, the again’er in me was attracted to the outsider stance, but Kevin also wanted the magazine’s public work to be acceptable to the parents and grandparents of us young men. The 1970s had still extended the “generation gap” of the 60s, so the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” you also couldn’t say on the pages of the Lake Street Review. Feminism was mysterious, like women generally were to these young men, but those women were talking about it which made the mystery unsettling. Anything gender-queer was probably beyond the pale.
I liked those folks, but some of this rankled me. Kevin’s desire to speak across the generation gap as a poet was more noble than I appreciated at the time, but I wanted to go much more radically into discussions of sexuality and sexual roles than Kevin did, and what work I shared with the group privately I thought was underappreciated and misunderstood. I skipped off to two other groups sometime in the 80s, only to return to the Lake Street Writers Group after more than a decade away.
By this time the group had become smaller and more fixed in membership and was no longer concerned with the discontinued magazine. Four or five others, interesting writers and persons in their own right, were regulars, and then not; until by the last few years it became a quartet that would meet every month to share and discuss work in progress.
So when that group ended, it was Kevin FitzPatrick, Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and myself. I’m not sure exactly when Ethna became one of the group as it was likely during my sojourn away from it. At one point she was one of two women generally attending, but as we contracted into the quartet, she was the only woman. As we aged it’s possible that this was less of a filter or division, even if it didn’t disappear. Another thing that happened as we condensed: the group had become predominantly Irish-American. Ethna’s father had been a force in the Irish cultural renaissance, something I was almost entirely ignorant of,* and Ethna’s speaking voice retained a distinct Irish pronunciation undertone. Kevin and Ethna took it upon themselves to establish an annual Twin Cities St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading, a reminder that non-descript leprechauns, green plastic hats, sham-shamrocks, and ever-filled and spilled red cups and flushed faces were not the sum total of Irishness.
Will I ever get to Ethna in this post? To my shame, I will speak more in silhouette, about myself. In many ways I felt the junior member of this group. Kevin and Ethna has several collections published. Ethna got arts grants, had an MFA. Kevin and Dave had degrees from fine private colleges, I was a High School graduate. I gave up trying to publish shortly after my temporary leaving of the group, and it would have been understandable if it irked Kevin and Ethna sometimes that here was this opinionated yet apparently non-professionally serious person taking up their time. I retained a close friendship and collaboration with Dave outside of the group throughout the decades, and grew to understand and appreciate Kevin’s artistic goals, but no such closening happened with Ethna. I knew much less about the details of her life, and what bits I picked up second hand, sometimes from the poetry itself and not from her own conversation, indicated a life with more than it’s share of staggering life events. I also got a not-unexpected sense that men had been part of some of those staggerings, something that she didn’t express much directly in our group of three men and herself. Here’s a statement: I know more about the life-details of Emily Dickinson than I know about the life of a poet, my own contemporary, who I shared a few hours with every month.**
Kevin’s mature poetry never seemed to aim at beauty as such. It is a beautiful thing to find beauty were it isn’t. Ethna indeed aimed for beauty, sometimes comforting and sometimes fierce, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Ethna got there some of the time, which is all we artists can do. Looking through her recently published Light Rolling Slowly Backwards, New and Selected Poems it is easy to find that she was the most skilled poet in our little group, which sounds like fish-in-small-pond praise — but if you (who don’t know us) were to read her, I think you might find similar achievement to whatever other poets you read. When I read Kevin and Ethna’s last books during my yurt retreat early this fall I observed that while I had heard almost every one of Kevin’s published pieces in Still Living in Town in early draft form, I hadn’t heard many of Ethna’s. I know she attended more than one group sharing works in progress, but the amount of work new to me was surprising. I do plan to share one of her striking poems with you soon, but let’s wrap this long introduction up and get to the final part of my countdown of the most listened to and liked Parlando pieces from this past fall.
Three Irish poets: Yeats, McKiernan, and Campbell.
2. The Folly of Being Comforted by William Butler Yeats. Ethna never simply said something like “Read Yeats!” but before I encountered her I didn’t think much about him one way or the other. Now over the five plus years of this project you’ll have heard the fruits of that influence from her in my many well-liked presentations of Yeats. As I said when I presented it, Yeats was making a very specific point in his poem relating to his own life. I chose in my performance to stubbornly ignore what Yeats intended his poem to be about, and to instead sing it remotely to her on her hospice bed with my own intent. If I snub Ethna in this eulogy, I’ll ignore Yeats too. No respect.
It’s a challenge for me to work out my approximations of Jazz when I’m playing all the parts one pass at a time while being far from a master of any instrument. When it succeeds, as some thought here, I try to combine my simplicities (unimpressive I’m sure to a skilled musician) into something that still pleases when heard together. The highlighted title above will link to my original post on this where I discuss Yeats’ intended meaning, but you can hear my performance dedicated to Ethna with a graphical player (if you see that) or this highlighted hyperlink.
1. Reynardine by Joseph Campbell. Before the depths of their illnesses, I asked Kevin and Ethna if they’d heard of this early 20th century Irish poet, and they both drew a blank, which I’ve now found is generally true about this overlooked and worthy of more study poet. If Ireland is thought known for exuberant and willing to risk excessiveness expression, Campbell is never more masterful than when he’s compressing things to a handful of words.
Reynardine is a supernatural story in three short verses. From what I’ve been able to determine (see the original post on this) the supernatural element may have been introduced by Campbell, who took an existing long-winded run-of-the-outlaw ballad, and boiled it down with a shapeshifter element. After he’d done that, the resulting folk revival song, one sung by many of the best revival singers of the British Isles, always includes at least hints of that element. My presentation uses Campbell’s original lyrics, which I think are superior to those usually sung.
As far as it’s popularity here this fall, this is an odd one. The blog post presenting it wasn’t read much at all, and the likes for my explanation there of how Campbell transformed the Reynardine story were low in number. But the listens to the song (as with all the audio pieces here, available via Apple Podcasts or most other podcast directories) were easily higher than any other recent piece. To hear it now you can use the player gadget if your blog reader shows it, or this highlighted hyperlink.
*I once joked, confessing my cultural ignorance there, that my idea of an Irish writer was Frank O’Hara. Joke or not, someone somewhere must have addressed what connections O’Hara’s poetry had with Irishness, but I haven’t found it.
** It was only a year or two ago, after my interest in Dickinson intensified that I found out that Ethna too had a deep appreciation for that genius. Of course, I have my portion of blame for this, just as with this inappropriate eulogy, but suspect she believed that I wouldn’t understand or have any sense of her experience or sensibility. I’d estimate she was wrong, but saying that only adds to my inappropriateness here today.
Are you familiar with the song “Reynardine?” You might be. It’s been performed by many of the best performers in the modern folk revival: Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention, John Renbourn, June Tabor, Bert Jansch and others.* Today as I extend our Halloween series, I’m going to introduce you to a version of the song you haven’t heard, a version that I’ll maintain uses more efficient and effective methods to convey an air of mystery. There’s supposition that this version may have been an indirect catalyst in the way the song you may know was presented, but this little-known version’s lyrics are so good that singers should consider using them in contemporary performances.
Where did I find this new version of “Reynardine?” In the 1909 book of collected poetry by Irish poet Seosamh MacCathmhaoil (AKA Joseph Campbell) titled The Mountainy Singer.
I’ve spent a day or so in hurried research on this, even though long-time readers (or readers of our last post for that matter) will know that Joseph Campbell** has been of interest to me for a couple of years now. Here’s the shortest version of what I know that I can make.
Songs related to “Reynardine” go back to the early 19th century in the British Isles and the U.S. Wikipedia gives us a representative early (1814) example, and this helpful page gives us a catalog of later 20th century versions. The older versions sometimes vary the name of the title character and contain no supernatural elements. The typical plot is a broadside ballad variation of what is still a staple romance-story trope: a woman meets an erotic stranger who she thinks may be disreputable and possibly stranger/dangerous — but who also may be wealthy or noble (Reynardine claims to have a castle in most versions.) Over several verses there may be Victorian code-words like “kisses” and “fainting,” and the title man may leave the lady wondering where he’s run off to.
Skip forward to the early 20th century: in 1909 (the same year that Campbell as MacCathmhaoil publishes “The Mountainy Singer”) a musicologist Herbert Hughes publishes the first volume in a series of successful song collections titled Irish Country Songs. A great many songs that will be featured in Celtic and general folk-revival recordings, performances, and song anthologies are included in Hughes series of books.*** Hughes’ printed version of “Reynardine” is shorter than most extant versions, a verse and a once-repeated refrain, and it’s even called a “Fragment of Ulster Ballad.” In a footnote at the bottom there is this note, unsupported by any of this song’s lyrics:
In the locality where I obtained this fragment Reynardine is known as the name of a faery that changes into the shape of a fox. -Ed.”
A century-old song, with many collected versions, and this is the first time that “Reynardine” is said to have supernatural elements. Where did Hughes get this? I don’t have a direct link, but there is our version of “Reynardine,” published in the same year by the Ulster-native Campbell who is not credited on Hughes’ score, though Campbell/ MacCathmhaoil is credited in at least two other songs in Hughes’ Irish Country Songs. The supposition is that Campbell is either “the locality” — or that Hughes and Campbell shared a traditional source which has left no extant song version that indicated to both of them that Reynardine is a supernatural creature.
Footnotes! Pretty scary boys and girls! Herbert Hughes’ songbook presentation of Reynardine that likely changed how the song was viewed.
Did some of the later 20th century folk revival singers know of this footnote? Possibly. One highly influential revivalist A. L. Lloyd sang a version that included at times a remark that Reynardine had notable teeth which shined. In pre-dental-care England this detail may have been enough supernatural evidence. Furthermore, he wrote of the were-fox context in liner notes more than once 50-70 years ago which led other performers to explain the song that way, either as their own subtext or to audiences.
But here’s another mystery — and I’m saying, a useful one — why isn’t Campbell’s version of “Reynardine” known and sung? Let’s look at it. The chords here are the ones I fingered, though I used Open G tuning and I formed the chords while capoing at the 3rd fret, so it sounds in the key of Bb. But the music “Reynardine” is sung to isn’t harmonically complicated (you could simplify the chords), and a better singer than I could better line out the attractive tune used by myself and most performers. ****
I made one change to Campbell’s masterfully compressed 1909 lyric. I use the more instantly recognizable, less antique word “lover” where Campbell had the easy to mishear “leman.”
Poets and lyricists: this is a marvel. No need of footnotes or spoken “this song is about…” intros. The supernatural element is subtly but clearly introduced. The refrained first stanza was as published by Hughes, and is commonly sung in modern versions. The second makes the bold move of changing a folk-song readymade where some damsel’s lips are found to be “red as wine” with an animalistic short-sharp-shock of Reynardine’s “eyes were red as wine.” The third stanza lets us know he can be a fox in form, subject to fox hunters with the brief but specific statements of the horn and hounds. Another subtle thing: Campbell repeats the “sun and dark” all-day-and-all-of-the-night lyrical motif to tell us this isn’t an ordinary fox hunt scheduled for seasonable days befitting rich people’s leisure, but a 24-hour emergency. The hunters know this fox isn’t normal. The refrained first verse reminds us that the lover may know that the were-fox can also take a human form, and make use of human defenses, such as castles, which the assiduous hunters do not.
As a page poem this has the vivid compression that Imagism preached. Compare the efficiency of this story-telling to “La Belle Dame sans Merci” which has its sensuous pleasures, yes, but takes it’s time getting to the point. The two poems convey essentially the same tale, but Campbell can leave us with an equally mysterious effect using so few and aptly chosen words.
**Obligatory statement: no, not the Power of Myth guy. I suppose it could be worse, Campbell could have been named James Joyce or Sinead O’Connor, and confused us too.
***Besides “Reynardine,” Vol. 1 includes another popular folk-revival song, erroneously considered to have wholly traditional lyrics: “She Moved Through the Fair” which Hughes’ correctly credits lyrically to Irish poet Padraic Colum.
****I was somewhat working from a very rough memory of Bert Jansch’s version on his Rosemary Lane LP. It’s a good thing I was rushing this and didn’t stop to listen to Jansch — his version is an acoustic guitar tour de force. If you’d like one performance to demonstrate why I, and many acoustic guitarists, revere his playing, that would be a good choice.
In the past month I’ve presented poetry by Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, two of the most famous and best-loved American poets, and William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet — but I also like to go beyond Poetry’s Greatest Hits and hunt for overlooked writers to combine with our original music. That’s how I found the work of Joseph Campbell who also wrote under the Gaelic version of his name as Seosamh MacCathmhaoil.
Ireland takes great pride in their poets, rightfully so, but Campbell seems to have slipped out of memory for the most part. I’m not yet sure why. Something about his personality? Political scores? The wealth of other poets to read? The lack of some widely acknowledged great poem that anthologies can’t ignore? It may just be that his limited level of fame and esteem in his most-active years before WWI didn’t reach a high enough point for his glide path to carry him into the 21st century.
When I found Campbell’s work, two things immediately attracted me: it’s lyrical and easily fits into the Parlando Project, and that he is likely the first Irish national to write in the Modernist short free-verse form that became known as Imagism. I don’t know how he came to write excellent examples in this style, but as the 20th century progressed that highly compressed and unpresupposing poetry was compartmentalized into a “you’ve proved your point” passing corrective to 19th century verse, and so Campbell’s fine examples in this style that were not widely anthologized and commented on when fresh carried little weight later.
But there’s another reason that his work fits with our “The Place Where Words and Music Meet” motto. Campbell seems to have collected and worked with traditional British Isles folk music. A few years back, author Greil Marcus came up with a fine phrase for America’s mashed-up folk musics and their contexts: “The Old Weird America” — but the British Isles traditions love ghosts, mysteries, and general strangeness too. In Campbell’s early 20th century books, right next to the free-verse Irish landscape Imagism, we may find poems that look a lot like folk song and which contain elements from traditional sources; but Campbell also shows a talent for vivid condensation (no 30 verse slowly iterating ballads for him) and luckily for our Halloween Series, he retains an emphasis on spooky and occult motifs.
So, let’s kick off a short Halloween series here with one of those poems which I’ve set to music: “The Good People.”
What good’s a folk song if folks can’t sing and play it? Here are the accompaniment chords to my setting of “The Good People.”
The poem’s opening four lines set the scene, a mill path near a stream at night. Mist is rising off the mill stream, and it’s clear though dark. I was puzzled a bit by the black “lock,” but best as I can figure it may be a waterway-controlling lock. I don’t think it’s a spelling variant of the Scotch Gaelic “loch,” but it’s easy to think so just hearing it sung.
One misty morning early… Heidi Randen’s picture of autumn pond mist
In this quick-to-the mystery telling, the poem’s narrator lets us know there’s another group in this nighttime in the next quatrain. There’s a somber procession “along the grass.” I visualized small creatures, at least tall-grass short. One of them is apparently a queen of the creatures, and by now we should sense we’re in a fairy story. Two things, one obvious to any reader, and the other obscure to me until I read the poem are disclosed before this stanza ends: the queen is Aoibheall who is a prominent Irish supernatural creature. Besides noble prominence, she’s known for having a magic harp, and any human who hears this harp will soon die. Knowing that detail will set one up for the final two stanza’s concluding lines: the first of those lines we encounter tells us the little people are conveying a corpse.
This is not a victory march, the supernatural creatures are apparently The Good People in the title and they are sad and solemn. As the poem finishes, our narrator brings us to the final stanza-ending line, telling us that the corpse is possibly human.
Many, probably most, versions of traditional folk songs do not work like this, despite the rich folkloric flavor. Instead, British Isles folk songs often work like soap operas or podcast serials with a slow accretion of detail separated by many repeating refrains. At 12 lines and 72 words, Campbell’s lyric is very condensed.
To some who read or hear this, at least an air of strangeness should be conveyed efficiently. It’s also plausible, knowing the tales of Aoibheall and her harp, that a short sharp bolt of terror could occur to the narrator standing in this scene for us to imagine ourselves. The narrator surmises the corpse the fairies are bearing may be human. They (and now you) may know about Aiodheall’s harp. Did Aiodheall’s harp’s music kill the human they’re carrying? Will their dirge, already in progress, come to a harp part?
So, listen to today’s audio piece, if you dare. The player gadget will materialize below for some, but other ways to read this blog are under a powerful spell which forbids displaying it. Therefore, I’ve cast a highlighted hyperlink here to give you another chance to risk your life.
Readers often hear different poems when reading the same text. It’s unavoidable, even though it causes some authors to despair at how they are misread. So, it should be no surprise that it is possible in performance to recast poetry considerably without changing a word.
Around 1902 Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem taking exception to a too-easy consolation meant to comfort. He cared for the poem enough that around 20 years later he revised it slightly, to emphasize his response to this well-meaning gesture, explicitly writing out the one word concise enough to underline his feelings at the offer of comfort: “No.”
Those who study Yeats’ life are pretty sure this poem is biographical and is based on his unrequited courtship of Maude Gonne. That’s a long story, and to say that these were two complicated individuals is to understate the matter. If one reads today’s text, that poem “The Folly of Being Comforted,” in that biographical way, it makes sense. Here’s a link to that text. That reading, coldly condensed, would have it that someone told Yeats, “Hey, that hottie that you are so enamored with — I’ve heard she’s getting older, grey hair, older skin around her eyes. Sure, they say with age comes wisdom, but never mind any of that, she’s no longer so attractive that others will be chasing her. So now, maybe your chance will come around.” And to this Yeats gives his “No,” explaining that as he sees it, she’s not lost a step beauty and attractiveness-wise.
There’s a perfectly good romantic love sonnet there, and that’s not what I performed today.
I’m mentioned this year that I have family and others I know going through infirmities and transitions. It’s not my nature to talk about them, or even to directly write of my own experience of those situations. Even though one of the principles of this project has been to seek out and to present “Other People’s Stories,” I’m hesitant to speak over their own voices* in the same way that I’m comfortable talking about those long dead and in some cases too little remembered.
As I was working today on finishing the mix of the audio performance you can hear below, Dave called me to tell me that our friend and poet Kevin FitzPatrick had died last night. We were planning to visit him in hospice tomorrow. Now we’ll visit him when we think of him. Visiting hours are now unlimited.
For many years Kevin and Ethna would celebrate poetry in a public reading on St. Patrick’s Day in Minnesota.
Another poet we both know, Ethna McKiernan, is also facing a serious illness this year. When I read and then performed Yeats’ poem, I was thinking of these things. I recognized it was a romantic love poem, yes, but I read all sorts of undertones in it. We are meant to pass over them in the “correct” reading. Maude Gonne was all of 35 when Yeats first published his poem, the grey hair and “shadows…about her eyes” were likely subtle things. We’re all more than double that. Age is not subtle at that volume. When I read Yeats’ simple elaborating line “I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.” I felt my own lack of useful care or comfort I’ve offered Kevin or Ethna, partly because I fear I’d be rather bad at it, and partly because I’m less close to either of them than even Dave is. That said I’ve been acquainted with Ethna for about 40 years. I may have not been close to her in her “wild summer,” but I knew her when. Yes, the fire “burns more clearly” with her even now as Yeats says. After all, when you get our age, there’s more fuel.
Yeats called his poem, “The Folly of Being Comforted” and he ended the poem with that title. He likely had real feelings in this matter, long ago when he was alive. When I think of these mortal matters, now, here, my feelings are different than a witty sonnet about someone’s crude mistake regarding his estimate of Maude Gonne. And so I performed my feelings, using Yeats words.
The player to hear that performance is below for many of you, but some ways of reading this won’t display that. So, I also offer this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window and play it.
*I feel I must guard myself in that partly because I’d easily fall into it if I didn’t.